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Naheed Senzai on Celebrating Diversity

Counter Islamophobia through stories Naheed Senzai

Naheed Senzai is the  author of Shooting Kabul, Ticket to India and Saving Kabul Corner that examine the immigrant experience and connects them to the larger issues of war, belonging and assimilation. Naheed herself, grew up balancing life lived on the edge of two cultures, two languages and in two cuisines. 


Where did you grow up - How did you negotiate growing up Muslim in America? 

When I was four years old I moved to Jubail, Saudi Arabia from the San Francisco Bay Area, where my father, a civil engineer, was transferred for work. I attended boarding school in London for high school, then moved back to the San Francisco Bay Area when I started college.

Most of my childhood was spent in a Muslim country, Saudi Arabia, within an international community where being Muslim was normative. My transition back to the San Francisco bay area was fluid, as it’s blessed to have a diverse population representing a variety of ethnic groups, cultures and religions (and deliciously, a variety of amazing foods)

What inspired you to become a writer?

While growing up, I had access to wonderful librarians and a huge variety of books – both fiction and non-fiction. I was continually amazed how a bunch of pages could magically transport me to new worlds. I met characters whose shoes I could “walk in”, allowing me to visit a marvelous chocolate factory, journey from slavery to freedom or journey into space to find a long-lost father. As a child, I was fascinated by how authors could produce such wonder, simply stringing words together, and one day I hoped to write a book myself. 

What inspired you to write about Muslim characters?

Growing up, the only contemporary American novel I came across with a Muslim character was Harry, in Sport, by Louise Fitzhugh. He was black, proud and smart as a whip – finally reflecting someone who was similar to me – a minority and a Muslim.

As a writer, I first wanted to create similar “mirrors” for Muslim kids – to see valued characters and stories that reflected their life experiences. And for kids who had never met a Muslim, my goal was to build “windows” where they could “walk in” the shoes others and befriend people, places and lifestyles different from their own, and hopefully realize that they were more similar than different.   

RELATED: Read an excerpt from Shooting Kabul here 

What is the one misconception about Muslims that you could wave your magic wand and banish forever? 

The word Islam is derived from the root word, salaam, which means peace and safety. Today, sadly, Islam is hardly linked to either word. Islam and Muslims, particularly after 9/11, have been portrayed in the public eye, media, film and literature, as a people prone to violence.

In a vicious cycle, those fearing Muslims have turned to violence themselves, as Islamophobia is on the rise. At the root of this fear is ignorance; with my magic wand, I would erase ignorance and encourage a safe place to build peace. 

Check out Naheed's books in our Muslim Kids as Heroes Book list

What is your favorite story from Islamic traditions?

As a child, I was fascinated by the story of Lailat al Miraj, where the Prophet Muhammad is visited by the angel Gabriel, who provides him with a winged steed, the Buraq. Flying upon its back, the prophets goes on a miraculous night journey, which is both physical and spiritual.

From Mecca, the prophet traveled to Jerusalem, then into the heavens where he prays with the prophets that came before him – Abraham, Moses, John the Baptist and Jesus. The story evoked great magic and imagery for me, engendering a cosmic connection between the earth and heavens. It also initiated a love of fantasy and science fiction. 

What is your biggest inspiration from Islam?

While studying American history, the photographs of immigrants arriving to Ellis Island, have stayed with me – they came from all corners of the world, and still do, to find their American dream, reminding me of a verse from the Quran:

 O mankind! We created you from a single (pair) of a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes, that ye may know each other (not that ye may despise (each other). Verily the most honored of you in the sight of Allah is (he who is) the most righteous of you.

America is a grand experiment, unique in its composition – besides the Native Americans, we are all from somewhere else. Looking at the hopeful faces from Italy, Ireland, Russia and Lebanon, I’m inspired by what the verse asks us to do - embrace and celebrate diversity, to learn from one another, eat their delicious foods, and not turn against one another. As I look around the current political landscape, there is much to be done to live by the ideals of the verse… 

And finally - Biryani or Kababs?

Biryani all the way!

N.H. Senzai's upcoming book is Escape from Aleppo, in which 13-year-old Nadia and her family flee Aleppo, Syria, for Turkey in the wake of the Arab Spring.

Thank you Naheed Senzai for being being part of our campaign!  This interview is part of KitaabWorld's Counter Islamophobia Through Stories campaign.

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