Motherly Collective

Growing up as an Arab and Muslim in America, I saw two types of representation of myself: negative or nonexistent. I was 32 years old when I finally saw a character on a TV show who shared the same name as mine. I paused it. I replayed it. Aya. Just a regular character. Not an antagonist, no orientalism, not a stereotype. Just a normal character, going through life’s ups and downs. Wow, I thought, if I felt excited seeing this at the age of 32, imagine young kids seeing themselves, Arab characters, filled with joy, love, hope, in books

I am 36. I have been writing stories for decades. I went into journalism because of the lack of positive representation in the media. Then, after I had my own kids, I shifted to focus on children’s books. 

I didn’t want my kids—Arab, Egyptian, Muslim—to wait until they were in their 30s to see positive representations of themselves.

I want them to see and read stories with children who look like them, filled with joy and love, stories that celebrate our food, rich heritage and culture, music, holidays. But I also want them to be empathetic and to read books about difficult topics like race, racism, immigration, refugees, apartheid and discrimination. 

Over 8,000 Palestinians have been killed over the past few weeks by Israel, 4,000 of them children, who look like my children, my nephew, my friends’ children. I and many Arabs and Muslims in America are hurt, scared, angry and sad. We watch in horror as leaders refuse to call for a ceasefire, as friends, co-workers and neighbors go on about their days normally and not say a single word about this atrocity. 

We watch our community members lose dozens of family members in a single air strike. We go to sleep praying we wake up to some hopeful news. We wake up after a night filled with nightmares, and realize the people in Gaza are living through actual nightmares with no electricity, access to clean water, no anesthetics at the hospitals, no proper medical care, and the list goes on. 

But the kids are watching us. The kids know something is going on. They watch us cry throughout the day. They ask us what’s wrong when we space out when we’re in the middle of making a basic feta cheese and olive oil in pita bread, but we wonder why the bakeries in Gaza have been bombed. So we turn to books. 

The last time I felt this hopeless, sad, scared, was when the pandemic started in March 2020. I couldn’t turn to community, since everything was shut down. But I did turn to reading and writing. I read a book I wrote to virtual classes around the country. “The Arabic Quilt,” my picture book, which had just debuted a few weeks before, is about an Egyptian girl who’s trying so hard to fit in, and with the help of her teacher, realizes she doesn’t need to try so hard. 

I would write during the moments when my youngest, only a few months old at the time, was napping. I wrote a book that felt like a hug at the time. A hug that we all were yearning for. This past March, my book, “The Night Before Eid,” was published. It celebrates Egyptian and Arab history, food, intergenerational love, baking, music and so much more. 

We often turn to picture books to discuss difficult topics. My youngest is now 4, and we’ve been reading a few picture books together with my 8-year-old son and 10-year-old daughter that celebrate Palestinian joy, culture, resistance and love. 

We read “Homeland” and “These Olive Trees.” We read “Halal Hotdogs” and “We are Palestinian” and “Baba, What Does My Name Mean.” We’re not Palestinian, but we’re connected through stories and language. We continue to support, learn about and amplify Palestinian voices. We laugh reading these books—and we also cry.

My latest picture book, “The Great Banned-Books Bake Sale,” revolves around a girl who organizes a protest with her classmates. I tell my kids to always speak the truth, no matter what. That there will always be oppressed people, children, just like them, and there will be a time where we will have to make a choice, and sometimes it will be difficult, and many won’t believe us, but we have to be brave and say something. 

My kids have attended protests with us. They’re learning that their voices matter and they control their stories. They have the power to make change. They are unapologetic about who they are and I pray it continues that way. 

When I write my books, I make sure to have positive Arab and Muslim representation, because this is what I needed growing up, and what kids need today. But I also always aim to include some type of Arab or Muslim joy. My board book, “Our World: Egypt,” which is centered on a place where Arab men have been vilified for decades in the media, and still are today, I made sure to make the protagonists a girl and her Egyptian father enjoying the day together on the busy streets of a city in Egypt. 

I regularly do school author visits, and a few days ago, after my presentation, a little girl, who was maybe 6 or 7, came up to me and whispered: Do you speak Urdu? I said no, but I speak Arabic. She asked, louder: Are you a Muslim? I said, yes, I am. She put a huge grin on her face and said: I am too! 

That’s why representation matters. We have hope. We have community. We have love. We have resilience. We have stories. We will continue to tell our stories. 

As an Arab and Muslim mother in America, I refuse to let false narratives about us win. I will continue to write, read and amplify Arab stories, especially Palestinian stories filled with joy and love, even during these difficult times.

This story is a part of The Motherly Collective contributor network where we showcase the stories, experiences and advice from brands, writers and experts who want to share their perspective with our community. We believe that there is no single story of motherhood, and that every mother's journey is unique. By amplifying each mother's experience and offering expert-driven content, we can support, inform and inspire each other on this incredible journey. If you're interested in contributing to The Motherly Collective please click here.