Monday, December 10, 2012
SANTA CLAUS IN BAGHDAD by Elsa Marston
What do you know about Iraq, Libya, and Palestine? What do you know about the young teenagers who live in those countries or others like Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Tunisia, and Jordan? You've heard about the uprisings and for years you have seen footage and read headlines. Have you really thought about the teenagers there, however? I thought I had, but after I read Santa Claus in Baghdad and Other Stories about Teens in the Arab World, I realized that, despite my attempts to be broadminded, I have pigeon-holed Arab teenagers into an existence defined by political upheaval. In her introduction, Elsa Marston states that what "[Arab] young people want is what people everywhere want: A secure home and loving family, good friends, teachers who care about their students, the chance to grow and express themselves, and hope for a better future." Read Santa Claus in Baghdad and you, like me, will be convinced Marston is right.
Santa Claus in Baghdad and Other Stories about Teens in the Arab World consists of eight short stories about a teenager from his or her country. The first short story which is the source of the book's title is about an Iraqi teenager who learns the rewards of selflessness when she sells her dearest belongings to earn money to buy a gift. In "Faces" we meet Suhayl, a Syrian teenager, who is struggling to navigate the complexities of living with divorced parents—especially after his father decides to remarry. His efforts to help his overworked mother are heartwarming and a bit humorous as mishaps threaten to thwart his surprise for her. I was most touched by "Honor" and the lengths its Jordanian heroine, Yasmine, goes to protect the honor of a friend—even if she doesn't understand or agree with the importance of hijab. Similarly admirable is the Palestinian refugee in Lebanon, Rami, and his determination to once more inspire his older brother.
As heartwarming as many of the stories might be, Marston does not shy away from difficult issues such as honor killings, jihad, limited education for girls, cultural schisms, growing generational gaps, poverty, divorce, and refugee camps. What makes Santa Claus in Baghdad so powerful is the consistent attention to and a focus on the humanity that unites us. I highly recommend this book; in fact, a friend and I plan to use this in conjunction with selections from Arabian Nights as the basis for a high school reading group.