UAE: Meet the Emirati teacher-turned-author who 'performs' her stories

Ebtisam Al-Beiti is all set to attend the prestigious Bradford Literature Festival this week


Anamika Chatterjee

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Published: Tue 25 Jun 2024, 6:57 PM

Blue is the bluest dragon there could ever be. Proud of her blue-ness, things change when she spots a brown egg in her den. As the egg goes missing one day, changing its colour while on the move, Blue must find it. Will a dragon as Blue as her pop out from the egg? If so, will her parents continue to view her as a special blue dragon?

The world of Blue is our world, our children’s world. A world where change might be a constant but it still makes us uneasy. In A Dragon Called Blue, Emirati children’s book author Ebtisam Al-Beiti has carefully imagined a world where joy is as much in abundance as sadness, and it is in our perspective that we experience either. Later this week, her simple but evocative work will see her travel to the coveted Bradford Literature Festival. Ebtisam, a former early years teacher, is understandably over the moon. For one, she says, it puts the spotlight on children’s literature and secondly, it brings attention to Emirati writers.

Ebtisam is right on both counts. Over the years, the Emirates has seen a number of Arab children’s authors. “There is definitely a movement within the UAE where the government is encouraging initiatives, such as reading month. It makes us want to be a part of this movement. In doing so, we are setting the stage for younger writers to become a part of this,” she says.

There is considerable truth in that claim. It is evident from Ebtisam’s life itself. If she never thought she would be a writer, it’s only because she had always been passionate about teaching. She was the vice-principal of a nursery when the pandemic changed the course of her life, as it did for most of us. Ebtisam used those months of lockdown to pen her first children’s book Can I Go Out Now? and followed it up with Citrus The Smoothie Sloth.

But when it came to her next project, she suffered from what they call the curse of the third book. “I had no ideas, no inspiration. I was suffering from a writer’s block,” she recalls. “I had a lot of crumpled papers in the bin. It took me a year to come up with the idea for A Dragon Called Blue.” What helped was a visit to Scotland to see her identical twin. The change of scenery was just the fuel her imagination needed. Her visit to Scotland coincided with the very first time in history when the Northern Lights could be seen in the country.

“I never managed to see it,” says Ebtisam. But waiting for it night after night had its own thrill. Which is why she decided to write about this idea of waiting that would become the subtext for A Dragon Called Blue. “You are waiting for something you have never seen before and experiencing a myriad emotions in the process. I thought I could break down this idea for children. When we are young, we react to change differently. The egg in the novel changes colours — that is a metaphor for the changing emotions,” she says.

Children’s fiction is one of those genres that can be challenging. To enter their world and understand how they perceiveit is not always easy for adults. This is where Ebtisam’s background in education helps her immensely. “I know different milestones happen at different times and we help children achieve these milestones. I use this trope within my story. For example, in Can I Go Out Now?, I tackle the issue of environment. But since my readers are aged between two and five, I have to make it relatable to them. So I turn some concepts upside down — the water is not blue, land is not green. And it gets them thinking why is that so. This is how you introduce a subject like environmental change to them?”

A passionate advocate of environment, Ebtisam believes it’s best if the subject is introduced to children early on. “It’s a world they are going to have to deal with. Though the title of Can I Go Out Now? suggests staying indoors, it’s about earth. I wanted my main character to be Little Earth where children were experiencing what it is going through. Little Earth is indoors because he is not well as the environment is suffering. The water is polluted, trees are being cut and not enough are being planted. It evokes curiosity among children and compels them to think.”

Ebtisam is also aware that in digital age, it takes a lot to hold on to children’s attention. So whenever she reads passages from her book, she makes sure to perform the scenes using different props. “Children’s concentration powers have changed. So we need to put in a little more effort to bring them back to books. I love to see children’s reactions to my performances. If I read out a passage on flying, they’re flying with me. If I am reading a passage on swimming, they swim with me,” she says. “I don’t believe that technology is bad. In fact, I think we ought to embrace it. When I was a teacher, I would use iPad a lot. But it’s the way we control technology. Books have their own function, as does technology.”

What makes or breaks a children’s book is also the art because the genre is a sensory experience for the young. And Ebtisam realises its importance well enough. “Even if you have got this wonderful story, if the illustrations are not up to the mark, your book will crumble. Illustrations help build the world of the book for children. So finding the right illustrator is actually the toughest part because you want them to reflect your story.”

Ebtisam has been working with the Indonesian husband-wife illustrator duo of Hanna Augustine and Timotius A. Gracious. “I worked with Hanna first and then Timo. I found it interesting to work with someone from another region. They hear the story and then give the characters their interpretation in the sense that as a writer, you can give inputs on what the character is seen wearing but how they should look is up to the artist. As an author, you build that relationship with your illustrators where you give them inputs but also offer them space to do their job,” she says.

With the Bradford Literature Festival starting on June 28, another leaf is being turned for Ebtisam, who already left a promising career in education to become a full-time children’s author. “I was already honoured to be a part of Emirates Literature Festival but Bradford is a dream come true. It’s a matter of pride that I get to be on that platform, represent my country on a different soil and tell them what our region has to offer,” she says. “I think I am still educating children. Earlier I would do it as a teacher, now I do so as an author.”


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