Issues within Picturebooks Representing Pakistan and Afghanistan

Article excerpt

Picturebooks are known to invite a younger audience. Therefore, analysis of visual images and elements, along with the written narratives, is essential, as the illustrations "speak" in a language that is often more effective than mere words. Illustrators convey their particular sensibilites through the images, as authors do with words.

This article analyzes six picturebooks with plots that in some way center on the regions of Pakistan and Afghanistan. These books reveal patterns that raise key concerns about how these regions are represented. The book jackets reveal an array of accepted worldviews (Said, 1978) about these countries--for example, ruined backdrops, desert landscapes, and, for the characters, very distinct, yet dated, ways of dressing. The characters portrayed in these picturebooks do not accurately depict the regions' sociocultural development and are distinctly different from characters that represent U.S., Canadian, and Australian cultures. The titles' words signify a nonwestern setting as a hook to capture the audience's attention--The Carpet Boy's Gift (Shea, 2003), Ziba Came on a Boat (Lofthouse, 2007), The Old Woman and the Eagle (Shah, 2002), The Roses in My Carpets (Khan, 1988), Silly Chicken (Khan, 2005), and Ruler of the Courtyard (Khan, 2003)--to prepare western audiences for a disparate experience.

Author Rukhsana Khan, a native of Pakistan, moved to Canada at the age of 2. Notably, the three artists who illustrated these Afghani/Pakistani books are outsiders to the Pakistani culture. The illustrations for each of these books are sparse, with desert-like landscapes with few trees done in shades of brown. The sun is a major feature of the illustrations for The Ruler of the Courtyard (Khan, 2003). The houses shown are made of mud and a few stones. The content and pictures reinforce an outdated image of Pakistan as a rural outpost; no reference is made to education or books within either the written or pictorial representations. All of the female characters are caricaturized, portrayed in dull brown skin tones and wearing simplistic, flat clothes in Silly Chicken (2005) and The Ruler of the Courtyard (Khan, 2003).

The Old Woman and the Eagle (Shah, 2002), written by an Afghani who settled in England, and Khan's The Ruler of the Courtyard (2003) and Silly Chicken (2005) depict female characters as unintelligent, even though these books are written by insiders to the cultures they are depicting. The illustrations in The Old Woman and the Eagle (Shah, 2002) show detail in the tradition of Persian miniatures, but the narrative's subject is superficial and simplistic. The content seems to reinforce a view that people from Pakistan and Afghanistan are simpletons who do not know the difference between a pigeon and an eagle. The protagonist in The Ruler of the Courtyard (Khan, 2003) mistakes a belt for a snake and later becomes the ruler of a mere courtyard. In Silly Chicken, the character who is jealous of a chicken also represents Muslim females as foolish.

The Roses in My Carpets (Khan, 1988) and The Carpet Boy's Gift (Shea, 2003) are historical fiction representations by two different authors and artists. The Roses in My Carpets (Khan, 1988), situated in Pakistan, illustrates the protagonist's life left behind in Afghanistan through flashbacks and is set during the events of the Russian invasion of Afghanistan, yet its images are reminiscent of present-day turmoil in the region. The region of Afghanistan depicted in the flashbacks is shown as being practically barren, with hardly any vegetation; the arable land is shown being plowed by oxen. References to religion in this book show a "muezzin" (caller to prayer) facing away from the scared child, perhaps alluding to a disconnect between the lived experiences of the child and his faith. These images somehow seem to reinforce the continued nightmare of air attacks and a life that is presently just as violent. The red color in the carpet being woven provides a much-needed relief to the mud-colored backdrop. …