DUBAI: Emirati mother of five Maitha Al-Khayat credits her children for inspiring her to write and illustrate books featuring local stories and traditions. Back in 2008, when her eldest child was six years old, Maitha, 41, says she struggled to find picture books representing the culture and lives of Emiratis. This frustration led her to write her first book, “I Love My Dad's Long Beard.”
“From the moment I published (my first) book, I felt I had found my true calling of spreading the love of reading through children's books. It also seemed to be the best way to preserve our rich culture and let the world know more about the UAE. I am very proud of my country and its people, (as I) always show in my books,” Al-Khayat tells Arab News.
Al-Khayat — who lives in Ras Al Khaimah — is now an acclaimed author and illustrator who has published over 170 works (ranging from children’s books to TV scripts) in both Arabic and English. She is also a member of the UAE Board on Books for Young People.
“I became a writer to fill a gap in the market. There were not enough children’s books about the UAE, or our region, reflecting its unique religious and traditional aspects,” she says. “I always try to write stories with a dash of humor so that kids have fun reading them and do not see them as preaching.”
After more than a decade in the publishing industry, Al-Khayat wants to inspire and educate budding writers. Three years ago, she launched a competition on Instagram with the hashtag #maithamonsters, encouraging children based in the Middle East to send in their monster drawings.
From several entries, Al-Khayat selected Saudi Arabia-based four-year-old Zainab Al-Naser’s sketch of the monster Naqson as the basis for the book’s central character.
“The participating children got so excited that I extended the contest by asking them to submit drawings of Naqson's brother, sister and parents. In the end, I drew the book based on the children's sketches, (so) they felt involved in the creative process,” she says.
Her latest, as yet untitled, project is a collaboration, with Al-Khayat illustrating fellow Emirati author Noura Al-Khouri’s story of Jerboa, a desert mouse, who gets a party invitation from his cousins and travels across the deserts, coastline, oases and mountains of the UAE to visit them.
“The characters sport anthropomorphic features. So, Jerboa’s ears are covered in a cap patterned just like the red-and-white ghutra,” says Al-Khayat. “The other animal characters too wear traditional garments. Noura wants to show children the UAE's geographical diversity and Emirati hospitality; especially how we respect and honor invitations.”
Most of Al-Khayat’s books tackle cultural themes. In 2010’s “My Own Special Way,” the young protagonist, Hamda, finds a unique way to get used to wearing a veil. In “When A Camel Gets The Munchies,” released in 2012, the author introduces readers to local culinary customs and Emirati hospitality through the story of a camel who visits a Bedouin girl.
Several of her stories revolve around regional modest fashion, with two of her books — “My Mum’s Pretty Veil” and “Grandma the Fashionista” — featuring characters who cover their face, as Al-Khayat chooses to do herself, thus familiarizing children with this aspect of Islamic culture. Another of her books, “Mum's Amazing Socks,” is about a woman’s children identify her in public, when she has her veil on, by checking the patterns on her socks. That story is inspired by an occasion when the school librarian failed to recognize Al-Khayat in her niqab, and Al-Khayat suggested she should look out for the colorful socks she always sports.
“I enjoy social interactions, yet I am a fiercely private person. Though the niqab was never imposed on me by my family, I felt it suited my personality,” Al-Khayat says. “My little boy always envies me, as I am the one who gets to wear a mask like his favorite superheroes.”