Meet Little Amal, the 12-Foot Puppet of a 10-Year-Old Syrian Girl, Who Has Been Touring the World

Little Amal is a 10-year-old Syrian girl from a small village near Aleppo, a refugee and unaccompanied minor, who’s traveled over 9,000 kilometers over the last 15 months, hoping to reunite with her mother.

Little Amal is also a 12-foot tall rod puppet, operated by three performers – one on stilts inside her molded cane torso, to operate her head, face and legs, with two more taking charge of her hands.

As her creators, Handspring Puppet Company co-founders Adrian Kohler and Basil Jones, explain above, Amal’s puppeteers must enter a group mind state when interacting with the crowds who turn out to meet her at free, community-created events:

If the person inside on the stilts decides to turn left, the other two have to respond immediately as the arms would, so they all think the same thought.

Amal, who travels with three times as many puppeteers as are required for any given appearance and two back up versions of herself in case of malfunction, is truly a miracle of non-verbal communication.

As a child who doesn’t speak the language of the countries she has visited, she expresses herself with gestures, and seemingly involuntary micro-movements.

She bows graciously in both greeting and farewell, taking extra time to touch hands with little children.

She swivels her head, eagerly, if a bit apprehensively, taking in her surroundings.

Her lips part in wonder, revealing a row of pearly teeth.

Her big, expressive eyes are operated by the performer on stilts, using a trackpad on a tiny computer.

The lightweight ribbons that make up her long hair, pulled none too tidily away from her face with a floppy bow, catch the breeze as she towers above her well wishers.

After stops in Turkey, Greece, Italy, Switzerland, Germany, Belgium, France and the UK, Little Amal landed in New York City, where members of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and Children’s Chorus serenaded her with Evening Song from Philip Glass’ opera Satyagraha as she passed through John F. Kennedy International Airport.

The New York Times’ Matt Stevens described the scene as Amal came into view:

As her head peeked out from above metal barriers, Little Amal widened her eyes as she took in the arrivals terminal at Kennedy International Airport on Wednesday. She looked left, then right, clutching her big green suitcase with its rainbow and sun stickers. She was, as newcomers to New York City so often are, a little nervous, and a little lost…(she) appeared transfixed by the music — much like the many travelers strolling by with their suitcases appeared transfixed by the 12-foot-tall puppet suddenly towering before them. Still, she was trepidatious, a tad reluctant to approach the orchestra. At least, that is, until a chorus member — a girl wearing a sunflower yellow shirt — went up to her and took her by the hand.

With 50 events in 20 days, Little Amal had a packed schedule that included a nightime visit to Jane’s Carousel in Brooklyn Bridge Park and an early morning trip along Coney Island’s boardwalk. Unlike most first time visitors, she spent time in Queens, Staten Island and The Bronx.

A New Orleans style second line processional escorted her a little over a dozen blocks, from Lincoln Center, where she interacted with dancers and performance artist Machine Dazzle, to the American Museum of Natural History, above.

New York’s immigrant history was evident in Little Amal’s tour of the Lower East Side and Chinatown, with stops at the Tenement Museum and the Clemente Soto Vélez Cultural & Educational Center.

With every appearance, Amal’s incredibly lifelike movements and dignified reserved turned adults as well as children turned into believers, while bringing attention to the tens of thousands of children who have fled war and persecution in their home countries.

See photos and read more about Little Amal’s past and future travels here.

Download a free Little Amal activity and education pack here.

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Ayun Halliday is the Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine and author, most recently, of Creative, Not Famous: The Small Potato Manifesto.  Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Carl Sagan Issues a Chilling Warning to America in His Last Interview (1996)

Until the end of his life, Carl Sagan (1934-1996) continued doing what he did all along — popularizing science and “enthusiastically conveying the wonders of the universe to millions of people on television and in books.” Whenever Sagan appeared on ”The Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson during the 70s and 80s, his goal was to connect with everyday Americans — people who didn’t subscribe to Scientific American — and increase the public’s understanding and appreciation of science.

At the end of his life, Sagan still cared deeply about where science stood in the public imagination. But while losing a battle with myelodysplasia, Sagan also sensed that scientific thinking was losing ground in America, and even more ominously within the chambers of the Newt Gringrich-led Congress.

During his final interview, aired on May 27, 1996, Sagan issued a strong warning, telling Charlie Rose:

We’ve arranged a society on science and technology in which nobody understands anything about science and technology, and this combustible mixture of ignorance and power sooner or later is going to blow up in our faces. I mean, who is running the science and technology in a democracy if the people don’t know anything about it.

20 years later, figures like Neil deGrasse Tyson and Bill Nye are out there, trying to popularize science with new forms of media. But the same structural problem, so well articulated by Sagan, remains largely in place. And yet there’s reason to hope. Because even as establishment politicians still play the same games with science, there are early signs that, as with other important issues, public opinion is shifting beneath their feet.

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The Brooklyn Public Library Gives Every Teenager in the U.S. Free Access to Books Getting Censored by American Schools

We have covered it before: school districts across the United States are increasingly censoring books that don’t align with white-washed conservative visions of the world. Art Spiegelman’s Maus, The Illustrated Diary of Anne Frank, Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, and Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird–these are some of the many books getting pulled from library shelves in American schools. In response to this concerning trend, the Brooklyn Public Library has made a bold move: For a limited time, the library will offer a free eCard to any person aged 13 to 21 across the United States, allowing them free access to 500,000 digital books, including many censored books. The Chief Librarian for the Brooklyn Public Library, Nick Higgins said:

A public library represents all of us in a pluralistic society we exist with other people, with other ideas, other viewpoints and perspectives and that’s what makes a healthy democracy — not shutting down access to those points of view or silencing voices that we don’t agree with, but expanding access to those voices and having conversations and ideas that we agree with and ideas that we don’t agree with.

And he added:

This is an intellectual freedom to read initiative by the Brooklyn Public Library. You know, we’ve been paying attention to a lot of the book challenges and bans that have been taking place, particularly over the last year in many places across the country. We don’t necessarily experience a whole lot of that here in Brooklyn, but we know that there are library patrons and library staff who are facing these and we wanted to figure out a way to step in and help, particularly for young people who are seeing, some books in their library collections that may represent them, but they’re being taken off the shelves.

As for how to get the Brooklyn Public Library’s free eCard, their Books Unbanned website offers the following instructions: “individuals ages 13-21 can apply for a free BPL eCard, providing access to our full eBook collection as well as our learning databases. To apply, email” In short, send them an email.

You can find a list of America’s most frequently banned books at the website of the American Library Association.

NOTE: We’re seeing reports on Twitter that a teacher in Norman, OK has been terminated for letting a student know about the Brooklyn Public Library’s free library. While this report hasn’t been fully substantiated, teachers who want to recommend this resource should proceed with caution. Parents could seemingly refer BPL’s free library to students with less concern about retaliation.

via KTVB

If you would like to sign up for Open Culture’s free email newsletter, please find it here.

If you would like to support the mission of Open Culture, consider making a donation to our site. It’s hard to rely 100% on ads, and your contributions will help us continue providing the best free cultural and educational materials to learners everywhere. You can contribute through PayPal, Patreon, Venmo (@openculture) and Crypto. Thanks!

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How Salman Rushdie Has Lived and Written Under the Threat of Death: a Free Documentary

Alfred Hitchcock specialized in films about marked men: innocents, more or less, who suddenly find themselves pursued by sinister forces to the ends of the Earth. Little wonder, then, that Salman Rushdie would count himself a Hitchcock fan. The novelist references the filmmaker more than once in Salman Rushdie: Writing Under Death Threats, the DW television documentary above. He remembers a sequence from The Birds that cuts between students in a classroom and the playground outside: in one shot a blackbird comes to sit on the jungle gym, and just a few shots later it’s been joined by 500 more. “The case of what happened to The Satanic Verses was, it was something like the first blackbird.”

Rushdie refers, of course, to the fatwa called down upon him in response to that novel’s supposed blasphemies against Islam by Ayatollah Khomeini. As a result he had to spend most of the subsequent decade in hiding, under the protection of the British government. By the time of this documentary, which came out in 2018, the danger seemed to have passed.

“What’s happening now, as the scandal goes away,” he says of The Satanic Verses, “is that people are able to read it as a book, rather than as some kind of scandalous text.” But the danger had not passed, as we learned earlier this month when Rushdie was stabbed onstage at a literary event in upstate New York, avoiding death by what’s been reported as a narrow margin indeed.

This story has its ironies, not least that Rushdie’s attacker was born in California a decade after the Iranian government’s disavowal of the fatwa. But for Rushdie himself, the attempt on his life can’t have come entirely as a surprise: he saw the gathering blackbirds of violent fanaticism as well as those of metropolitan complacency. Reflecting on the 2015 attack on French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, he laments that “even people who are on the liberal, progressive, leftist end of the spectrum now find ‘problematic’ the idea of supporting people who make fun of religion.” Always and everywhere, writing has been done under the threat of one kind of punishment or another; more than 30 years after The Satanic Verses, Rushdie’s case remains the most harrowingly extreme illustration of the writer’s condition.

Related content:

When Christopher Hitchens Vigilantly Defended Salman Rushdie After the Fatwah: “It Was a Matter of Everything I Hated Versus Everything I Loved”

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Jeff Koons and Salman Rushdie Teach New Courses on Art, Creativity & Storytelling for MasterClass

Salman Rushdie: Machiavelli’s Bad Rap

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

When Christopher Hitchens Vigilantly Defended Salman Rushdie After the Fatwah: “It Was a Matter of Everything I Hated Versus Everything I Loved”

I have often been asked if Christopher defended me because he was my close friend. The truth is that he became my close friend because he wanted to defend me. –Salman Rushdie

Salman Rushdie remains in critical condition after suffering multiple stab wounds while on stage in New York, a shocking occurrence but not quite surprising given that the author has lived with a death sentence over his head since 1989. (You can read the history of that controversy here.) The nation of Iran has denied any responsibility for the attack on the author, but it’s probably safe to assume that his 1988 novel The Satanic Verses has something to do with it, over thirty years after the fact.

“Even before the fatwa,” Steven Erlanger writes in The New York Times“the book was banned in a number of countries, including India, Bangladesh, Sudan and Sri Lanka.” Protests of the novel resulted in several deaths and attacks on booksellers. Rushdie had not set out to enrage much of the Islamic world, but neither had he any interest in appeasing its conservative leaders. Always outspoken, and a ferocious critic of British Empire as well as Islamic theocracy, his career since the fatwa has demonstrated a commitment to freeing the literary arts from the dictates of church and state.

On the subject of imperialism, Rushdie and the late Christopher Hitchens came to disagree after the U.S.’s invasion of Iraq and Hitchens’ “U-turn across the political highway to join forces with the war-makers of George W. Bush’s administration,” Rushdie writes in a Vanity Fair appreciation for Hitchens‘ after the latter’s death. But his book God is Not Great “carried Hitch away from the American right and back toward his natural, liberal, ungodly constituency”; a collection of people who see the free expression of ideas as a far preferable condition to the existence of theocratic death squads.

Wherever he fell at any given time on the political spectrum, Hitchens never gave up his defense of Rushdie, one in which, as he wrote in his memoir, Hitch-22, he was completely committed from the start:

It was, if I can phrase it like this, a matter of everything I hated versus everything I loved. In the hate column: dictatorship, religion, stupidity, demagogy, censorship, bullying, and intimidation. In the love column: literature, irony, humor, the individual, and the defense of free expression. Plus, of course, friendship– 

Hitchens was gravely disappointed in liberal writers like Arthur Miller who refused to publicly support Rushdie out of fear, as he says in the television interview at the top of the post. The ambivalent response of many on the left struck him as gross political cowardice and hypocrisy. He went on the attack, arguing roundly on popular shows like Question Time (below, with his brother Peter, Baroness Williams, and recently deposed prime minister Boris Johnson).

Hitchens “saw that the attack on The Satanic Verses was not an isolated occurrence,” Rushdie writes, “that across the Muslim world, writers and journalists and artists were being accused of the same crimes — blasphemy, heresy, apostasy, and their modern-day associates, ‘insult’ and ‘offense.'” Rushdie had meant no offense, he writes, “I had not chosen the battle.” But it seems to have chosen him:

It was at least the right battle, because in it everything that I loved and valued (literature, freedom, irreverence, freedom, irreligion, freedom) was ranged against everything I detested (fanaticism, violence, bigotry, humorlessness, philistinism, and the new offense culture of the age). Then I read Christopher using exactly the same everything-he-loved-versus-everything-he-hated trope, and felt… understood.

If the fatwa against Rushdie made him infamous, it did not make him universally beloved, even among his fellow writers, but he always had a fierce ally in Hitchens. Let’s hope Rushdie can pick up the fight for free expression once again when he recovers from this brutal stabbing.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Why You Should Read The Handmaid’s Tale: A Timely Animated Introduction

Prophecies are really about now. In science fiction it’s always about now. What else could it be about? There is no future. There are many possibilities, but we do not know which one we are going to have.

Margaret Atwood

There is no need to explain why Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale has gone from reading like a warning of the near-future to an allegory of the present after the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization. Atwood’s story revolves around the fictional Republic of Gilead, which takes over the U.S. after a fertility crisis decimates the population. Overnight, the fundamentalist Christian theocracy divides women into two broad classes – Handmaids: chattel who perform the labor of forced birth through forced conception; and the infertile who prop up the patriarchal ruling class as wives, overseers, or slave labor in the polluted “colonies.”

It’s a bleak tale, a story far less about heroism than the TV series based on the book would have viewers–who haven’t read it–believe. (The 5th season, slated for this July, seems to have been delayed until September without explanation.) Why should we read The Handmaid’s Tale? Because it is not only a work of dystopian futurism, but also a narrativized account of what has already happened to women around the world throughout history to the present. The novel is a prism through which to view the ways women have been oppressed through reproductive slavery without the sci-fi scenario of a precipitous loss of human fertility.

As Atwood has explained, “when I wrote The Handmaid’s Tale, nothing went into it that had not happened in real life somewhere at some time.” Some of the worst offenses were not well-known. “Female genital mutilation was taking place,” says Atwood, “but if I had put it in 1985 [when the novel was written] probably people wouldn’t have known what I was talking about. They do now.” But we can still choose to overlook the information. “Ignoring isn’t the same as ignorance,” Atwood says in the novel, “you have to work at it.” The quote opens the 2018 TED-Ed lesson by Naomi Mercer above on Atwood’s book, walking us through its sources in history.

The Handmaid’s Tale, the lesson points out, is an example of “Speculative Fiction,” a form of writing concerned with “possible futures.” This theme unites both utopian and dystopian novels. Atwood’s books trade in the latter, but any reader of the genre will tell you how quickly a more perfect fictional union becomes a nightmare. The Canadian writer has offered this literary inevitability as an explanation for the multiple crises of American democracy:

The real reason people expect so much of America in modern times is that it set out to be a utopia. That didn’t last very long. Nathaniel Hawthorne nailed it when he said the first thing they did when they got to America was build a scaffold and a prison.

What Atwood doesn’t mention, as many critics have pointed out, are the slave pens and auction houses, or the fact that Gilead closely resembles the slave-holding American South in its theocratic patriarchal Christian hierarchy and ultimate control of women’s bodies. And yet, the novel completely sidesteps race by having the Republic of Gilead ship all of the country’s Black people to the Midwest (presumably for forced labor). They are never heard from again by the reader.

This tactic has seemed irresponsible to many critics, as has the show’s sidestepping through colorblind casting, and the wearing of red cloaks and white bonnets in imitation of the book and show as a means of protest. “When we rely too heavily on ‘The Handmaid’s Tale,‘ which ignores the presence of race and racism,” says activist Alicia Sanchez Gill, “it really dehumanizes and dismisses our collective experiences of reproductive trauma.” Atwood’s “possible future” pillages slavery’s past and conveniently gets rid of its descendants.

The trauma Gill references includes rape and forced birth, as well as the forced sterilizations of the eugenics movement, carried out with the imprimatur of the Supreme Court (and continuing in recent cases). Kelli Midgley, who founded Handmaids Army DC, offers one explanation for using The Handmaid’s Tale as a protest symbol. Though she agrees to leave the costumes at home if asked by organizers, she says “we are trying to reach a broader audience for people who need this message. We don’t need to tell Black women that their rights are endangered. They always have been.”

Maybe a new message after Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization is that an assault on anyone’s rights threatens everyone. Or as Atwood wrote in a Canadian Globe and Mail op-ed in 2018, “depriving women of contraceptive information, reproductive rights, a living wage, and prenatal and maternal care – as some states in the US want to do – is practically a death sentence, and is a contravention of basic human rights. But Gilead, being totalitarian, does not respect universal human rights.”

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Ray Dalio Is Giving Away Free Copies of His New Book Principles for Dealing with the Changing World to High School & College Teachers and Their Students

As we noted back in March, investor Ray Dalio has published his latest bestseller, Principles for Dealing with the Changing World: Why Nations Succeed and FailA history of the rise and fall of empires over the last 500 years, the book uses the past to contemplate the future, particularly the fate of the United States and China. Today, for Teacher Appreciation Week, Dalio has announced that he’s willing to give a copy of the book “to any high school or college educator who wants it—and to all of their students if they intend to have them read it.” He writes:

Since releasing my book and animated video [above], Principles for Dealing with the Changing World Order, many people have told me that both would be helpful for teaching history in schools and asked me if I would help make that happen. So, during this Teacher Appreciation Week I will give a copy of the book to any high school or college educator who wants it—and to all of their students if they intend to have them read it. And if there’s a lot of interest, I’d be happy to extend the offer past this week. Of course, the Youtube video is already free and easily available and I encourage you to check that out if you want an overview of what’s in the book.

When you sign up, let me know if you’re interested in me hosting a live online session for classrooms, which I’ll do if people would like it. If you are not an educator but know some who might be interested in this offer, please share this link with them.

To access the offer, click here.

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If you would like to support the mission of Open Culture, consider making a donation to our site. It’s hard to rely 100% on ads, and your contributions will help us continue providing the best free cultural and educational materials to learners everywhere. You can contribute through PayPal, Patreon, Venmo (@openculture) and Crypto. Thanks!

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The New York Public Library Provides Free Online Access to Banned Books: Catcher in the Rye, Stamped & More

Each year in mid-September, we celebrate Banned Books Week, and each year I see a handful of people arguing that the celebration, or memorial, is self indulgent and out of touch. No one in the U.S. seriously tries to ban books, right? Book banning — as Gayle King said last September on CBS Mornings — is “an issue we tend to associate with the past.”

Yet even before the recent moral panics over “critical race theory” and gender and sexuality issues, teachers and librarians would have strongly disagreed that attempts to ban books ever went away. Books are challenged all the time in front of school boards, and have, many times in the recent past, appeared on lists handed around by state and federal legislators.

The latest round of book bannings represents an escalation, rather than a return, of the tactic. Not that lawmakers are likely to have read any of 850 or so books on a recent list of suspects. But too many seem eager to endorse bills that restrict what students can read, teachers can teach, and libraries can lend — legislation solely based on the standard of “comfort.” As in… if the facts of American history make some students (or their parents) uncomfortable, then damn the facts of American history…..

Ta-Nahasi Coates — whose Between the World and Me was banned in some communities in 2020 — tells King that this is no coincidence. “For most of American history,” he says, “African American authors have not had the purchase on the American conscience that they do right now.” The same goes for LGBTQ authors and writers from other marginalized groups, whose books are challenged and banned in schools and libraries with aggressive frequency.

What Coates calls a “purchase on the American conscience” is what we might also call empathy — a quality that good writing inspires in curious readers, and that many people seem to find threatening. Every democracy, however, must learn that it is “ignorance [that] is dangerous,” as president of the New York Public Library Tony Marx writes, “breading hate and division.” Learning about, and caring about, the experiences of others does the opposite.

To keep banned books freely available to readers who want access to them, the New York Public Library has partnered with publishers in a project called Books for All to reach readers wherever they may be. Marx emphatically states the need for such an effort:

The recent instances of both attempted and successful book banning — primarily on titles that explore race, LGBTQ+ issues, religion, and history — are extremely disturbing and amount to an all-out attack on the very foundation of our democracy…. The Library’s role is to make sure no perspective, no idea, no identity is erased.

There are currently four books offered under the project’s aegis through the end of May, and they’re available to readers across the United States:

Speak | Laurie Halse Anderson (Square Fish / Macmillan Publishers)

King and the Dragonflies | Kacen Callender (Scholastic)

Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You | Jason Reynolds and Ibram X. Kendi (Little, Brown Books for Young Readers / Hachette Book Group)

The Catcher in the Rye | J.D. Salinger (Little, Brown and Company / Hachette Book Group)

To access these titles, all of which have faced bans or challenges, you will need to download the NYPL’s free reader app, SimplyE, for iOS or Android–all from the Books for All site. Then you can read the book right away “with our without a library card,” the library notes. “No waits, no fines.”

One hopes the Books for All project will expand to offer more titles from the increasingly greater number of books being pushed out of public view because they make those in power uncomfortable. Or, better yet, one hopes that dozens of similar projects will arise; that the slogan “books for all” can become a reality, regardless of who makes policy. Learn more and sign up for your free SimplyE account at the Books for All site.

Related Content:

The 850 Books a Texas Lawmaker Wants to Ban Because They Could Make Students Feel Uncomfortable

America’s First Banned Book: Discover the 1637 Book That Mocked the Puritans

Read 14 Great Banned & Censored Novels Free Online: For Banned Books Week 2014

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

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