I’ve been writing people’s stories for over ten years. As a freelance journalist, I’ve been interviewing people and documenting their stories ever since I was a student in college. I have been particularly interested in telling stories of people from marginalized communities, as an Arab myself.
But, one day I realized there were not enough positive stories about “us.” About Muslims. About Arabs. About Egyptians. As my kids get older, which stories read about in school? Will it be negative stories about Muslims? Stereotypical stories about Arabs?
As a storyteller, I realized I had been telling other people’s stories for years but never really got to tell my own. So I wrote down my stories. And eventually it became a book: The Arabic Quilt: An Immigrant Story, published by Tilbury House and illustrated by Anait Semirdzhyan. The picture book is about an Egyptian girl who immigrates to the U.S. and is trying so hard to fit in. There are many parts in the picture book I can talk about, but I will focus on three parts and how I came up with those story ideas:
In two parts of the book, Kanzi doesn’t want her school lunch to stick out. Her deliciously spiced kofta sandwich that her baba makes on the first day of school. And later on when mama packs her shurbet ads, a hearty lentil soup, for lunch. But Kanzi asks mama to pack her something else. Something more “American” like a turkey sandwich. Plain. Boring. Not even fulfilling like lentil soup. Lentil soup is filled with vegetables, beans, and is a labor of love. Although the soup is one of Kanzi’s favorite meals ever, she asks for something she doesn’t even love that much — simply to fit in. This is so relatable to immigrant children or children of immigrants. So many of us have memories eating something that looks different during lunch and having a white kid comment about how weird or “stinky” it is. Not only kids making comments about the food, but as an adult and former educator, I’ve overheard teachers make comments about a “weird” food a kid has. Although most likely that “weird” food has meaning to us. Perhaps a recipe that was passed down from a grandmother, or a recipe that took hours for our parents to make and luckily there was leftovers for us to enjoy.
Another part in the story is when Molly says that her mom says we should speak English in America and who cares about other languages. I can’t even remember how many times someone was rude to my parents because of their accents. Their condescending comments “I don’t understand” or looking at me and asking me translate what they said. There have been numerous incidents where people didn’t feel comfortable with someone who spoke a different language and even being kicked off airplanes for texting or speaking in Arabic. Immigrants or children of immigrants know what it’s like to have someone laugh at your accent or at a family member’s accent. But what many people don’t realize is having an accent is a sign of bravery. Having an accent means leaving your homeland, your friends and your families and starting at the beginning. Having an accent means you are brave. Molly eventually realized that Arabic is a cool language and thankfully her teacher didn’t tolerate the xenophobia. Which brings me to the third part in the story.
Kanzi’s teacher comes up with a lesson where she asks Kanzi and her mom to write the students’ names in Arabic. The kids are excited about the project (except for Kanzi at the beginning) and it’s hung up at the end of the day outside of the classroom for everyone in the school to see. Kanzi realizes that knowing two languages is actually a great thing and she gets some attention for it, which makes her “cool.” I can probably sit down and write down all of the teachers I had growing up and whether or not that teacher made me (an immigrant, Muslim, Arab child) feel welcome. But this specific incident is based on a true teacher who did the same exact project when I was in elementary school! So really, this whole book idea was inspired by one teacher. This is why it’s so important for teachers to create an inclusive and safe environment for their children of color. These kids will remember what the teacher did or did not do, or what the teacher said or did not say when they were at school. And maybe one day, just maybe, they’ll write a book about it!
Aya Khalil holds a master’s degree in Education with a focus on ESL. Her debut picture book THE ARABIC QUILT, has won numerous awards. She has a book titled THE NIGHT BEFORE EID coming out in 2023 by Little, Brown. You may check out her website at ayakhalil.com or follow her on Twitter and Instagram.
- GIVEAWAY INFORMATION:
This giveaway is for a copy of The Arabic Quilt and a 15-minute Zoom meet-and-greet with Aya Khalil. Many thanks to Tilbury House/Publishers Spotlight for donating a copy of the book for one commenter of this post. For a chance to win this copy of The Arabic Quilt, please leave a comment about this post by Friday, May 28th at 11:59 p.m. EDT. Stacey Shubitz will use a random number generator to pick the winner, whose name she will announce at the bottom of this post, by Friday, June 4th. You must have a U.S. mailing address to enter the giveaway. Please be sure to leave a valid e-mail address when you post your comment, so Stacey can contact you to obtain your mailing address if you win. If you are the winner of the book, Stacey will email you with the subject line of TWO WRITING TEACHERS – KHALIL. Please respond to Stacey’s e-mail with your mailing address within five days of receipt. A new winner will be chosen if a response isn’t received within five days of the giveaway announcement.
COMMENTS ARE NOW CLOSED.
Congratulations to thewriteapple whose commenter number was selected for this giveaway.