Friday, June 19, 2009

Writing Fiction About the Prophet Muhammad, continued...

Here is a view into one of my personal hurdles while working on this collection. I had initially set out to write a story about how the Prophet Muhammad’s wife Khadijeh supported him both financially and spiritually. I found the makings of the plot in one of the hadith’s (an historic account of the Prophet’s life), which explained how difficult of a time Muhammad had when he was receiving his revelations. He lost sleep and questioned himself. From this premise, I wrote a story full of detail and tension. Months slipped by as I worked hard at pulling quotes of the Prophet from the Qur’an and using them for his dialogue. When finished I sent my draft to our Muslim proof readers with much anticipation. Their response was less enthusiastic than I had hoped for. “You cannot not describe the Prophet as having ‘walnut brown hair,’” my consultant said. “You should not imply that Muhammad suffered any strife, and, it is disrespectful to put words into the Prophet’s mouth.”

Hmm, I thought, dropping my pen. Now what? How do I write a story without the conflict that is needed to move a story as well as keep it appealing for the reader? And how am I to write a story about a couple, if I cannot let one of them speak? There has been much written and said in the news, Publishers Weekly and the blogs about recent books and cartoons that have insulted Islam. The debates rage for and against the notion that the world deserves free expression. In my case, I chose to withhold my particular interpretation of this event in Muslim history and scrap my story out of respect. I then set out to write another one. In my view, the point of pulling this collection together was to remind those of the monotheistic faiths that we have common stories we can build upon, which can help bring our people in a closer communion of spirit. Why thwart that possibility by publishing something that might likely offend?

I learned much from the stories of my co-writers Claire Rudolph Murphy, Mary Cronk Farrell, Sarah Conover and Betsy Wharton. This project continues to feed and inform my spiritual life and creative impulses. To my delight, I have since discovered on my travels to the Middle East and Central Asia that women (more so than men) throughout history have been weaving their own interpretations of scriptural stories into carpets, long before they knew how to read and write. I have literally found new and actual threads of these ancient parables to explore. Perhaps a nonfiction story of the richness of monotheistic and other spiritual cultures is on my horizon---illustrated, of course, with rugs.

Photo: I found this image on an Iranian rug of Moses in the reed basket in the Tehran Carpet Bazaar.

---Meghan Nuttall Sayres

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Writing Fiction About the Prophet Muhammad

President Barack Hossein Obama’s recent speech on Cairo was an inspiration on a great many of levels, including its literary aspects in which he quoted from the Qur’an, the Talmud and the Bible. Obama called for a need to educate America about Middle Eastern cultures and Islam. As an author of a novel set in Iran, which celebrates the beauty of Islam, the depth of Sufi poetry, and the splendor of hand woven and naturally-dyed carpets from that region, I have long been on the path of offering young readers a window into the Muslim world that delights rather than fosters fear.

In 2003, I joined four other children’s authors at Aunties Bookstore in Spokane, Washington, to launch our collection of short stories Daughters of the Desert: Tales of Remarkable Women From the Christian, Jewish and Muslim Traditions. We introduced our visions of women such as the Judeao-Persian Queen Esther who saved her people; the Jewish prophetess and older sister of Moses, Miriam, who danced with women in praise of God; the unnamed, Christian Canaanite women Eleni, who pleaded with Jesus to heal non Jews; Lydia the purple dye master who supported St. Paul during his stay in Philippi and was his first Christian convert on the continent of Europe; Khadijeh, the Prophet Muhammad’s first wife, employer, and convert to Islam.

As a community of writers we nudged, challenged and supported one another while drafting these stories. We worried that we might not represent these women in the best possible light, particularly the Muslim women since we were all writing out of our own faith traditions. Differences of opinion arose within our group as well as without, such as with our respective Christian, Muslim and Jewish consultants and even our copy editors who felt the need to inject their religious points of views just before going to press. Everyone’s input and interpretations pushed us beyond our assumptions and biases.

Next week I will share one of my personal hurdles while working on this collection.

---Meghan Nuttall Sayres