BEIRUT: Tasseography is the art of reading the future in tea leaves, coffee grounds or – for those inclined to alcohol – wine sediment. A traditional form of divination in the Middle East, it is associated with the “sobhiye” – a get-together where women gather to drink coffee and chat.Illustrator Karim Al-Dahdah explores tradition and modernity in his newly released children’s book “Sitt Sobhiye and the Quest for the White Horse.” This beautifully illustrated and sensitively written volume follows the inhabitants of a small mountain village in Lebanon, who observe “ancient traditions that no one dared to question.”
The men farm the land, while the women prepare the meals and do handicrafts. Every Sunday, the whole village turns out to visit Sitt Sobhiye, the motherly bessara (fortune-teller) who listens to their questions and fears and then reads their futures in her coffee cup. The young women, in particular, are eager for Sitt Sobhiye’s help, always hoping that she’ll glimpse a white horse in the coffee cup, foretelling a happy marriage.
One girl, however, is more interested in books than boys. Farida, whose father is the village schoolmaster, always has her nose buried in tales of great adventurers such as Ibn Battuta and Sinbad the Sailor. So when the white horse stops appearing in the coffee cup and years pass by without a single marriage taking place, it is to Farida whom the villagers turn for help.
They ask her to undertake a journey to the place where the world turns upside down, where Sitt Sobhiye says they will find the elusive white horse.
So far, so patriarchal. Farida undertakes her four-year quest, which takes her from an Asian land where people live upside down “to see the world from a different perspective,” to an African country where the locals speak backward “so that others will listen more carefully” and to a part of North America where people ride horses backward, to better learn from the past.
Somewhere along the way, however, everything changes.
When she returns, she finds that the young women of the village – weary of waiting passively for fate to hand them a husband on a platter – have taken matters into their own hands. Rather than weeping and sewing dresses, they have trained as architects, doctors, teachers and poets, or taken over their fathers’ businesses, becoming bakers, fishmongers and carpenters. In the meantime, they have fallen in love and got married.
“Who needs a white horse when we can rely on ourselves and on each other?” they ask the startled Farida. “Never again will we sit around and wait for good fortune to strike us. We’ve made so much better use of our time.”
Dahdah’s gently feminist storyline contains a valuable message for young readers about taking control of their own destinies. The highlight, however, is the book’s beautiful illustrations.
Sitt Sobhiye, a rotund, maternal figure with a beaming smile, wears a voluminous frock resembling an upside-down finjan (Arabic coffee cup), its white surface decorated with a traditional floral pattern. Her house, perched on a round, pink hill, is an old-fashioned brass coffeepot with stained-glass windows and a perpetually open front door.
Imaginative page layout and impressive attention to detail mean that children will find something new to admire each time they read this book – from the tiny lizards, tortoises and bees that decorate the edges of the pages, to the bemused expressions adorning the faces of the village goats. Elements of traditional Islamic art and design are also incorporated in the arabesque floor patterns and arched doorways of the villagers’ homes.
An element of fun is also added by the odd lands Farida discovers during her travels. In Asia, for example, readers will need to turn the book on its side to see the picture and read the text, while in Africa they must hold the book up to a mirror to read the words spoken by the locals, which are written backward.
The simple, accessible language makes it a good choice for those learning to read. The bilingual text – the book was written in English and translated into Arabic – will afford those studying a second language an opportunity to practice their translation skills and check their own accuracy as they go.
Colorful, entertaining and above all fun, this is one book that will delight both boys and girls growing up in today’s Lebanon, its thoroughly modern outlook supplemented by a love and respect for the region’s rich cultural history.
“Sitt Sobhiye and the Quest for the White Horse,” by Karim Al-Dahdah, is published by Turning Point Books and is available from local bookstores.