x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Maryam Ismail on Muslim literary characters

Why Muslim children need some fictional characters to inspire them.

March in the UAE means books. Both Dubai and Abu Dhabi are flush with writers, authors, publishers and agents; everything to make literary dreams come true. However, there aren't enough great books for Muslim kids aged 9-16, who need books that reflect their lives and their culture. How many jinns, vampires, ghosts and goblins must be consumed before enough is enough?

Obviously, there's a genre crisis. Something funny happened in my stomach when I saw the trailer for the film Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. Is nothing sacred? Perhaps it's just a girl thing or that one episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer that was mind-numbing trash that made me dislike all things from the world of the undead.

I've tried mysteries, too. I went to my local children's bookseller and my daughter picked up Two-Minute Mysteries by Donald J Sobol. Little did I know that I'd be exposing my then-8 year-old to alcohol and drug users, liars and murderers. When I consulted a librarian in Philadelphia, she told me the book was meant for sixth-graders. I can't say I felt better.

The crisis is really with the Muslim literary canon. I know there will be some who will say: "We don't do literature, it's lying". Of course, lying should not be a priority, but I won't blame Jacqueline Wilson, JK Rowling or Stephenie Meyer for misguiding Muslim youth. It's not their fault. It's mine. I don't mind the responsibility.

I – and you, fellow writers or would-be writers – should be turning out books instead of fewer-than-a-thousand-word quips. I should be writing 10,000 words a day, a novel a year. I'm trying, believe me. Inshallah, I will be successful. And my book will not have any supernatural characters; maybe some blood, maybe some fighting, but it will be something worth reading.

My goal is to add to the genre of halal fiction, to join the ranks of Leila Aboulela, whose work juggles the art of fiction without losing its soul to madness. We can write stories for kids without exceeding the limits of Islam and without being dull or saccharine.

The stories don't have to be overtly religious; more importantly, it's an issue of self-image. How many times has someone read a book and said: "For the first time, I saw someone like me in the story?" Every day, during school, kids read stories with images, names and situations that are strange to them, especially for children who live in the UAE.

Why waste time explaining the behaviour of Willow Smith or Justin Bieber as a cautionary tale? It won't work in this fame-driven global culture. Kids need alternatives. Let's feed their imaginations with adventures in the Muslim world. Why not write of life in the UAE before oil? What was it like? How hard was it to do daily tasks? How much fun was it?

I'd love to read a novel about an 11-year-old girl living in Andalusia or a student of Mimar Sinan in Constantinople during the 1500s or a young Sipahi in the Ottoman Empire.

This doesn't mean you write some cynical story about a wimpy teenager or a hot, steamy Twilight-esque novel; that's not what's needed. Nor is sticking a Muslim name on it enough. Do something totally different. Blow the competition out of the water, inshallah.

OK, there's the homework. Let's get cracking. If any of you seem scared or don't know what to do, send me a message and let's do this.


Maryam Ismail is a sociologist and teacher who divides her time between the US and the UAE. Reach her on Twitter @alaskamongolia, which is the title of her forthcoming anthology.