Maitha Al Khayat: ‘Storytelling is life itself’

In this blog entry, Maitha Al Khayat, Emirati children’s illustrator and writer, talks about her love for storytelling, its significance in the Arab culture, what influences her writing and much more

Storytelling is life itself. Our lives are full of stories whether they are challenging, sad, exciting, funny, tragic or happily ever after. Storytelling has always been the most effective tool to educate, enlighten, soothe and enthuse. Since I was a child, I was surrounded by storytellers whether they are from the Quran, from my father, teachers or inspiring people. They taught me how to be the person I am today. That's why I'm using storytelling as my main profession whether as a mom or a writer.  

Storytelling has always been important in the Arab culture since thousands of years ago. Stories were used as means of giving news, teachings and entertainments at tribal gatherings. When Islam came amongst the Arabs, the Quran was full of stories of the creation and the miracles of this world and the struggles of our prophets. 

If some would’ve asked me five years ago whether the culture of storytelling was slowly fading in the Arab world, I would have said yes. But right now with the government in the UAE initiating so many reading campaigns to promote the love of stories and reading, I think that the Golden Age of storytelling is about to unfold. Such initiatives include the Reading Challenge for Arabic children to read around the world and #YearOfReading by His Highness Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid. The UAE Board of Books for Young Readers patron, Her Highness Sheikha Bodour Bin Sultan Al Qassimi, who is the driving force behind countless cultural initiatives in the country and found of Kalimat, launched the READ DREAM CREATE campaign. There are many ways to preserve it but to start right, it first has to begin from home. Parents are role models and children follow their lead. If parents are avid readers and use storytelling in the lives of their children, they will grow up depending on it, growing on it till you see them passing it on to their children when they grow up.  

There is so much competition when it comes to English vs Arabic books and I think one of the reasons for that is that the Arabic publishing companies are still not getting the hang of marketing and promoting their books.  They do not study the behaviour of our youth, thus, not knowing what kind of books they need to be reading, and how to expose those books to them. Another reason is that youth don't actually get to meet authors or writers whether they write for books, movies, magazines, or even video games. Writers are needed everywhere and if they understand the significance of this profession, they will start appreciating stories or books. This can be resolved by holding author visits at schools, universities and even bookshops and public libraries.  

Since I was a child, I loved the feeling I had whenever I held a book and I wanted other people to experience what I used to be experiencing when they read my stories. My sister, who was never a bookworm and hated reading by the way when we were children, came to me once and demanded I write stories. “But you hated books,” I replied. Her answer was: "I only loved stories when you retold them to me.” That was the kickstart.

One special story that my father always told us was the story of the Prophet Josef. In other words, he's also known as the “Prince of Egypt”. My father always read the story from the Quran, which incidents were articulated in a way that captivated us. It's among my favourite stories. Other stories that really affected me to the extent I feel them imbedded in my personality are Dr Seuss's stories. Sometimes, my fellow writers call me the Arabic Dr Seuss. 

What inspires my writing is mostly my children. They will always be my source of inspiration. I also enjoy watching my nieces and nephews, for they have their special moments too. Sometimes, my friends give me a call and tell me “You gotta write what happened to my son this evening."  

A story that is of particular significance to me is my children's book by Kalimat "Mum's Amazing Socks". This story is actually about me. I remember giving my publishers a hard time explaining to them how the character of the book really has to look like me. It tells a story of a mother, fully veiled like me with the face cover, who enjoys wearing different socks based on the days of the week.  

In addition to Dr Seuss, the Brothers Grimm and of course Roald Dahl has a particular influence on my writing. But the author that really got me seriously into thinking about writing is JK Rowling. Thank you Joanne, love all the Harry Potter series.  

Today, there are massive changes happening in Arabic literature, and since 2009, since I first became a writer children's literature specifically has evolved. Since the launch of Sheikh Zayed Award and Etisalat Award for Children's literature, the quality of children's books and Young Adult books, is improving drastically. The coming years are promising and I am proud to be living in this era and to be witnessing these changes.