Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Multicultural Perspectives: Ilyas and Duck Search for Allah

I stumbled upon Ilyas and Duck Search for Allah, by Omar Khawaja, entirely at random (oh the glories of the internet and its mysterious ways). Immediately I was taken in by two things: the title and the duck. I haven't seen many American Muslim picture books, least of all an open and unobtrusively thoughtful one with "Allah" in the title (which means "God" in Arabic, for the unawares), so I wanted to see how this presented itself. And upon reading it, I admit I immediately loved the little sidekick Duck. Ilyas of course is an adorable inquisitive little boy with such profound thoughts but the absurd antics caught in the illustrations of Duck must surely tickle many a funny bone. So overall, the book was a win for me—accessible characters breaching a complex issue with the honesty and curiosity only a child can demonstrate with a touch of humor. Khawaja introduces readers to an Islamic perspective that demonstrates the universality of beliefs in a colorful and educational adventure.

I had the chance to ask Khawaja a few questions about his book, its purpose, and so forth, and am happy to share that exchange here.

Share a little bit about your book. What are the key themes and issues?

Ilyas & Duck Search for Allah
is about a boy's quest to find God. Ilyas is a typical 5 year old boy with an insatiable appetite for questioning the world around him. Duck is fun-loving, goofy and quick to help Ilyas satisfy his many curiosities. Because kids often think in literal terms, the story too begins with Ilyas thinking that he is able to find God in His physical form. This leads the two characters on an exciting adventure to various parts of the world to find Him. Along the way they meet interesting characters who ultimately help Ilyas and Duck understand the concept of God. The clear challenge in the story was to transform kids' literal interpretation of God into a more abstract and philosophical view that is both simple enough for kids to comprehend and consistent with the Islamic faith. 

What was the inspiration and/or motivation behind it?

Young kids ask the most simple yet profound questions about the world around them. Asking about God then is a natural part of this innocent wonder especially if God is referenced in the home over the course of a typical day. My three young kids are no different and ask more questions than I am equipped to effectively answer. So when my kids presented me with the question about God, I initially struggled to deliver an adequate response.  But as I thought about it I realized that a response to a profound question like this could only be meaningful to young minds if it was delivered in a way that they can relate to. I couldn't think of a better way to do that than through a storybook. So I can safely say that my own kids inspired me to write the book.

As part of my Multicultural Perspectives series, do you feel that Ilyas and Duck addresses or attempts to transcend cultural boundaries? In what ways?

In writing the story my goal was simply to help young kids understand the somewhat abstract concept of God.  And being a Muslim parent, I used "Allah" to refer to God because I was mainly directing the story to other Muslim parents. By using "Allah" in the story however, my intention was not to distance the Islamic view of God from that of other faiths. Rather I believe that given the universally applicable idea around the existence of our "creator" across all monotheistic religions, Ilyas and Duck do cross cultural boundaries by showing that we all believe in the same God regardless of how we refer to Him.  In that sense, my hope is that people will realize that if they simply replace "Allah" with "God" or "Hashem" for that matter, that the message in the story about the existence of God remains consistent with their own belief.

What audience do you hope to reach? Why is a book like this important for the greater American and worldwide audience? What does it contribute?

I think there is such a huge gap in the market for quality books for young kids that communicate Islamic themes and values that I hope Ilyas and Duck will help fill this void and be appreciated by the tremendous global Muslim population. Beyond books though, I believe Ilyas and Duck has the [global] potential... This is especially true considering the vast majority of cartoons that dominate television networks in the Middle East and other Muslim countries today originate mainly from the US, Europe and Japan. There is nothing wrong with that but I think there is room and demand nonetheless for characters that appeal more directly to the local cultures in these markets.
I have had conversations with people that clearly have very little understanding about the Islamic faith. Some believe that Muslims pray to a different God than do Christians and Jews. So to the extent that the use of "Allah" in the story sparks conversations that help dispel some of these misconceptions I think contributes in a positive way to a wider American and global audience.

Did you do any kind of research for the development of the story? 

I had to make sure that the core message in the story was appropriate and widely acceptable to my target audience. I started with my own simple understanding of what I thought Islam said about God. I summarized this in a rhyme within the story the ends with "But you can't see Allah like you can see me." The idea was to position the story through the understanding that you can't see God like you can see others but rather we see God through his amazing creations, and through them we believe Him to be true...  However, it wasn't enough to just have a good message if the delivery of that message was weak. This is where the many nights I spent reading wonderful storybooks to my kids played a role. Over time I had come to appreciate the finer points that made children's books effective for both children and parents and tried to apply this understanding when developing and writing this story.

Will Ilyas and Duck have other adventures?

I currently have two more stories in the works in the Ilyas and Duck series. I also am translating the current book into an interactive storybook app that I'm really excited about which should be available sometime in 2013.

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