Profile | Rukhsana Khan
A new fiction series involving children in conflict zones starts off with a novel set in Afghanistan
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A daughter’s courage
“At the beginning of my presentation, people can only see the hijab,” says Pakistani-Canadian author Rukhsana Khan. “At the end of it, they remember me as a storyteller.”
We are sitting in the lobby of the India International Centre in New Delhi, where Khan, in her conservative attire, indeed stands out. Khan, who was in town last month to attend Bookaroo, the children’s literature festival, is the prize-winning author of several picture books, as well as a popular storyteller who travels all over the world to run workshops in schools. Her recent novel, Wanting Mor, has just been published by Duckbill in India as part of its recently launched “Not Our War” (NOW) series. Carolyn Marsden’s White Zone, set in Iraq, is next in line.
Rejected by her father and stepmother, Jameela finds shelter in an orphanage, though only after she has been taken in, and often exploited, by several strangers. The plot grips the reader by the sheer force of its emotions, not least because of the pun woven into the title (Mor means mother in Pashto), but never becomes cloyingly sentimental.
“I wrote the story in just five months in 2008,” says Khan. “I was on my way to Dundas, Ontario, to visit my parents when I heard a young girl’s voice say in my ears, ‘I thought she was sleeping.’” It turned out to be the opening sentence of Wanting Mor, ushering in the moment of Jameela’s life-changing discovery.
But Jameela’s story had its genesis among real people, in Kabul, where Khan set up a library in an orphanage. “The people running the home sent me a report on a girl called Sameela, whose father had remarried after her mother’s death and had left her to fend for herself,” says Khan. It was this incident that triggered the novel, into which Khan distils her long experience of working with children in conflict zones.
During the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Khan and her husband had sponsored a child called Kareem in a refugee camp in Peshawar. The story of Kareem, a blue-eyed, golden-haired and fair-complexioned boy, and his older brother, both scarred by the war, had inspired Khan’s early picture book, The Roses in My Carpets. “I decided to use the money I earned from it to fund more refugees,” she says. Eventually, instead of funding individuals, she decided to start the children’s home on her husband’s advice.
Though nothing compared to the horrors of war, Khan’s early life was challenging in its own way. Her family moved to Canada from Pakistan when she was 3 and her memories of growing up in the country in the 1960s, especially living in a part of town dominated by white affluent people, are less than cheerful. “At one point, in spite of making just $2.35 a week, my father refused to be put onwelfare,” she says. He took care of a family of six, working doggedly at one job after the other, bullied by racist colleagues, while his children faced rogue classmates in school.
Khan remembers other fathers who were less than exemplary. “The husband of a relative I lost to breast cancer fled, leaving their young children alone,” says Khan. “I asked my own father one day what had kept him going and he gave me an answer that I decided to put in Wanting Mor.” The passage she refers to uses the metaphor of a clay pot in a kiln to talk about the ennobling qualities of hardship and the importance of not giving up on faith.
Jameela, though saved by her intuitive common sense, is also an intensely religious girl, who prays dutifully each day and is morally censorious of women who wear make-up or are drawn to a life of hedonism. “Many readers may find it difficult to accept Jameela’s severe character,” says Khan, “but I was being honest, trying to see the world through the eyes of a girl from her background.”
In the course of the novel, Jameela’s perspective does soften a bit, though the core of her righteousness remains inviolable. Her worldview, informed as much by faith as by the early trauma of war, does not turn her into a rebel in any obvious way.
Born with a cleft lip, partly the reason she obsessively hides her face in a porani (shawl), she is operated on by a team of American doctors. The procedure bestows on Jameela a new identity, making her unrecognizable even to her own father. But the true source of her empowerment comes from her innately moral vision, not the way she looks: “If you can’t be beautiful, you should at least be good,” as she tells Arwa, an orphan, “People will appreciate that.”