There’s no better time for parents and teachers to talk about cultural differences than at the start of a new school year. Children everywhere will be in classes with students from other countries, who may speak different languages and follow different customs. It’s important for them to be reminded that we’re all human beings, with the same desires and fears. This month, ReaderKidZ will feature books for readers K-5 that can help reinforce a mutual respect for one another.
A perfect example is the middle grade novel THE GARDEN OF MY IMAAN by Farhana Zia. Aliya is like many girls in fifth grade. She worries about being popular, how to talk to boys, and how to stand up for herself when someone’s being mean to her. To add to these challenges are the questions facing her as a pre-teen Muslim girl: should she fast for Ramadan? If she decides to wear the traditional hijab, will her classmates make fun of her? THE GARDEN OF MY IMAAN shows what life is like for many fifth graders in today’s schools but especially for Muslim students, who have to juggle the traditions of multi-cultural families at home with the fear of being different than their peers.
For a chance to win a free copy of this delightful book, send an email to Emily Rivet at Peachtree Publishers: RIVET@peachtree-online.com. Please put “Book give-away” in the subject line.
We spoke to author Zahana Zia about why she wrote this book and what she hopes young readers will take away from it. The first half of that conversation is below:
ReaderKidZ: One of the things that impressed me about “The Garden of my Imaan” is the way you wove the normal trials and tribulations of any fifth grade girl with interesting information about being Muslim so that it didn’t sound like a message. What was your initial motivation in telling this story: a desire to portray a ten-year-old Muslim girl in today’s world, or to inform young readers about the Muslim religion?
Farhana: This is not a book about Islam and it does not pretend for a minute to teach about the religion. Rather, it’s a fictionalized portrayal of an American Muslim pre-teen caught up in the today’s post 9/11 world, while leaving some room in it for some information about certain religious practices and beliefs in order to deliver a degree of clarity for the reader. Notwithstanding, I did try to dispel certain misconceptions that are out there, specifically about (a) who Muslims are, (b) where they come from and (c) also how hijab is often wrongly perceived as a symbol of male domination. I hope that I was able to dispel these misconceptions through Aliya and Marwa’s story.
ReaderKidZ: At one point in the story, Aliya’s new Muslim friend, Marwa, says that “Muslims are very unpopular since 9/11.” Do you think it’s getting any better for Muslim children in American schools?
Farhana: I don’t have firsthand knowledge to make a categorical statement one way or the other. Tensions toward Muslims in the general population appeared to be easing until the unfortunate Boston Marathon attack when emotions got riled up yet again. Now it feels as though we are where we were following the terrorist attack of 9/11. The reality of life is that wherever and whenever a provocation occurs, there will be a reaction. Unfortunately, the innocent people are more often the ones to feel the brunt of hostility.
As a classroom teacher, I can vouch for the anti-bullying and teasing programs that have been put in place in schools. Schools are vigilant about teaching respect and tolerance for cultural diversity. They are concerned about providing a safe environment for all students. But that said, it is difficult to regulate attitudes and biases and to monitor each unkind word uttered. Kids are adept at picking up on all kinds of differences; and a difference in appearance or a difference in religion is just two more to add to their list.
On the other hand, I’d like to think that one act of prejudice is outnumbered by ten acts of humanity and compassion. When I recently questioned my thirteen year old grand nephew about problems he might have encountered at school as a result of his being Muslim, he admitted being called a terrorist by one of his classmates. Yet, he quickly followed up this account by relating how the rest of his friends had rallied together to take the offender to task. His story was just as heartwarming as another account about a group of high school students who voluntarily came together one year ago to support a mosque when members of a local church demonstrated against the local Muslim community.
Incidents such as these do indeed reflect the true American spirit – it’s the very same spirit that would enable a hijab-wearing Marwa to get elected to school council. It’s also my hope that this spirit will continue to prevail and see us all through trying times.
ReaderKidZ: Aliya’s family is from India and Marwa’s from Morocco. But their classmates are like many people around the world who think all Muslims come from the Middle East, particularly Iran and Iraq. Can you talk a bit about how many Muslims there are in the world, and in which countries they live, and how they differ?
Farhana: The birth of Islam was in Arabia in the 7th century; but the religion quickly spread as far west as Spain during the height of the Islamic Civilization and as far east as China, gathering within its folds, people of multiple ethnicities and cultures. I believe this is an aspect of Islam that must be openly celebrated. Today, there are approximately 1.6 billion Muslims worldwide, roughly 23% of the world population. Of these, roughly 62% live in Asia – Pacific and 20% in the Middle East – Africa. 15% live in Sub Saharan Africa and 3% in Europe. Also the largest Muslim nation is Indonesia with a population of almost 400 million.
It is clearly not accurate to label all Muslims under the Middle East banner and it is not accurate or fair to label all Muslims as ideologues either. In a percolating socio-political-religious climate where radical Islamists are generally suspected as the perpetrators, it is often an uphill struggle to dispel misinformation and misconceptions about who Muslims are and what their faith, Islam, is about. However, interfaith dialogues continue to take place in order to promote understanding and harmony. It would be great if educational systems also got more proactive with fact-based, unbiased and verifiable information so that there is no second guessing or making up of minds based on sensational news, distorted perceptions and half truths.
For the second half of our conversation with Farhana Zia, come back later this week.