Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 5 June 2020

'Once Upon an Eid': 15 unique stories from Muslim women about what it's like to celebrate in different countries

The new book is a collection of short stories about the shared experience of Eid, written solely by women

'Once Upon an Eid' is a new anthology that depicts the Muslim experience around the world.
'Once Upon an Eid' is a new anthology that depicts the Muslim experience around the world.

The traditions surrounding the celebration of Eid may vary in different communities around the world, but the faith and joy that exist at its core remain the same.

A new book touches on that very idea, and also explores the festival in detail. Once Upon An Eid is a collection of short stories about the shared experience of Eid by people from diverse cultures around the globe, written solely by women.

According to the book's editor, SK Ali, the idea for the tome came from a desire to give young readers “cosy, happy, warm” stories that reflect Muslim experiences, to fill what the editorial team perceived as a gap in the publishing landscape.

These collections [...] offer an opportunity for Muslims of many backgrounds to see themselves

Huda Al Marashi

Along with co-editor Aisha Saeed, the team decided on an anthology of stories, to reflect myriad Eid traditions in different formats suited to the ideas of the different contributors.

The collection, in which the main characters are between the ages of 8 and 12, explores questions relating to faith, tradition and acceptance in the face of setbacks that appear before the young protagonists.

The anthology contains 15 stories told by writers hailing from diverse communities, all of them with solid works behind them, such as G Willow Wilson, Randa Abdel-Fattah and Ruksana Khan.

How food is a connecting theme for Eid across the world

Since the stories revolve around Eid, food is, unsurprisingly, an important element in most of the narratives. From creating new traditions to adapting old customs in fresh locations with newfound friends, food becomes a key element that brings communities and people together in the book. From cupcakes to ka’ak and korma to bubblegum, the food connection works to add to the collection’s charm.

The food theme came about naturally, without contributors being asked to focus on it, the editors say. “It underlined how similar we are in the simple ways we humans share joy,” says Ali.

SK Ali is a co-editor of the book. Courtesy Andrea Stenson
SK Ali is a co-editor of the book. Courtesy Andrea Stenson

Saeed’s story, Yusuf and the Great Big Brownie Mistake, is about siblings and family and how a stressful situation leads to a new tradition.

In Ali’s story, Do’nut Break Tradition, a young girl tries to save a family Eid that is not going well by attempting to single-handedly reinstate a family tradition. Inspired by a family member’s challenging health condition, Ali says the story is about resilience and adjusting expectations.

Abdel-Fattah’s Eid and Pink Bubblegum, Inshallah, follows four siblings on a heart-warming road trip with their parents on the eve of Eid. The narrator’s tongue-in-cheek observations about her siblings and parents’ reactions add a light-hearted touch.

Khan’s Gifts comes with her characteristic humour, as she tells the story of a little boy who is on a quest to discover where his parents have hidden the Eid gifts.

N H Senzai tells tells the story of Bassem, 12, who along with his mother and sister, is in a refugee camp in Greece.
N H Senzai tells tells the story of Bassem, 12, who along with his mother and sister, is in a refugee camp in Greece.

Even while dealing with cheery subjects of food and festivities, some of the stories go beyond this to capture the essence of the celebration on a broader canvas. Searching for Blue by N H Senzai tells the story of Bassem, 12, who, along with his mother and sister, is in a refugee camp in Greece fleeing the war in Syria. The loss of his father, his grandparents and his home weighs heavily on the boy, who finds it difficult to even imagine celebrating Eid.

In this story, the author touches upon the history of the colour blue while using it as a harbinger of hope, contrary to popular perception.

“For me, blue was not the blue of sadness, but of hope – of finding something ephemeral that brings joy, and a chance of a better future,” Senzai says.

She also uses the colour to signal a change in the tone of the story when she writes: “Bassem’s heart lifted, and he spotted a glimmer of aquamarine beyond the grey cloud that had descended over him.”

Huda Al Marashi’s 'Not Only an Only' is about a young Iraqi girl, dealing with the highs and lows of being the sole ambassador of her faith in her school.
Huda Al Marashi’s 'Not Only an Only' is about a young Iraqi girl, dealing with the highs and lows of being the sole ambassador of her faith in her school.

We further learn how an object as simple as a cookie mould taken by Bassem’s mother as a reminder of home becomes the tool that goes on to bring people and communities together and make Eid in the camp a festive and happy occasion.

'Any Muslim who grew up in the West has been the only Muslim in the room'

Another story that places focus on the community at large is Huda Al Marashi’s Not Only an Only. The story begins with Aya, a young Iraqi girl, dealing with the highs and lows of being the sole ambassador of her faith in her school. The arrival of another Muslim upsets this delicate balance, more so because the new girl is Sunni, while Aya is Shia. The deceptively simple yet layered narrative then goes on to bring focus on how acceptance of differences triumphs over the loneliness of divisions.

Talking about the inspiration for her story, Al Marashi says: “Any Muslim who grew up in the West has been the only Muslim in the room at some point in their lives … there is a loneliness to that experience and a burden in that representation, as well.”

Candice Montgomery's story 'Just like Chest Armour' is about a young Caribbean girl.
Candice Montgomery's story 'Just like Chest Armour' is about a young Caribbean girl.

In Candice Montgomery’s story Just like Chest Armour, a young Caribbean girl excitedly tries out scarves in various colours and shapes as she begs her mother for permission to wear the hijab.

The author creates an atmosphere of joy to the whole business of a young girl’s initiation to wearing the covering, and it seems as if she is trying to document the birth of a new tradition. Montgomery says she wanted to show the excitement of the event and that much of what is happening in the story came from her own experiences.

There are many similarities between various Islamic communities

As in all multi-author anthologies, the stories are not bound by a singular style. Furthermore, the complexities of the narratives vary greatly. Some of stories follow a linear format, geared as they are towards the target audience of middle-grade children.

It’s so hard to be a Muslim outside of our own circles. Children are our future. So, they need to know there is happiness and pride surrounding our faith

Candice Montgomery, author

There are other stories that cover the larger themes of displacement, acceptance and reconciliation, along with the broader theme of Eid. These stories will appeal to older readers for the complexities that arise either because of the storyline or the format.

However, far from being a deterrent, this facet only adds to the strength of the anthology, making it suitable for children of all ages.

Apart from short stories, the collection also contains an illustrated story and prose-poems.

Adding a spirit of adventure to the book is a story written by Wilson, illustrated by Sara Alfageeh, titled Seraj Captures the Moon. Children of all ages are likely to enjoy the delightful escapade of Seraj and Pickles as they travel the sky looking for the elusive Eid Moon.

Aisha Saeed also co-edited the book.
Aisha Saeed also co-edited the book.

In the prose-poem titled Taste, author Hanna Alkaf tells the story of a young girl making the traditional Eid meal for the first time without the comforting presence of her mother beside her. Alkaf's format is clever, using short and long verses to spring startling images that at once evoke grief and guilt, shame and love, panic and tenderness, finally tying it all together with the thread of acceptance and faith.

'Challenging that feeling of singularity'

The importance of collections such as Once Upon An Eid is they can provide a glimpse of similarities even among differences between various Islamic communities.

“These collections of Muslim voices challenge that feeling of singularity for readers who may not have access to a larger Muslim community otherwise, and because they showcase the diversity within the Muslim community, they offer an opportunity for Muslims of many backgrounds to see themselves,” says Al Marashi.

Montgomery, who is based in the US, says: “Today, in this world, beneath this society and this administration, it’s so hard to be a Muslim outside of our own circles. Children are our future.

"So, they need to know there is happiness and pride surrounding our faith.”

Updated: May 21, 2020 08:36 PM

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