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When Omar S. Khawaja set out to write his first book, he didn’t do it with the intention of becoming an author. He just wanted to explain an abstract concept to Daamin, his oldest child.

“How do you tell a five-year-old where Allah is?" asks Washington-based Khawaja. 

“It wasn’t the easiest question for me to answer, but as I tried, my drawn-out explanation seemed to provoke an endless stream of follow-up questions that I was even less equipped to answer," he says with a laugh. 

Knowing well how effective stories were in communicating thoughts, ideas and experiences, Khawaja looked around for suitable children’s books but all he found were preachy, repurposed stories from the Quran. 

“There were books about what Allah does, but none answered the where and why about his presence," he says. Unable to find the right book in the market, Khawaja decided to write one himself.

His first book, Ilyas & Duck Search for Allah (illustrated by Leo Antolini), was published in 2012, sold over 10,000 copies and is his most popular so far. It tells the story of six-year-old Ilyas and his best friend, Duck, who embark on a journey to find Allah. Along the way they meet animals who give them clues about Allah’s whereabouts and lead them to an answer that assuages their curiosity. 

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Khawaja feels his story is universal. “The only thing that makes it Islamic per se is the word Allah, which is just Arabic for god," he says.

The author doesn’t believe in writing stories that are sermonic or teach religion. With his characters, he wants to create experiences, entertain and strengthen the identity of Muslim children in the US. 

“I want them to build confidence in themselves, have a stronger sense of who they are and let that reverberate in their interactions with others and all that they do," he says. At the same time though, he wants his stories to extend into multicultural subjects.

His second book, Ilyas & Duck and the Fantastic Festival of Eid-Al-Fitr integrates Christmas and Hanukkah into the story, differentiating it from other children’s books written about Eid. “A lot of people picked up the book because of the interfaith theme," he says. 

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His first two books won the Moonbeam Children’s Book awards in 2014 and 2015. “For me it was really great to see how, a children’s book with ‘Allah’ in the title won a national children’s book award," says Khawaja.

“One reason why Americans have welcomed Ilyas and Duck stories is because of our collective desire to understand and learn from each other," he notes. “As Oprah Winfrey puts it, America is a salad bowl—referring to a medley of people with different cultures, backgrounds, and beliefs living side by side as neighbours."

Khawaja likens Ilyas and Duck to a variety of characters on mainstream American television. Just like Dora the Explorer identifies as Mexican, Maya and Miguel as Latinos and Kai-Lan of Ni Hao, Kai-Lan as Chinese, Ilyas and Duck are introducing culturally diverse content to kids. “They may not relate to a particular ethnicity but do have an identity of their own," he says.

With his third book, Ilyas & Duck in a Zakat Tale: A Story About Giving, Khawaja introduced the concept of obligatory charity to children. “With this book, I wanted to show the reciprocal nature of giving money to the poor and needy, and how in the end that benefits everyone in society," he says.

Khawaja has a full-time day job—as a director at KPMG Advisory in their financial risk management practice. But every night he puts on his writer’s hat. 

“I have read hundreds of books to my children, so I know what they enjoy about those stories and what I love reading to them as a parent," he says. 

Over a period of time, Khawaja amassed an understanding of what makes a good children’s book. “I knew it had to be great characters with relatable personalities, a good story and fantastic graphics," he says. “All of these factors attract kids to mainstream children’s books but they are largely missing in most Islamic-themed books." 

Born in Dammam, Saudi Arabia, Khawaja grew up on a diet of Daffy Duck, so when he was creating the characters for this series, he was sure he wanted one of the protagonists to be a silly duck. 

“I’m glad I spent time thinking about the characters and their personalities and then made sure those personalities are part of the stories," he says, adding, “That’s what kids love the most about the series." 

It was challenging, however, to find imaginative ways of providing meaning to a child through a story, especially because the concepts he selects are difficult to turn into innovative stories using limited rhyming vocabulary. 

Khawaja tests his books with his two sons, 12-year-old Daamin and 10-year-old Ali, and his daughter, seven-year-old Yasmeen. “My kids are in my business and I’m in theirs," he says, laughing. “They give me pointers all the time, which are quite helpful."

When he wrote his first book, Khawaja felt he had no choice but to self-publish. “There was very little interest from mainstream publishers in the US at that time to consider general diversity in children’s book characters, let alone Muslim characters," he says. 

But the growing movement of the social media campaign #WeNeedDiverseBooks in 2014 caught not only the public sentiment but also the interest of a few top publications like The New York Times, The Guardian and CNN. 

“I like to think the awareness of this issue had an impact because today the landscape of children’s literature has improved," he says. Publishers may slowly be beginning to satisfy the needs of young children of all backgrounds to see themselves reflected in books. 

Does he feel that the current political climate in the US could affect his work?

“Muslims in the US are certainly living in more challenging times than I can recall growing up," he says. “Although I’ve never been affected personally, I know the current political climate is very real for many everyday Muslims depending on where they live in the country." 

He recalls his friends’ kids being harassed in school and believes that the behaviour of the bullies could be attributed to what they hear at home or in the media. “This kind of harassment is learned behaviour," he says. 

He often worries whether his two kids in elementary school will feel included by their peers or his son in middle school will be mistreated, bullied or have difficulty making friends. “But quite honestly, as unique as these challenges may be, I think they are best handled like any other parental concern," he says.

Khawaja feels hopeful when he sees “neighbours of a local mosque come together to show love and support following a public backlash against Muslims". 

Changes such as when six public school districts, including New York City, approved Eid-al-fitr and Eid-al-Adah as school holidays encourage him. They prove that Muslims have found a place in the US’s social fabric, he feels.

“There are many examples like this all over the country. So I think that the current political climate, as bad as it seems, creates opportunities for my work and the work of others, with organizations that are more inclusive and open-minded," he says. 

He feels that the Muslim community should leverage such opportunities to counter the many misconceptions about Islam and Muslims. 

“We need to present Muslims in a positive light to offset the negative portrayals you often see in the media, TV, and movies," he says. “We must work hard to change hearts and minds of people because, quite frankly, I feel there is less empathy for Muslims these days simply because of the actions of a few bad actors that carry a demented view of the world and Islam."

“I hope my characters can serve as a vehicle to build confidence in young Muslim kids while offering their friends and neighbours an opportunity to better understand their Muslim classmates and playmates."

Priti Salian is a Bengaluru-based freelance journalist whose work has appeared in The Guardian, and Al Jazeera, among others.

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