It’s normal for a soon-to-be parent to buy their baby’s first book when it’s barely begun gestating. What’s abnormal is the one I chose: From Far Away, one of Robert Munsch’s lesser-known books, which was based on a letter he received from a young Canadian refugee of Lebanon’s civil war.
Yes, it’s a dark choice, but as I flipped through it in the mall bookstore, I could only think about my own childhood in small-town Alberta. I wondered why no one—not a teacher, librarian, or parent—had ever thought to put this book in my palms. Surely, it was in one of those Scholastic book brochures the school sent home with me. It may have even been there all along, on the local library’s shelf, while I scoured them for paranormal creepiness.
I suppose one reason is that, by the time I finally became a reader, in the seventh grade (and a light one at that), I was too old for Munsch. Another reason is that I didn’t know books about us existed until setting off for college to learn filmmaking. Most of all, we were “TV people,” which relates to the first two reasons and explains why my gateway to books was The X-Files.
The first books I remember my parents buying me may have actually had the “As Seen on TV” designation. They were purchased from an 800 number on a commercial my mom saw on one of the Arabic channels dad illegally siphoned from the sky with contraband satellites. It was an un-Islamic method of purchasing Islamic picture books for English-speaking kids, but I suppose God has his ways.
Looking back, I could see my mom was trying with extreme limitations. It wasn’t just isolation in her new homeland; neither of my parents made it to high school, and until text messaging and Facebook came along, many years later, they only had a grasp of food- and business-related English. My parents were self-employed workaholics—restaurant owners—who became instantly distracted by their endless tasks the minute they set eyes on the written word, a gift and curse passed on to all three of their children.
My mom sometimes talked about Khalil Gibran, but only to the extent one could without ever touching his works. Mostly, she relied on what she knew by heart, Muslim folk stories passed on by other mamas and babas. That’s probably why I still held Islamic parables so close to my heart while drifting away from Islam itself drifted. Certainly it wasn’t because of those TV-advertised books.
By the time they arrived, I’d already decided those “books for us” weren’t books for me. I was glued to a screen, catching glimpses of our people from dubious sources, like True Lies, Disney’s Aladdin, and Spike Lee’s Malcolm X. My closest brush with Islamic poetry was rap music, which, as you could imagine, made for a confusing but somewhat amusing personality in our small rural town.
To understand my lineage, I relied on the same medium my parents did for updates on Lebanon’s political crises. (They’ve since given up and filled that airspace with singing competitions.) It’s not a coincidence that I ricocheted into a journalism career after film school. It’s only a result of this unintended career that I became not just a true reader, but a reader of books about us.
Naturally, I had to first wander through the nonfiction aisles, balancing my Dawkinses and Harrises with my Aslans and Saids, to eventually find my way to Gibran. These authors’ sweeping narratives electrified my mind, setting the loose pieces of my identity free to make better connections. But the books about us, about me—the books that actually sink my feet through the floor, make me forget about deadlines and deliverables—are the books I’m only now discovering, often in tandem with most English-language readers.
These are the books by a new class of Middle Eastern and North African novelists. I’m reading Omar El Akkad, Hala Alyan, Zaina Arafat, Mona Awad, Safia Elhillo, Laila Lalami, Noor Naga, and Dimitri Nasrallah. A century after Gibran established al-Rabita al-Qalamiyya, an Arab American writers’ collective better known as the Pen League, we might just be in another golden age of Arab American literature.
I don’t want my son and daughter to miss out on this moment. So tonight, I read to them not just books about us but books by us, now never more easily discoverable in the Internet Age. I might read Far From Away, or keep it light with Ilyas & Duck, whose protagonist even shares my son’s name—imagine that!
It took more than half my life to become a true reader of books, longer to feel “seen” by them. That’s baggage my children shouldn’t be burdened to carry.
Omar Mouallem lives in Edmonton and is the author of Praying to the West: How Muslims Shaped the Americas (Simon & Schuster).