The literature awards championing cross cultural exchange and education

  • By S.Q.Hafiz

The Young Muslim Writers Awards 2015 | London

During the ice age when man kind filled his time with survival and hunting, there was no need for Arts, no need to develop music or create jewellery and bodily adornments, yet this is exactly what man kind did. There is arguably no need for the Arts, yet it is precisely this fact that shows the beauty of humanity.

Now in it’s fifth year The Young Muslim Writers Awards are a champion showcase of cross cultural literacy and a platform for our youth to express their desires, creativity, hopes, dreams and fears. It is also an opportunity for us to learn from our children and to encourage and guide their natural talents and skills.

Organized by Nottingham based Charity Muslim Hands, the award works in with Penguin publishing and schools across the entire country, with both Muslim and non Muslim staff and students to encourage education and development. Tolerance and education are at the very heart of Islam, the first word of the Qur’an revealed to Muhammad (saws) was “Read”, the Qur’an was sent down in the form of a book, Muslims are encouraged to live in peace and harmony and to constantly learn and teach.

Maqsood Ahmed OBE the Director of community wellfare and development at Muslim Hands, keynote speaker at the awards and former government advisor in the Prevent Program, explained:

“Every child matters and every child deserves to be educated, regardless of faith, race and colour. This is just about education and creativity for us here today, nothing political.”

At times when schools are all but interrogating their Muslim pupils to hunt for signs of radicalisation, many feel too afraid to have an opinion or to ask a question for fear of it being misunderstood and used as a weapon against themselves and their families. The Young Muslim Writers Awards offers the space and support for children ages 5-16 to articulate themselves away from accusations and stereotypes.

A young talented creative writer and winner of both the Key Stage 4 Poetry and Key Stage 4 Short Story awards, referred to by several audience members as “the next J.K.R” and “the Muslim Terry Pratchett”. Lower Sixth student, 16 year old Safeerah Mughal summarised the mind set of the talented and driven writers at the awards with her response to being asked whether or not the Prevent strategy has affected the manner or subject matter of her writing: “If you are articulate and write in an educated and effective way then you will be seen as impartial. My stories are about fantasy worlds, but the poem I am nominated for here today is about an orphan and was inspired by the tragedy occurring currently in Syria.”

It is evident that the concerns regarding the political repercussions of expressing a free opinion were limited to the parents and tutors of the young writers who themselves had no political motives nor fears, concerned only with developing their skills in creativity and looking to their parents and tutors equally for support.

Tim Bowler, author of over 20 novels aimed at young adults and winner of over fifteen awards himself expressed his joy at being one of the 33 impressive judges and a key note speaker at the awards ceremony. Bowler explained how it is important to inspire both a love of reading, as well as writing in our youth. The importance for creativity to be allowed free reign without such stringent targets to adhere to in the class room. Bowler tells of how in his school days they were allowed 20 minutes to read what ever they liked, high brow classics, or popular trash, it was not important, the fact that they were reading followed by a group discussion and analysis afterwards was what counted. The freedom of choice, supported by discussion and reinforced with guidance is what nurtures great creative genius. Yet Bowler was not alone in expressing the important role that the parents play, if the parents do not read to their children nor encourage reading at home then they are instantly at a disadvantage. Writing be it poetry, creative writing, factual or journalistic is an art form and has played an important role in human history, yet many parents neglect to encourage this skill at home entirely.

Bowler continued to explain how both Muslims and non Muslims need to interact more to encourage engagement with both your own and other cultures. Fellow key note speaker and infamous author Louis De Bernieres is a classic example of somebody who is able to write outside of their own culture using themes, locations and characters from Britain, Turkey, Greece, Italy, Latin America and beyond. When asked about the importance of a Louis De Bernieres style of cross cultural normality Bowler replies simply yet elegantly “It is essential, otherwise we will head towards a rather insular cultural domain. All cultures need to interact more and literature is a great platform to do so.”

Tim Bowler and Imaan Maryam Irfan

Tim Bowler and Imaan Maryam Irfan


Meeting the teachers

The winner of two awards aforementioned Safeerah Mughal from Feversham College in Bradford joined me along with college representative Dianne Excell to try and gain an understanding of how events like the Young Muslim Writers Awards affect the everyday life and education of students across the entire country not just in London.

First of all Dianne, a non Muslim, explains how although their staff and teachers are a well balanced natural mixture of Muslim and non Muslim, their students happen to be entirely Muslim. I asked Safeerah how well that worked in terms of support and understanding of both practical mainstream and religious needs. Both Safeerah and Dianne comment on the good balance of equal support from both Muslim and non Muslim staff, “it creates an environment where there is no fear of asking questions, the cultural exchange is a positive one” One student’s entry was titled “No I don’t sleep with it on” a comical insight into the inquisitive nature of children in multicultural environments.

At the awards for the third year in a row with two students in the final short lists, Feversham College had a strong reputation of success to live up to at the awards, a challenge that was well met with 2 students making it to the final 40 short list and one student picking up two awards. With 15-20 entrants each year from Feversham it became apparent that participation and interest is maintained by a supportive cocktail of parental appreciation for the artistic skills of their children, the freedom for creative exploration from their teachers and the fact that winners of the awards become Muslim Hands’ mentors for the next year’s event, travelling to other schools to talk about their experiences. Muslim Hands, Penguin Publishing, The Young Muslim Writers Awards and the schools and colleges themselves all participate in actively seeking publicity for the works of the winning entrants.

Not all entrants were accompanied by representatives from their schools or colleges as one student from Birmingham explained the process was a personal one with support coming from his family. It is disappointing to see such a wide gap in quality of support and guidance such as the gap between the school in Birmingham and college in Bradford. Dianne from Feversham explained how the college accompanied Safeerah when she was invited to attend Downing Street.

Louis De Bernieres and Safeerah Mughal

Louis De Bernieres and Safeerah Mughal


 A final word from Maqsood Ahmed before the main ceremony

“It is important that we don’t talk to our youth, but with them, it is the younger generations who in the next ten years or so will be in positions of authority, it is important that we plant the seeds that produce fruit now”

With an overly obvious lack of Muslim mainstream authors in the UK Ahmed explains how although the awards are celebrating the education and freedom of creativity of all young people, Muslims are disproportionately disadvantaged. “Teachers have low expectations and parents have low appreciation of their children’s skills when it comes to writing and the arts” 

Ahmed explains how if all of our parents only focus on Medicine or Law then the next generation has a significant gap in it’s skill set, the humanities are a skill set that are required to assist in societal function, a skill set that disproportionately is unrepresentative of the Muslim faith.

Ahmed also expresses the importance of the role of society, “It is not the government’s job to tell people what to think with Prevent. Local communities, organised by and for the youth need to tackle issues and ask questions themselves. Limiting a child’s freedom of expression and creativity can only limit a child’s development.”

Echoing the comments and sentiment from student and award winner Safeera Mughal, Maqsson Ahmed commenting on the importance of being able to express yourself through literature explains: “If you express your concerns in an educated and articulate manner, the room for misunderstanding is significantly reduced”.


The Awards Ceremony

In Senate House of the University of London, WC1, Behind the bank of press and broadcasting cameras I overlooked a surprising plethora of established talent, enthusiastic, and buzzing with positivity.

The awards ceremony sponsored and filmed by Islam Channel TV, hosted by an array of successful public figures and authors opens with a recital, a very impressive Tajweed and translation from a young lady who opens the ceremony with the first revelations of the Qur’an “Read”.

A humours sketch follows in a short but excellent skit delivered with great professionalism, the duo who call themselves “the corner shop show” are University Students showing the lighter side to Muslims as well as showing that screen writing is writing too. The gifted humour I must admit, did indeed make me “LOL” it is rare that an amature comedy scene makes one laugh out loud in public, but kudos to the corner shop boys.

We are then educated about Muslim Hands’ work with causes such as;

Women Leadership, 68% of British Muslim females are not in work, whilst mainly from choice these women are more than not educated to degree standards or higher, Women Leadership offers the support and cultural education to allow these intelligent, highly educated young women a direct path into the mainstream economic system.

Other programs include Prisoner rehabilitation, poverty elimination, refugee support and youth empowerment which works closely with the Yusuf Islam Foundation, set up in 1982 to develop the future prospects for young people.

Before each award is given out in a discothèque of multi-coloured lights and music, a key note speaker delivers a powerful and inspirational message. Presenting the Key Stage 1 Short Story award, children’s writer Caryl Hart offered the following pearls of wisdom:

“Stories have the power to teach empathy by putting your self in the characters’ shoes, thus creating change for the better. This tolerance helps us to understand their hopes and dreams and means we are more likely to accept their views and less likely to try and impose our own upon them.”  

 

The awards are broken up with small performance art pieces from a collection of acts, including an Anglo-Greek take on ‘the ugly duckling’. The wining sotries and poems themselves cover a vast array of theams from fairytales, fantacy adventures to observational comentry and political empathy.

“As much British as Islamic, this is what we can be, accepted, mainstream, and Muslim” one of the presenters powerfully explains.

The poetry entries seemed to feature strongly themes of dual identity and life’s simple joys, always positive, inquisitive, yet unlike much adult writing void of Sinicism.

The crowd erupts into applause when Louis De Bernieres greets the theatre hall “Assalaamu alaikum and hello”

Tim Robertson, the director of the Royal Society of Literature by order of the Royal Charter used his guest appearance to reiterate:

“Muslim voices need to be heard in our country. Relations could get worse if extreme people on both sides get their way. Issues can only be solved by involving and understanding each other. The establishment needs to hear you, as Muslim writers. British tradition since the Vikings and Romans is one of multiculturalism and cultural exchange.”

 The messages of positivity and support keep on flowing with the BBC’s Yasmeen Khan: “There is no such thing as loosing, it is just an opportunity to learn something.”

Maqsood Ahmed: “What we give in our children’s hands is our future as a human race. Let’s make sure we give them pens not guns, think of humanity and not ourselves. It takes two hands to clap much as it takes two people to read a book, the reader, and the author, we need to read just as we need to write.”

One key note speaker silenced the audience for a split second to contemplate their statement: “Imagine what we would loose if we all stopped reading or writing; Life experiences, places people have been to, things we have seen, the people we have loved, the things we have lost, the things we have learned, all of these would be lessons forgotten.”

 The evening ended with an emotional acceptance from the parents of the world’s youngest Nobel Prize laureate and political activist for educational rights, Malala Yousafzai for her ‘Special Recognition Award’.

Malala’s father said simply: “Read! It is an important part of Islam to educate ourselves and our children. The quality of education is the key. Question everything, then when you learn something this way you find it is the truth, this is how education differs from indoctrination.”

Malala's parents

Malala’s parents


 S.Q.Hafiz@theinternational.org.uk