author: Mark Gonzales
Salaam Speaks / Simon & Schuster, 2017
In this letter to his young daughter, Afro-Mexica Muslim father, poet and spoken-word artist Gonzales gently and lovingly introduces her to the many facets of her world. Speaking directly to Muslim children and indirectly to all children everywhere, he addresses the beauty of Islam and “learning what it means to be human.”
It has been said,
if you climb a tree
to the very top and laugh,
your smile will touch the sky.
From the ground below, the hopeful father looks up at his daughter. Smiling and secure, she is balanced at the top of a tree, her arms spread to take in all that surrounds her. Here, her father reimagines a teaching from Rumi, 13th Century Muslim scholar, philosopher and poet, who wrote: “Only from the heart can you touch the sky.”
As well, there are many Koranic references to dreams, which are often said to be prophecies. Introducing this concept to his daughter, Gonzales continues,
If you stay there overnight,
you will learn to count stars like dreams.
As they walk in the steel shadows of skyscrapers, Gonzales reminds his daughter of the giant Mayan pyramids “that too lived amongst the heavens.” As they fly together through the skies, he tells her that there are “questions we all ask when we are learning what it means to be human”—and “questions this world will ask,” some curious and others hostile.
Gonzales tells his daughter to say it with him: “Yo soy Muslim,” and the child is no longer questioning. She knows who she is and what she comes from, and confidently holds her arms out to embrace her world:
Yo soy Muslim.
By those who dance with the wind,
smile at the sun,
laugh in the rain,
Amini’s digitally rendered collage-style art, on a vibrant, jewel-toned palette, features bold, exuberant designs and expressions that complement Gonzales’ careful and loving teachings.
Every detail has meaning, and Amini’s bright, stylized art reflects the multicultural and multiethnic nature of Islam. Throughout, Gonzales’ Afro-Mexica daughter wears a beautiful Mexica orange, red and green embroidered-and-fringed dress, along with striped leggings for modesty; when she’s not barefoot, her shoes of choice are the ever-popular Crocs. And, as a child, she wears hijab only when she prays.
In many illustrations, the child’s eyebrows are raised, sometimes questioning, sometimes in wonder. In most, she is depicted with her father or her mother, rarely alone, always protected. When the child proffers her hand to a curious group of strangers, her mother, a hijabi who wears a beautifully patterned jilbab, empowers her daughter by quietly standing behind her; but when other strangers appear less than friendly, her mother turns to her daughter, takes her hand and calmly speaks to her.
“On that day,” Gonzales writes, when she must abide the hostile stares of unsmiling strangers, “tell them this…”
Yo soy Muslim.
I am from Allah, angels,
and a place almost as old as time.
I speak Spanish, Arabic,
On one side of a particularly evocative spread, a sorrowful mama holds her baby close. She wears a loose green headscarf patterned with plants growing in cultivated rows. Her headscarf design trails across to the next page that shows where her sadness originates: a slightly stooped-over abuelo, working the fields with a hoe. Some young readers may recognize her as Pachamama, the sacred Earth Mother of the Indigenous peoples of the Andes—and know that their own ancestors are both spiritual and physical:
Mi mama creates life.
Mi abuelo worked the fields.
My ancestors did amazing things
and so will I.
Surrounded by the love and protection of her faith, her parents and her community, Gonzales’ young daughter is standing confidently on the top branches of a tree, arms spread to take in all the world. She is counting stars like dreams and soaring over the minarets with a flock of geese. She is contemplating the ancient Mayan pyramids in the steel shadows of skyscrapers and meditating in a mosque. She is receiving the blessings that hummingbirds send with their wings and listening to the ancient drums in the hoofbeats of horses and the sweet music of the angels.
As a parent, Gonzales understands that his job is to instill confidence and humility and love and reverence and joy in his young Afro-Mexica Muslim daughter. “No matter what they say,” he tells her,
….know you are wondrous.
A child of crescent moons,
a builder of mosques,
a descendant of brilliance,
an ancestor in training.
This lyrical, compassionate, and intensely personal book is for all Muslim children—no, for all children. Yo Soy Muslim is highly, highly recommended.
(published 7/2/18; revised 7/21/18, rewrote paragraph (“On one side of a particularly evocative spread...” to substitute “Pachamama” for “Madre Tierra.”)
Thank you to my dear friends, Nasira Abdul-Aleem, Hadiyah Abdul-Mu’min, Shohreh Doustani, Mehdi Rajabzadeh, and Reyhaneh Rajabzadeh.