Today, I am pleased and excited to welcome dear writing friend and children’s author, Maha Addasi, to alphabet soup! When we first met in 2005, I never would have imagined that one day I would be interviewing her.
After all, she’s the one who had a fascinating, glamorous career as a news correspondent and producer for Jordan and Dubai Television. The one who interviewed royalty and heads of state, cosmonauts, opera singers, musicians, and world-renowned scientists. The one who attended openings of Parliament, lunched in the royal palaces in Jordan, and who, once upon a time, attended the New English School in Kuwait with Queen Rania.
Maha once told me that she likes to keep busy. Since moving to the U.S. in 1998, she has shifted her focus to writing for children. And why not? She has four of her own — two teenage girls, and two boys under the age of 10, a little posse that would decidedly challenge even the most resilient of supermoms, while at the same time providing neverending story fodder.
Just last month, Maha’s first picture book, The White Nights of Ramadan, was released by Boyds Mills Press (my review is here). The "white nights" refer to three days in the middle of
Ramadan — the full moon, and the days before and after. In Maha’s native Kuwait and other countries in the Persian Gulf Region, these days mark the candy festival called Girgian, which is highly anticipated by children.
Since we’re right in the middle of the holy month, it’s the perfect time for Maha to tell us all about her book and share a special family recipe. She’s visiting today from her home in Fairfax, Virginia, where, in her "spare" time, she’s busy working on her MFA from Vermont College and building a career as an image consultant.
Thank you, Jama, for this wonderful opportunity. I feel honored to be selected as an interviewee on alphabet soup. I get to laugh every time I read it. It’s well organized, and so much fun to read.
Please tell us how The White Nights of Ramadan evolved. What did you learn from this experience?
The idea of writing about Ramadan came from my own need to find a book about this month that was a fun read. I was able to find several books that captured the month of fasting very well, but they seemed very encyclopedic. I had the chance to speak at an interfaith event held at Church of the Redeemer that the Arabic school I belong to arranged with the church and Am Kolel Synagogue. We had several interactive children’s events, but when it came time to sharing a book, there were none that seemed to work for the children.
So I decided to write my own. At the time I did not feel there was a market for this kind of book. I wrote the book in rhyme. It was a fun read, but the meter did not quite work all the way through. Several stanzas seemed forced. It sat in my folders for some time. And I continued to market other works to various publishing houses.
All illos for The White Nights of Ramadan were rendered in oil by Ned Gannon.
I then said I had a story in rhyme called, "The Moon Has Been Seen," about Ramadan. The response was immediate. "Please email it to me right away." I nearly fainted. I went into emergency mode and contacted the members of my writer’s group, and did some on-line critiquing and I sent it in. The reply: "It has potential, but the meter does not quite work." I tried other versions. Eventually, to add to the storyline, I included something about Girgian.
Main character, Noor, with her two brothers, ready for Girgian
The response was, "What is Girgian?" I explained that it was a candy festival. Eventually, I attended the SCBWI conference, at which the author of these correspondences was a speaker. I got to meet Larry Rosler in person and he told me that he would like for me to try writing a story about Girgian and preferably not in rhyme. I had been living with the characters of my story for several months and it took a very short time to come up with the story in prose. It was accepted and we took it from there.
Typical fanous (lanterns) carried by children for Girgian
Maha in traditional Girgian gown
In terms of Ramadan, the fasting is a major part of it, but the reasons behind the fasting are what make it meaningful. Muslims fast to place themselves at equal footing with those less fortunate. Nothing makes you relate to someone deprived of food more than the pinching ache of hunger.
But what I wanted to show was that Ramadan is not a month of suffering, but a month that holds beautiful meanings of sharing and interacting with family and friends. Even young children plead with their parents to fast, if only for a day. It makes them proud to be able to accomplish such a feat, and it gives them a chance to get closer to family and friends.
Generally, how old are children when they begin to fast? Did you find it difficult when you first began? Is it difficult now?
Noor and her grandfather take a charity basket to the Mosque
As an adult it is not very difficult. I think the first day was tough in some years because my biggest problem on the first day was developing headaches from caffeine withdrawal. I no longer drink caffeinated coffee, if I have coffee at all, and that made it so much easier. It is somewhat difficult for teens in schools, but they go to school fasting and take food with them, in case they have to break their fast. If they do they can make up missed days in the winter when the days are shorter.
How did you feel when you first saw Ned Gannon’s illustrations? Was his vision close to the one you had in mind? What do you think his art brings to your story?
When I first saw Ned Gannon’s illustrations I loved how elaborate they were. I saw a black and white sketch first and he had captured the details so well. I have to say I absolutely loved his use of color and the effect of light and shade that seem to be his signature. I feel he captured the essence of the festival and the country and the characters superbly.
Please tell us the story behind your dedication: "To Mom and Dad, I walked and walked."
Maha at about age 3
What was your childhood like? Which books did you love most?
I loved to draw and write from a very young age. I loved reading Charlotte’s Web, Paddington Bear. Jack London’s Call of the Wild and White Fang were my favorites and so were all the Enid Blyton books I could get my hands on. I also loved the Famous Five and Agatha Christie mysteries. But what I also enjoyed reading were books in Arabic.
There was this series called "The Green Library," that revolved around folktales and legends. They are so rich in detail and I bought the entire series as an adult and sometimes read them to capture the nostalgia of my childhood.
Why did you decide to re-craft your journalistic training into writing for children, and how does it influence your work today?
Maha’s workspace at home
I am so much in awe of how much you do. How do you manage to balance your writing life with your personal life?
Some weeks are very tough. Close your eyes and point to the calendar to any day and I guarantee that day was not a typical one for me. I start my day at around 4:45 a.m. I do a little reading and sometimes a little writing, but I go back to bed for another hour. It may sound strange, but in college when I had writing assignments for English class and woke up early (and went back to sleep for a little more), I was able to will my mind to think of themes and story ideas. It happened several times so I knew it was no coincidence.
Maha reads to Ramzy and Samer
Balancing home life is very hard sometimes. My teen daughters are a blessing. They are very independent and help me out with my younger boys. In the summer especially, they help with babysitting. One of my daughters loves to cook and she’s really good at it, so she takes over the cooking. During the year it’s hit or miss. I try to plan ahead, but sometimes you get things from left field so you have to improvise. Usually things tend to work themselves out. Writing gets squeezed in very early or very late in the day, or both.
Picture books are still a tough sell. Any advice for those hoping to break in?
I think that if you enjoy writing picture books keep on writing them. Don’t worry about the market. Write for your own personal enjoyment first, which makes for better writing, and this leads to publication. I think the key is to want to write for writing itself, versus having publication be your main focus. Also, try to constantly read as many picture books as you can. It’s amazing how that can spark ideas.
What’s next for you?
I sold my second fiction picture book to Boyds Mills Press, and I’m working on a third, which is a little different, because it is nonfiction.
Describe yourself in 5 words.
Always wanting to do more.
Passions besides reading and writing.
I love antique stores and yard sales; I’ve also recently learned to bead bracelets. I enjoy doing watercolor painting with my son, who recently started art lessons with renowned watercolor artist Lou Negri.
3 fondest wishes.
I wish for my children to all find a field of study that gives them lifelong enjoyment.
I wish to find that magic button that once pressed gives one total peace of mind.
I wish for world peace and the end of stereotyping and alienating of people and nations that choose other ways of life.
5 favorite foods.
Anything my mother cooks. I hate to brag, but my mom cooks Asian, Italian, and Mediterranean food like an expert gourmet chef. I also love seafood from my days living by the sea. Fishermen walked along the shore in front of our house with boxes filled with fish so fresh they still moved!
Please describe your favorite childhood food-related memory.
I grew up in a close-knit family of four. On weekends my dad had a ritual of getting up early to make a special breakfast dish that had hummus as its main ingredient, but which is served warm. So we would have stations. My mom would make the hummus, my dad would toast the bread (which went into the dish); my brother would mince garlic, and I would squeeze lemons.
We had a little garden so I also got to get the fresh herbs. Then the ingredients were mixed together with hot water and the dish was dressed up with pine seeds sauteed in olive oil. This breakfast dish is tangy and with green olives its flavors danced on your tongue. Of course we would have this with mint tea. The dish is called Fatet Hummus.
Please share a recipe with us, something you might prepare for Iftar (meal taken at sunset to break the fast during Ramadan).
Iftar food often starts with soup and then mostly stews and savory pastries, but the thing most associated with the month is the Ramadan desserts. I make five or six different desserts through the month. Some take a long time to make, while others have fast prep time and are just as tasty.
For instance, I make a basic bread pudding, but the moment it’s done baking, I drench it with sweetened condensed milk and whipped cream. It is awesome. I also make pastries with homemade pancake-like pastry, filled with walnuts (or pecans), cinnamon and sugar, deep fried and drenched in homemade syrup. This dessert is also perfect with substitute sugar and works with store-bought puff pastry which you can bake, instead of fry.
BREAD PUDDING WITH CONDENSED MILK TOPPING
8 slices of white bread (hand shredded into small pieces)
4 eggs, lightly whisked (or 5 egg whites)
1 12-oz can evaporated milk (you could use fat-free)
1 T sugar
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp ground nutmeg
1/3 cup raisins (optional)
1 T butter cut into small pats
1 can sweetened, condensed milk
1 8-oz tub of Cool Whip
Preheat oven to 325 degrees F.
Spray an 8" x 8" baking dish with non-stick spray.
Place bread in baking dish.
In a separate bowl, whisk eggs, evaporated milk, sugar, cinnamon and nutmeg (and raisins, if you are using them), and pour over bread in baking dish. Use a spoon to push down the bread to ensure it is soaked well with the milk mixture.
Put pats of butter on top.
Bake uncovered for 25 minutes at 325 degrees F, and for an additional 5 minutes at 400 degrees F, or until golden brown.
Remove from oven, scoop immediately into individual serving ramekins/glass bowls. Drizzle with sweetened condensed milk (to taste). Add a dollop of Cool Whip.
*Store extras covered in fridge. This pudding tastes great the second day. Just microwave for 30 seconds and add condensed milk and Cool Whip and it tastes just as fresh as on the first day.
*You could add chocolate chips and toasted pecans to this recipe over the Cool Whip, but it tastes really good plain.
To learn more about Ned Gannon, who created the beautiful oil paintings for this book, visit his website.
Boyds Mills Press website is here.
Lovely review in the Jordan Times here.
SPECIAL BOOK GIVEAWAY: Just leave a comment here by midnight Friday (EST), September 19th, for a chance to win a signed, personalized copy of The White Nights of Ramadan!!
*Interior images posted by permission, copyright © 2008 Ned Gannon, published by Boyds Mills Press. All rights reserved.