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
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
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
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
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
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
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,
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
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
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?"
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 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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
I have let you know what it’s like over there. Now maybe you will help.
article is copyrighted by Rukhsana Khan and cannot be transmitted or
produced without her express written permission.