Dubai: With much enthusiasm and vigour, Emirati children's author Maitha Al Khayat read her new story to an auditorium filled with children. The children were enthralled by both the colourful illustrations and unconventional story that the mother of four read to them.
Maitha, a newcomer in the area of writing and illustrating for children, has already published two books that are greatly inspired by her Arabic and Islamic heritage. Her first book I Love My Dad's Long Beard is another step in introducing Islamic or Arabic traditions to the western world, while at the same time appeal to the under-represented children of the Middle East.
Her beginnings with writing started during her childhood when she used drawing and writing more as a medium for emotional release than as a hobby.
"My childhood was spent in the United Kingdom and while I was there I felt a little lonely and friendless. Even when I came back to the UAE I still had trouble making friends, so drawing and writing was mainly used as an emotional release," said Maitha.
Maitha, who was enriched with a culture that embraced reading and literature in the UK, was disappointed when she came back to her home country to see that the culture of reading wasn't as strong in the UAE. Her inspiration to start writing stemmed from the urge to indulge back to her childhood years where reading and spending time in the library was her only solace.
"When I started looking for books for my own children, something in me awakened my desire for the past and childhood, especially children stories. Another inspiration, and specifically for the story I Love My Dad's Long Beard was my children. My husband worked in another emirate, and the kids only saw him during weekends. They used to describe how they loved hugging their dad because the beard would cover their face, or how they love the scent of his beard. That was the main inspiration for the story which I managed to write in only three hours."
Maitha wanted to address both traditional and religious aspects with her children's story.
"In this time and age beards are looked upon differently. Bearded men look almost out of place and like they belong to a certain cult with certain customs, or sometimes they even associate them with violence. This perspective is not limited to the western world but the eastern world as well. This is a way to look at bearded men through a child's eye. First I only wanted to appeal to kids, now this book started to raise much more issues."
The writer also liked to reach out for Arab or Muslim children who either live in the west or are strongly influenced by the western media.
"Children of Arab immigrants in the West hardly find representatives or role models, whether it was television or literature. I faced that myself when I was a child in the UK. Some children even in the Middle East don't want to read in Arabic for the strong influence western media has on them, especially through children media and literature."
The writer complained about the weakness of the culture of reading in the UAE, especially amongst children and young adults.
"Certain private schools have incredible methods to encourage children to read. They have annual book fairs, a great library, weekly readings with students, plays that are their own rendition of their favourite stories, or a day to dress up as their favourite character from books and literature. All these are methods to encourage children to enjoy and appreciate reading and literature. I wish that government schools took these same initiatives to encourage the children. The parents shouldn't be left out to. Parents should be personally involved with their children's reading habits. Children will only be influenced by reading if they see their parents equally involved in it."
Maitha's second book discusses a little girl's journey to discover the hijab, the different ways different people wear it, and her special way in wearing it herself. Her story was asked to be translated in English as well for the great readership she might gain from western readers.
"Islam should be represented in a different way for children in order to learn and understand. I wish there were more efforts to write children's stories from an Islamic point of view that would appeal to anyone and present the Muslim child with role models and proper education."
Her next venture into writing would be the young adult's books especially that this segment is society is greatly ignored in our region.
"Our youth have only two paths. To completely emulate a western lifestyle because that's the information they receive from the media, or keep themselves closeted and frustrated. When hopefully I gain more experience in writing for children, I'll start writing for young adults as well. I don't condemn the west in anyway; they have an amazing appreciation for literature and knowledge that we need to implement in our kids, at the same time our values are different. This is something that should be taught to our children before they forget it."
Maitha's books are available in various book stores and Amazon.