“Zainab is Different”

Altmuslimah speaks with author Irfana Khan about her upcoming children’s book, “Zainab is Different.”


  What motivated you to write this book? How did your own experience of “difference” impact this project?

Irfana Khan: A wide range of life experiences served as motivating factors to write this book. While growing up in New Jersey, people often asked me where I was “originally” from, what “kind” of name Irfana is and why I didn’t celebrate Christmas. I tried my best to politely explain my background and faith, but I could see my listeners were not at all familiar with Islam or Muslims. Even today, I find myself dealing with similar questions, but now many of them are more specifically about Islam and Muslims. Americans have a genuine interest and desire to learn so I thought why not embrace this opportunity to teach! Through this children’s book, I’ve tried to represent myself and fellow Muslims in an honest and positive way.

I was also inspired to write this book from an educational standpoint. I work as the Educational Director at a Head Start program in New York and I noticed that the dearth of children’s books with Muslim characters. I wanted to contribute something to boost this otherwise short list of books.

On a personal note, this story has been living in my head for a long time. Last year I finally began working on this project after my brother gave me the kick in the pants I needed! I had intended to finish and surprise my father with the book, but he fell ill and passed away last year. His death derailed many things for me, including this book; I considered abandoning it altogether since he wasn’t here to see it, but my family reminded me that he would expect me to complete the project for the readers’ benefit. I pray that the end result is something that would bring him pride.

  What does it mean to be “different”?

Irfana Khan: The word “different” often ignites fear and anxiety. Children, especially, associate being different with being strange and uncool. My goal in using this adjective in the title is to encourage children to embrace differences in others and nurture their own individuality, all the while recognizing that at our core, all human beings are the same.

 You had mentioned earlier that children can be both curious about difference and also amazingly tolerant. Can you elaborate by sharing a few anecdotes?

Irfana Khan: I worked for many years as a preschool teacher with kids from a variety of cultural and ethnic backgrounds. I’ve seen that children are naturally curious, observant beings who note differences more out of a desire to learn than anything else. Children are amazingly tolerant because they easily and wholeheartedly embrace concepts of acceptance and equality. I have never seen a child, all on their own, decide to discriminate against another child because of how he or she looked or what he or she thought. What I have seen is a mute child become a fully functioning member of the classroom because all of the other kids simply found innovative ways to communicate with her. I’ve seen classmates help, without being prompted, a child who was missing fingers. I’ve seen kids who didn’t speak a word of English play effortlessly with children who didn’t know a word of Spanish. Unfortunately, if and when discrimination arose in the classroom, it was always because children had been taught intolerance or a sense of superiority by an adult in their life.

 Who is Zainab?

Irfana Khan: Essentially, Zainab is every child—boy or girl, Muslim or non-Muslim, liked or misunderstood– who has ever felt different and been made to feel as though he or she doesn’t belong. On a secondary level, Zainab is a female character who allows Muslim girls to have a voice. When my 4-year-old niece saw the picture of Zainab, she happily exclaimed, “Zainab looks like me!” That kind of identification is exactly what I want.

 Any thoughts on the other storybooks out there that are by and about American Muslims? For example, we featured Hena Khan’s excellent work here: http://www.altmuslimah.com/b/reva/golden_domes_and_silver_lanterns

Irfana Khan: I love that book! As soon as I discovered it online last year I sent it as gifts to both of my nieces and also purchased it for my students.

  Are you afraid of potential backlash by adults who don’t want American children reading these sorts of positive portrayals of American Muslims? Consider, for example, this response to Hena’s book: http://mdjonline.com/view/full_story/23925195/article-Father-upset-after-child-finds-Muslim-book-at-school-fair

Irfana Khan: People who fear Muslims simply because they are different or alien are the very reason why we need such books. I do believe that these people are in the minority, but they are a vociferous group whose prejudice we must counter with our own narratives. For every person who’s against positive portrayals of Muslims, I think there are many more people who support endeavors like this. In fact, more than half of my backers on Kickstarter are non-Muslims! I firmly believe that most Americans are tolerant people who support a diverse and open-minded society, and most Muslims want to be a productive part of that American community. I would love for this book to help support that spirit, even if it’s just in a small way.

  How can we help make this project a reality?

Irfana Khan: Thankfully my project was backed my many wonderful people through Kickstarter! The pledge drive ends on the 21st and the book is in the publication process. You can help by spreading the word about the book via on social media. The anticipated publication date is mid-March, at which point it will be available on Amazon as a paperback and Kindle version.
Asma Uddin is the Editor-in-Chief at Altmuslimah.

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