Modern Faith

Book Review
Mennah Nasser Bakkar with her children, Tarek, 10, and Jana, eight, at their home in Beirut.
(Photo by: Tanya Traboulsi)

The National - UAE

May 14, 2009

Little Moslems, a unique series of books by Mennah Bakkar, teaches the tenets of Islam to children coming of age in diverse, global societies.

Rasha Elass talks to the Lebanese author about the challenges she faced and what prompted her to switch careers.

It started with a prayer and an innocent question.
Tarek was seven and Jana, five. One day, when their mother was praying, they asked her what she was doing.
I told them: I'm talking to God. Then they said, But God isn't in front of you, says Mennah Bakkar, mimicking her children's voices.
That was how the idea for Bakkar's unique series of children's books, Little Moslems, first came to her, with her children as the stars. She depicts Tarek and Jana in the books as six-year-old twins who are constantly pestering the members of their family with questions about God and Islam. The series devotes a book to each of the five pillars: saying the Shahada, praying, fasting during Ramadan, paying Zakat and performing Haj.

Everyone remembers when they began asking their parents about God. And every parent one day faces the same questions from their own child. Back then, we were given answers and expected to believe and that was that, says Bakkar. âBut kids today? Mine go to the American School and listen to rap. So I realised there must be hundreds of questions going through their heads, and my kids can't be the only ones.

The problem was that there wasn't much choice of information for parents trying to answer their children's questions about religion, as Bakkar discovered when she was researching the market. A casual stroll through the children's section of bookshops in Lebanon, Syria or the UAE revealed a not-very-inspiring array of books published in classical Arabic, telling children stories about the Prophet in a dry, didactic tone, or teaching them the specifics of how to stand during prayer and what to say, but never explaining why. Sometimes the books have no illustrations at all of humans or animals, following the Wahhabi interpretation of Islamic law that prohibits depictions of living things.

Children's books about Islam in English are even more elusive.

Bakkar, who at the time worked in advertising, decided this was her cue to fill in the gap for English-speaking Muslim children, particularly for parents trying to integrate Islamic values into their children's globalised world.

"We are a normal family," says Bakkar. We have Islamic values, but we're not fanatics. And my kids go to school with kids from everywhere in the world, Moslim and non-Moslim. When they see me pray, I want them to understand what I'm doing.

Besides, she adds, a break from the corporate lifestyle was in order.

The project took Bakkar two years. The most difficult part was the meticulous, step-by-step checking and rechecking to ensure nothing in the writing or illustrations crossed the line from an Islamic perspective. "We had to navigate through taboos like not portraying the Prophet," she says. "We got the OK from Islamic authorities like Dar al Iftaa [the official Islamic authority in Lebanon] to ensure nothing in it was taboo."

Bakkar, who has a professional background in marketing, also got an endorsement from one of the most popular Islamic preachers today, the Egyptian-born Amr Khaled, who is known for his moderate approach to Islam. In his signed preface to the series, he assures parents that the book "maintains the required basics and values of Islam that our children can relate to and apply during their everyday lives, as Allah the almighty had intended".

Each book is 40 pages long. Tarek and Jana, who appear on almost every page, resemble each other. They are the same height, except for Jana's abundant curls, which can make her an inch taller than her brother.

"I wanted to neutralise the gender factor," says Bakkar. "You'll notice I also didn't put an age range for the books. That's because I wanted to reach all ages. Besides, there are many adults who don't know about the basics in the books."

The illustrations, by Rena Karanouh, a Beirut-based artist, show the twins and their parents living in a city that could be anywhere in the world. In one illustration in A Time To Give, the book on Zakat, Islam's charity tax, a city scene shows men, women and children shopping while a shoe shop in the background advertises a 10 per cent sale.

"I realised we can't just show them a book about people with camels living in tents. It had to portray their everyday life, or they wouldn't relate to it," says Bakkar.

Another illustration shows the twins in their playroom, working on a puzzle. In the background there is a tennis racket, a basketball, dolls and books. They live in a two-storey house with a front yard and a terrace with a canopy. And they can see the city skyline from their window.

The characters in the book do challenge some taboos, such as the depiction of the twins' parents with their arms around each other, a scene probably unseen in any other children's book about Islam. Mother and daughter do not always wear a hijab, either.

"The mother wears her hijab only when she leaves her house," explains Bakkar, "but why should she wear it when she's inside? That would be unrealistic."

She adds that the easy part of writing the books was doing the research. Her two muses, Tarek and Jana, were always under her nose.
"I started probing their minds for questions," she says.

There was another issue to consider before writing, such as making the books universal to all Muslim children regardless of whether they are Sunni or Shiite. The two major traditions in Islam have a different approach to worship, one of the most obvious is the way they stand during prayer. "I didn’t want to put the emphasis on the 'how', because we’re not talking to a particular sect of Islam, but to all Moslims," says Bakkar. “The emphasis is on the 'why'."

Once that was sorted out, creating the plots was easy. Tarek and Jana live with their parents, and their grandmother, called Nana, is often around.

In the book about Ramadan, the kids awaken to the "jostling and bustling going on downstairs".

"In the living room, Mummy, Daddy and Nana were all up and busy. There were big boxes everywhere, filled with lots of funny-shaped lights. They looked like bright sparkling diamonds.

The twins ask: "What's going on? Are we having a party today?"

And their mother explains that the festivities are preparations for Ramadan.

"The plots came from the thoughts of my kids. I followed their logical flow of questions," says Bakkar. Inside the book Let's Pray, the twins ask the same questions Tarek and Jana asked their mother in real life.

"But Nana said no one can see Allah, so how can we talk to Him?" Jana asks in the book.

"We see His answers as the things He does for us or gives us. Things we ask of Him in our prayers," answers her father.

The books are published in Beirut by Arab Scientific Publishers. The first edition sold 15,000 copies. The series is now in its second edition, and is in the process of being translated into French. Bakkar has no plans to translate Little Moslems into Arabic, mainly because it would be impossible to decide on which Arabic to use, and she does not want to address her young audience using a different dialect than their own.

"If it's in classical Arabic, it'll be dry to the kids. If it's colloquial, then we have to figure out if we want a Lebanese, Egyptian or a Gulf accent, and that wouldn't be fair to the kids who speak a different form of Arabic."

In real life, Tarek and Jana are now 10 and eight years old, and they have a lot to say about their mother's books.

"I'm in the book, but the Jana character doesn't look exactly like me," says Jana.

Tarek points out they are sometimes invited for Christmas at their friends' houses. "We go and celebrate with them," he says. "And during Ramadan and Eid, we invite them to celebrate with us."

"My friends at school, they all have the books," adds Jana. "And they want to be in Mummy's next one."

The Little Moslems series can be found at most bookshops in Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt, the UAE and other GCC countries, and through online bookstores.

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