Against the Odds: Bringing Arabic Kids Books to Life in Beirut

In Arabic Publishing, Children's by Olivia Snaije

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By Olivia Snaije

BEIRUT: Dar Onboz is a small, Beirut-based publishing company with big dreams. Founded in the spring of 2006, just before the Israeli summer bombing of Lebanon, Dar Onboz has faced down financial worries, problems with distribution and the general difficulties of running a company in country where the political situation is volatile and corruption is commonplace.

The founders, Nadine Touma and Sivine Arriss, and Raya Khalaf, the company’s art director, are writers, artists, filmmakers, music producers and social activists. Their aim is to produce beautiful books that celebrate the Arabic language.

“I grew up never looking at an Arabic book and thinking ‘wow, it’s beautiful,’” said Nadine Touma.

Dar Onboz means the “House of Hemp Seeds,” and is named after Touma’s grandmother who was a legendary storyteller and carried around roasted, salted hemp seeds in her pockets for her grandchildren to munch on.

The core activity of Dar Onboz is publications for children to young adults, and this week marks the second time Touma will be in Bologna for a Dar Onboz book. Time Flies, by Susana Reisman, received a mention in the Bolognaragazzi awards Opera Prima category, and in 2007 Nadine Touma’s book Doodles, received a mention in the New Horizons category.

The Bologna international jury said of this year’s book: “In Susana Reisman’s world, lines vibrate, triangles sing and numbers recall metaphysical clocks counting out the hours of eternity. Echoing Klee, Matisse and other 20th century artists, the artist aims to mesh music and painting. The result is so convincing that the pages seem to come alive. The tone, however, is always light-hearted, the medley of references and citations is always a source for enjoyment…”

Because Dar Onboz makes high quality and innovative art books in an area of the world where this is rare, traveling to book fairs enables Touma, who has taken part in Frankfurt’s 2008 Invitation Programme and the 2009 International Literature Festival in Berlin, to exchange ideas with creative people and look for publishers interested in bilingual co-editions. She also sells rights and tries to create new distribution networks.

Dar Onboz frequently collaborates on projects with new talents in Beirut and is currently waiting for approval from the municipality to reproduce images from its latest book Paint, Draw and Write me Beirut by Michele Stanjofski on city walls. Touma likes to think that Dar Onboz books can make a small contribution to the media, literary and aesthetic socialization of Arab children and young adults.

About the Author

Olivia Snaije

Olivia Snaije is a journalist and editor based in Paris who writes about translation, literature, graphic novels, the Middle East, and multiculturalism. She is the author of three books and has contributed to newspapers and magazines including The Guardian, The Global Post, and The New York Times.