Rukhsana Khan: Uniting world through children

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Updated 18 December 2013

Rukhsana Khan: Uniting world through children

Her stories unite young child readers, from all religions and culture backgrounds, perhaps that is the reason her book Big Red Lollipop has been selected as one of the 100 greatest books by the New York Public library, and has found a permanent place in there.
Rukhsana Khan, Internationally acclaimed Author of some of the Best selling children's books like Big Red Lollipop, Wanting Mor and others. She in her own way tries to spread positivity through humor laced stories, some about Muslims in young minds.
A tete with this gentle and god fearing Author reveals life's challenges and victories which never come easy and behind this successful women is her man! Changing the proverb along too.

How was your childhood? Was there anyone back then, who read out or told you stories?
I had a very difficult childhood. My father decided to leave Pakistan when I was six months old because he wanted his children to grow up without a lot of wrong cultural thinking. We were the only Muslim family in a very small town in Canada in the 1960’s and ‘70’s.
It was very hard to stay Muslim and there was lots of racism. The children in my class used to tell me that I was brown because I was dirty. I went home and took five baths a day to try to make my skin white and ‘clean’.
My father always stressed education when we were growing up, but he also wanted us to keep our Muslim identity. Sometimes he’d work sixteen hours in the day and he’d still come home and read us Qur'an. My parents are also natural storytellers. They’re very funny! They would tell us stories of when they were growing up, and they constantly talked to us about what we were going through.

From being a biological chemical technician to an award winning International writer, what brought about this major shift?
When I was thirteen years old, my English teacher told me I should become an author when I grew up, but I thought it was impossible. I thought authors were white people, from England and America.
My teacher’s suggestion started me dreaming about it. I even tried writing a picture book about a worm named Waldo, and it was eventually sent to a New York publisher. When it was rejected, I thought, “See? I can’t do it!”
I thought I should be sensible. Become a scientist! Then it doesn’t matter how you dress, or what color skin you have.
My parents, like most Pakistani parents, always emphasized sciences and maths, so they were pleased when I decided to become a biological chemical technician. And if I’d made a good living as a biological chemical technician I wouldn’t have pursued my real dream of being an author.
I graduated at the top of my class but was the last person to get a job because by this time I was married and wearing hijab and sometimes the interviewer would take one look at me and tell me the job was filled.
I finally did get a job but it was only twenty cents more than minimum wage and it took an hour and a half to get to work every day. It wasn’t worth it. When my first daughter was born, I decided it was more important to stay home and take care of her, and while taking care of her, I began writing again.
And while I was writing I noticed how many young people were abandoning their Islamic identity. There were no stories that validated their experiences. I wanted to write stories that would humanize Muslims. Show that we have good stories too, so that we can earn our place in society and be proud of who we are.

Very few of your age can come this far, in being successful and handling the family along, how do you reminisce it now at this point?
I think I’ve had a very condensed life. I can’t seem to find many places in my life that wasted time. Even the years that I was working to get published, I don’t consider any of that time wasted because it was necessary to learn how to write well.
I have two Islamic priorities: my family and my work. I do believe taking care of my family is taking care of the trust that Allah has bestowed on me, and if I do so properly, then I will be serving Allah, and working for my family can even be considered an act of ibadat (worship).
I write books that will tell good stories, encourage good relations between different cultures and convey good morals, then my books can also be considered a means of serving Allah and an act of ibadat (worship). That is my intention.
A good friend of mine once warned me, he said, “Be careful your words will either bear witness for you or against you on the Day of Judgment.” And I remember that always!
I want my words to bear witness for me, not against me!

On your biggest support system?
My biggest support system is definitely my family! Especially my husband.
I got married very young. I was seventeen when I got married to a good Muslim man who fears Allah as I do.
I remember years ago, one night my husband asked me to tell my deepest dream. I was scared he would laugh. He assured me he wouldn’t, so I told him, “I want to be an internationally famous children’s author.” I waited for him to laugh but he didn’t. In fact, without even hesitating he said, “I believe you can do it.”
And even though the writing classes cost money and it meant he had to watch our daughters one night a week, he encouraged me to take the classes and workshops.
By this time I had a total of five books under contract. And he said to me, “I knew you could do it.”
I asked him, “How did you know? Was it my talent?” he said. “It was the fact that you didn’t give up.”
And when I thought about it, I knew he was right.
There are lots of people with talent. To get published, to make it as an author, you have to have more than talent, you have to never give up. perseverance! In the beginning, it’s more important than talent.
Also, my children were very supportive and provided good criticism of my stories. I would often read them a story to see their reaction. If they started to fidget or get restless, I knew I had a lot of work to do. If they just said, “That’s nice Mom.” I also knew I had a lot of work to do. I encouraged them to be honest with me. It really helped.

Tell us how your affair with writing began, and about your first commercial success?
My love of writing really came about because I wasn’t always finding books I loved to read any more. I wanted books that reflected my own reality. I was sick and tired of books written by non-Muslims that showed us Muslims as barbaric savage terrorist types!
My first commercial success was my novel Wanting Mor. Up till then I was earning more money from school presentations than from the actual books.
Wanting Mor is set in Afghanistan and based on a true story. It’s been published in the U.S. and Canada, Japan, Australia and New Zealand, Italy and in India. (In fact I’m going to India in November to launch the book there and I went to Italy in 2009 to launch the book because it was selling so well alhamdu lillah!) It’s also just been sold to Sharjah in the UAE, to be published by Kalimat publisher in Arabic.

How important is it to imbibe cultural tolerance among children from a young age?
I think it is extremely important to encourage children to be tolerant of other cultures! I think it is respecting the tradition of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) to do so, and definitely it says in the Quran for the believers not to laugh at people in other faiths lest they turn around and ridicule Allah and the Messenger (Peace be upon him).
We need to teach our children to learn about and respect the religious observances of other faiths as well.
In fact I’ve often felt humbled at the tolerance and good will that non-Muslims have shown me. In fact, my non muslim hosts have taken great pains to accommodate my religious beliefs and observances! At one event they even sat me with all the people who didn’t drink alcohol so I’d feel comfortable!
My hope is that when people get to read my stories they are really in effect getting to know their Muslim neighbors and it will help to create more peace and harmony in the world. But the effort has to go both ways.

On understanding a child’s psychology, are your grand kiddies helpful in any way while writing for the present generation?
My creative process doesn’t look that much at other children, even my grandchildren. Sometimes they will influence me slightly with regards to a story, but mostly the stories I write are from my own childhood or even adult experiences. But I do read to my grandchildren—a LOT! And I watch and see what kind of stories they like best.
But the stories I write, they’re more about myself. They’re stories about things I might be even wrestling with today.

About your book, Big Red Lollipop making its way into the New York Public library’s 100 greatest children’s books list, how does it feel, what all has gone into this success?
The New York Public Library is the third biggest library system in the world. For them to recognize my book… to have my work listed in the company of some of the most excellent children’s books in the world…books that I loved while growing up, books that kept me going through difficulty and hardship …it brings tears to my eyes!
Imagine working and struggling for more than 24 years on your craft, on becoming excellent in writing—or at least trying to be excellent. Imagine being passed over many times for awards and recognition, and coming to terms with that. Believing Allah gives to whom He pleases.
Having just enough success over those 24 years to keep going but not enough to say that you’ve actually ‘made it’ and then finally,having this kind of honor!
There were so many times during those 24 years when I thought of giving up my dream, just going back to being a wife and mother.
And now I feel like the first step has been accomplished where people are more likely to take note of my writing. Getting really good stories into the hands of eager young children, all kinds of eager young children, Muslim and non-Muslim is all i wish.

What else does Rukhsana Khan do beyond writing books laced with humor?
When I am not writing I do presentations at schools, festivals and conferences in North America and around the world.
Over the last fifteen years, I’ve been honing my skills as a storyteller. I’ve gathered folktales from around the world as part of my repertoire. I’ve been featured at storytelling festivals around the world and developed my skills as a public speaker.
And I’ve developed excellent educational presentations designed for school children from very young students to high school students. All my presentations are geared towards addressing aspects of curriculum. The children learn even as they are being entertained.
In 2008 the International Board on Books for Young People (IBBY) was holding their biannual congress in Copenhagen, Denmark. This was soon after the Danish cartoon incident.
IBBY is the largest organization for children’s literature in the world and has a membership of about 65 different countries.
I approached the organizers to do a session on freedom of speech versus cultural sensitivity in light of the Danish cartoon incident. It became one of the major plenary/keynote sessions in the congress!
My speech was received so well in fact that it was turned into an article for the most prestigious children’s literature journal in America and I was asked to give the speech on two subsequent occasions.

Your upcoming books?
I’m very excited to say that Kalimat Publishing is publishing my novel Wanting Mor in Arabic.
Wanting Mor is my tenth book, a novel based on a true story of an Afghan girl. It won the Middle East Award in Texas and was shortlisted for thirteen other awards around the world. It’s been published in Canada, the U.S., Italy, Australia, New Zealand, Japan and India, and now U.A.E.
Also I have another picture book coming out in January called King for a Day. It’s published by Lee & Low.
I still have so many more stories in me to write! And so much that I want to do with my writing! In many ways it feels like I’m only beginning!

Email: [email protected]

Rare silk Qur’an helps preserve Afghanistan’s cultural heritage

Updated 23 May 2018

Rare silk Qur’an helps preserve Afghanistan’s cultural heritage

  • Each of the Islamic holy book’s 610 pages was produced by hand in a painstaking process that took a team of 38 calligraphers and artists specializing in miniatures nearly two years to finish
  • Turquoise Mountain began work in 2006 in Kabul with the aim of preserving ancient Afghan craftsmanship, including ceramics, carpentry and calligraphy

KABUL: One of the only Qur’ans ever made from silk fabric has been completed in Afghanistan — a feat its creators hope will help preserve the country’s centuries-old tradition of calligraphy.
Each of the Islamic holy book’s 610 pages was produced by hand in a painstaking process that took a team of 38 calligraphers and artists specializing in miniatures nearly two years to finish.
Bound in goat leather and weighing 8.6 kilograms, the Qur’an was produced by Afghan artisans, many of them trained at British foundation Turquoise Mountain in Kabul.
“Our intention was to ensure that calligraphy does not die out in this country — writing is part of our culture,” Khwaja Qamaruddin Chishti, a 66-year-old master calligrapher, said in a cramped office inside Turquoise Mountain’s labyrinthine mud-brick and wood-paneled complex.
With the Qur’an considered a sacred text, calligraphy is highly venerated in Islam and Islamic art.
“When it comes to art we cannot put a price on it. God has entrusted us with this work (the Qur’an) ... and this means more to us than the financial aspect,” Chishti continued.
Using a bamboo or reed ink pen, Chishti and his fellow calligraphers spent up to two days carefully copying Qur’anic verses onto a single page — sometimes longer if they made a mistake and had to start again.
They used the Naskh script, a calligraphic style developed in early Islam to replace Kufic because it was easier to read and write.
The decoration around the script, known as illumination, was more time-consuming, each page taking more than a week to complete.
A team of artists used paint made from natural materials, including ground lapis, gold and bronze, to recreate the delicate patterns popular during the Timurid dynasty in the 15th and 16th centuries in the western city of Herat.
“All the colors we have used are from nature,” Mohammad Tamim Sahibzada, a master miniature artist who was responsible for creating the vibrant colors used in the Qur’an, said.
Sahibzada said working on silk fabric for the first time was challenging. The locally sourced material — all 305 meters (1,000 feet) of it — was treated in a solution made from the dried seeds of ispaghula, or psyllium, to stop the ink from spreading.
Turquoise Mountain began work in 2006 in Kabul with the aim of preserving ancient Afghan craftsmanship, including ceramics, carpentry and calligraphy.
It hopes the silk Qur’an will generate demand for more handmade Islamic religious texts that could create employment for its artisans and help finance the institute.
“We will show it to other Islamic countries to see if it is possible to create job opportunities for graduates to work on another Qur’an,” said Abdul Waheed Khalili, the organization’s Afghan director.
For now, it will be kept in a specially made hand-carved walnut wooden box to protect its delicate pages from the elements at Turquoise Mountain’s offices, which are in the restored Murad Khani, a historic commercial and residential area in Kabul’s oldest district.
There Turquoise Mountain has trained thousands of artisans with the support of Britain’s Prince Charles, the British Council, and USAID.
“The copying of the Qur’an onto silk is very rare,” country director Nathan Stroupe said.
He said the project has been “an amazing way to train our students at an incredibly high level in a very traditional type of work.”
“If a book collector in London... was interested in it, we would be thinking in the $100,000 to $200,000 (price) range,” he added.