Of Politics & Children's Books

By Rukhsana Khan

It is a shame when a book you write for one war, becomes just as applicable many years later, for another.

When I first wrote my book, The Roses in My Carpets, I mentioned that the jets that were chasing my Afghani refugee foster child were Russian. It seemed to matter to me. I wanted the reader to know what kinds of atrocities the Russians had been guilty of in their ten year war with the Afghanis. Things like dropping bombs in the shapes of toys so that children would pick them up and blow their arms and legs off. (The thinking was if they were crippled they couldn’t grow up to fight them.) I was angry at Russia, and I wanted to put some of that anger in the story. But a good friend of mine told me to remove it. Leave politics out of the story. She was right.

I wrote The Roses in My Carpets to deal with the Russian invasion of Afghanistan. How sad that so many years later, it is just as relevant. Mind you, some have told me that it’s always relevant and makes an excellent book for Remembrance day.

Of all my author and storyteller presentations, my Roses presentation is by far my most requested. A teacher/librarian from Barrie (just north of Toronto) urged me to do an article on my website about it, to let people know, and so I have included it here.

I’ll summarize the back story of how I came to write this book. But before I talk about how I wrote the book, I have to explain why I went to visit my foster child, Kareem, in January 1992. It wasn’t for the usual altruistic reasons.

It goes back to when I was a kid and how I wanted to be white. I grew up in a small town in Southern Ontario (less than two hours from the U.S. border). This was during the seventies. We were the only Muslim Pakistani family in the whole town. I would have done anything to fit in.

The other kids didn’t know much about brown people. They told me and my sisters that we were brown because we were dirty (brown was the colour of dirt) and they were white because they were clean. So my sisters and I went home and started taking lots of baths to try to get the brown off. When that didn’t work, we tried other methods to no avail. In the end, I had little choice but to come to terms with being brown.

Many years later, when I was grown up and married, I heard of the Russian invasion of Afghanistan. My husband and I decided to sponsor a child refugee. When I got the picture of Kareem (my foster child) I was astonished to see that he had blonde hair, blue eyes and freckles--he was white. How ironic. Here I was sending money across the world to help him and his family, yet he had the one thing that would have made my growing up easier--white skin.

I wanted to meet him. See what kind of boy he was. In January 1992 I got a chance to go to Pakistan. I was born there but had never been back. I travelled up to Peshawar, where the refugee camps were, and stayed with a friend of mine, Maha, and her husband Ahmad. They were working for the relief organization, Human Concern International, through which I’d sponsored Kareem.

I stayed with them for one week, during which they took me around to visit the camps.

I remember the first time I met Kareem. It was in the office of the refugee camp. Maha and I were sitting on cushions and the camp officials served us tea and cookies.

Kareem and his older brother Jama-uddin came in and politely sat down. They looked at the cookies but didn’t reach for them. I thought it was so sweet that they had manners! I held out the plate, offering some to them. They each took three, but only nibbled on one and put the other two in their pockets. Maha said, "Do you know what they’re going to do with the other cookies? They’ll take them home to share with their other family members."

Then Maha took me on a tour of the camp. I found it surprising how they spent my money. I’d assumed that they’d just take the money I sent and give it to Kareem and his family. Maha said that if they did that, only one family would benefit. Instead they gave some of the money to the sponsored family and the rest of the money was used for services that benefitted all the refugees. Services like hospitals, medicine, school and vocational training. (One of the things they taught the kids to make, was carpets. This seemed very appropriate because the Afghanis are world famous for their beautiful carpets.) It was a direct application of the saying: If you give a man a fish you feed him for one day; if you teach a man to fish you feed him for the rest of his life.

Their aim was to stretch the money as far as possible, and help as many refugees as they could.

Then Kareem and Jama-uddin showed me the mud house they’d built. I found mud houses to be fascinating. The way they make a mud house is they take mud and mix it with straw then form it into bricks and put it in the sun to dry. When the bricks are dry and hard they stack them, like lego blocks, into a wall and plaster over them with more mud. Then they take big beams of wood and lay them across the roof, anchoring them right into the walls. On top of the beams, going the other way, like a lattice, they lay lots of smaller sticks and branches, and they tie them down. On top of that they place a layer of black plastic garbage bags. That’s what makes the roof ‘waterproof’ and keeps the rain out. On top of the garbage bags they put another layer of mud to hold it all in place.

A mud house can last anywhere from five years to ten years, depending on how much it rains. When it gets unsafe, they can reuse the mud and wooden beams and build another one.

Their mud house had started falling apart. They’d had some heavy rains and it was no longer safe to live there. When I went inside, the floor had dried but left the shape of moulded footprints in the mud floor. It must have been a slurry when it was wet. And the walls were lined with water marks where the rain had come in from the roof and windows. It was the way I’d imagined a mud house would be--muddy.

They weren’t living in this house. Kareem’s family had borrowed another house. In contrast, this mud house was cosy and clean and seemed down right comfortable.

There was a thick striped cloth they’d spread across the dirt floor and tacked up around the sides of the walls. In a corner were stacked quilts, probably for the evening when it got very cold. (Peshawar is surrounded by mountains and in the winter it gets down to two or three degrees--mud houses have no heating.) In one corner of the floor was a little ceramic fire pit with ashes in it. They had a kerosene lantern hanging from a hook on the wall. There were no glass windows but there was a large opening with wooden shutters. They even had a padlock on the door, which surprised me. What would refugees have that could be stolen?

I said, "I don’t know what I was expecting. Naked babies with swollen bellies and emaciated bodies, like those pictures of Ethiopian refugees. But these guys don’t seem to have it that bad."

Maha said, "Don’t let appearances fool you. They don’t look it, but they’re severely malnourished. They live on a diet of bread and tea. And they’re traumatized. They’ve been through a lot."

I think we in the West have certain expectations when we meet ‘poor’ people. Perhaps we want to see them actively suffering, because then they’d be more ‘deserving’ of our help. I think it’s the same mentality which tends to crack down on welfare recipients in our Western societies.

For a whole week I stayed with Maha and Ahmad and their six children. They took me around fed me and housed me, out of their own pockets. At the end of the week, Ahmad took me aside and gently reminded me how they’d hosted me for that whole week. "All I’m asking in return is that when you go back to Canada, write something for us. Tell people what it’s like over here," he continued, "Maybe they will help."

So I promised.

When I got back I sat down and wrote about my experience and sent the story to every publisher I could think of, including newspapers like The Toronto Star and Globe & Mail. I sent it out to about thirty-five to forty publishers and it always got rejected. Probably because it wasn’t a very good story. (If you want to read that original version, click here.)

A news story needs to have a clear agenda. An angle. There’s no room for questioning, hesitation or indecision. Looking back I can see that the problem with my story was that I had feelings of ambivalence to the suffering--and that came through. To be perfectly frank, it didn’t seem as though the refugees had it so bad. Maybe I felt this way because I hadn’t gone to the refugee camps directly. I had lived in Pakistan and seen abject poverty of all sorts. Had I become desensitized to it, in the way that tourists get desensitized to the beggars on the roads?

How could these Afghanis carry themselves with such dignity if they were that desperate?

It’s not that easy writing a story about difficult circumstances without getting sentimental and melodramatic. And yet it was a worthy cause, and I’d promised. I’d given my word to Ahmad.

So I kept sending out that story and it kept coming back, rejected.

Then an amazing thing happened. The Afghanis actually won the war. (They’d kicked the Russians out in 1989, but hadn’t toppled the Soviet backed regime until about a year after I went--around 1993.) It was astonishing that this small backward country had managed to thwart a superpower (Many forget that Russia was a superpower at the time-indeed at the time the only rival of the U.S.A.).

I was glad for the Afghanis but sad for my story. Who would want to read about my foster child now, I thought. So I put the story away for a while. I told myself that I’d tried my best.

Now that the country was free of Russian oppression, Ahmad disbanded the refugee camp and took his operation inside Afghanistan because even though the war was over, the country was in a huge mess. (It still is, in fact if anything, it’s worse under the American bombardment.)

While he and some other relief workers were driving in a jeep, they drove over a land mine. It exploded and one of the people in the jeep was killed. Ahmad was hurt. The bones in one of his forearms were shattered, like crumbs, and his foot became partially detached. But being Canadian, he was lucky. He was flown in an emergency to Toronto’s Sunnybrook hospital where they were able to somewhat fix the bones in his arm and to reattach his foot. (He’s disabled but physically whole.)

I went to visit him in the hospital. Maha was by his side. He looked tired and depressed. I tried to be cheerful but he didn’t say much. Then finally he said, "You know, Rukhsana, I’m very disappointed in you."

I said, "Why?" Even though I knew the answer.

He said, "Because you promised you’d write something for us and then you never did."

Then I tried to explain how hard I’d tried, how I had written something and sent it all over North America, how it wasn’t my fault it didn’t get published, and now it was no use, the war was over, nobody would be interested in it, blah blah blah.

When I was done, he said, "So what are you going to do? Give up?"

I shrugged.

He said, "I’m not giving up. As soon as my arm is fixed and my foot is healed, I’m going back there because those people need me."

And I felt like a crumb.

As soon as I got home I pulled out the story, fixed it here and there and took it to my writers’ group. There are only three of us but we’d been meeting for over six years at the time. (Now we’ve been together for over twelve years. There’s three of us, Patty is Christian and did the illustrations for my fourth book Muslim Child, Sydell is Jewish and I’m Muslim.)

I read it to Patty and Sydell and asked what they thought. They hemmed and hawed, suggesting I tighten here or flesh it out there. I was furious. They just didn’t understand how important this story was. So I took it to another friend of mine, Siddiqua, my husband’s cousin. She’s always been supportive of my writing, encouraging me when no one else would. I asked her what she thought. After reading it, she looked up and sighed. "I don’t know Roxy, it’s dead."

At first I couldn’t believe it. Not her too! And then it slowly dawned on me. She was right. It was dead. It was a boring story. I hadn’t captured what it felt like to be there.

So I tossed out that story and started again. I went back to the original photographs I’d taken at the camp, hoping they’d give me some inspiration. I was looking through them, reliving what it felt like to be there and I came across something I hadn’t noticed before. In one of the photographs, a family shot of Kareem, there was a look on the Jama-uddin, the older brother’s, face. I stared and stared at this photo, feeling very uneasy. And slowly I realized that the boy, Jama uddin, looked scared. Almost haunted.

It didn’t make sense. We’d been having tea and cookies. What would he be scared of? Surely not me. He must know I wasn’t going to hurt him. It didn’t make sense. They were safe. In a refugee camp. There was no reason to be scared. In fact they’d been cheerful that day.

I checked the other photos and sure enough, in most of them, Jama uddin, did not look so scared--though even in the other photos there was something lurking at the back of his eyes. Was it only in this one photo that the camera had somehow caught him, with his guard down? It really bugged me. I kept coming back to this photo for I don’t know how long, and it kept puzzling me.

Slowly it dawned on me that the story I needed to write, wasn’t about me going to visit my foster child, it wasn’t even about Kareem because to be perfectly honest, Kareem seemed content, even happy with his lot. (He’d come over from Afghanistan as a baby. He’d never known anything but the refugee camp.)

The story I had to write was about this boy, Jama-uddin, the one with the haunted look on his face.

I think the secret to being a writer is being able to imagine what it feels like to be someone else. It took me many years to learn this. In order to do this you need to almost let go of your own identity, and put on someone else’s, to really see things from their point of view.

In order to understand why he was so scared, I did just that. I imagined that I was him, sitting there, with my knees pulled up to my chest, and my finger by my mouth, feeling utterly terrified, and I asked myself, "Why? Why am I so scared?"

And I thought of the story they’d told me. How when they’d been leaving Afghanistan the jets had been bombing them, trying to kill them. And I thought how that would give me nightmares--even years after the event.

And I recalled how their father had died while ploughing the field, he’d stepped on a land mine. And now I (Jama uddin) was head of the family. And I thought what that would mean in that society, where the men are expected to take care of their mothers and sisters, and how young and vulnerable this boy was.

And I thought about how his little sister, Nooriya, had been hit by a truck, while carrying firewood home (even though she was only four years old at the time she had this job to do). And how far away they were from home, and how unsettled.

That’s when the full tragedy of their situation struck me. And I felt deeply ashamed for not having realized it before. And I felt ashamed for my feelings of cold ambivalence towards them. I didn’t blame him for being scared. It was perfectly understandable.

I started looking at this story in a completely different way and I realized why the other story I’d written was so ‘dead’. It was about me. Stories are about problems. As the sponsor, I wasn’t the one with the problem, Jama-uddin was.

But I didn’t write Roses right away. I waited, and thought some more. And I realized that what I wanted to do was write a story that incorporated all the aspects of the refugee camp in it. The mud houses, the schools, the hospitals, the medicine and the vocational training. But I wanted to do so in a non-didactic way. And I thought that if I was a refugee, what I’d like to do is to learn carpet weaving.

One day, while I was washing the dishes, I thought that if I was weaving carpets, the colours would mean something to me. I thought white is always good, black is always bad, I would switch them around. What was white but bad? The shroud. In Islam white is the colour of death. We don’t put our dead in coffins, we wrap them in forty yards of white cotton. Black could be the night, that saved them from being bombed by jets. (Back then the Russians didn’t have the technology to bomb them in the dark.)

And then one day while I was exercising to a T.V. show, I noticed the lady was jumping up and down on a carpet with chrysanthemums in it. And I thought, "Yes!" The carpets would have flowers in it, but not chrysanthemums. Roses.

But I still didn’t write the story right away. I waited and waited, until one day, I was doing something mundane like washing dishes or mopping the floor and I heard a voice, in my right ear. I’m not crazy, but I do sometimes here voices, and it’s always in that right ear. This voice started telling me the story, and I dropped what I was doing and sat down at the dining room table and wrote down what it said. When I was finished, I was trembling. It was the strangest experience I’ve ever had. I felt like all that I’d written had happened to me.

From the time I met Kareem to the time I wrote this story was a period of about four years. It took me four years to write this book, even though I wasn’t consistently writing it for that long. But the process of growing as a writer, and digesting those images of the refugee camp, and finding the perspective the story had to be told from, all took four years.

It took another two years for the book to be published, released in fall 1998, for a total of six years after I’d met Kareem. (By this time he was too old to be sponsored.)

And I was pleasantly surprised when it won an international literary award. In Poland. It won the honorary Yanuscz Korczak award from the Polish section of I.B.B.Y. (International Board on Books for Young People).

Now Yanuscz Korczak has a story behind him as well. He was a Jewish children’s writer and child’s rights advocate from World War II. He wrote some books that were very popular in Europe. When the Nazis invaded Poland, they rounded up all the Jews to send them to the concentration camps, but when they found out that this guy was Januscz Korczak they couldn’t send him there, they told him he was free to go. Januscz asked what would happen to the children of his orphanage. The Nazis told him they’d be sent to the concentration camps. He refused to leave them. He went with them and was killed at a place called Treblinka.

The Polish ministry of culture gives out this award, every two years to six books world wide, in his honour. They choose books with a humanitarian theme.

I was incredibly honoured to receive this award, but I couldn’t help but find it ironic that me, a Muslim woman, won an award named after a Jewish man.

I do not make money from this book. I have used most of the royalties to sponsor more child refugees. With the advance and royalties I have sponsored children from Afghanistan, Bosnia, and Kosovo.

I sent the book to Maha and Ahmad in Afghanistan. A year later Ahmad sent me a carpet some orphans in his orphanage had made for me, with roses woven into it. They copied the design from the book.

When I received this wonderful gift I knew I had fulfilled my promise to him.

I have let you know what it’s like over there. Now maybe you will help.

This article is copyrighted by Rukhsana Khan and cannot be transmitted or produced without her express written permission.