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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 11 December 2018

Author's Emirati illustration books bring joy to pupils used to 'Anglocentric' teaching texts

Publications feature Emirati characters and storylines

Pupils at the Mohammed Bin Khaled Cycle1 school in Al Ain are being taught using books featuring Emirati charcters. Satish Kumar for The National
Pupils at the Mohammed Bin Khaled Cycle1 school in Al Ain are being taught using books featuring Emirati charcters. Satish Kumar for The National

When Dr Fawzia Gilani-Williams asked elementary school pupils to draw a picture of themselves or their parents, she noticed something unusual in their illustrations.

Each portrait depicted characters with yellow or auburn hair and blue or light-brown eyes. They looked nothing like the young Emirati pupils who drew them.

“When I asked the girls who they had drawn, they impulsively said, ‘American girls,’ said Dr Gilani-Williams, a former public school principal in Canada who now teaches Grade 4 English, science and maths in Abu Dhabi.

She then asked the students to produce a sketch of their houses. A familiar picture started to take shape, but not one that looks like most Emirati homes. The roofs drawn by the children had steeply pitched slopes rising to a peak, square windows, a rectangular door and even a chimney billowing smoke, in some cases.

“When I took the girls to a window and showed them houses, they could see that the houses of Al Ain generally all have flat tops and do not have a peaked roof,” said Dr Gilani-Williams, who is British.

Since that exercise six years ago, when she first moved to the emirate, Dr Gilani-Williams came to the conclusion that the pupils were only reflecting the popular images they saw in mainstream children’s books, watched on television or even encountered on billboard advertisements that usually feature models with European features.

While more children’s books with Emirati characters and storylines are being published in English, few have made their way inside classrooms across the UAE where predominantly Western books are used for the English-language classes.

Pupils at the Mohammed Bin Khaled Cycle1 school in Al Ain are being taught using books featuring Emirati charcters. Satish Kumar for The National
Pupils at the Mohammed Bin Khaled Cycle1 school in Al Ain are being taught using books featuring Emirati charcters. Satish Kumar for The National

“Most of our books that we have for children here are very Anglocentric,” said Dr Gilani-Williams, gesturing toward a pile of children’s books in her classroom. They’re not Arab-centric.”

A published author who has written nearly 60 children’s books focused on Islam and Arab culture - she rewrote Cinderella and Snow White for a Muslim audience - Dr Gilani-Williams decided to address the gap in Emirati children’s literature by working with her pupils to publish their own stories, which she calls “mirror books” that reflect the children’s experiences.

To date, her pupils have produced two titles, Right Action and Right Speech, and When I Grow Up I Will Be ….

They are working on a third title, Make the World Happy, this year.

“I want to basically empower my children to have a positive self-esteem,” she said.

“I know that books can have such a positive effect. When a child doesn’t see themselves, it gives them a very strong message about who is important in the world and who isn’t: ‘If I’m not in that book, if I’m missing, I’m not important. So I have to go an act like somebody who I think the rest of the world thinks is important.’”

As she advocates for more English-language children’s books that feature Emirati characters and culture, Dr Gilani-Williams has also published a number of her own short-story books with local characters and settings to read to her pupils and share with colleagues for use in their classrooms.

“Part of the UAE Vision 2021 National Agenda is to cultivate a society that is proud of its identity and has the highest moral standards,” said Alia Saif Al Hamli, a principal in Al Ain.

“Dr Fawzia is a specialist in children’s literature and character development. We find that her Emirati-centric stories are a fun way of not only promoting literacy but also inspiring our children’s creativity, innovation and positive self-image.”

Pupils at the Mohammed Bin Khaled Cycle1 school in Al Ain are being taught using books featuring Emirati charcters. Satish Kumar for The National
Pupils at the Mohammed Bin Khaled Cycle1 school in Al Ain are being taught using books featuring Emirati charcters. Satish Kumar for The National

Head of faculty Sonia Dabboussi, who was first introduced to Dr Gilani-Williams’ Ramadan stories in Canada, said her books promote positive Muslim and Emirati characters.

“They were great stories because they gave the students a chance to identify with the characters and to talk about things that were important to them,” said Ms Dabboussi.

“The students when they identify with the characters in the story then they start to see themselves in different ways as well.

“They need to be able to identify more with what’s around them, with their own environment. It gives them more value to say there are characters in this book like me.”

For more information about Dr Gilani-Williams’s books, visit http://fawziagilani.com.