Hoping to lift the spirits of hungry, terrified children living in war-devastated Gaza in 2008, the keeper at a zoo where most animals have perished dyed the fur of a spirited donkey named Hurry to look like that of a zebra. Much to their delight, kids were able to witness – and even ride – a seemingly exotic animal, and temporarily escape the dreariness of their everyday lives. This quiet but resonant incident inspired The Story of Hurry, a picture book written by Emma Williams, illustrated by Ibrahim Quraishi, and edited by Jean Stein, due from Seven Stories Press on September 9.

In August 2000, British-born Williams moved to Jerusalem with her three young children to join her husband, a United Nations employee, and to work as a physician in a hospital. Four weeks later, the Second Intifada, a cataclysmic reprisal of the initial Palestinian uprising against Israeli occupation, occurred. Her experience living and working on the border of East and West Jerusalem, interacting with both Palestinians and Israelis, led Williams to write her 2006 memoir, It’s Easier to Reach Heaven Than the End of the Street, chronicling how her life and others’ had been upturned by the violence.

Her three-year tenure in Jerusalem had a deep impact on Williams, who initially documented her observations in articles for The Spectator, a U.K. magazine,. “We had only four weeks after our arrival in Jerusalem before the whole thing blew up,” she recalled. “It was very traumatic. I had my fourth child during the violent 2002 siege of Bethlehem, which added to my level of concern and understanding. I also witnessed a suicide bomber detonating himself next to my kids’ school just as the students were arriving one morning. Luckily no children were injured, but it could have been such an incredible disaster. I wanted to write a memoir to share the perspective of someone who was actually there and could see both sides from an on-the-ground perspective.”

Jean Stein, author and former editor of Grand Street, has long been concerned about the conflicts in the Middle East, and was drawn to Hurry’s story when she read a newspaper item about him during the 2008 Gaza turbulence. Thinking the tale would work well as a picture book, Stein asked Williams, a longtime friend and former New York City neighbor, if she would be interested in writing one. “I thought that Hurry’s story would be a powerful way of showing children the tragic times in Gaza,” said Stein. “I’ve been interested and involved in the situation for many years, and have worked in the shadow of Edward Said. I saw Hurry’s story as reminiscent of The Story of Ferdinand, about a peace-loving bull, written by pacifist Munro Leaf in 1936, at the time of the Spanish Civil War. And I knew that Emma would be the ideal person to write such a book, given her experiences in the Middle East, and I have great respect for her as a writer.”

Williams agreed to take on the challenge of writing Hurry’s tale when Stein, whom she calls “a great literary mentor,” approached her. The two then sold the project to Seven Stories. “It was such a poignant and powerful story, I knew it should be told,” she said. The author explained that she was “guided to an extent” by The Story of Ferdinand, which she read as a child and had read to her own four children, now ages 12 to 20. “Whether it is truth or fiction that Leaf had an anti-war message in mind, the book was certainly taken as that,” she said. “I’ve always loved the story, and had it in my head – especially its simplicity of words – as I wrote.”

Bringing Hurry Alive Visually

Quite serendipitously, Stein and Williams came across Quraishi’s work at a New York City auction sponsored by ArteEast, a nonprofit organization dedicated to showcasing Middle Eastern art. As the artist explains, “They contacted me after seeing a series of works I did on Israeli and Palestinian children, where I play with the idea of Arab paternalism and notions of tribal power. Both wanted to know if I would be interested in creating illustrations for a children’s book based on actual events, and naturally I responded positively.”

Williams’s even-handed treatment of the conflict that serves as the explosive backdrop of The Story of Hurry especially appealed to Quraishi. “As an artist, I was immediately attracted by how to deal with the issues at hand with honesty and integrity, while at the same time I wanted to find a solution that is light and doesn’t blame one political entity verses another,” he reflected. “The story appeals on a very humanistic level, and one cannot but be touched by the duality of the Palestinian-Israeli tragedy. I was interested in how Emma told the story without any political agenda, and blended reality and fiction into a story of hope.”

To create his illustrations, Quraishi combined watercolor and black-and-white drawings, photo montages (including photographs he took during a recent visit to the West Bank), and pencil sketches – and tackled the task of how to portray Hurry. “I wanted Hurry to have dimension and stand out from the illustrative drawings,” he explained. “After trying many different visual techniques, I imagined that the figure of a toy would attract a child to enter this story and would convey the complexity of different visual states without the psychological weight that might accompany a watercolor illustration.”

Williams praises Quraishi’s vision, noting that his art “has a wonderful, fresh, clear, and immediate way of showing the story. I found it very powerful.” She hoped that the art and Hurry’s story illuminates both the resilience and hope of children in Gaza and the sadness of their plight. “I still see so clearly their faces, looking up at me so hopefully,” she said. “On the one hand, writing this book was a painful place to go back to emotionally, but I feel guilty saying that since I had the option to leave, and these children do not. On the other hand, I longed to go back, since I feel such a tremendous attachment to – and concern for – the people on both sides of this conflict.”

The Story of Hurry by Emma Williams, illustrated by Ibrahim Quraishi, edited by Jean Stein. Seven Stories Press, $16.95 Sept. ISBN 978-1-60980-589-0