THE BOOK OF LIFE - Sister Religions/Sister Kidlit
3:28AM Jun 12, 2019
COLD OPEN: "Islam as a religion actually recognizes Judaism and Christianity, you know, the morals and the teachings and the ways that we should be living our lives have more things that are similar across these Abrahamic religions and other world religions than differences. And as I mentioned, there was Yaffa and Fatima, The Magnificent Mosque, Snow in Jerusalem, there are a whole bunch of books that do take up this idea and want to sort of change this misconception that we have of each other. And the more that we hear each other's stories, and the more that we get to know each other, that's the only way that our ideas about each other are going to change."
THEME MUSIC, INTRO: This is The Book of Life. I'm Heidi Rabinowitz. Sadaf Siddique and Gauri Manglik are the co-creators of Kitaab World, a website that promotes South Asian children's books. Within their website, they created a campaign called Counter Islamophobia Through Stories, similar to the Love Your Neighbor campaign that I worked on to help bring Jewish books to all readers, and they even turned their campaign into a book called Muslims in Story. Listen now as Sadaf joins me to talk about the kidlit of our sister religion.
Welcome, Sadaf. Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?
Thank you, Heidi, for giving us this opportunity to talk to you and be on your wonderful podcast. I'm talking to you from sunny California. It's nice and bright and hot. And it's not so great for me because I'm fasting during the month of Ramadan. So I'm really looking forward to breaking my first today later in the evening. And also a little bit more about myself is that I am the co founder of an organization called Kitaab World where we advocate for South Asian representation in children and young adult literature.
Let's talk about Kitaab world. First of all, what is a kitaab? What does that mean?
So we've taken the word kitaab, which in a number of Eastern languages actually means book. So the literal translation would be a world of books. And my co founder and I, Gauri, who unfortunately couldn't be here with us today, we founded it to put the spotlight on narratives and stories that are of South Asian origin, that we want to showcase and introduce to children and schools and libraries to sort of make up that whole world of multicultural and diverse books.
How did Kitaab World come to be?
My co-founder and co-author Gauri Manglik and I... initially when Gauri and I started our company, it was really that we were looking for books that represented our own children. We didn't see a lot of them around us in our libraries and our schools, because we both are from India and so we have a strong connection back home. And then there's also very strong publishing industry in India, we'd always be able to find books from India, or even once in a while we find a book; there is a book I rem ember by Lee&Low called Hot, Hot Roti for Dada-ji, which we spotted in a library, and we were so excited to find these books for our own kids. We sort of thought that it must be something that other parents also look for, to see themselves and their children represented in the books that they read. So we wanted to create a space for parents or teachers or librarians or other educators who are looking for these kinds of books and sort of be like a one stop shop. And we wanted to have a curated collection of these books so that it would make it easy for any kind of educators to find these books to include them in their classrooms and curriculum.
Now, through Kitaab World, you have a campaign called Counter Islamophobia Through Stories, and I want to talk about that, but not all South Asians are Muslim....
No, in fact, we defined South Asia as a fairly broad set of countries, places like India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Nepal, and Sri Lanka. And we also include Burma and Bhutan, just for geographical proximity. South Asia has a whole number of diverse religions. I mean, Muslims are just one part of it. But there are Hindus, Sikhs, Christians, Buddhists, we have a subset of religion called Jainism. So there are a lot of other religions and a lot of other countries that make up South Asia. So not all South Asians are Muslim.
Okay, so what inspired you to create the Counter Islamophobia Through Stories campaign?
So in 2016, November of 2016, when the results of the election that was held between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton came in, I think a lot of us were just sort of stunned at the results. And we had seen a campaign that was really driven by hate, and by vilifying the other, whether it was Muslims or immigrants, I think the idea that there was such a great divide in the country was kind of a surprise for us. We saw a lot of people were just despondent and depressed by these results. But we wanted to try and flip that around, we wanted to try and show people that there was a way to do something positive. So we work in the field of children's literature, and so because that was our forte, we thought, Okay, how can we do something that can change people's ideas about what Muslims are like and who they are, and this misinformation that was being passed on, your typical images, and all of that, we wanted to flip that on its head and change the narrative. And so that's why we began this Counter Islamophobia, Through Stories campaign, which we launched in January of 2017. And the idea was to see Muslims as... I mean, it sounds strange to say, but like everyday normal people doing normal things. And what we did, essentially in the campaign was to curate all these books that we had come across in four different kinds of booklets, that any teachers, librarians, educators, parents could just use in their classroom on a day to day basis, which would show, you know, Muslim kids doing regular things like trying to be on the baseball team or figuring out whether they can or they should, or they want to go to the prom or not. So everyday day to day things that we all could relate to. So what we did was we divided them into four distinct categories, one, which is called Muslim Kids as Heroes, we wanted to use literature to create long term systemic change. And the idea was that once children have a deeper and broader understanding of common shared experiences, that's when they learn about and understand people from other cultures, and that they can connect with them. And that, in effect, reduces the othering of people. Our second booklist, which was Inspiring Muslim Leaders and Thinkers, we did that to question this idea of the clash of the east and the west and the clash of civilizations. But we really wanted to show that there is a more intertwined history of the east and the west. That's why I really wanted to bring about a focus on Muslim leaders who worked in the past, during the Muslim golden age people like Ibn Haisam, and Ibn Sina and all these kind of inventors around that time, who actually contributed a lot to the Western canon eventually. And also more recent Muslim leaders, of course, Malala, but also people like Muhammad Yunus, who started the microcredit movement. So there's a way to see that their history plays a role in our understanding of past, and whose history gets told, and how does it get told, sort of question those ideas. The third was Celebrating Islam. There's so much misinformation about Islam and Muslims out there, and for children, a way to get involved in understanding another culture is usually through festivals and food. So we wanted to showcase the diversity and the history and traditions within Islam. And the last booklist that we created was Folk Tales from Islamic Tradition. It's interesting to know that there's so many Muslim traditions, which are oral stories that are familiar all across the Muslim world. And a number of these folk tales are very different from Western folk tales. So it's important to give people a different perspective. And we also interviewed a number of the authors during that campaign, just so that the people would get a more personal experience of understanding where these authors come from, and discover them and all of their work. Eventually, this campaign gained traction and we were able to present it at a number of conferences. And finally, because of the positive response that we received, we decided that it really needed to be expanded into a resource. And that's how we came about to expand these four categories into a book called Muslims in Story. Note of clarification: on our website, we still have these booklists, and you can access the campaign on KitaabWorld.com. And since Kitaab World was more focused on South Asia, our initial campaign was more about South Asia. But what we did with the book was to expand it to the entire Muslim world. You know, with picture books, we paired them with activities with middle grade and young adult books, we paired them with discussion starters and ideas for further engagement, to give people a more holistic way to approach this in their classrooms.
Can you do a quick plug of a few favorite stories from the booklists?
Oh, wow, yeah. We have over 150 stories. And you know, it's sort of like asking Who's your favorite child? But everyone knows you always have a favorite child. Right? Like that's the secret no one tells you. Oh wow, this is such a difficult question. But there's one book called Big Red Lollipop, which is a very popular book by Rukhsana Khan about this young girl who gets invited to her first birthday party, and her mother makes her take her younger sister along so, you know, she gets really annoyed and her sister's being really bratty. While this is a story about siblings, it's really more of a delightful dynamic story about immigrants and assimilation and identity. And I think it's really well done. A chapter book that we really liked is called A Long Pitch Home, about this young boy who moved from Pakistan, and he was on the cricket team in Pakistan. And now he's moved to the US and he's trying to assimilate to a new school and the new culture. And he tries to get on the baseball team and it's his struggles with that and making friends. And it's just a really swet and lovely story. And in a similar vein, we have this book called A Tale of Highly Unusual Magic, which is more of a fantasy tale with two girls, one in Texas, and one in southern Pakistan. One of our folk tale traditions that we really like is this book called Neem the Half Boy. These are a whole bunch of Sufi stories that are oral traditions; Idries Shah actually wrote them down. And they were created by the publisher who got various art students to work on them to create them as picture book. So that, so there's a really fascinating story behind the story. Essentially, it's about this young boy who's born half and he has to go on this quest to find the potion in the dragon's lair and to make him whole again. So now in a more Western telling of the story, it would be all of his courage and he goes to face the dragon and get the portion and all of that's great. But here, this dragon was actually terrorizing the townspeople, and so this boy goes and talks to the dragon figures out what the dragon's problem is. And actually, they have like a peaceful negotiation and they are able to exchange the portion for what the dragon needs. And it is just a great way of what we talked about, you know, altering perspectives and different ways of problem solving. So we think that one is a real fun one. And we have a whole bunch of interfaith books as well, which were important piece of our booklist. I don't know if you heard of this book called Yaffa and Fatima, Shalom Salaam?
Oh yes, I've interviewed the author of that book on the podcast.
It's a really great book about these two young girls, one who's Jewish, and one who's Muslim, and how they're neighbors and good friends; it's just a sweet tale of compassion, really, for everyone in this day and age to learn from. Along with that, we have a whole bunch of young adult novels. One that I really like is called A Girl Like That by Tanaz Bhathena, and it's about these four teenagers in Saudi Arabia. And it's really interesting to get that perspective, because you don't really have many stories coming out of there. And it's interesting to note that issues that teenagers all over the world face are similar to what those teenagers in Saudi Arabia face as well; it was just a really interesting window into their lives. And I mean, we have over 150 titles, this is just a little bit of a sampling of all of them.
Are the books are aimed at an English speaking audience?
Yes, because this book, story is aimed as a resource for educators, parents, teachers, librarians in the US. So they're all English language book. There are some books on our website, such as the Sufi stories that I mentioned, which you can get in bilingual titles, you can get them in English/Urdu, English/Pashtun, English/Dadi, and also English/Spanish.
Can you talk about the state of Muslim children's literature as a genre?
I think in the last couple of years, it's been very heartening to see that there are actually books coming out from the major publishers. There's that imprint of Simon and Schuster called Salaam Reads, which is focused on Muslim children literature, and they've come up with really, really good books over the years. There's a wonderful picture book called Yo Soy Muslim, which is, I believe, written in verse. There's also these great books called Crescent Moons and Pointed Minarets, Golden Domes and Silver Lanterns, like simple picture books on colors and numbers and shapes that are talking about regular concepts that you teach the younger children, but just with a lot of imagery and visuals that are more familiar to Muslim children. Also, in the last couple of years, there have been a lot of stories of fantasy, there's a particular book called The Gauntlet, you know, fantasy, it takes some Muslim traditions, but it's taken into a completely different space. And also books like Saints and Misfits, which is a more young adult novel, and it continues to grow. There's so many more books coming out, and so many more Muslim authors who are getting visability now. And it's so diverse in all genres. So that's really great that you get the whole gamut of the Muslim experience because there's no real one Muslim experience. So I think it's looking up for Muslim children's literature right now.
Terrific! Are there any Muslim Children's Book Awards that we should be aware of?
I don't know if they do it by religious based book awards. But the Middle East Outreach Council does book awards, which are mostly by region because I know there's the South Asia Book Awards and the Middle East Book Award. If you're looking for books that get validation from an organization in that sense.,
What is a very common misconception that non-Muslims have about Islam? And can you clear it up for us?
Well, I'm not an expert on Islam, so it would be hard to say something. But when we were doing presentations around our campaign, we were asked a number of question about Islam, similar to what you're asking right now. And we really felt that we were not the experts to answer this question, which is why in our book, we actually posed a number of these questions to an Islamic expert, Sumbul Ali-Karamali. So we have an interview with her, which is about frequently asked questions on Islam, and she is a lawyer who has a degree in Islamic law as well. So she answered a whole bunch of questions. I think the most common question in terms of some misconception is the idea of jihad. The meaning of the word jihad essentially means struggle. So it's any kind of struggle, trying to be a better person, trying not to lie or backbite or those kinds of things. That's essentially what jihad actually means. So the way most people understand it is a sort of second external war and killing anyone in jihad by the sword. But it's sort of a complicated situation where it's actually only meant to be teken in order to correct injustices, and it's very limited. So I think that would be the biggest misconception that people have. There's this idea that Muslims have never been part of the American story, that they're foreigners, and that they've come from outside. And in our book our first chapter is an overview of Muslims in America, which really looks at the contributions, the presence of Muslims from even before the formation of the United States of America. I think that's an important idea to understand.
Okay, thank you. How can Jewish and Muslim bookworms work together to fight Islamophobia and anti-Semitism?
Both communities just need to reach out to each other and we do need to understand that we're all more same than we are different and at the crux of it, we all want the same things for our families and our homes and our lives. And we really need to be able to reach out to each other and have more interfaith meetings, interfaith groups, interfaith discussions, which is also why interfaith books were a big part of our booklist on celebrating Islam, because it was this idea that Islam as a religion actually recognizes Judaism and Christianity, you know, the morals and the teachings and the ways that we should be living our lives have more things that are similar across these Abrahamic religions and other world religions than differences. And as I mentioned, there was Yaffa and Fatima, The Magnficent Mosque, Snow in Jerusalem, there are a whole bunch of books that do take up this idea, and want to sort of change this misconception that we have of each other. And the more that we hear each other's stories, and the more that we get to know each other, that's the only way that our ideas about each other are going to change.
Excellent. So I found a list of creative interview questions on Book Fox; it's a website for authors. And I think it's geared a little bit more towards fiction authors. But let's go ahead and see if this will work. We're going to randomly pick one of those questions and use it. So please pick a number between one and fifty.
One and fifty, okay. Twenty five!
Twenty five. The question is, how many unpublished and a half finished books do you have?
Yes, so you can see that one is kind of aimed more at fiction writers, I think...
Oh, well, I mean, it works. Everyone's an aspiring writer, right? I'd say I have about eight.
Wow, that's quite a few.
Yeah, they're all sitting in my drafts folder.
And are you working on fiction or nonfiction? What kind of creative endeavors do you have?
It's really strange that while I was working on this nonfiction book, Muslims in Story, my brain wanted to write fiction. So I've been dilly-dallying and toying with fiction more than non fiction right now. I actually have a background in journalism and print and documentary media. So I come from a more non fiction background, but I've been noticing of late that I've been more enamored of, and driven towards, and inspired by fiction writing. So that's interesting.
Is that fiction for children or for adults?
Actually both, like I probably have half and half right now.
Very cool. Well, good luck with that.
So it's time for our Tikun Olam moment. Tikkun olam is a Hebrew term for repairing the world. So what action would you like to invite our listeners to take to help heal the world?
First of all, I think that this is a really wonderful concept. Because it's about repairing the world, one person at a time. You can do it by yourself by how you see the world and how you react to the world. And the power is within you to heal the world. And I think the more we know about each others' stories, and actively going out and seeking these stories and learning about one another, understanding that everyone is diverse, there's no idea of one Muslim story, one Muslim experience, one Muslim person asa a monolith. We're a very diverse community and each with our own experiences. We all come from a whole spectrum of observation. So the less we can judge people the better.
Is there anything else that you would like to talk about that I haven't thought to ask, you?
No, but I would like to know from you what your work has been with your podcast and why you thought to reach out to us about our campaign. I think everyone is a bit concerned about growing incidents of anti-Semitism and Islamophobia around the world. So just to know your perspective, and how you were thinking about all these things...?
Yeah, thanks for asking. Yes. So in October of 2018, I'm sure you remember, there was a shooting at a synagogue in Pittsburgh. And it was very shocking, because it was just sort of out of the blue and so many people were hurt and were killed. And so in response to that some librarian friends and I were responding the way librarians do, we were like, well, what books can we offer to grieving people who need a book to comfort them. So other children's librarians and I were talking online, and we were brainstorming titles, and rather than focus on titles about anti-Semitism, we decided to look for books that would be more empowering and kind of push back against that. So books of people befriending each other across the divide, you know, bridge building books, and, and books that explained Judaism, you know, because we're children's librarians, so we were thinking in terms of things preventing somebody from growing up to be like that shooter by giving them stories that would help them understand other people and empathize with people who are different. And we came up with so many titles that we ended up proposing it as a project to the Association of Jewish Libraries. So for the Association, we created this series of booklets, and we called it Love Your Neighbor. And it's interesting that it was four booklists, like your four booklists, and this, I think, is what drew me to your work when I found out about it, because it was such a parallel situation of responding to hate with children's books. So we came up with the four booklists. So let's see, there's a booklist about Jews and non Jews supporting each other and standing up for each other. There was a list about synagogues and clergy and Jewish ritual, because the shooting took place in a synagogue, and we thought people might be wondering about synagogues. There's a list of kind of like your leaders list, there's a list about Jews in America, showing that, like Muslims, Jews have been here since the beginning and we've contributed a lot to society at large. And there's a list about, basically friendship between Jews and non Jews, like the Yaffa and Fatima book that you were talking about. And all of those lists are available at Jewishlibraries.org and also on Booko Lifepodcast, com, but what you've done with your whole campaign, and then with your book, Muslims in Story, it just seemed like an even better version of what we were trying to do. So I was just really intrigued by that.
Oh my God, this is so lovely. Thank you, and just listening to you talk about how as librarians, you began to look for books that will challenge that hate by actually showing people, you know, a different side is actually so important, right? I mean, that's precisely why I think we wanted to do what we wanted to do, because it's not being despondant. How can you take the power in your hands to make a difference, even ifit's to one person? It's so fascinating to hear the parallels between what you did in your work and what we did in ours too.
Yes, exactly. And I think that we felt empowered by doing this. We did it not just for the readers, but for ourselves. Because, rather than bemoan the terrible state of the world, we felt like we were taking some kind of positive action.
Right! Oh, how lovely. So nice to hear you speak about your work.
Thank you. how can listeners find out more about your work?
If you follow us on social media, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, that's Kitaab World, K I T A A B world W O R L D. You'll see that we come up with new curated booklists on diverse topics. We also have a page which talks about our Counter Islamophobia Through Stories campaign and Muslims in Story on our website, and on our website too you could download the first chapter of the book and have a look at the index to see which books are mentioned in our resource. Our book is available on the ALA store.
I think a lot of the listeners know that ALA means the American Library Association.
Excellent. This has been terrific and so interesting, because I feel like it's just such a parallel situation.
It is! I think it's lovely, because then these kind of ideas stay and they resonate. And that's the way to reach people, right? Through stories, through others' experiences. And that's the only way you're going to change people's ideas of the other.
Right. Sadaf Siddique, thank you so much for speaking with us. And do you say Happy Ramadan? Is that the way to say it?
Yeah, Ramadan Mubarak, although we're hoping to come to the end of Ramadan so if you say Eid Mubarak which is happy Eid, that would be great because that's what we're looking forward to now for the next couple of days.
Thank you so much Heidi, wonderful to speak with you.
TEASER: This is Heidi Rabinowitz, host of The Book of Life, and I want to dedicate the upcoming live show episode to all of you listeners, who give me an excuse to have so much fun creating this podcast. Seriously, thanks for listening.
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