“Umar & the Bully”

In 1996, when I was working three part-time jobs in London, I wrote a children’s story for the Islamic Foundation (UK)’s first national children’s story writing competition. At the time, I lived in Yusuf Islam/Cat Stevens’ rooming house on Walm Lane, not far from Islamia Public School, sharing the house with two Bosnian refugee women, one Lebanese teacher of Arabic, and, for a short while, a pregnant teenaged Muslim convert.
Perpetually short of cash, when I heard about the story writing competition and the £500 award, I set to work writing a story. I really needed that cash. But how to type it up? One of my employers, for whom I edited and translated documents, smirked and said, “Only a fool would buy a typewriter in this day and age.” But I didn’t own a computer (this was 1996, remember), and I was making so little money that the government helped me pay my rent. So, like a fool, I went to Staples at Brent Cross, and bought a Brother electronic typewriter. I’d grown up using an old Remington typewriter purchased in the early 1970s, and I hadn’t had access to email until 1994, so I didn’t weep for a computer. I was grateful.
In my little room with its twin bed and the radiators that froze at night, I typed up that story, and then I sent it off to the Islamic Foundation in Leicester.
The first time I wrote stories was at the age of six. My mother liked my story, and encouraged me to send it to The Pakistan Times “Children’s Page.” They published it. I wrote more stories. My friends at school read my stories and liked them. Then I wrote poems – the kind with rhyming couplets. Then, for a time, I wrote preachy letters of protest that were published in the Letters to the Editor. I typed them all up on that old Remington typewriter that my parents brought with them from Britain, when my father did his Ph.D. at Chelsea College of Science and Technology. I used that typewriter from 1974 to the late 1980s. I have a big zippered binder full of clippings of stories, poems, and angry letters that were published in The Pakistan Times. Naturally, hey are embarrassing for me now.
It was Dr. Farhat Hashmi (then Director of the Women’s Section at the International Islamic University), who first introduced me to her personal laptop. As lecturer of English at the IIU, I typed up official letters for her on that laptop. But no email. We didn’t have email back then. I first met email in 1994 when I went to Cambridge.
Back to the story I typed up and sent for the competition. In August of 1996, I suddenly got notification that Indiana University had some financial support for me to pursue my Ph.D. there. They’d offered me admission in 1995, but I deferred admission since I had no money.
Soon after I arrived in Bloomington, I heard from the Islamic Foundation: my story, Umar and the Bully, had won first prize and £500. It was to be published.
UntitledThe hero of Umar and the Bully, Umar is named after my nephew. Umar is developmentally challenged, a lovable huge heart of a boy – well, he’s a young man now – who was the first baby in my family. Umar’s struggles to love and be loved have always broken my heart, as has his treatment at the hands of so many people. Umar has always fought bullies with love. Umar in my story – a young boy in elementary school – stands up to bullies to protect a little boy, Asad (my younger nephew Asad was small in stature, sensitive, and brilliant).
Years later, I assumed the book was no longer relevant.
Imagine my surprise when I discovered, a few weeks ago, that Umar and the Bully is still being used and recommended for anti-bullying work in schools.
In the book Bullying Prevention & Intervention: realistic strategies for schools the authors discuss a 2006 study that
asked 3rd grade students and teachers to rate children’s books about bullying. From 24 children’s books on the subject, the children listed their top five most-liked books in terms of teaching about bullies.
Wow. Umar and the Bully was their third favorite.
This is especially surprising to me since my story is explicitly grounded in the Muslim spiritual resources that the protagonist Umar brings to his experience of bullying. And the study was conducted in Nebraska, with children ages 8-9, 87% of whom were European-American. 17757314_1281538045226543_6489230648953932633_n
Intrigued, I searched again (because what is nicer than googling your own work?) I found a 2016 blog post by a school librarian, who spoke in glowing terms of Umar and the Bully, correctly stating that the book had been on her shelves for a “long, long time.”
It’s been around for 20 years, to be exact. I always thought of writing as a form of ongoing charity, or sadaqa jariya. You never knew what good it could do, long after the writer was dead (or long after the writer quit writing fiction). It’s nice to know that this little book I wrote in a state of poverty, wondering if I would ever have a real job, is still possibly doing some good in the world.

6 thoughts on ““Umar & the Bully””

  1. Yes I remember that book baitee as bullying was not as well known at that time as it is now. It made such good reading but it is only now I see how and why you wrote it. “History”of this book is just as essential for all as it is for your family especially me. Incidentaly I saw comment of Ayeman Fadel. He is known to me because his parents are very good friends of mine

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