Mennah Ibrahim has put a 21st spin on Islam with her Little Moslems series of children’s books. She tells Alice Johnson what inspired her to write the series.
Advertising executive Mennah Ibrahim found herself searching through bookshelves seeking a book that might explain Islam in modern terms to her two children Tarek and Jana. The two had become inquisitive about their religion, asking their mother why she was praying and why she was fasting. Not finding a suitable book for them either in English or depicting Islam in the modern world, she took the task into her own hands and sat down to write her own books.
“All the illustrations in these books made us look like we’re all living in tents, wearing long jalabiyas with palm trees and of course we don’t live like that today,” she told Al Shindagah magazine, “So it was a kind of a contest really, to find a book that was informative and illustrative in encouraging terms. So I decided to go out and do that myself”.
What resulted was the ‘Little Moslems’ series, including ‘I am a Little Moslem’, ‘Let’s Pray’, ‘A Time to Give’, ‘Hooray! It’s Ramadan’ and ‘A Visit to the Ka’aba’. While it first started out as a project for her children, Ibrahim realised other children would benefit from her books and so she looked for a publisher. Then she discovered an issue; as children find it difficult to visualise concepts they can’t see pictorially, illustrations were an essential part of the book. However, Ibrahim then had to conceive a way of illustrating abstract concepts (including introducing the Prophet Muhammed) without depicting them.
“At the time most publishers turned down the books, because they thought ‘this is never going to fly’,” she said, “[but] we found a very clever way to illustrate those things without having to create those taboos”. One year after pitching the concept, however, Ibrahim found a publisher willing to take on the challenge. “The core theme of the books is tolerance,” she continued “They teach you about Islam, but they also teach you how to tolerate everyone else… we all live in the world together”.
The series features twins Tarek and Jana, six years old, who take the young readers on a voyage of discovery, finding out what it means to be a little Muslim. The books explain the five pillars of Islam as well as raising issues and detailing why Christmas is not celebrated in Islam, for example.
“I actually put in real illustrations – things that kids can relate to today,” she said. “So you have figures – a mum, a dad, Grandma – and we tried to talk about the more taboo issues, such as God and the prophets,” she continued.
Ibrahim actually studied dentistry at university, but didn’t practice it as she moved into advertising with the Leo Burnett MENA network. Having worked on P&G brands and in Saudi Arabia as an independent research professional operating an exclusive ESOMAR accredited qualitative research hub across MENA, she now focusses on consumer intelligence and identifying behavioural trends from her base in Beirut.
“Advertising has always been something I love, because [I love] working with people. What I do in the industry is brand intelligence, which is a big flashy word for consumer intelligence… I talk to people all day long and figure out why they do what they do, and why they buy what they buy, what is it they look for, when they actually go out and buy something,” she said.
Ibrahim appeared at the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature in March 2013, hosting a book reading session for children aged six and older. She also took part in a discussion about tolerance through fiction, accompanied by Lebanese author Hani Soubra. Taking part in the Festival and visiting Dubai was a “fantastic experience”, she said.
So will the Little Moslems author write more books in the future? “I really hope so,” she said, “If not books then at least digital applications, perhaps a website. We have to keep up with today’s generation – this generation of children are digital natives, they spend most of their time online,” she said. However, while it’s unsafe to say the book era is going to disappear completely, she continued, online and digital are media children currently utilise most, “and I’d like to be able to link content that’s relevant to them; so they can enjoy it through the channels they prefer,” she concluded.