This book is not a quick read, it begs to be read aloud and the pictures poured over. The 48 heavily text filled pages are a trip back in time before the tale twists in on itself and becomes a story that gets more outrageous with each upgrade. It claims to be for grades first through fourth, but I think it would need a lot of hand holding and attention to get any children to read it. The story would really come to life at bedtime with a loved one, or in a classroom with discussion, but I don’t know that most children in that demographic would willingly pick up the book, read it, enjoy it and reflect on it, without some guidance. The illustrations show characters in hijab and thumbing tasbeehs, the text mentions Allah swt and in phrases calling on Him in exasperation. There is a “kiss”, it is a love story after all, and some demons and sorcery, but I think it is clean enough and silly enough that kids of all ages will enjoy it and not find it offensive or scary.
Many years ago an old man in the old city of Damascus, would walk around carrying a large chest and tell stories. Four lucky kids for only one piaster each could look into the chest and see the images of the story, the other children could listen to the story for free. He didn’t come often, but when he would come the children would rush to meet him and listen to the stories, their favorite the one of Sami and Leyla.
Sami was a shepherd boy, he was beautiful, but poor. Leyla was the daughter of the richest farmer in the village and after their “accidental” kiss Leyla and Sami met every evening despite Leyla’s father forbidding it. The whole village is in a buzz over the two lovebirds. When Leyla is kidnapped, her father reluctantly tells Sami that if he can bring her back then they can marry. When Sami returns with her, Leyla’s father pretends to be ill and in need of milk from a lioness. Once again he promises that if Sami can obtain the milk than the two can marry. Sami not only gets the milk, but returns riding a lion. Leyla’s dad says that he is brave indeed, but that his daughter can only marry a rich man and needs to pay 300 camels as dowry. Sami heads to Damascus to steal the camels from the king, but gets caught and put in prison. Lucky for Sami, a dove comes to visit him and after he saves her life, she grants him one wish. Yes, the animals can talk. The camels and freedom are granted, but still Leyla’s father is not willing to allow the marriage. He summons a sorcerer to send demons to turn his daughter in to a lizard. When night after night the demons fail and beat the sorcerer, it is revealed that the father hired him. The next day the two are married.
Over time the pictures in the chest began to fade and new pictures from modern advertisements are used to replace the traditional images. Leyla becomes Colgate, yes, from a toothpaste advertisement. She has a glorious smile and is now the daughter of a car dealer who drinks only Fresh Mountain mineral water. She gets kidnapped and Sami hears about it on his Filix portable radio that she is being held in a club and is forced to serve ice-cold Coca-Cola. The story continues like this, but at some point the children in the story become bored with the new version, and sing the jingles for the items mentioned instead, until the story teller packs up and leaves.
Two years pass and no one has heard from the story teller, some say he went mad, others that he died. Then one day he comes back to town and the children all run to listen to his stories. There is a chest to peer in, but there is nothing inside, like magic however, when the old man starts to tell his story, the images appear in the minds of the children.
The illustrations are wonderful and detailed, and radiate warmth and richness. The conversation I had after with my own kids, about what was valued and the power of stories is so powerful to see dawning on the listeners. They get it, they do, and they realize how ridiculous the “updates” were. When they realize it is the story teller and the magic of being together and sharing a story, they too become one of the children in the book and it is wondrous to observe.