Tag Archives: MIddle East

The Olive Tree by Elsa Marston illustrated by Claire Ewart

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The Olive Tree by Elsa Marston illustrated by Claire Ewart

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Set in Lebanon, this 32 page book for kindergarten to second graders uses the ever important olive tree as a point of contention between two neighbors. Muna’s family moved away during the conflict because they were not like the others in the village, and while they were gone, Sameer’s family cared for the olive tree on their neighbor’s property, and collected the olives that fell on their side of the wall. But now that the neighbors have returned, Sameer is not only disappointed that they don’t have a boy his age to play with, but also clashes with Muna when she says that he shouldn’t take their olives. By the end of the book, olive branches of peace will be referenced and hope hinted at in this brightly illustrated book with a lesson.

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I like that why Muna’s family left is not abundantly clear, saying that “For many years the house next to Sameer’s had stood empty. . . that the family who lived there had gone away during the troubles because they were different from most of the people int he village.”  Lebanon is a diverse place and the illustrations seem to show both Mom’s wearing head scarves, the text does not detail if they are unlike each other because of religion, or culture, or some other reason, and I kind of like that it is left vague so that children learn in the end perhaps, it doesn’t matter.  

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When the family moves back home, Sameer watches them and recalls the ways his mom prepares the best olives in Lebanon.  The neighbors are polite, but not friendly.  They don’t ever say much and they don’t return visits.  One day when the ripe olives have fallen on the ground, Sameer heads out with his basket to collect them.   Muna, who has never looked over at Sameer, watches him and tells him that they are her olives, and that the tree has been in her family for a hundred years.

The two bicker about who has rights to the olives on Sameer’s side of the wall and in anger, Sameer dumps his basket of olives on Muna’s side and walks off.  After that, no one on Sameer’s side collects the olives on the ground.  One night there is a storm and the olive tree and part of the stone wall are destroyed.  The adults gather to survey the damage, but walk off without saying anything.  The two children are left to decide what to do next about their beloved tree, and their relationship with one another.

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I like that the resolution is subtle, but thought provoking and that the adults don’t seem to interfere too much.  I can’t imagine that they don’t have opinions about their neighbors and the olives, but the book stays on the children and the assumptions, stubbornness, and unsaid words that have created such a divide, and must ultimately be resolved as a result.

 

Watermelon Madness by Taghreed Najjar illustrated by Maya Fidawi

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Watermelon Madness by Taghreed Najjar illustrated by Maya Fidawi

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This 32 page picture book for preschool and up is silly and fun.  There is nothing Islamic in the text or illustrations by this Muslim author, but there is Arab culture as it mentions molokhiya and zaatar. The large 8.5 x 11 hardback book is wonderfully illustrated with detail, color and expression.  The playful font and text makes reading it fun and enjoyable for little ones, who will get the message, and laugh along the way.

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Noura loves watermelon. She eats it in the morning and in the afternoon and in the evening too.  At dinner she doesn’t want to eat her chicken, rice and molokhiya, she just wants watermelon. 

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That night after dinner she sneaks to the kitchen, sees a huge watermelon on the table, and decides to take it up to her room to enjoy all by herself.  She puts the watermelon under her bed, and dreams wonderful watermelon dreams.

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The watermelon gets bigger and bigger, and there is a door! She goes inside the watermelon and eats until her hearts content.  But as she gets bigger, the watermelon gets smaller.  She is trapped and her tummy is hurting.  

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Her mother rushes in to find a watermelon under the bed and Noura screaming from a bad dream.  Resolved to deal with the magic watermelon in the morning, Noura goes back to sleep having learned her lesson (without being reprimanded), and happily eats her breakfast of a fried egg and zaatar.  

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The book concludes with some information about watermelons and info about molokhiya and zaatar.  

Azad’s Camel by Erika Pal

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Azad’s Camel by Erika Pal

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This beautifully illustrated picture book takes the reader in to the world of camel racing, children jockeys, mistreatment by adults, children being sold by their families and running away, all in a span of 40 pages and on an AR 3.5 level.  Yeah, its a lot for a kid’s book, but it has a happy ending and it does draw attention to an atrocity not often discussed or thought about.

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Young Azad lives with his old uncle in a village outside the city.  He helps take care of the goat and fetches water for tea in the mornings,  in the afternoons he plays with his friends.  One day he is doing handstands on a soccer goal post when a rich Sheikh drives by and sees him.

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The Sheikh comes back and convinces the uncle to let him take the boy to be trained as a camel rider to one day be famous.  The uncle agrees saying he can’t afford to keep him.

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The Sheik takes Azad to the desert with other boys to live and be trained.  Azad learns that food is earned and chores are a must.  The races are dangerous and Azad doesn’t like them, but he is good and is forced to keep racing.

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One night the camel, Asfur, talks to Azad and the two plan to keep running past the finish line at their next race.  The pair are so fast that, they do just that, and no one can catch them.  They run through the city, and back to the desert.

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The other animals of the desert keep them warm when it gets cold and until a Beduin tribe discovers them and takes them in.  At last Azad and Asfur find a home.

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There is information about camel racing at the end including how robots are replacing child jockeys in some countries and how many young children are being returned to their families, school and a normal life.

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I like that the book takes on a real and sad occurrence, bringing camel racing and forced child labor in to light.  The story is truly written for younger elementary kids with short paragraphs on each page, large engaging illustrations, quick jumps in events and glossing over any truly graphic details.

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I do worry that stereotypes are reinforced with the use of calling the rich man who bought Azad a “Sheikh” and the Bedouins dancing at the end.  Culturally the book is a generic Middle Eastern country and doesn’t mention or emphasize religion at all with the exception of the women in the pictures being veiled.

I found the book at the library and think it has good information to discuss with your children, but I don’t know that I can see it being anyone’s favorite book, or a regular night time request.  While, yes, it does have a happy ending, you don’t really “feel” what Azad is going through, you are just glad he finds people that want him.

 

 

The Unwanted: Stories of the Syrian Refugees by Don Brown

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The Unwanted: Stories of the Syrian Refugees by Don Brown

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I try and keep an eye on what is available at Scholastic regarding Muslim characters and Muslim authors since for many kids the Scholastic Book Orders might be the most interaction they have with seeing available books, and for others, they may see a book in a library or other book store that they have seen on a Scholastic flyer and pick it up for that reason of familiarity.  Granted I might be completely wrong in this assessment and just be trying to justify my review of a non fiction 103 page AR 5.7 graphic novel that talks about Muslims and refugees, but nonetheless I try and read the Scholastic books that feature Muslim representation to a very captive audience.

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SYNOPSIS:

The book takes facts about the plight and flight of the Syrians as they are forced to leave their homes due to war, and the horrors they face on their journeys to finding a new place to call home, and illustrates them.  The book focuses more on the exodus than on the politics that forced them to leave.  There are no characters or story lines, but rather illustrations to the headlines, articles, and facts that detail the truths about the collective experiences of many Syrians.  It seems every single sentence is referenced at the back of the book, which is probably a good thing as it is non fiction and this is a researched book, not a book of anecdotal stories or an OWN voice retelling.

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The book in muted tones tells how the young boys scrawling graffiti is what is attributed to the spark that set Syria ablaze with frustrated citizens standing up to an oppressive regime.  The pictures show different factions policing the people for trying to have pianos, to kicking people out of the homes and torturing them or killing them.  As the situation elevates and no end is in sight the book, then follows people leaving by foot into neighboring countries, and then fanning out as border countries refuse to let more people stay.  Eventually, many are forced on to rafts to countries further away, but as their resources deplete, many Syrians have no where to go and are unwanted.

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WHY I LIKE THE BOOK:

I like that it is real and graphic and violent, it doesn’t show everyone getting a happy ending.  I think many children’s books focus on the heroes trying to help or people having a happily ever after, but by upper elementary, readers need to know that the situation is dire and no resolution is in sight.  The author tries to explain the Sunni and Shia differences by using Christian divisions as examples, and he shows jihadists torturing people, and he does use statements about Islam and music, and I don’t know how a child would take these labels as they don’t come with much explanation.  On the other hand he does highlight that some countries would only take Christian Syrians, so I don’t think he is advocating one faith over another, but the details about Muslims for some reason seemed a little forced to me.

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I think his agenda or purpose was to show how the world, with the exception of a few countries, have really turned their back on refugees.  It says in a footnote at the end “that in the first three months of 2018,” for example, “the United States has accepted 11 (refugees) for resettlement.” The facts, the maps, the diagrams, really drive home the point and do evoke an emotional response, which I think is needed.  A few of the pictures are also incredibly resonating, such as the one of the man stating he couldn’t save his family from drowning.

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FLAGS:

The book shows violence and death.

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TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

The shortness of the book, might not make it an ideal candidate for a Book Club, but the value in such a book makes it a great addition to any and every classroom.  I don’t know how many children will read this book on their own.  It isn’t fun or compelling, its factual and depressing.  But, I think it is important.  Nonfiction is often hard to convince children to read, so I like that it is a graphic novel and I like that the information can all be verified.  I think children need to be encouraged to read things that might not be easy and fun, and have a way to discuss how such readings make them feel.  Furthermore, If you are a teacher teaching references, this book is a great example.

 

The Tower by Shereen Malherbe

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The Tower by Shereen Malherbe

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At 246 pages I’m not sure if this book would be classified as Young Adult, but I think it could be, as its message, focus and presentation makes it a valuable thought provoking read.  And the cleanliness of everything being resolved so neatly might almost be too coincidental for older, more jaded readers, where I personally wasn’t too bothered by how much emotional action was packed in to the book and how quickly it was resolved as the characters were compelling and the pacing made it an enjoyable quick read.

SYNOPSIS:

The story follows two women, Reem and Leah as their very different worlds and circumstances come together when they move in to the same apartment building.

Reem is a Syrian refugee whose past is presented in bits and pieces as her fragmented memories surface in the story.  She is searching for her 10 year old brother Adar, as well as trying to create a future for her self in London.

Leah has recently lost her husband, left her training as a doctor, and is trying to make a life for her and her son, Elijah, away from her parents’ shadow of expectation and demands.

When the two ladies meet, neither is completely settled or functioning, yet the desperation each is feeling causes Reem to ask for Leah’s help, and Leah agreeing.  The two become friends as they share parts of their world with one another and slowly start to heal.

Then Reem’s secret pregnancy comes to light, her abusive husband finds her, Leah’s posh friends abandon her, and their apartment building, the tower, catches fire.  Granted it doesn’t all happen that quick and there are lots of details that make their pasts, their friendship, and their goals for the future believable and inspiring, as well as making the pain for those lost in the fire emotionally wrenching.

As the two women once again try and survive hardship, this time together, they make progress before a terrorist attack on the mosque again sets them back.  Through all these major plot points details about how Reem got to England, and the atrocities she suffered that her mind blocked out are made clear.  Additionally, more about Leah and her families involvement in the tower fire and their friends’ involvement in human trafficking all tie the lose ends up. In the final pages there is hope and resilience and respect from the reader for the brave characters brought to life and their determination to persevere.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that it is a very personal, character driven story about a horrific fire, reminiscent of the Grenfell fire which claimed the lives of over 70 people.  I also absolutely love how Islam is presented.  The Muslim characters are tangibly real.  Reem wants to fast because it is Ramadan, but has the excuse that she is pregnant, but tries anyway.  She prays, she covers, she meets a Muslim that doesn’t cover, but they pray together at the mosque later and become great friends.  Leah is interested in Islam and asks questions and when she cooks for her Muslim friends she gets halal meat.  There is an amazingly helpful character Mo in the story who Leah is crushing on, but he refuses to be alone with her, or touch her, and when she tells him of her feelings, he says that everything she likes isn’t him it is his religion.  Leah and Reem discuss how the sunnah’s of the Prophet influence Mo and his brother and it is quite detailed.  Quranic ayats are quoted in character’s dialogues in natural presentations, not preachy or misplaced.  It hints at the end, when Leah has joined Doctors Without Borders and is in the Middle East that perhaps she has taken shahada, but it isn’t a plot point and isn’t mentioned explicitly.

My biggest complaint about the book is the random foreshadowing that pulls out from the story to hint that something more is going to happen between certain characters or be of more importance later.  I think it happened three times, and each time completely unnecessary. The story and characters and writing are clear and done well enough that needing the hint sells it all short and it wasn’t just annoying and irritating, it really kind of made me mad.  Here I was feeling an attachment for a character or what they were experiencing only to be reminded that there will be more, rather than letting me go along for the ride with the character.

I also was bothered by the font and spacing.  It is really tight on the pages, but with big margins, that a little breathing room would have been nice.  So, much happens in the book, that I wanted to be able to relish in each event and often I felt the presentation made it rushed and I found myself skimming, more than I would have liked.  I would have also liked to know what parts, if any, were based on or inspired by real events: the tower fire, human trafficking, stealing organs, artifacts coming out of Syria, refugee treatment in London, etc.

FLAGS:

There are memories of war and dead bodies.  The stealing of organs and dumping of bodies into the ocean.  There is a lot of death after the fire and after the shooting at the mosque.  There is a lot of blood, a terrorist act, a baby being delivered, a drunk man at a party.  Nothing is overly sensationalized, but it is a gripping book with some intense moments.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I don’t know if middle school can handle the book, the characters are older, so it won’t resonate with them like a traditional YA book would, but I’m tempted to have my almost 13 year old read it so we can discuss.  I will most definitely suggest it to the high school book club adviser as there is a ton to discuss and relate to in this action packed book.

Author’s website and Q and A: https://shereenmalherbe.com/

 

 

How Many Donkeys? An Arabic Counting Tale retold by Margaret Read MacDonald and Nadia Jameel Taibah illustrated by Carol Liddiment

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How Many Donkeys? An Arabic Counting Tale retold by Margaret Read MacDonald and Nadia Jameel Taibah illustrated by Carol Liddiment

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Whether you know a little bit of Arabic or none at all, this incredibly repetitive counting book will have you able to count to ten in Arabic by the end of its 32 pages.  FullSizeRender (35)Even if you know how already, your little one will enjoy figuring out why the main character Jouha can’t figure out how many camels he has in his caravan.  While Jouha thinks, it has to do with whether one runs off while he is riding, and comes back when he is walking, hopefully by the second or third time, most kids will realize that he isn’t lucky or unlucky, he is just forgetting to count the one he is riding atop of.  Probably good for ages 3-7, the book is silly in its repetition, and the beautiful painted illustrations bring the characters emotions to life.

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There isn’t anything Islamic, but it is definitely cultural as it retells an Middle Eastern folk tale.  The character, a wise fool, is also seen as Goha in Egypt and similar to Nasredeen Hodja in Turkey, all this background is stared at the beginning of the book.  There is also information to hear the story online in a read along program http://www.av2books.com, or to hear the author say the arabic numbers at http://www.margaretreadmacdonald,com.

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Yaffa and Fatima: Shalom, Salaam by Fawzia Gilani-Williams illustrated by Chiara Fedele

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Yaffa and Fatima: Shalom, Salaam by Fawzia Gilani-Williams illustrated by Chiara Fedele

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Oh how full my heart is after reading this book, and wiping a tear from my eye.  When the daily news angers and frustrates, a story as sweet as two friends helping and worrying about each other gives hope to the future of the world. I know that is probably over reaching the impact of a children’s book, but sometimes it really is just one person helping another person, just finding similarities instead of differences, and above all having a big heart.

Yaffa and Fatima are neighbors and both grow dates.  The two women, one Jewish and one Muslim, share a lot of similarities they both fast, pray, celebrate, and help others. They often sell their dates next to each other in the market and then share their food and customs with each other.  During one growing season, rain is scarce, and each woman begins to worry about if the other has enough- not just to sell, but to eat as well.  Secretly they both help each other and prove the power of friendship and kindness is universal and powerful.

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The illustrations are smartly done.  This isn’t the book for bright and colorful or overly cartoonish depictions.  The simplicity of the words introduce the reader to Islamic traditions and Jewish traditions, but the purpose is to show their similarities and the illustrations mimic that sentiment beautifully.  The contrast of red and blue show the differences with the larger muted tones being the same. The warmth in the characters faces mirror the warmth of their actions and the detail is balanced with intriguing the reader without distracting from the text.  The illustrator does a good job of also showing the women covering their hair in public, albeit differently, but not within their homes. And of also showing the different ways the women worship without the words having to do so.

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The author has a note at the beginning acknowledging the roots of the story as a tale about two brothers in both Jewish and Arab traditions.  And at 24 pages it works for children of all faiths and all ages, two years old and up.  The book was recommended by a woman, who I hope to meet next week, when she and her Jewish community join us at the mosque for our monthly story time.  With a theme of friendship, this book will be the focus of what bridges and connections we can all make in our personal lives to make the wold a little better.  I can’t wait to share it with our children of both faiths!

 

 

 

Sitti’s Secrets by Naomi Shihab Nye illustrated by Nancy Carpenter

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Sitti’s Secret was published in 1994 and given the events of the week, I’d say it is more relevant today than it was when written.  And if by some chance the events of the week haven’t affected your children, then the poetry and soul of the book still makes it an amazingly powerful story.

Mona travels from America to Palestine to visit her grandma, her Sitti.  Without the ease of speaking the same language, Sitti and Mona learn to communicate and build a tight bond cut too short by a vacation coming to an end.  When Mona returns she sees the news and writes a letter to the President, telling her Sitti’s secrets, telling him they would be great friends, and telling him they only want peace.

Truly Nye is a poet, even in Turtle of Oman her words transport you to a place where time slows down and the connection between a child and a grandparent make you nostalgically yearn for a simpler time.  Having spent my summer’s abroad visiting my grandma I could relate to so much of this book and truly had to still my heart.  The little things, like examining your grandma’s hand, or hanging out laundry, or brushing her hair. Even that dreaded final hug as you prepare to leave,  I could relate and it was enchanting.

No where in the book does it mention the Middle East or Islam, only at the beginning does she hint at it by dedicating the book to her 105 -year-old Sitti in Palestine, it mentions that she speaks Arabic and a few words are sprinkled in. And the Grandma does wear a scarf.  Other than that the book is by and large not political.  If you know that Nye has a Palestinian father and American mother and often writes semi auto biographical pieces, the book can take a bit of a different role to the reader.  Many reviews criticize the activism upon her return (the letter to the President), and found it disjointed to the rest of the story.  But in today’s climate I found it empowering and hopeful.  The world will only find peace when we put a face to those that are different to us, and even children can change our stereotypes.  I love that my children are seeing that they can make a change in the world today, and to see it reinforced in literature was gratifying.

The book is 32 pages and written on an AR 3.9 level.  The illustrations are beautiful.  They bring the words to life in a tender and heartfelt way.  The detail is subtle but deep and i have found myself thumbing back through the pages to get lost in the illustrations multiple times.  I think the book works on different levels for different age groups.  If you have a family that has to overcome great distances to be together, even younger readers will be able to identify with the story’s tenderness.  If you are in 3rd-6th grade and are aware of what is happening in the world you will be inspired.  If you just are looking for a sweet book, subhanAllah it manages to fulfill that category too.

The White Nights of Ramadan by Maha Addasi illustrated by Ned Gannon

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I love learning about people’s Ramadan traditions, and am slightly embarrassed to admit that I never knew about this Gulf tradition of Girgian.  My kids and I enjoyed reading this book during the middle of Ramadan, when the moon is full and bright, and thus known as the white nights of Ramadan.  Written on an AR 3.6 level the story does a good job of blending the concepts of Ramadan, Girgian, Islam in a 32 page fiction story format for Muslim and non-Muslim children alike.  There is an Author’s note and Glossary in the back as well.

A young girl, Noor, excitedly waits and prepares for Girgian.  She explains the activites to her two younger brothers, Sam and Dan, how they will walk the streets with lanterns (fanouses) and get treats from neighbors for three nights.  But before night falls, they first have a lot to do to prepare, and with the help of their parents and grandparents, the children make and wrap the candy, decorate bags to keep the candy in, and get dressed in fancy traditional clothes.  In the process the book also explains Ramadan, and shows Noor praying and reading Quran.  Arabic and islamic words are tossed in and well explained: iftar, fanous, suhoor, dishdashas, musaher, etc.. Noor in all the excitement shares a tender moment with her grandma where they discuss how fun Ramadan is, but that the “true meaning of Ramadan is spending time with family and sharing with those less fortunate.” A religious scholar may add more to what Ramadan is, but for a children’s book, the message is beautiful and perfect.  The story concludes with Noor and her grandfather taking a basket of food to the mosque to give to the poor.

The book has a slow melancholy type feel to it and the pictures definitely help set that tone.  They are detailed and well done, but maybe not overly inviting to younger readers.

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The book made me want to learn more about the tradition, and talk to people that may have celebrated it to see how it has evolved over time.  My kids liked the idea of having a musaher, a drummer walking the streets waking people up for suhoor.  As a mom of four, I can see why something fun in the middle of the month, especially when the days are so long, is a great way to re-energize the children about the fun and blessings of Ramadan.