Santa Claus in Baghdad and Other Stories about Teens in the Arab World

Santa Claus in Baghdad and Other Stories about Teens in the Arab World

by Elsa Marston

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What is it like to be a young person in the Arab world today? This lively collection of eight short stories about Arab teenagers living in Iraq, Tunisia, Egypt, the West Bank, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, and a Palestinian refugee camp engagingly depicts young people's experiences growing up in the Middle East. The characters, drawn from urban and rural settings and from different classes as well as a mix of countries, confront situations involving friends, family, teachers, and society at large. Along with some specifically Middle Eastern issues, such as strife in Iraq, the hardships of life in a Palestinian refugee camp, and honor crimes, the young people deal with more familiar concerns such as loyalty to friends, overcoming personal insecurities, dreams of a future career, and coping with divorcing parents. Coming of age in a complicated world, they meet life with courage, determination, and, not least of all, humor. With accompanying notes that provide contextual information, Santa Claus in Baghdad brings a fresh perspective to youth literature about the Arab world.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780253000323
Publisher: Indiana University Press
Publication date: 05/13/2008
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 216
File size: 374 KB
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Elsa Marston is the author of many works of fiction and nonfiction, mostly for young adults. Her books include Women in the Middle East: Tradition and Change, The Cliffs of Cairo, and Muhammad of Mecca, Prophet of Islam. She lives in Bloomington, Indiana.

Read an Excerpt

Santa Claus in Baghdad and Other Stories about Teens in the Arab World

By Elsa Marston

Indiana University Press

Copyright © 2008 Elsa Marston
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-253-22004-2


Santa Claus in Baghdad


Amal listened gloomily to the little speech that Mr. Kareem had prepared. He spoke in a halting fashion, almost as though he were making an apology, but clearly he was as happy as a bird.

"And I know," he concluded, "that my students will greet their new teacher with respect and helpfulness, and will show how well Mr. Kareem has taught them about our glorious literary heritage." He laughed awkwardly at his little joke, and some of the girls responded with polite smiles.

A shy bachelor, Mr. Kareem inspired more respect than affection among his students. Many complained of his tough assignments and rigorous grading, although Amal thought he was quite fair. In any case, no one could deny that Mr. Kareem taught with competence and, in his stammering way, enthusiasm. He loved the works of the old poets and tried valiantly to convey to his students the richness of Arabic literature.

Another teacher leaving us, thought Amal. How many—four this fall?

But who could blame them? Anyone who had a chance at even a mediocre job somewhere else—anywhere that wasn't Iraq—would be crazy not to grab it. At last something good had come Mr. Kareem's way, a job in one of the Gulf states, and he would be leaving as soon as the term ended in January.

Still, Amal couldn't help feeling let down. So few teachers these days taught with any commitment, she thought, or any love of learning. Whoever replaced Mr. Kareem would most likely be from the bottom of the jar. No one but a cockroach could live on what a teacher was paid. Good people always went away.

Then a brighter thought popped into Amal's head. For a change, someone good was coming! Uncle Omar, the famous relative from America, was due any day now, bringing things the family sorely needed and couldn't buy in Baghdad. Amal's mother kept talking about vitamins and nutritional supplements, while Bilaal, who had only the haziest idea who Uncle Omar was, chattered about the wonderful toys—cars and trucks and balloons. Amal, too, hoped there would be something more interesting than just vitamins. Yes, Uncle Omar was coming, and she could look forward to that.

But then he, too, would leave.

At the recess, the girls traipsed out to the school yard, gathered in little knots, and grumbled. Ordinarily Amal would have joined one of the quieter groups, but this time she drifted toward the girls who always clustered around Hala. Amal was curious as to what Hala might have to say about Mr. Kareem. Beautiful and confident at thirteen, Hala had something to say on any matter that came up.

"Mr. Kareem," she was declaring, her voice high and assertive, "has been teaching all the Arabic literature courses at this school for centuries. It's time for a change—like somebody young and handsome, right from the university. We could do with a little life in our classroom!"

"Is anybody studying Arabic literature at the university?" Rafeeka asked. "Is anybody studying anything?"

Hala hesitated, then rallied, a sparkle coming back to her pretty dark eyes. "Well, of course! The world has to go on, doesn't it? So we'll just go to the principal and tell her that we insist on a young, handsome teacher to take Mr. Kareem's place."

The girls laughed, and someone said, "Right. We don't care whether he knows anything about Arabic literature."

Poor Mr. Kareem, thought Amal. He looks dopey, with his skinny shape and bony face, but he's a good teacher. I'd rather have a dopey-looking good teacher than somebody who looks good but doesn't know how to teach. And it's not Mr. Kareem's fault that he's so skinny.

She wondered whether she'd have felt that way a year earlier, so ready to forgive a teacher for not being perfect. No, she'd been just as critical and gossipy as anyone else, before she got sick. Thinking of Mr. Kareem's skinniness reminded Amal of the way her own clothes had hung on her last spring. With no medicine available that her parents could afford, her bout with pneumonia had lasted nearly forever. She still recalled the shock when, starting to get better at last, she looked in the mirror for the first time. No color in her skin, hollow cheeks, eyes almost too big for her face ... and her arms, which had formerly been so good at shooting baskets, hung like withered branches. How much weight had she lost—almost twenty pounds?

Now Amal was almost healthy again. But she'd had to repeat the year at school, and her place in the new group of girls had proved as awkward a fit as her dowdy, too-big clothes. Although a year older than most of her classmates, she had become a tagalong.

Just then, she caught sight of Mr. Kareem making his diffident way across the school yard. There was a short break in the chatter as others also noticed him. Suddenly Amal spoke, surprising herself as much as the others.

"I think we should give Mr. Kareem a gift." Seven or eight faces turned to her, as though she had broken some sort of rule.

"Why?" asked Hala. "To reward him for giving us such low grades?"

"He—he gives us the grades we earn," said Amal. "He's fair, you know."

A surge of energy went through her as she spoke. Maybe she sounded goody-goody, sticking up for the teacher like that, but she hadn't felt this sort of excitement for a long time. It was almost like the days before her illness, when she was the center of a circle and other girls looked up to her. In those days she had felt full of purpose and fun; she'd looked forward to whatever each new day could bring. That wasn't how she felt now.

But here she was, surprisingly, speaking out again—and others were listening to her! She went on, before she could lose her nerve.

"Mr. Kareem always tries hard—don't you think so? And he cares. He wants us to really like the stuff he's teaching."

Two or three girls muttered in agreement. "That's true. He's not so bad."

Encouraged, Amal spoke more firmly, though her heart seemed to be pounding. "And now he's leaving, and we probably won't get someone as good. We should honor him. It's an honor to honor a good teacher."

"Yes," said someone behind her. "That's what my father says. Amal's right."

At that, Hala resumed command. "Why, of course! I never said we shouldn't, did I? Naturally we'll give him a present. You always do that, for a good teacher."

Looking around, Amal saw that the others were nodding. Now that Hala had endorsed it, they would go along with the idea. Many students would be uneasy at the thought of having to chip in for a gift, as Amal was well aware, but Hala's friends came from well-off families, people with mysterious connections that brought them a comfortable income. These girls, Amal knew, had a few coins in their pockets.

"So," Hala continued, "let's decide what we're going to give our honored teacher. Well, somebody suggest something."

What, indeed, would be a good gift for a man? A few suggestions came forth, each to be shot down by one girl or another.

"A sweater, a shirt?" Too personal. Too expensive.

"A scarf?" Don't be dumb. In the Gulf he's going to need a scarf?

"Then a necktie? That old brown one he wears has got to go. Or maybe cologne?"

"A desk set—you know, with places for pens and paper clips."

Hala frowned at every suggestion but offered no ideas of her own. Then Amal heard herself speaking again.

"A book. I think we should give him a book. After all, he teaches literature."

"Books are so dull," objected Hala. "And I doubt that he'll want to lug a whole library around with him."

Rafeeka spoke up. "We don't have to give him a whole library, just one book. A nice one."

"A book is personal," said Amal, "but not too personal."

"Right. I vote for a book," said Rafeeka, with a theatrical toss of her curly hair. Several others echoed her.

Hala folded her arms and looked aside, as though giving the matter careful thought. Then she declared, "Okay, we'll give him a book. That's just what I was thinking of anyway. So we need a committee. Rafeeka, you and me and ..."

As Hala hesitated again, Amal saw the door opening wider for her. This was her chance. She didn't have to stumble along forever behind these younger girls, who didn't even know as much as she did.

"I can choose a book," she said. "Anybody who wants to go with me, okay. But anyway, I can do it."

"You?" said Hala. "How do you know what kind of book Mr. Kareem would like?"

At this challenge, Amal felt another spark of her old fire. "Something to do with literature, of course. Shakespeare, or—or Tolstoy, one of those people. My family can help me. Actually, my grandfather taught literature at Baghdad University."

For a moment there was silence, as though everyone were waiting for someone else to speak. When no one did, and the other girls were looking expectantly at Amal, Hala spoke up with her usual authority. "All right, then, you do it. After all, what's so hard about buying a book? Does anybody want to go with Amal? Well, whoever wants to, can. Everybody bring some money tomorrow, or soon. Let's say a hundred dinars. We can all chip in that much, can't we?"

All right, thought Amal, you run the show, Hala, until I get the money in my hands. Then I'll choose the book—and I'll make the presentation to Mr. Kareem.

"Good," Amal said. "When we have enough money, I'll—and whoever else wants to— we'll go get a beautiful book. Something Mr. Kareem will like. We want him to leave with nice thoughts about us, don't we?"

"We want him to leave behind good grades for us!" said Hala, and all the girls laughed.

Timing would be important, Amal realized. Naturally Mr. Kareem would see through a bribe, so they would have to wait till the very last day of the term, after exams.

But something else worried her. A hundred dinars—that was a lot of money. Maybe not for Hala and her friends, but for Amal's parents—a bank clerk and an elementary-school teacher—it would be difficult. What had she gotten herself into?

Later that afternoon, Amal went off to pick up her little brother at his school. It was a long walk, and as usual she worried about being late. Almost seven, small and thin, Bilaal was a bright but anxious child. The slightest thing might throw him into a tizzy, and once he fixed on an idea, he would fret it to death. If he decided that his sister was not coming for him, he would probably refuse to believe she was there, even when she took him by the hand. Amal had to smile at the thought.

She reached the drab, decaying building with its small school yard, in which a single potted plant, puny and limp, provided the only beauty. Just as Amal feared, most of the children had already left and Bilaal was jumping up and down in a frenzy. Soon, though, she saw that the frenzy had nothing to do with her being late.

"He is coming, he is coming!" Bilaal squealed as he rushed up to Amal. "Isn't he, Amal? Dumb old Sami doesn't believe me, and I told everybody over and over. He is coming—tell them, Amal!"

Dumb old Sami, just leaving, tugged at his mother's hand and turned back. "It's not true," he insisted, making a face. "Bilaal is just telling stories."

A screech rose from Bilaal, and Sami's mother yanked her son away. At that moment one of the teachers came out to the playground. Amal, alarmed to see her brother working himself into a tantrum, turned to her for some explanation.

"I'm afraid we've had quite a time with Bilaal," the teacher said wearily, her shoulder-length reddish hair so tousled it looked as though she'd been through a battle. "I'd better tell you, so your mother can deal with it."

As Amal waited, half dreading what would happen next, the teacher took a deep breath and went on. "Somebody gave me a book for the children a few days ago. We have so few books, you know, and have had no new ones for years, so I was glad to get it. Maybe some relief organization sent it. Anyway, it's about Christmas, but it's not religious. It's about Santa Claus—Baba Noel. They call him Santa Claus in America—Santa Claus and his deer who pull a wagon through the sky and bring gifts for children. So I read it to the children, and they liked it and wanted to hear it again. And again, and again, and again. Maybe it was a mistake." She sighed.

"No, it's not a mistake, it's true!" Bilaal piped up, pulling at his sister's hand. "Tell her, Amal!"

The teacher smiled at him, a tired, hopeless smile, and paused as though uncertain how to continue with the story. Beginning to see connections, Amal tried to help.

"We have an uncle coming from America," she said. "Maybe that's what Bilaal is thinking of. He should be here tomorrow or the next day."

As the teacher's face cleared, Bilaal's grew redder. "Santa Claus is coming! He's bringing toys and presents for us—Mama told me. A red car! It's Santa Claus, Amal. Or just like him!"

Had Mama really promised Bilaal that Uncle Omar would have toys? Oh dear. But Amal could understand how Bilaal might have turned the eagerly awaited Uncle Omar into Santa Claus with a wagon full of toys. And when Bilaal got obsessed with something, he would pester relentlessly until Mama had to agree, just to save her sanity.

Besides, the kid had never had a new toy of his own ... never, not for any holiday, not for his birthday. Toys were too expensive. One could live without toys. Any gift would have to be something practical: clothes or shoes, pencils, a school bag.

"I see," said the teacher, pulling her skimpy cardigan tighter in the chilly breeze. "Well, he insisted, and the other children didn't believe him. Of course they wanted to, but they didn't. So we've had a lot of arguing these last few days."

Amal tried to nod reassuringly. "It's all right. Yes, somebody's coming to us—Santa Claus or Baba Noel, or somebody just as good. Bilaal is right. He's bringing ... good things." She couldn't quite say toys.

"Lucky you," muttered the teacher. As she started to go back inside the building, she paused. "So we won't talk about it anymore, all right, Bilaal? We understand now. Someone good is coming to you. But we mustn't talk about it, because then the other children will feel bad. Isn't that right?"

"Yes," said Bilaal, pacified. "Santa Claus," he added in a lower voice. "It's Santa Claus."

"Yes. And now we must hurry home, Bilaal," said Amal. "Mama will be waiting for us." They left the school yard and walked through the bleak streets, skirting puddles and trash. While relieved to have her brother calm once more, Amal was uneasy. Should she have let him go on thinking Santa Claus was coming, or correct him at the start? But then Bilaal would have gotten frantic again and driven his poor teacher out of her mind. What should she have done?

Anyway, he would get over this. He'd forget. Amal could only hope that Uncle Omar would have something nice for Bilaal ... and some kind of medicine that would help him calm down.

Uncle Omar arrived in Baghdad and began to make the rounds among all the relatives. When it was her family's turn, Amal came home from school to find her mother in such a flurry of cooking as she hadn't seen in years.

"Mama," she said, "you have enough to do. Let me fry that eggplant."

Her mother half turned from the kerosene burner. "No, I'll do it. But you can tend the lahm mishwi. Don't let the meat get overdone—it'll be tough enough as it is."

With a handful of metal skewers and a plate of cutup meat and onions, Amal went out onto the small balcony, where a brazier stood. There was only scrap wood to burn—no charcoal—and it flared up and died down quickly. Tending both the erratic fire and the easily scorched kebabs would keep Amal busy.

She had tried to discourage her mother from making too many dishes. Surely the other family who was coming would bring something, wouldn't they? But Mama was determined. Whatever she could do for Omar, her own first cousin, was not half good enough! It would be a disgrace not to have a fine meal for him. After all, he had been going to a different family's home each night since his arrival four days earlier, and every family had done their best. She wasn't going to be outdone by her sisters, certainly not! Never mind that tonight's feast would mean lentils for the next month.

The challenge of making so little go so far, however, was taking a toll on Amal's mother. She was nervous and fatigued. Small wonder, Amal thought, what with teaching all afternoon, then standing in line at the butcher's, then rushing home to prepare one dish after another. And all on that wretched kerosene burner—the gas stove having died years ago. Mama worried constantly about the danger of fire. That was why, as Amal knew, she had wanted her daughter out of the kitchen while the eggplant was sputtering away in hot oil.

When the meat was broiled and giving off a fragrance that belied its toughness, Amal brought it inside. "What now, Mama? Prepare the place for eating?"

Her mother looked pained for a moment. The heavy dining table had been sold, so now the family ate around a plastic cloth spread on the living room floor. At first Amal and Bilaal had pretended it was a picnic, but the idea soon lost its charm.


Excerpted from Santa Claus in Baghdad and Other Stories about Teens in the Arab World by Elsa Marston. Copyright © 2008 Elsa Marston. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


1. Santa Claus in Baghdad
A story from Iraq (2000)
Do the best gifts always have to come at a high price?
2. Faces
A story from Syria
How can you try to make someone else happy when your own world is coming apart?
3. The Hand of Fatima
A story from Lebanon
Which comes first—loyalty to others or faith in your own dreams?
4. The Olive Grove
A story from Palestine
Just how do you choose your battles?
5. In Line
A story from Egypt
Will a city girl ever feel quite at home in a farming village?
6. Scenes in a Roman Theater
A story from Tunisia
Do you have to wait for the story of your life to change—or can you help to tell it yourself?
7. Honor
A story from Jordan
Whose honor is at stake when a girl breaks the rules?
8. The Plan
A story from a Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon
Can the spring flowers bloom—and love blossom—where hope is so scarce?


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