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‘We need the literature of other countries to expand our
horizons and stimulate our ideas. Without it, we are not only
diminished, we are starved’
(The Times, Magnus Linklater 29/06/05)
Wondrous Journeys in Strange lands
by Sonia Nimr
Age Range: 12+
Many hundreds of years ago a tiny caravan is journeying to a remote village in Palestine where the storyteller Qamar, or (Moon) and her twin sister Shams, (Sun) are born in a tent at the foot of a mountain. The ‘Village’ as it is known, is completely isolated at the top of the mountain with very few even knowing of its existence. It’s a place where girls are forbidden from learning and no one is allowed to leave because of a mysterious curse that hangs over them where only male children have been born for over 50 years.
Now, Qamar’s father, Saeed is returning to his ancestral home after breaking the rules and escaping to the city where he became a bookseller and fell in love with the beautiful Jawaher. The family are ostracised and must live on the outskirts but when Jawaher discovers the real reason why girls are never born in the Village it is at a huge personal cost to her.
When fifteen-year-old Qamar and her sister are orphaned each, takes a very different path – Shams goes to the city but Qamar, a voracious reader, stays behind immersing herself in her father’s library. Armed with Wondrous Journeys in Strange Lands, (also the title of this book), her father’s treasured book and with an unquenchable desire for exploration she sets out to discover the world.
First, Qamar visits her sister in the city but when the local prince with many wives wants to marry her, she flees through Gaza, walks to Jerusalem, and joins a caravan to Egypt where she is captured and sold as a slave. Escaping to Morocco she studies in secret with a renowned scholar until she is discovered and must leave there too. Disguising herself as a boy she joins the Black Angel, a pirate ship setting sail for Genoa. More adventures follow as she journeys over continents, deserts, and seas.
Sonia Nimr, a leading Palestinian author and storyteller, weaves together a richly imagined tale creating stories within stories, inspired by the famous travel narratives of the fourteenth-century Moroccan traveller Ibn Battuta. In an interview with WorldKidsLit, Nimr said “the idea for the book stemmed from one question: What if all women had only boys? Then the image of an isolated village came to my mind, where women are neither respected nor appreciated. ” (https://arabkidlitnow.com/2018/10/08/sonia-nimrs-wondrous-journeys-in-strange-lands-a-feminist-folk-historical-novel-for-all-ages/) Nimr’s powerful and evocative narrative is a mix of historical, traditional tales, in the ilk of 1001 Arabian Nights, and a feminist perspective that is tinged with humour as well as love and loss. Qamar’s many adventures are full of detail, colour and vibrancy giving a flavour of different cultures and places making this novel so engaging and enjoyable to read.
Despite the hardships that Qamar encounters and the confines of a patriarchal society, she is a headstrong young woman who knows her own mind and is determined to do things her way. It is a refreshing story because it moves away from often perceived stereotypes of the Middle East and shows that not all men aspire to control women as Qamar makes several male friends along the way who accept her for who she is, in particular her husband, Ahmed.
The prose is exquisite, which is a testament to the excellent translation from Marcia Lynx Qualey, a writer, editor, and founder of Arablit and Arablit Quarterly.
Wondrous Journeys was first published by Tamer Institute in 2013. It won the Etisalat Award for Arabic Children’s Literature in 2014 and was included on the IBBY Honours List the same year.