Excerpt from Daniel and Ismail, cour­tesy of the author. 

A few years ago, I was a guest at Chile’s book fair in San­ti­a­go where I stum­bled upon an unex­pect­ed children’s book about fút­bol, the world’s most impor­tant sport. The book was called Iguales a 1, which could mean the same as one” as well as tied 1 – 1.” The author was Juan Pablo Igle­sias and the illus­tra­tor, Alex Peris.

I was sur­prised because it is very dif­fi­cult — in fact, almost impos­si­ble — to find children’s books in Latin Amer­i­ca (with the pos­si­ble excep­tion of Argenti­na and Brazil) with Jew­ish themes. The rea­sons are com­plex. Per­haps there isn’t enough of a mar­ket, as a result of anti­semitism and oth­er rea­sons; Jews keep a low pro­file, not inte­grat­ing their cul­ture ful­ly into the main­stream. But this book was even more unex­pect­ed: it was about two boys, Daniel and Ismail, one Jew­ish and the oth­er Pales­tin­ian, play­ing soc­cer in an unnamed city park.

But this book was even more unex­pect­ed: it was about two boys, Daniel and Ismail, one Jew­ish and the oth­er Pales­tin­ian, play­ing soc­cer in an unnamed city park.

I bought it and read it right away. Soon after, Igle­sias, out of the blue, intro­duced him­self to me. We talked about a num­ber of top­ics, not only Iguales a 1 but, more expan­sive­ly, the fact that Chile has what is believed to be the largest Pales­tin­ian com­mu­ni­ty out­side of the Arab world, around 450,000 to 500,000, which is rough­ly the size of the entire Jew­ish pop­u­la­tion in Latin Amer­i­ca. By com­par­i­son, Chile has around 15,000 Jews. At the end of our encounter, I sug­gest­ed to Igle­sias the pos­si­bil­i­ty of pub­lish­ing the book in the Unit­ed States.

As I reread the book dur­ing my flight back, it dawned on me that it should not only be made avail­able in Eng­lish, but that it should appear in a trilin­gual for­mat: Eng­lish, Hebrew, and Ara­bic. The Israeli-Pales­tin­ian peace process was then at one of its low­est points. Per­haps Iguales a 1 could inspire some hope.

The plot is delight­ful. Daniel and Ismail, total strangers, hap­pen to have the same birth­day. As a present, their par­ents give them a cou­ple of items. Daniel gets a tal­lit — a Jew­ish prayer shawl — and a soc­cer ball; Ismail gets a kef­fiyeh — a scarf tra­di­tion­al to Arab coun­tries — and also a soc­cer ball. Inspired by the lat­ter, the two run to the park to play. They use the tal­lit and kef­fiyeh as goal mark­ers. For the next few hours, they just enjoy each other’s com­pa­ny. When it gets dark, they both real­ize they are late. As they dis­man­tle the goal, they mis­tak­en­ly take the wrong item: Daniel takes home the kef­fiyeh and Ismail the tallit.

Excerpt from Daniel and Ismail, cour­tesy of the author. 

Only when their fam­i­lies greet them do they real­ize their mis­take. The par­ents become angry. It is rare for children’s books in the Eng­lish lan­guage to be explic­it about the fear and even hatred of oth­er groups. We believe — fool­ish­ly — that we must shel­ter chil­dren from the real­i­ties of adult­hood. They always get it, though. The boys are told to return the items the fol­low­ing day. This they do, except that instead of sim­ply exchang­ing the prayer shawl and kef­fiyeh they again use them as goal mark­ers and start play­ing again. Soon they are joined by oth­er kids in the park. Togeth­er they play a game of fút­bol.

We believe — fool­ish­ly — that we must shel­ter chil­dren from the real­i­ties of adult­hood. They always get it, though.

From vision to real­i­ty, the pub­li­ca­tion of Daniel and Ismail in the Unit­ed States has been an unlike­ly chal­lenge. Igle­sias and Peris were delight­ed with the idea. Children’s books don’t trav­el eas­i­ly from one cul­ture to anoth­er. I did the trans­la­tion into Eng­lish, in part, because I want­ed to lend my name to the project. It required some sub­tle maneu­ver­ing because the sym­me­try between Daniel and Ismail is only superficial.

Though both the tal­lit and the kef­fiyeh are tra­di­tion­al scarves, the for­mer is a reli­gious item and the lat­ter is a cul­tur­al sig­ni­fi­er. So, Daniel is Jew­ish, but not nec­es­sar­i­ly Israeli. Mean­while, Ismail’s kef­fiyeh tells us noth­ing about his reli­gion, or even his nation­al­i­ty. Giv­en that Daniel and Ismail come from Chile, is it fair to imply that Ismail is Pales­tin­ian? That, at least, was the assump­tion I made.

At Rest­less Books, where I am the pub­lish­er, acquir­ing Daniel and Ismail required much dis­cus­sion. It was clear the book would pose all sorts of chal­lenges. Who was its audi­ence in the Eng­lish-speak­ing world? Hope­ful­ly par­ents and chil­dren. Was the plot con­trived? Not real­ly. And could the pub­li­ca­tion be imag­ined in a dif­fer­ent way: not only in Eng­lish but in Hebrew and Ara­bic? That strat­e­gy would expand its reach. It would also invite read­ers of all ages to reflect on friend­ship across ide­o­log­i­cal divides.

The chal­lenge was set. We embarked on a crowd­fund­ing cam­paign to raise $12,500 to cov­er pro­duc­tion, giv­en there would be so many unknowns upon pub­li­ca­tion. We also con­sult­ed with children’s book spe­cial­ists. How should the three lan­guages occu­py the pages? How to design them in order for the text not to dis­tract from the illus­tra­tions? After all, a good pic­ture book deliv­ers its nar­ra­tive con­cur­rent­ly via images and text. In the end, we decid­ed that the book should read right to left, like Hebrew and Ara­bic books, and that all three lan­guages should share each page.

How should the three lan­guages occu­py the pages? How to design them in order for the text not to dis­tract from the illustrations?

The ordeal was to find will­ing trans­la­tors. There are scores of them but we quick­ly real­ized that the Ara­bic trans­la­tion involved mak­ing choic­es. Should the lan­guage sound like Ara­bic spo­ken in Ramal­lah, Cairo, or Amman? Or should it sound like the Ara­bic spo­ken in San­ti­a­go, where the lan­guage has absorbed a large num­ber of His­pani­cisms? Even more com­pli­cat­ed, as we made some edi­to­r­i­al choic­es, we dis­cov­ered that Ara­bic trans­la­tors sim­ply didn’t want to have their work appear on the same page with Israeli trans­la­tors — there would be con­se­quences for their careers at home. The divide was almost insurmountable.

In the end, we found first-rate trans­la­tors will­ing to par­tic­i­pate. The work of pol­ish­ing the three ver­sions — in Eng­lish, Hebrew, and Ara­bic — to make them com­pat­i­ble took months. And then, we need­ed to find copy-edi­tors also capa­ble of proof­read­ing all the versions.

The expec­ta­tions are high for Daniel and Ismail. Will the endeav­or be seen as Quixot­ic, bring­ing Jews and Arabs, Israelis and Pales­tini­ans, togeth­er in a joy­ful sto­ry? Should chil­dren not even be told about how impos­si­ble the dia­logue between these two groups has become? Or will fút­bol project its mag­ic again, allow­ing a respite in a con­flict that seems with­out end?

One thing is clear to me: bring­ing out a book in these trou­bled times takes effort.