It has been said that the wealth of generations and nations is stored in their books, as they document people’s lives, thoughts, and values. Reading is not only a source of knowledge, it can also be an open ticket that allows its reader to travel through history, fiction, etc. In recognition of the importance of reading, Asma Abdul-Latif Al-Kuwari has set out to reshape the reading and writing scene in Qatar. Her journey in elevating the Qatari story is one to behold, so let’s get to know more about her work and her contribution to society. So, who is Asma Al-Kuwari?
First and foremost, I am a mother. When I was a child my dream was to become an engineer, but at that time Qatar University did not offer engineering to girls. I ended up working as a teacher, and then as an administrator in public schools in Qatar. I became very interested in the field of education and wanted to continue in this profession. Based on that, I established a private kindergarten called “Sama Kindergarten” where I worked on for eighteen years. I am also an avid reader. I have never forgotten the first book I bought from the first annual book fair in Doha. It was an English book covered with colorful drawings and interesting information. Now, I have a large library with many books. There are many types of readers. I am an exploratory reader who does not like to read the book from cover to cover, but rather I move from one paragraph to another. Colored books and ones with illustrations tend to catch my eye as well. I do not like novels, while science books are my favorite. My love for science books made me very keen on directly, or indirectly, providing children’s stories with scientific information. For example, in one of the stories, we made a walnut the queen, and after completing the story we presented it to a child and showed them pictures of the walnut and the shape of the brain as well. Following that presentation, we asked a question: Why was the walnut chosen as a queen? The child deduced through the picture that the walnut resembles the brain, and through that deduction, the child learned that the walnut is food for the brain. Books are of great interest to me, and as a mother, I have been searching for children’s books for my son as he was growing up. I was searching for books that suited different stages of a child’s life, and found that obtaining literary books in Arabic for a one-year-old child was impossible. I was sad about that and contented myself with working with foreign books, but it was too sorrowful. I wanted to get the best and most exciting of what was available at the time. However, during the time I worked in independent schools and we had to curate a list of books for them to use and store. Although I was passionate about the job and enjoyed researching for books, I found it difficult to find books in Arabic relatable to our culture and civilization for children. These books existed, but they were highly inaccessible, and their content was not diverse. Both accessibility and diversity were very important factors for me as a mother and as a teacher. Consequently, I wanted to enter this field not as a writer but as a researcher. I attended some training courses, the first of which was the “Symbolic Stories” workshop. The workshop was quite insightful and enriching, as we were asked to write a story. A symbolic story aims to come up with a symbol and use it for intervention, education, or any other field. I wrote “The Story of Zero” which was about the number zero, wherein the story the students used to laugh at the number zero for being “nothing.” That zero decided to change its status and stood to the right of number one and it became ten, and when he stood to the right of number two it became twenty, and so the numbers began to thank him for his favor. A while after this story was delivered, I found out that it was published but in another author’s name! At that time, I had mixed feelings; I felt happy that my story was chosen to be published, but I also felt sad because it was not published under my name. In general, this situation was significant to me, as it became clear to me that I have the ability to write and implement such an idea, and I considered it my starting point. At the same time, I developed training material on making children’s reading materials more interactive for students and make it inspiring enough for reflection, criticism, and dialogue. I wanted to turn the idea of reading into something fun for children. I gained experience by offering these training sessions, in addition to my university studies and my educational background. I thought at the time that we must work on training authors on how to write purposeful Arabic children’s literature and publish our books that add value to the State of Qatar.
What was the goal behind establishing a center for children’s literature?
The idea behind the Children’s Literature Center (CLC) is to raise our children to be proud of their country. We cannot sit back and witness the consequences that foreign stories have on our society, but rather we must strive to create our own content. Consequently, I specialized in children’s literature. It was never easy, and we faced great challenges.
Did you face any challenges in achieving your goal?
The goal itself has no challenges, praise be to Allah, as my family has always been supportive, and our society is witnessing a cultural boom and owns a cultural orientation. However, not everyone is interested in culture as there is a specialized audience and a non-specialized one, and this is normal. When licensing the center, the officer-in-charge denounced the name that I had chosen for the center, claiming that it was not appropriate and suggested many different Arabic and foreign names. He tried hard to convince me, but I made it clear that the goal and idea of the project lie in this name. Faced with my persistence after several attempts, he agreed – praise be to Allah. However, we faced challenges in implementing it. As I said earlier, the topic was not easy, as after writing the story it must be accompanied by drawings and then the story needs to be printed, and all of these things need a budget.
Will you continue to solely focus on children’s literature?
At the moment we are toying with a new idea that revolves around publishing books that are target towards adults, but with the purpose of reading it alongside children. These publications are meant to be like a guide for teachers and parents on how to read books to children.
What did you learn through working at the Children’s Literature Center (CLC)?
We have learned many things. Children’s literature is an important thing to society’s growth that we must have a clear vision for; we have to be careful in choosing every letter, word, or image as the themes presented in books reach the children’s unconscious minds and develop as a basis on which they are brought up. Whatever cultural material they consume appears in their future behavior, actions, and vocabulary. For example, there was a story called “A War in the Jungle”, the word “war” is so strong and may have a negative connotation on the child. Consequently, we decided to remove it to make the title “In the Jungle” to be more favorable and positive.We have learned many things. Children’s literature is an important thing to society’s growth that we must have a clear vision for; we have to be careful in choosing every letter, word, or image as the themes presented in books reach the children’s unconscious minds and develop as a basis on which they are brought up. Whatever cultural material they consume appears in their future behavior, actions, and vocabulary. For example, there was a story called “A War in the Jungle”, the word “war” is so strong and may have a negative connotation on the child. Consequently, we decided to remove it to make the title “In the Jungle” to be more favorable and positive.
What is your advice for women in Qatar?
We are in the era of globalization, so we have to strive to advance our society and nation. Things change rapidly, and we have to cope with such change while preserving our religion, originality, customs, traditions, culture, and identity as they are the characteristics that distinguish every society.
- Interview written by Fatima AL Naimi.
- Interview was edited to improve readability and flow.