From translating an Oscar-nominated and Bafta-winning documentary to focusing on Amazing Women of the Middle East in her latest book, storyteller Wafa Tarnowska is inspirational in her own right.
Born in Beirut and educated at a French school, Wafa is fluent in five languages and has used this amazing skill to great effect over the years as a radio broadcaster and storyteller, appearing at notable venues such as Tate Modern, Glastonbury Arts of Islam Festival and the Edinburgh and Emirates Festivals of Literature.
Her children’s book The Arabian Nights won the American Folklore Society Aesop Accolade, the Moonbeam Award Gold Medal and was named by Smithsonian Magazine as a ‘notable book for children’. How did Wafa begin? Aged just 19, disillusioned and traumatised by the war in Beirut, Wafa left Lebanon to study in Australia at the prestigious University of Melbourne.
Speaking about what she describes as ‘the bravest thing I ever did’ Wafa’ said: “I had sixty dollars in my pocket and a one-way ticket. I had never been to Australia, I had only heard about it from my mother’s family there, but I had never actually lived in a western country for more than a month. I had only travelled twice before in my life: to visit Egypt at age 15 and stay with my aunt for the summer and to the UK aged 18, to live for a month at a strawberry picking camp in Norfolk to perfect my English. So, going to Australia was a huge travel experience. It was a one-way ticket. Also because of the war in Lebanon, the phone lines were destroyed, and the internet was not yet widespread. There was no functioning post either so I couldn’t write to my parents or talk to them for four years!
So, the first time the phones were repaired when my mother phoned me in Australia, I fainted!”
Wafa lived with her uncle’s family during the first year of her studies but then moved out to work as a nanny and making cappuccinos. But in her third year at Uni, Wafa was headhunted by the then-fledgeling SBS radio station which wanted a translator who could speak perfect Arabic and perfect English. Wafa said: “Some migrants come to a country not knowing the language, I came knowing English, but I perfected the subtleties of the language in Australia, then started writing and thinking in English. I spent five days a week at University and then at the weekend I worked at the radio station as a translator for the Arabic programme. I also had a 10-minute children’s show, telling children’s stories in Arabic with sound effects. It was great fun!
Eventually, I became a full-time broadcaster. It was my first career and although I left it for several years, I am back broadcasting a show on Oneness Talk Radio called “Sufi Voices” which I am enjoying tremendously. It is worth mentioning that SBS is now one of the biggest radio stations in Australia broadcasting in 40 languages, but when I started there, there were only five, among them Arabic!”
After university, Wafa travelled to Lebanon to care for her mother who was sadly dying of cancer. While there, she met and married her then-Reuters journalist husband and had two children. When her children were still very young her husband was posted to Beirut, and while living there Wafa enrolled at the American University of Beirut to complete her Master’s degree. She said: “I applied because I had good grades and they were looking for mature-aged students, so it was the perfect fit. They even gave me a scholarship!”
Wafa’s work as a translator is highly regarded. Other than translating the Bafta and Cannes award-winning documentary “For Sama”, she has translated several documentaries, theatre plays, children’s books and two books for an audio publisher. Before the French translation of “For Sama” was being presented at Cannes, Wafa worked with director Waad al-Kateab’s, who was keen to oversee every process of her film. But it is as an author and storyteller that Wafa has truly found her passion and calling. She credits her love of this ancient skill to her beloved grandmother Hannah. She says: “The Arab world has a very strong tradition of storytelling. Being a “hakawati” (storyteller) is well-regarded. But usually, it is men in the public sphere and women in the private one. So, women would be the storytellers of the family, and men were the storytellers at the cafes.
My grandma was a brilliant storyteller. She was mesmerising. She was a petite ball of energy. She was the matriarch of our family and was hugely sociable. She continued dancing at weddings until her eighties with such joy for life. She was fantastic, and I adored listening to her. That’s why I dedicated my book The Arabian Nights to her because it is the opus of the most amazing storyteller on the planet: Scheherazade. I think I learned unconsciously how to do storytelling from my grandma and the 200-plus stories in The Arabian Nights. Then with radio, you learn how to use your voice properly.
But the years went by, and I only ‘came out of the closet’ so to speak, when my version of the Arabian Nights came out, because although I had written three or four books before that, the Arabian Nights were about traditional storytelling. And I’m still doing it!”
Wafa’s latest book Amazing Women of the Middle East: 25 Stories to Inspire Girls Everywhere seeks to elevate and empower young women the world over, and telling the stories of these brilliant women, has been an uplifting experience for her, her illustrators, and her readers. Her heroines span eras of history from Nefertiti to Cleopatra, to Queen Zenobia of Palmyra, to Empress Theodora, to Zahra Lari, the first woman to compete as a figure skater wearing the Hijab, showing that Middle Eastern women, like Wafa, have been breaking glass ceilings for generations.
Wafa’ said: “This is the first of many books on amazing women I plan to write. My criterion is that they are passionate about something and they succeed in it. They don’t all have to be politicians activists, or actresses. My book is not about being a celebrity. Celebrity is very short-lived, but people who make a long-lasting impact are different, they are visionaries who see further than us, are of service to humanity and are in it for the long haul despite all obstacles.” She added: “In fact, there is a lack of role models not only for Arab women but for Black, Asian and Hispanic women as well. Teenage girls and young women need to see many examples of people who look like them and share their background, who are succeeding and breaking glass ceilings.
The stereotypes of the angry Black woman, the feisty Latina, the meek Asian, and the downtrodden Arab woman must give way to images of diverse women who are leaders in their fields, are passionate about what they do and -most importantly- inspire others to do the same.”