Maitha Al Khayat is an Emirati children’s writer, illustrator, and storyteller based in Ras Al Khaimah. Al Khayat wrote her first book, I Love My Dad's Long Beard, because she struggled to find a children’s storybook that talked about Emirati culture and life. A story illustrating that fathers come in all shapes and sizes; and in the Middle East they often have long, special beards that can be the start of some very exciting adventures. The book was written for her children as her husband frequently travelled for business and they missed him terribly when he was away. She has written and illustrated 170 books to date.
An award-winning writer, her books have won many local and international awards including, Best Children’s Book at Riyadh Children’s Forum in 2011 and Publisher’s Association in 2016. Her books have also been translated into English, Turkish, and Italian.
We recently had the opportunity to speak with Maitha Al Khayat, one of the authors attending the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature 2021.
Saira Malik (S.M.): As an author how has the Covid-19 pandemic impacted your writing?
Maitha Al Khayat (M.A-K): I’m a mum, a children’s writer, illustrator, and storyteller. The pandemic affected me as it has affected others around the world. As a freelancer, when my children went to school, I would spend those mornings writing. I had all day to write, submit illustrations, and finish home errands at the same time. However, during the pandemic, I rarely had free time for myself because I had to help my children with distance-learning, and finish house errands in the evening.
And since I’m a storyteller, I wasn’t able to do onsite readings or creative workshops, so I had to do most of them online, which were free of charge at the beginning. But then it became stressful at times, especially when most family members were using our electronic devices at the same time. So I had to self-learn and become tech savvy, to pre-record my sessions, and edit my own videos. It has been a continuous learning curve for me and there is more room to explore my potential.
S.M.: Your stories each have a very relatable plot and theme, where do you get the inspiration from?
M.A-K: When I first started as a writer in 2008, most of my stories onward were based on my children. I had three at that time. There was always a funny incident, and cute and curious moments that I felt had to be seen in children’s books. As I became more engrossed in this career, I started getting requests to write within specific themes, or to write books that were lacking in the Arabic picture book industry. My children are teenagers now, so I find myself having the tendency to write Young Adult novels. I still have a toddler in kindergarten jumping around the house and growling like a dinosaur, and everytime he inspires me with new ideas, and these story-seeds I safely tuck in my notebook to water and plant into new stories when the right time comes.
S.M.: You have written countless books and won many awards, but which one of these titles is closest to your heart and why?
M.A-K: It’s a difficult question to ask a writer or illustrator this question, because each has its special place in my heart. But to be more specific, one of the books that really placed me on the map, and because of it, I became an international writer was, My Own Special Way. This book is about Little Hamda who wants to be like her four older sisters and wear a veil like them. The engaging plot is all a little girl’s journey of discovering the hijab, learning the different ways people wear it and embracing her own special way of wearing it. It’s published by Kalimat Group, and translated into English and Turkish. I’m so proud of this one, because it was only my second book and it kickstarted my career.
I’m also very proud of my latest achievement with Dubai Courts, for I have collaborated with them to illustrate Wadimah Law Book—that is based on a child protection legislation passed in remembrance of an 8 year-old-girl who was abused and killed in the UAE [this book is available and free to access online from Dubai Courts website, here]. This illustrated book that covers the topic of child abuse protection in a simple and easy to understand story explained by a teenager named Sultan to his younger sister Wadimah after he visits the Dubai courts and learns about the laws protecting children. It’s nearly 80 pages, fully illustrating the laws and rights of children in the UAE. To me it’s a very important book that helps children know their rights and protect themselves.
Another book that I applaud myself for is, Naqshon, as this story was written after holding a drawing competition on Instagram more than 3 years ago and the main character of the book was inspired by a cute drawing by the winning artist, Zainab Alnaser. Using the book, I will be hosting a live drawing session with children during the Literature Festival 2021. It’s published by Dar Ashjar, and it is also a book that is inspired by children’s drawings.
S.M.: What is your ultimate dream when it comes to children and their reading habits in this region?
M.A-K: My ultimate dream I guess would be what all childrens’ book writers dream of, which is to see children holding a book, not because they are told to do so or because they have to, but because they WANT to. When I was a child, I read books; I read them when I was happy, I read them when I was sad, I read them when I wanted to transport to somewhere beyond my imagination. That is where I found myself.
S.M.: You write in Arabic but your titles are translated to English and are read by children across the world, how do you make a local topic relatable to a global audience so successfully?
M.A-K: Actually my first book, I Love My Dad’s Long Beard, was written in English. My strongest language was English because my childhood years were spent in the United States and the United Kingdom. I struggled in Arabic a lot in my teenage life, and when I became a mother, I was afraid I would pass on this fear of my mother tongue to my children. When I published my first book in English, many of my family and friends wished it was in Arabic. This is when I decided to work on myself and get over my fear. Now in 2021, I have about 171 books that are mostly in Arabic. I feel so proud that my books are even used in schools to help students who have a hard time in learning the Arabic language. But to come back to your question, which is how to make local content intriguing for a global audience, I would say that it’s through humor. I feel fun and humor are part of a global language. If a book is fun and can also be translated, not only through language but through the illustrations as well, then I feel it’s definitely going to be intriguing to people all around the world. In my opinion, the more you entertain as a writer, the more effective the message. I never liked preachy books when I was a child, and I would stay away from doing that when I write for children whether in Arabic or English.
S.M.: What are your future goals as a writer?
M.A-K: You might find this strange but when I was a child, I never dreamed of becoming an international writer or illustrator. I was so much in love with movies and my father’s video camera in the 80s. Everytime I would read a book, I would gather my siblings and neighbours and direct them to act out the story while I filmed them. It was my dream to become a movie director. Currently, I’m working on improving my skills to write for the screen, maybe becoming a movie director is not that far-reaching in my career trajectory.
S.M: What message would you like to give to aspiring writers in the Arab world?
M.A-K: Take something you are passionate about and improve on it. Don’t rely on your talent, you have to push yourself by working hard on your skill and improving it. The only person who will stop you from getting what you want is you.
Words: Saira Malik
Images: Courtesy of Maitha Al Khayat