A few years ago, Sarah Sillis was looking for a book to read to her children about Emirati traditions. When she couldn't find any, she wrote her own.
The result is Zayoodi's Adventures, about an Emirati boy nicknamed Zayoodi. Sillis, who lives in Abu Dhabi, wrote the story with another mother, Dina Nahas. The first book in the series, Zayoodi visits the parade, is about the National Day festivities, with a simple story enlivening the holiday for youngsters: Zayoodi wants to bring his Emirati flag to wave, but needs his father's help in finding it. The book is full of lovely local details, such as the air show on the Abu Dhabi Corniche, as well as a comprehension guide for parents so they can reinforce key parts of the story.
“In our mind it was for expats to teach their children about Emirati culture,” Sillis tells me. “But Emirati kids are the ones who get excited about it. When I first read it to my son, his eyes lit up. ‘Look, baba! He wears his kandura like I do on Fridays!’”
Sillis named the main character after her eldest son, Zayed, but she, and the series’ co-creators, could also be considered the story’s subject: they tell their own story about the diversity of the UAE today. Sillis is originally from Belgium, but met and married an Emirati man and has now been living here for 16 years. Her co-author, Nahas, is Palestinian-Bosnian, and married to a Lebanese man, and the illustrator, also a mother, is Bulgarian-Egyptian.
Sillis and Nahas plan to make Zayoodi's Adventures into an education package, with three more titles planned, as well as games, dolls, and teaching aides designed for school use. A second main character will be introduced – Nada, named after Nahas's daughter.
It taps into a larger initiative to promote an understanding of Emirati identity in schools.
“This year, the Dubai Ministry of Education mandated that social studies be taught in all school curriculums,” Sillis tells me. “So we have written the stories related to the theme of ‘my identity’, with topics such as National Day and National Dress.”
Zayoodi's Adventures comes after the Tales of Hamad, another series of books adapting Emirati folklore, written by Ahmed Al Shoaibi. The series is best known for The Camel and the Drone, and is geared towards an older market; they often feature its protagonist, the plucky Hamad, demonstrating that traditional activities like camel racing or the Halloween-esque festival of Gergi'an are more fun than video games.
Sillis too could be described as a plucky character. She converted to Islam at the age of 16, and moved to the UAE, taking a job as a flight attendant for Emirates Airline, to advance her Arabic. There, she fell in love with an Emirati, and they overcame some opposition to be married – something that is still unusual in the Emirates. She is happily open about their differences: family, for example, is much more present in the UAE than in Belgium. "He makes fun of me because I have to make an appointment to visit my brother," she laughs. On the other hand, she can never believe how emotional he gets about their daughter, she says.
Before marrying, she learnt Arabic calligraphy, driving in her days off to study with a master calligrapher in Sharjah, in studios just by the Sharjah Art Museum. And a few years ago, dismayed by the lack of choices for modest swim- and sportswear, she launched her own line: SaQueena. Now, as a mother of three, she’s started this new business.
Last year, Sillis and Nahas participated in an incubator for female-led small-scale initiatives, run in Dubai by JP Morgan and the Cherie Blair Foundation. They were among the winners of the competition and received six months of business workshops, which helped them refine the idea from a series of books into a full educational package. Once they get the funding together – they are drawing on their savings at the moment – they will launch the rest of the suite. Though they originally planned only to write the books in English, she said they might add Arabic translations because of interest among Emiratis.
“This project has surprised me so much,” she says. “The children are so happy to recognise their culture in the stories.”
Zayoodi visits the parade is available at Early Starters in Abu Dhabi, Bookworm in Dubai, and The Bookshop in Al Ain, Abu Dhabi, Fujairah and Ras al Khaimah