As a child, I read a lot. A lot a lot.
I guess it had something to do with the fact that I’m the eldest of my siblings, and I wasn’t very good at making friends.
Back then, I didn’t have much of a preference. I just read whatever I could get my hands on in the school library—books about fairies, a girl’s misadventures in high school, mythological fantasy, even (mild) horror. They were all very different and I liked them very much.
Except that they all had one thing in common: white. White. White.
These books were mostly written by white authors, featuring white, straight, usually Christian characters. Was I aware that this was, in actuality, harming my self-esteem and the way I perceived myself?
Well, no, but I was a kid back then. I had no idea about things like “representation” or “diversity”. No one told me that characters can be from all over the world, and not just the US, or Europe; no one told me that they can be of any religion; of any sexual orientation. I’m Syrian, Muslim, and asexual, and I found none of these terms in any of the books I read. (Okay, I didn’t know I was asexual back then, but hey, maybe I would have known sooner if I’d seen it in a book!)
As a result, my thinking became very “Americanised”. I thought in American slang, tried to picture my life in an American lifestyle. Nothing ever fit. There wasn’t a single character I knew that looked, or spoke, or acted like me.
Fast-forward to today—I am now so, so grateful to be able to say that the book community has seen a rise in publications featuring characters of colour, queer characters, and characters of different religions. I’ve found a reasonable number of books featuring Arab and/or Muslim characters—of course, I’m hoping for an even higher number, but it’s a start!
Unfortunately, with representation come stereotypes, incorrect information, and misconceptions. There are far too many misunderstandings about Arabs and Muslims. As someone who cares deeply about seeing myself, as well as others, well-represented in books, I thought I’d make a post to provide tips on writing Arab characters, and Muslim characters!
It’s true that I’ve put them together, but it is very important to note that: Not all Arabs are Muslim. Not all Muslims are Arabs. An Arab is someone from an Arabic-speaking country. A Muslim is someone who follows the religion of Islam.
There. Just thought I’d clear that up.
Without further ado, here are my tips!
(Note from Fadwa: Wahid, Ithnan, etc… are the numbers in arabic and when I saw that it made me laugh for some reason. I love it!!)
WAHID. Be sure (please get my bookish reference here).
First thing to note: Arabs are like any other person. Don’t look at us as though we’re aliens; we’re not that hard to represent. You need to tell yourself that you want to represent us, that you want to make us seen.
ITHNAN. Know which country you want to represent.
There are so many Arab countries, so please know which one you want to represent when you write your book. Each country is different when it comes to tradition, food, way of speech, etc. It’s always better to ask some people from that specific country for more info!
THALATHAH. The ever-famous “Arab hospitality”.
It’s true: Arabs are very hospitable. Sometimes to a ridiculous extent. If someone comes over, be it an uncle or a friend we just met, we have to offer them coffee, then delicacies. As a guest, it’s rude to refuse—it’s also not recommended to finish your entire plate. And your host has to keep refilling said plate.
So you see the problem here.
Host: Here, have some more.
Guest: Look, thank you very much, but I’m so full—
Host: You didn’t eat anything!
Guest: YOU FED ME THREE PLATES WHAT DO YOU MEAN.
Host: One more—
Guest: *picks up the plate and runs*
ARBA’A. We aren’t ignorant.
WE ARE NOT THAT TRADITIONAL. WE HAVE KNOWLEDGE OF THE WORLD AROUND US. I don’t know why we are sometimes stereotyped to be unaware of what’s going on out there—please, don’t fall into that trap. Yes, our parents and grandparents are more traditional, but guys, my grandma talks to me about the current political situation, and believe me when I say that that lady knows stuff.
KHAMSA. Not all of us speak in heavy accents.
Don’t think it’s unrealistic to have an Arab character who can speak other languages fluently. I often get the impression that, whenever there’s an Arab person in a story, they have to have their words heavily accented. (I swear some of us know how to say the letter ‘p’, okay?). I mean, sure, there are Arabs who speak in broken/accented English, and it’s great to represent that, too (without mocking it of course) but remember that if we put our mind to it, we can speak any language fairly well! Heck, I took French classes up until this May and my teacher said my accent was one of the best, so, yeah.
SITTA. About dialects.
When writing Arabic words, please check the dialect you are using! Hardly anyone ever speaks in the standard, formal Arabic that was used in the past. There are so many Arabic dialects, and each country has its own. Some countries have a dialect that is so easily distinguishable, such as Egypt and Lebanon.
Phrase: What do you want?
Egyptian dialect: A’ayez ey?
Syrian dialect: Shoo biddak?
Emirati dialect: Eesh btibgha?
(Note from Fadwa: Moroccan dialect: Chnou bghiti?)
SABA’A. Our skin colour.
Not all Arabs are brown-skinned or dark-skinned. Yes, many of us are, but we can have light skin, too. I do! It all depends on the country we are from. In Syria, we are usually light-skinned or tan, rarely dark. In UAE, many Emiratis are dark-skinned or tan, rather than light-skinned—and so on! Please don’t think that the only indication of an Arab is the skin colour. More than once, my identity has been denied because I didn’t “look” the part. A boy in my school even called me a liar when I said I was Arab, and made me speak Arabic to prove it. Don’t be that jerk, folks.
I. Levels of faith.
You can portray Muslims at different levels of faith—none of us are sinless preachers here. We’re human too, and humans make mistakes, and we make mistakes concerning our religion, and that’s completely normal.
II. The little things.
Islam is more than just praying five times a day, more than just saying “Inshallah” when speaking of future events and “Alhamdulillah” after eating. Islam is helping that old man cross the street, smiling at the cashier when they hand you your bags, being calm in the face of anger. These seemingly “small” acts are all part of our religion, and I’d love to see them included more often.
One thing about the hijab: yes, some women show a bit of their hair while wearing it—and that’s entirely their decision! But sometimes I feel like authors, especially non-Muslim authors, don’t know that the right way to wear it is by not showing any hair at all. Of course, once again, how the woman chooses to wear it depends on her, but I just wanted to share that bit of info!
IV. Hijab (pt.ii)
Another thing about the hijab: men should never, ever, ever force a woman to wear it. Or anyone, actually. That is a big NO. A woman should wear it of her own free will.
Please, please, PLEASE write more books where Muslim women aren’t crushing on a guy and then the whole story is our religion “getting in the way”. Yes, permissible romances can exist, ones where the two people in question don’t break any rules of the religion, but I also want to see Muslim characters that lead their own lives and don’t necessarily seek a romantic interest.
Speaking of which, I know that a lot of stories featuring Muslims are based on arranged marriage, but hey, love marriage exists in Islam! It’s okay to have crushes and to daydream about them and want to be with that person—if their parents agree, and your parents agree, then you can marry, too. I have a friend whose parents married like that!
There you go! Some tips that I hope will be helpful if you’re planning to write an Arab and/or Muslim character (which I hope you do!)
Last month, I chose a theme for my TBR, which was “Books featuring Arab and/or Muslim characters”, and I’m happy to say that I enjoyed the books so, SO much! I found my new favourite book in that pile, too. I strongly recommend you read the following books if you’re looking for proper representation:
- The Map of Salt and Stars, Jennifer Zeynab Joukhadar (rep: Syrian + Muslim)
- I Was Born for This, Alice Oseman (rep: Muslim)
- Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard, Rick Riordan (rep: Arab-American + Muslim)
- Running with Lions, Julian Winters (rep: Muslim)
- And the Mountains Echoed, Khaled Hosseini (rep: Muslim – the rep isn’t very major, but I appreciated it nonetheless!)
Happy reading! I hope that this post helps at least one person out there. ❤
Book Blogger @ Invisible in Ink
Angel is a Syrian book reviewer with an undying love for words and all things pastel. She spends a lot of time either writing, reading, or screaming about women rights and equality. She hopes to one day publish her own books and adopt lots of cats.
Diverse Book Bloggers Discuss is a way to boost diverse bloggers who are brilliant and have a lot to say but have smaller platforms and don’t really get as much reach as they deserve. What this is, is basically a guest post feature where twice a month diverse book bloggers will discuss things they are passionate about on my blog.