First I must apologize for not blogging for so long. It was due to health issues and circumstances beyond my control.

Here’s what I wrote while on tour:


February 16, Islamabad, Pakistan

I think the most singular advantage I might have is the storytelling background.

There’s something about my training as a storyteller that allows me to assess an audience and adjust my presentation accordingly. But even then here in Pakistan, I’ve had to adjust my approach again.

When you’re used to children having at least a basic understanding of arts, coming to Pakistan where arts education is virtually non-existent (and really why would it exist here?) then you’re basically starting from scratch. And I’ve been exposed to a wide variety of students from Pushto children in an NGO school to relatively privileged kids in a competent private school. And the contrast has been fascinating!!!

Subhan Allah, I think it’s a blessing sometimes when the technology doesn’t work.

Okay, so the first school I visited was an NGO school funded by a Muslim charity that’s based in the UK called Muslim Hands. That’s significant because this is not the first time I’ve dealt with this charity. Recently they asked me to adjudicate their writing award in the UK for kids in the junior (grade 4-5) category. So I recognized the name of the NGO as soon as I arrived.

I was presenting to a group of grade fives and sixes, only about eight or nine girls and the rest all boys, looking so cute in their burgundy jacket uniforms!

The girls sat together on my right, wearing hijabs and looking extremely shy!

I was going to do The Roses in My Carpets presentation for them but alhamdu lillah the technology didn’t work. And so I fell back on my Coming to Canada presentation although I modified it to really just be an author talk about how I became published.

And as I spoke to these kids, there was one sitting on the left, with such a look of intense concentration on his face. And after everything I said I could hear him mutter out loud, “Uh huh, yeah, uh huh,” and sometimes he’d even repeat some of the words after me. It was most distracting, but I thought he was doing it because he was so intensely concentrating on everything I said that he probably didn’t even realize he was saying this stuff out loud!

Most of the other kids were just trying to look cool.

It was a presentation full of distractions!! Apparently outside they were rehearsing, some teacher using a loud speaker, for some assembly they were having the next day, and one of the teachers kept coming into the library, opening the loud metal door, so I had to stop and wait for the noise to subside. What that always tells me is that this school doesn’t know how to host an author visit.

And I knew that I shouldn’t take it personally.

So I continued as best as I could, not sure of how well they understood me. There was a translator on the side, and at times I did use her services, but I’m sure I didn’t use them enough. But anyway, the fact is, that these children were being educated in English and they could probably understand me better than they could talk with me in English.

So part of the presentation involved me telling my story Fajr from Muslim Child. It’s a very funny story about a boy who farts during the prayer, and I expected the kids to start laughing. I turned to the translator and asked her to translate ‘fart’ and she just started sputtering about ‘passing wind’ or ‘passing gas’ so I finally said the word in Urdu, (which by the way is about as funny a word as its English equivalent) “Paadh.”

The strangest thing was that although some of the boys at the back snickered, and many of them smiled, they all seemed to resist the urge to laugh.

Oh brother! They couldn’t even laugh at something that was supposed to be embarrassingly funny!

And I realized that these kids were so scared of making any sort of mistake, of presenting themselves in anything but a perfect light, that basically arts education, which necessitates a certain vulnerability, is beyond them.

So when they didn’t laugh I asked them point blank who had ever tried to suppress a fart? I was trying to get to the idea of universality in stories, that the story Fajr works for all sorts of audiences, goodness I’ve told that story all over the world to Muslim and non-Muslim audiences and everyone laughs, because everyone in the world knows what it feels like to suppress a fart! But when I asked if any of them had ever done so, they looked at me with blank expressions like what the heck was I talking about?

So I got the translator to translate it in case they hadn’t understood the question, and this time a few looked away, but again no one stuck up their hands! They were too scared to admit they had *gasp* ever suppressed a fart! They could not appear vulnerable.

Too bad.

I told them flat out they were lying.

Anyway I continued the presentation and when I was done, as usual, I was mobbed for autographs. So funny! They’d sat there like Russian diplomats during the presentation but now that it was over they were pushing their notebooks in front of each others’ trying to get me to sign them!

After every presentation and workshop in Pakistan, it no longer surprises me that the teachers and educators demand that I share a cup of tea and usually some biscuits or cake. Pakistanis and Muslims are some of the most hospitable people in the world!

While I was talking to the principal explaining to her that in order for arts education to work the kids need to be secure enough to risk making mistakes. She nodded and didn’t look like she was listening, poor thing, she was dealing with people coming in and presenting all kinds of situations for her to deal with. So obviously she had more pressing things on her mind, and I thought to myself, okay, I did the best I could.

And then…

Something amazing happened.

That boy, the one who’d been so intensely listening that he’d been repeating my words out loud, came in, so shyly, and he had this look on his face, total terror, as he approached me and he held out a little candy. Like an offering.

It was so cute!!!

I thanked him with all my heart but I have to stay away from sugar—it makes my rosacea flare up so my face looks like a bumpy red tomato, and so he handed the little candy to the translator.

I asked him if he’d liked the presentation in the best Urdu I could manage, and he gulped, and he looked from the translator to me and he nodded. And then a funny thing happened. As I asked him a few more questions, the corners of his mouth turned down and his bottom lip stuck out a bit and I realized he was very close to tears. I think he found me overwhelming. Me! Little old me!

So I smiled a bit more and we let him go. I wasn’t sure though if my perception was correct so I asked the translator what she thought and she agreed that he’d been very close to tears.

And subhan Allah, I thought right then, that sometimes when you do a presentation it’s really only for one child. The rest of them are along for the ride but they’re not open for one reason or another, to benefit from what you have to say. But there’s one child who hears what you have to say at exactly the right time in his life, for it to make a difference, and I wonder if that child wasn’t the reason I was supposed to go that school.

I don’t know. Allahu alim.

I did another school the next day where the kids were very poor, taken off the streets. Most of them were Pushto/Afghan and for them Urdu is even a second language, never mind English.

I had brought in the Roses in my Carpets presentation gear and when I looked at this audience they looked such a mixture of kids from six years old to about twelve, that I thought again, forget the technology.

And this time I didn’t even do my Coming to Canada presentation. Basically I let my translator translate, kind of like when I went to Mexico and Italy and I focused on three of my picture books: Silly Chicken, Ruler of the Courtyard and Big Red Lollipop. Even though, technically these kids were too old for them.

I story told the stories, saying a sentence and letting the translator translate, and since that takes double the time, we were able to cover less material, but we were able to do better justice to it.

You should have seen their faces when I got to the part of the snake in the bathhouse!

They understood immediately the danger that the character was in! And they were so engaged!

Same with Silly Chicken!

These stories were set within their culture, they understood when I said at the end that Rani names the chick in the cupboard “Bibi ki buchi”! And they laughed out loud as soon as I said it, and even before the translator backed me up with the translation.

Oh it was very effective!

All I did to get them think a bit deeper was ask them what the stories really meant. Many of them started summarizing the plots, and I said no, “But what do they really mean?”

And I could just see the little wheels in their head start turning, but then the teachers started interjecting, trying to talk about ‘morals’ and ‘lessons’ when I was talking about themes.

And then I did Big Red Lollipop, and I had them following along.

Oh how I do get loud at times! And when I shouted, “I wanna go too!” I saw some of the older ones look a bit shocked, and look around to see the reaction of other people to my exuberance. When the teachers were fine with it, they relaxed a bit.

Alhamdu lillah, it was the right choice for that group! I found out afterwards their language difficulties.

And I was able to get them to think of stories in deeper terms.