Flora is one of Fatima Sharaf El Din’s many books, illustrated by Sawsan Nourallah, and published by Asala in 2012. During my perusal of Balsam Bookstore in Dokki, Cairo, I happened across the bright cover. The watercolor effect and orange and yellow colors gave me an immediate impression that this book showcased optimism and strength in youth. I bought the book and this is my review.
In summary, this is an original folktale, beginning with the traditional three Arabic words “Kan Yama Kan.” The story is of a little girl Flora, reminiscent of Cinderella, who lives with her stepmother Hanzala. Due to her intense jealousy of Flora’s beauty and long silky hair, she withholds food from her, leading Flora to devour three oranges she finds on the dinner table one day after school. To escape her stepmother’s fury, Flora runs away and plants an orange tree with a spare seed she finds in her pocket, growing rapidly as she sings to it. She returns home with oranges to apologize, but the stepmother demands Flora take her to the tree. Upon arriving, Flora waits until her stepmother climbs the tree, then sings to it to grow up into the clouds so as to make her evil stepmother disappear. Indeed, this happens and Flora lives a blissful life with now seven orange trees, going to school in the morning and selling her oranges in the afternoon. The story ends with the statement that Flora was never hungry again.
Where to start?
The story obviously carries many folktale references such as Cinderella (the evil stepmother) and Jack and the Beanstalk (a tree sprouting magnificently out of a single seed) which portrays how Sharaf El Din was obviously influenced in writing her story. However, folktale is often influenced by popular themes of magic and so on, obvious in the several versions of stories like Cinderella found worldwide. This more modern take has Flora attaining freedom from her evil stepmother, Hanzala, yet still within the confines of school, mentioned briefly at the beginning and end of the story and otherwise absent. This institution represents politics and ideology which is curiously absent, perhaps reaffirming its prevalence in society, or at least the intended readers of this book. More or less, it says ‘Yes, you can free yourself from evil influences and even throw your stepmother into the sky, but don’t forget to turn up for school.’
The main control Hanzala has over Flora is the very traditional power over food. Food has often been used in children’s books to represent strength, privilege, wealth, and even sex. It has been highly debated such as in Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are that withholding food is an abuse of power and should not be permitted under any circumstance against children. This story holds with this belief as Hanzala obviously faces a rather grim end, while Flora uses the oranges to become independent, happy, and presumably wealthy as we see her selling her oranges in the final scene.
In relation to Nourallah’s illustrations, while the colors were bright, inviting, and full of movement, her lack of detail and set structure of page or double page spreads left little to the imagination. She rarely included detail, and when it was included, it often seemed random. Page 1 shows detailing on the wooden chair, clearly from the Arab culture. Page 3 has a well drawn pillow showing the worn quality of Flora’s belongings as she hides beneath her bed. Her illustrations of the bunnies in the forest and the evil stepmother’s cat are expressive yet overly simple. I hoped for more interesting or questionable details in this large picturebook. The only one I found truly interesting was the last page where the cat is seen watching Flora sell the oranges, with an expression that could be alert, happy, or hungry. In this detail, I wondered what the illustrator may be saying about loyalty, animals, or the power of hunger.
The ending where the stepmother is flung into the sky definitely did not fall into the typical Cinderella mold where the innocent daughter would never harm a fly. This deliberate action where Flora sings to the tree to ‘hide my evil aunt Hanzala so I can live a comfortable life,’ may come as a shock second only to Flora eating Hanzala’s oranges when she knew she wasn’t allowed to. This induces religious connotations of the forbidden fruit of Adam and Eve, and religion or morality is a most common trait in Arab culture and children’s literature. Hence, flinging Hanzala into the sky may actually mean that she is being judged by God, or a higher power, reaffirming the stories didactic lesson and religious implications. In Islam, taking the rights of or being cruel to orphans is an unquestionable sin, and this story confirms holds to that belief.
Last, I’d like to comment on the singing. Poetry is a common and educated practice upon those fluent in Arabic literature. Indeed, the Arabic language is very lyrical and beautiful poetry has come out of it from the time of the Jahillaya. That Flora sings or composes Arabic lyrics so beautifully and fluently, and that the tree listens, is an obvious response to the power of her language. Just as this Arabic children’s book is trying to reaffirm the importance of teaching children Arabic, so it is demonstrated in the stories plot.
Generally, Flora was a pleasure to read and a great step forward in terms of an original Arab folktale.