Maitha Al Khayat is a member of a new breed of superheroes. The mother of five has made a name for herself as one of the UAE’s most prolific Emirati children’s illustrators and writers, yet most of her fans haven’t seen her face.
“My niqab is my creativity hat,” says the Emirati from Ras Al Khaimah. “It is my secret identity. When I am wearing it, I feel more empowered as the focus is more on my talent, rather than my looks.”
In less than 10 years, Al Khayat has published 17 books (five in English and sold internationally). Six tackle cultural themes, including My Own Special Way (about the hijab), When a Camel Craves Logaimat (about Emirati desserts) and I Love My Mum's Pretty Veil, which was made into a reading app in 2014. Her next book is due out in November.
"I get inspiration from everywhere. For example, Turn Off the Lights came to me after finding it hard to get my first son Omar to sleep," she says. "I was like: 'Aha. I should write about a farm boy who sneaks into the barnyard to play with the baby animals, but discovered that they all preferred bedtime at night .'"
Bubbly and animated in her readings and workshops, Al Khayat’s niqab-wearing avatar has become her signature icon, expressing her different moods and modes.
“There is a misconception about women who are veiled and wear the niqab, that they are weak or meek and were forced to do so. I make a point of showing that is not always true,” she says. “I am just a mum who enjoys modesty and privacy.”
She also writes for children's TV shows, including the newly relaunched Arabic version of Sesame Street.
Books have always been important to the author, who spent most of her childhood with her nose in a book. “I would read everywhere and all the time. I would read in the car, at social gatherings, to the point my mother and sister begged me to stop and socialise,” she says.
What five things do you always pack when you travel?
A novel, notebook, pencil, paintbrush and watercolours. Can I add my phone, too?
What’s your favourite food?
Black sugarless coffee, all kinds of omelettes and cheeses.
What’s the best thing you have ever received?
The gift of having children. They are heavenly gifts, [even if] they act like demons most of the time. But they are the ones who have turned me into the author Maitha Al Khayat.
What sort of car do you drive and what does it say about you?
I kind of prefer those mini hatchback cars, so my first car was a Honda Jazz. But I had to change to a four-wheel drive [Toyota Land Cruiser] Prado to accommodate my growing family.
What’s your favourite travel destination?
Mainly to places that are green with cool spring weather. Why green? Because I love green meadows and trees. Why cool? Obviously because I’m wearing layers.
What’s your favourite movie?
I have to say Braveheart.
What’s the first book you ever read?
Dr. Seuss's The Cat in the Hat. I was surprised to read a book about a cat that is witty with words.
Who’s your favourite musician?
I mostly listen to music when I’m driving or writing. The kind of music that unplugs my creativity is spiritique music, especially by Sami Yusuf and Maher Zain. I like listening to Turkish music as well.
What advice do you have for young writers in the Middle East?
Don’t be afraid of yourself. Don’t listen to that inner voice that says you can’t be a writer or you can’t write about this. Just grab your pen and write.
Is there an artist or writer who particularly inspires you?
There are so many who inspire me, but in the Arab region, I would pick the Emirati artist Abdulla Al Sharhan, when it comes to drawing. As for novels, it would be the award-winning Kuwaiti novelist Saud Al Sanousi, author of The Bamboo Stalk.