Daniel and Ismail 

Juan Pablo Igle­sias (auth.), Alex Peris (illus.), Ilan Sta­vans (trans.)

  • Review
By – November 11, 2019

Daniel and Ismail is an unusu­al and ambi­tious offer­ing from the non-prof­it pub­lish­ing house, Rest­less Books. The illus­trat­ed sto­ry fol­lows the friend­ship of Daniel, a young Jew­ish boy, and his Pales­tin­ian friend, Ismail. Both love play­ing soc­cer and each is part of a cul­ture deeply entrenched in both its own tra­di­tions and its own prej­u­dices, over which the boys have no con­trol. The book has been trans­lat­ed from Juan Pablo Igle­sias’s Span­ish into Eng­lish, Hebrew, and Ara­bic; each page fea­tures text in all three lan­guages. The book does not attempt to explain the Israeli-Pales­tin­ian con­flict nor does it jus­ti­fy, or even con­tex­tu­al­ize, each side’s griev­ances. Instead, author and illus­tra­tor present an alter­na­tive fable, one where the joy of friend­ship and the com­fort­ing dreams of their inte­ri­or lives allows Daniel and Ismail to ignore the hatred which threat­ens them. Sta­vans pre­vi­ous­ly wrote an essay on the process of trans­lat­ing the book and its inception.

The book is set in Chile, home to a large Pales­tin­ian pop­u­la­tion and a small­er Jew­ish one. Daniel and Ismail live in an unnamed city and were born on the same day. A chance encounter in a pub­lic space leads to an impro­vised game with a soc­cer ball. The author’s min­i­mal back­ground infor­ma­tion about his pro­tag­o­nists’ lives makes it clear that this is not a work of real­is­tic fic­tion and is not intend­ed to trace the his­tor­i­cal routes which cause an inno­cent mis­take to become a dan­ger­ous moment. Both Daniel and Ismail have received spe­cial birth­day gifts charged with the weight of their iden­ti­ties as a Jew and a Pales­tin­ian. Daniel brings his tal­lit and Ismail his kef­fiyeh to the park, where they lose track of time in the grace of unstruc­tured play, One of the balls almost reach­es the sun. The oth­er one floats on a cloud.” The author alludes to com­pe­ti­tion but not con­flict, as the boys try to out­do one anoth­er in ath­let­ic feats. When they real­ize that they will be late return­ing home, real­i­ty returns and they rush to leave, inad­ver­tent­ly exchang­ing their gifts. They are abrupt­ly trans­formed from chil­dren kick­ing a soc­cer ball into tar­gets of anger. Pic­tures show their par­ents point­ing and shout­ing at them; these adults are only depict­ed from the neck down­wards, mak­ing them gener­ic sym­bols of adult fury.

At this point in the sto­ry, the author implies that the boys have been aware of the vio­lence in the Mid­dle East, since they each have vivid night­mares about what they have seen on the news” and what they have heard adults say.” Chil­dren may need expla­na­tions of a real­i­ty not pre­vi­ous­ly intro­duced in the book. Anoth­er focus of dis­cus­sion may be the par­al­lel use of a tal­lit, which is a Jew­ish rit­u­al object, with a kef­fiyah, a tra­di­tion­al head cov­er­ing which has acquired the mean­ing of nation­al aspi­ra­tions for Pales­tini­ans. The objects are clear­ly meant to be a kind of short­hand for Jew­ish and Pales­tin­ian iden­ti­ty but, at the same time, they are real things. In par­tic­u­lar, Jew­ish chil­dren who are at all famil­iar with the pur­pose of a tal­lit might ques­tion why Daniel receives it as a birth­day gift and why he brings it outdoors.

The book’s end­ing is reas­sur­ing, although not with­out a touch of sad­ness. Jew­ish and Pales­tin­ian chil­dren play togeth­er, both on the field and in their dreams of the future. There is no men­tion of the adults who react­ed with hor­ror at the spon­ta­neous com­pan­ion­ship of two boys with a soc­cer ball on a beau­ti­ful day.

Daniel and Ismail is high­ly rec­om­mend­ed for chil­dren and will also be of inter­est to adults who are hope­ful about the future.

Emi­ly Schnei­der writes about lit­er­a­ture, fem­i­nism, and cul­ture for TabletThe For­wardThe Horn Book, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions, and writes about chil­dren’s books on her blog. She has a Ph.D. in Romance Lan­guages and Literatures.

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