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By: Azita Rassi*

Azita Rassi

Almost all of the pictures I have seen of the new president of the United States show him wearing a belligerent scowl. He looks aggressive and intolerant. His words do not ameliorate this image. He calls for walls, for an impenetrable stronghold, for keeping people out. He is an advocate of separation, I think to myself, recalling the different shapes that separation has taken on throughout history, ugly shapes such as ghettos and segregation.

I have been staying in Malaysia for almost nine years now. One of the events I eagerly look forward to here is our monthly book club meetings. We are a large group, with some of our meetings easily surpassing twenty attendees, and we are from different countries: Malaysia, India, Iran, Syria, Scotland, Sweden, Australia, etc. Often our discussions about the novel we have read eventually drift from the realm of fiction to that of reality when we consider how the themes apply to the world around us, and thus ethical, political, or religious topics are raised. People of such different backgrounds seldom see eye to eye over these matters, but our discussions remain engaging, respectful, and fruitful. I feel that the books we read and the words we speak about them have built bridges, connecting all of us and our cultures.

Ignorance breeds fear and stereotypes. As soon as we begin to consider a different nationality or belief as “other”, we have built a virtual wall between “us” and “them”. To bring this wall down and construct a bridge instead, we need not only good will but knowledge. Realizing similarities and finding common grounds assuage fear and lets us connect in spite of differences. Fiction can be a great starting point for this purpose as it lets us peep into the lives, customs, and habits of those whom we assume to be so different from ourselves. While at first glance the dissemblance might be more eye-catching, if the story is well written, we are soon eased into realizing how congruent our hopes and concerns are with those of the characters and the culture they represent.

An illustration from The Orange House by Nahid Kazemi

Of course, children’s storybooks can have the power of building bridges just as much, if not more. The next time you want to choose a book for your child, leaf through it to see if it is a good candidate for destroying walls and preparing your child for recognizing commonalities and welcoming other cultures. Such mindsets are our best bet for a future where scowls of suspicion and promises of stronger walls give way to sincere handshakes over durable bridges of peace.

*Azita is a Persian translator for Tiny Owl Publishing.


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