Na’ima B. Robert is “Muslim, Black, mixed-race, South African, Western, revert and woman all in one”. Descended from Scottish Highlanders on her father’s side and the Zulu people on her mother’s side, she was born in Leeds and grew up in Zimbabwe. She went on to gain a first-class degree from the University of London. Having worked in marketing, the performing arts, and teaching, she is now an award-winning author and Editor-in-Chief of SISTERS, a magazine for Muslim women.
Na’ima is author of the best-selling book From My Sister’s Lips and has been published in The Observer, The Times and is a regular contributor to The Times Online Faith section.
The trailer for her new book can be viewed here.
You’re an author AND editor of SISTERS. What made you want to write?
I became Muslim in my second year of university, and then married in third year. I moved to South London in 2000 and began teaching in Brixton. After my son was born, I started a home school. As my son started growing, I wanted to spend more time with him but it was difficult with the home school that I was running. I then got the inspiration to write children’s stories and poems and sent them to several publishers, both Islamic and multicultural. The multicultural publishers loved it and I began my publishing career with one of the multicultural publishers. I eventually branched out with Tango Books and that was how I met my agent, an American from New York. I invited her to dinner in my home, because I cover and couldn’t uncover and enjoy dinner with her properly in a restaurant. When I met her, I told her about Islam, modesty and hijab. My agent then told me that she could get my first book published, From My Sisters’ Lips. I did a book tour in South Africa, where a lot of women were inspired by the book and then the idea for the magazine flowered.
I decided to move to Egypt about three and a half years ago, around the same time SISTERS began. I came to the UK in the summer to spend some time with a Somalian youth group and that’s where the idea for ‘From Somalia with Love’ came from.
I write books to deal with the issues affecting children and the youth. I want to reach out to young people. ‘From My Sisters’ Lips’ was a book that I could write at the time because of the state and position I was in at the time.
What inspired you to start SISTERS magazine?
The ethos of the magazine is: be beautiful, be gorgeous, be glam, but when you go out…just cover it up. There was no other alternative [magazine] for Muslim women out there.
Prior to writing your new teen novel, Boy vs. Girl, you wrote another book aimed at teens – From Somalia, with Love. What made you want to write teen novels?
Young children are emphasised in the West to read. I know what kind of novels they read, Harry Potter, Twilight, all the vampire romance stories. There were no alternatives to represent Muslim teens. Girls are more emotionally susceptible to reading, especially romance. Girls’ books are constantly about boys and romance and it’s around the age of 13-16 years where girls have self-esteem issues and therefore want to be able to identify with emotional feelings, to feel wanted. It’s not easy being a teen, because these books feed the nafs and their desires, and their need to feel beautiful about themselves. Stylish hijabs and being a ‘hijabista’ show that one should be beautiful to the outside world, despite covering – somewhat of a paradox.
We need to be careful of the messages being portrayed to young girls, and being a ‘fashionable hijabi’ says that one can be covered and still have ‘it’, which is the opposite of being a humble, modest Muslim woman.
What inspired you to write this book? Is it based on a true story?
After writing ‘From Somalia, with Love’, the Pakistani culture felt suitable to write about. However, it was MUCH harder, much more challenging than writing about Somalian culture. I was interested in seeing the double standards between how boys are raised and how girls are raised, for example, boys going out at night and no one questioning them as to where they’re going and with whom, whereas with girls, they need to have a chaperone.
In reality, it should be the other way around. I find the carefree attitude towards boys to be a crime. They’re totally left to their own devices and to their own peril. They end up going towards gang culture, pornography, etc. When I was writing ‘Boy vs. Girl’, I realised the original story was set 10 years back. I really wanted to focus on parents who were brought up in the UK, aged around the mid-40s. I wanted to make Faraz (the male protagonist) a dynamic character. I also wanted to bring Malik (one of the characters in the story) to the fore and show that the heroine, Farhana, could do the right thing. However, being very cautious of appearing to glamourise the wrong, I needed to do my bit to enjoin the good.
Boy vs. Girl touches on some very sensitive issues, such as gang culture and drugs. Do you think that Muslims who are involved in gangs themselves would want to pick up a copy of this book?
I’m not quite sure. It depends on how much they read.
This book is a way of flagging up to the older generations that their sons are not safe out there. Faraz is vulnerable and his parents don’t know about his passion for art and his unsuitable friends. Teenagers lead a double life and parents are completely clueless about it.
The book also touches on a deeply religious character, Najma, having a very extrovert personality amongst her own family and friends. Do you think many readers will find this to be a realistic portrayal of a woman in niqab? Or do you think it will dispel some of the theories and stereotypes that people generally hold about ‘strict’ Muslims?
The whole point of Najma was not to be a boring person, but to be like every other niqabi out there. She was brought in to show that being a niqabi or even just deeply religious doesn’t mean that one loses their personality. I wanted to subvert the stereotype and show that she wasn’t the type to constantly give lectures. It was important to make her appealing, understanding and fun. It’s probably not what people are expecting. Najma reflects the ideal scenario.
The female protagonist, Farhana, faces some family criticism when she chooses to wear hijab. What advice would you give to women who are currently going through the process of covering themselves and having difficulty with parents/family/friends accepting this change?
Farhana became pensive and quiet when she first started wearing hijab, but I didn’t want her to lose her personality, particularly since she is an outspoken, A-grade student at school.
For sisters who are going through the same process, keep reminding yourself of your intention. Covering must be for the sake of Allah. When it comes to the crunch, your friends won’t be there. You have to be patient with your parents, but stay strong. Make lots of du’a, because Allah is in charge of everything and everyone. We must turn to Him. It’s a real Tawheed and ihsaan thing. It’s important to realise that we will face problems and trials when following the Straight Path and that it’s part of the deen to be tested. Bottom line: stay strong and humble.
Some may criticise your choice on writing fiction with the opinion that fiction is haraam and the fact that the front cover has a picture of a girl with her awrah uncovered. What would you have to say to that?
With regards to fiction, I’m not going to get into the religious discussion. In an ideal world, there would be no need for fiction. But I took the decision for writing fiction because children are reading it already and I felt I had to provide alternative fiction. I wanted to get into the children genre and subvert everything by bringing in reminders and reflect what kids are going through. When it comes to fiction, there are different grades of it, from trash to learning from the books. We learn about history and facts from non-fiction books, but I find that stories tell a lot about the culture of a particular era.
These books [Na’ima’s novels] humanise Islam and Muslims. We are under so much scrutiny and pressure [in the media], but Muslims who are out there writing don’t always write about Muslims in the true light. Everyone has a haraam element in their life; it’s what you do about them that make the difference. Therefore, it would be unrealistic to write a book about a perfect Muslimah as the majority of readers can’t relate to that. The Muslim narrative shows what’s really happening with the deen, it tells people that they can write their own narrative. Additionally, you can tell a lot about an author from what they write.
As for the front cover, it wasn’t my choice and I’m not in a position to veto. I tried to avoid it as much as possible, but the publishers went ahead with it. It’s a regret of mine and if I had my way, I wouldn’t have it there at all.
Some of my favourite parts of the book were when some of the daily issues that every Muslim child goes through were brought up…such as the generation and cultural gap between parent and child, the moon sighting debate, the gluttonous attitude towards Ramadan, treating segregation of sexes as a minor issue, culture coming before Islam, etc. I felt this book raised several important issues. But the main one that struck a chord with me was the differences in thinking between the parents and the children. What advice would you give to children who are going through that? And any advice to parents who want to understand their children better?
This book is a way to tell parents that they must allow children to be real with them. Even if they don’t talk to you, they shouldn’t feel that their children aren’t up to anything bad.
I’m not sure if book would bridge the parent-child gap. It wouldn’t, because those issues aren’t resolved in the book and it was not my original intention. Najma gets married, but the racism factor in the book remains unresolved. It [the book] may not solve the problems, but it’s good to discuss them with family and raise these issues to bring the answer forward.
I find that with traditional women, the mother is the role of a care-taker. They may not be up-to-date with their kids’ lives, such as school, friends, Internet, and the cultural divide is there. It appears that getting to know them doesn’t seem to be part of a mother’s role.
Is there a happy ending for Malik and Farhana?
I liked Malik. He’s a good guy all around and not a player. He loves Farhana for real. When he sees her in hijab, he’s genuine and he respects what she stands for and why she’s doing what she’s doing. The ending was ambiguous to give some hope for Farhana. But she’s still young, only 16-17 years old, so who knows what could happen?
I have a couple of other questions…if there was one turning point that led you to convert to Islam, what was it?
The woman in Egypt wearing hijab. She was beautiful but she covered and it led me to question the superficiality behind beauty and I delved further into learning about Islam as a result of it.
I have a weakness for world literature. I read very few novels and only read them for research. If I want to read about a people or a time or place, then that’s the only time I read fiction. For example, if one wanted to learn about Regency society, they would read Jane Austen.
I also enjoy reading non-fiction, biographies, social commentary. A recommendation would be ‘Toxic Childhood’ by Sue Palmer.
I am a strong believer in reading widely. My father did his PhD from Oxford University and would encourage reading widely and well. I love reading Islamic history, too, especially Road to Mecca.
I’d like to add that if you’re already a reader of fiction, then I challenge you to read non-fiction. Non-fiction challenges certain faculties of the brain in a way that fiction doesn’t.
I also have a library at home, where I’ve built up my collection of books over the years. It keeps growing.
What are your favourite chocolates?
I do not like bid’ah (innovatory) chocolates!! Any chocolates that have nuts, raisins, caramel, biscuit or any other crazy combination are not nice. Plain chocolates such as Dairy Milk and Belgian chocolates are suitable.
You must be a very busy person…how do you relax in your own time?
I don’t believe in being superwoman. Something’s got to give. People make their own choices. The hardest thing for me to do is to find time to write. I do my SISTERS work when the children are at school and I have a helper for washing, etc. I love cooking but I try to maintain a balance with 4 children.
I believe that Allah (subhaanahu wa ta’ala) blesses your time. Allah (subhaanahu wa ta’ala) makes it easy. I’m not organised or super-disciplined at all, but I am very driven. I do, however, sleep very little.
Right now, I want to work on my own private study. I’m going to take a writing hiatus for a little while to perfect my Arabic, insha’Allah.
I do have 3 more books in the pipeline. ‘My Halal Love Story’ is a trilogy and it shows that getting married is not the end of it.
Finally, what advice would you give to budding writers?
Read a lot. Read widely and well. Also read critically. If a story is blatantly about an adulterous relationship, don’t read it, because you’ll be drawn into it and it’s better to stay away from stuff that compromises your beliefs and principles.
Write, write and write some more. Write whatever you want. Keep reading. If you don’t read, your vocabulary will become limited. Part of good writing is the ability to express oneself. Being able to express yourself well can never be in vain. It’s important to arm children with that skill.
Writing requires more work than reading will. Also, keep a happy, inspirational journal – one with happy thoughts or eureka moments.
The first time I wrote about an encounter between a Muslim girl and boy in my book ‘From Somalia, with Love’, I flinched. It was too real, the emotions too disturbing, too difficult to deal with. I considered re-writing. I considered leaving it out. I considered glossing it over. But then I decided, no, this is reality. Yes, it is fictionalised, but its roots are firmly fixed in the reality of the human experience. This is what it feels like to be young and impressionable, shy and slightly lacking in confidence – and have a boy tell you that you’re special.
I flinched when writing it and I flinched when reading it once the book was done. But I read on. I could not afford to flinch. We cannot afford to flinch.
Indeed, tackling the issues that face our youth, as any youth worker will tell you, requires us to be unflinching. It requires unflinching honesty and an acknowledgement that things will not always be as they should be. It requires an acknowledgement of our flaws, of our weaknesses, of our humanity.
This can be difficult for Muslims. We are, after all, striving towards an ideal – to be the ‘ideal Muslim/Muslimah’ who does the fara’id, stays away from haraam and, generally, upholds the ideals of Islam.
We do not want to acknowledge the aspects of our existence that do not fit with where we should be. And we certainly don’t want to acknowledge them in our children, in young Muslims. These young people, we reason, have been raised with Islam in the home, they have been taught tawheed from birth, they have always covered, never mixed with the opposite gender, never seen alcohol, cigarettes, drugs being consumed, been taught to love the Sunnah and to love Islam. This is what we say.
So, when these kids start to explore their own identities and use their own filters, we start to see them making different choices from the ones we trained them to make. We see them wanting to cut their hair into mohicans, get piercings in unusual places, download Beyonce onto their iPods and quote Lady Gaga in their Facebook updates.
These are kids who, in spite of everything we’ve taught them, insist on getting themselves into trouble: they miss their salah when out with their friends, they cuss, they come home past curfew, they wear tight clothes, they flirt, they have crushes and, today, they are engaging in premarital sex.
The article on anger among young Muslims in America on MuslimMatters got me thinking. According to the statistics quoted, 99% of Muslim children are in public school. Can you imagine what that must be like for them? The total disconnection between what (some of them) are taught at home and the rest of the society that they live in? How do they negotiate this dichotomy? How do they strike a balance between these conflicting influences?
And what do we as adults do to help them through this difficult growth period?
We do our best to ignore it: we stick our heads in the sand about the unsavoury friends, the girls on the IM, Fifty Cent. Why? Because admitting that these things are a fitnah for our children, in spite of everything we’ve taught them, is tantamount to admitting that we have failed as parents, as elders, as examples.
But denial only serves to exacerbate the problem. The youth don’t need our judgement, much of which only serves to push them further away from Islam; they need our support and understanding. They need our honesty. They need us to keep it real.
There are those who manage to keep it real. Those who choose to actively engage with the youth, on their level, addressing their issues. These are the unflinching ones, the ones with the courage to admit that there is a problem and that it’s going to take more than a couple of khutbahs to address it. These are the youth workers, the speakers, the teachers, the brother/sister that the kids know they can go to for advice without judgement.
These are the people to whom I dedicated ‘Boy vs. Girl’.
I like to think that, in some small way, I am one of these people, bi’idhnillah.
Because when I write for young people, I write with an agenda, with a particular niyyah. Many Young Adult (YA) authors claim not to be trying to ‘say’ anything in their work, but I doubt that is true. Some of who you are, what you believe, what you hold dear, will filter through into your work. This is certainly the case with me. My Islam and my views about life and youth and adversity are laid bare in every book I write. I cannot write otherwise.
So, where am I going with all this? I guess I am trying to illustrate the context of my writing ‘From Somalia, with Love’ and my new book, ‘Boy vs. Girl’. In ways that (I hope) are subtle and nuanced, I wanted to address some of the issues faced by our youth and suggest an alternative way of dealing with them, a way that is nourished by imaan. The truth is, almost every YA title out there addresses issues that teens face to varying degrees. However, Muslim teens face the usual ‘growing pains’ issues as well as other issues that arise from their religious and cultural identities. It is these issues that I tried to address.
In ‘Boy vs. Girl’, the challenges faced by the second-generation Pakistani protagonists are many. From low self esteem, and inter-generational misunderstandings to the lure of the gang and forbidden love, Faraz and Farhana have a lot to contend with as they embark on their first ‘true’ Ramadan. Will they manage to withstand the pressure from their peers and stick to their new Islamic identities? At what cost? These are the book’s central dilemmas.
I hope that the struggles faced by both Faraz and Farhana will resonate with anyone reading ‘Boy vs. Girl’ – and that they will be strengthened and uplifted by their journey and its telling.
As I begin work on the next book in this genre, I only hope that I am managing to capture just a little of what it is to be young and Muslim today – and that I am able to offer just a quantum of solace, a little comfort, a bit of compassion to make the journey that little bit easier. Allahumma ameen.
All good is from Allah and any mistakes are from myself and the Shaitaan.
A book review of ‘Boy vs. Girl’ is coming soon, insha’Allah.