Travels overseas helped shape the story of “Yaffa and Fatima: Shalom and Salaam” by children’s author Fawzia Gilani-Williams, who hails from Oberlin.
Released earlier this year, the book was inspired in part by “Brothers: A Hebrew Legend” by Florence Freedman, which she found while working at Oberlin Public Library in 2002. She had never seen books that promoted Hanukkah, Chinese New Year, and Kwanza in any other libraries.
“Yaffa and Fatima” tells the tale of Jewish and Muslim neighbors who are best friends. With a theme of kindness, it’s a retelling of a folktale of both Jewish and Arab traditions.
Gilani-Williams said she has always been intrigued by the lifestyles of people, their languages, foods, architecture, landscape, religions, and cultural traditions.
Meanwhile, she has watched prejudice increase against immigrants in America.
“Those who study sociology and history will know that any new wave of immigrants are subject to xenophobic persecution. What is happening with immigrant Muslims today is similar to experiences of previous immigrant groups arriving to America as strangers,” Gilani-Williams said. “Books can help children understand that diversity is a part of the human condition. You don’t try to make it go away, you allow it to flourish.”
A teacher, she looks for a balance of “mirror books” and “window books” when picking books for her students, saying it’s important the children develop empathy. Mirror books tell children about themselves, their families, communities, cultures. and traditions, while window books help children cultivate respect and understanding for other cultures, countries, and people.
Gilani-Williams’s fascination with diversity stems from her travels.
She grew up in England, moved to the United States in the early 1990s, worked in Canada in 2008, and now teaches in the United Arab Emirates. She said living in different places reinforces her belief that “we mostly live in a wonderful world with wonderful people.”
When she came to the United States from England, she noticed how friendly and polite the people were and how common it was to see the American flag.
In 2011, she arrived in Abu Dhabi and thought she was going to die from the climate. Apart from the desert heat, her adjustment period was brief. The Emirati drive on the same side of the road as Americans and English is their second language.
As a woman in Muslim attire, Gilani-Williams felt very fortunate to live in a safe place. During Ramadan, she walked alone to a nearby mosque at 2 a.m. and instead of fear, she felt empowered.
For the long time, she wanted to go to the Muslim house of worship in Mecca but knew that women could only enter Saudi Arabia if they were accompanied with a male relative. In March, Gilani-Williams flew there with two friends and said she was petrified.
When she landed, no one questioned her travel arrangements. “The immigration officer looked at my face, looked at my passport, took my fingerprints, and passed me through. It was as easy as that.” she said.
In Saudi Arabia, she learned people from different countries can still have many similarities. And as a teacher in the UAE, she meets expats from around the world on a daily basis.
Laurie Hamame can be reached at 440-775-1611 or @HamameNews on Twitter.