As we celebrate the month of Ramadan, and think about how to increase diversity and representation in the books our children are reading, this sumptuous hardback, Riding a Donkey Backwards dropped onto my doormat, and I had to share it with you. It’s a collection of 21 tales and riddles about a trickster known across Muslim culture. Mulla Nasruddin is both the wisest man and the biggest fool. Through telling some of his stories, all contained on one or two pages, Sean Taylor, the Khayaal Theatre, and Shirin Adl bring the tales to life with drama and creativity.
Each tale is only a paragraph or two long – spanning one or two pages, with full double page colour collage illustrations. The text is jaunty and chatty, as befits the subject, and some tales and riddles leave a wry smile, others pose philosophical questions. Many invite critical thinking, but there are those that are just silly – on purpose. The text feels modern, but the illustrations feel traditional – set in familiar age-old landscapes, such as a school, a kitchen table, a market place. A Nice Steam Bath is illustrated to look as if it’s a wordless comic strip or an ancient scroll, and many of the collages use domestic materials such as a child might use: cotton wool beards, glass bead rivers. They are bright and welcoming, playful and intelligent.
Below, Sean Taylor explains about the book.
How did Riding a Donkey Backwards come about?
“It came about, indirectly, because of a terror attack. Back on 7th January 2015, there was a massacre in Paris, at the offices of Charlie Hebdo magazine. That day, I could feel people in the UK were shaken by the nearness of the violence, and I sensed some ‘retreating into shells’ going on. This made me want to do the opposite. At an event at Shakespeare’s Globe about 12 years previously, I’d met Luqman Ali and he’d given me a leaflet about Khayaal Theatre. Khayaal is a theatre company founded by him and Eleanor Martin. It is dedicated to showcasing the rich traditions of story, poetry and humour in Muslim cultures, and also to building engagement between Muslim communities and the wider world. I kept the leaflet Luqman had given me. Sometimes I’d come across it, wonder if there might be some way of collaborating with Khayaal, and decide probably not. But, that day, I wrote to Luqman. Looking back, my message said, among other things:
I have no more connection with, or understanding of, the Islamic world than you would expect from a man with an interest in stories and poetry who grew up in the home counties of England. My strongest connections are, in fact, not to the east, but to the west. My wife is from, Brazil. We have lived there on and off over the past twenty years. But rather than seeing these things as obstacles, I shall, for the sake of this message, see them as reasons for making connection. Might we meet? Might we talk a bit about stories, and about theatre and about work with young people? Might something fruitful result from this impulse to reach out? ”
What happened next?
“We did meet, at the British Library, a few weeks later. And it was clear that, though we are from quite different cultural backgrounds, we had a lot in common in terms of our work around story and education, and our shared interest in the imagination, dreams and humour. So it seemed natural to try to find a way to work together. I had in mind there might be ways Khayaal could make use of my experience of writing for theatre. Actually, they expressed an interest in writing a children’s book. So the idea of retelling some of the stories of Mulla Nasruddin in a publication for young readers was born. I thought newly-founded Otter-Barry Books might show interest in the project. And I’m happy to say they did.”
Who exactly is Mulla Nasruddin?
“There’s no exact answer. Some say Nasruddin was a real man who lived in the thirteenth century. Nobody knows for sure! Many different countries claim to be his birthplace, including Turkey and Iran. In the introduction to the book we say:
He has many names because stories about him are told in many different countries. In Turkey he is Hodja. In Central Asia he is Afandi. The Arabs know him as Joha. Others call him Mulla Nasruddin. He is a trickster. And Muslims all over the world love him because he makes them laugh. If he doesn’t make you laugh, he will certainly make you think – and perhaps think sideways instead of straight ahead. He may even make your thoughts do somersaults inside your mind!”
Why retell these Nasruddin stories?
“They are age-old stories, but I think they are absolutely relevant to the times we live in. Nasruddin challenges fixed ways of looking at our world, and stuck ways of behaving. So the stories about him fly in the face of fundamentalist thinking – whether it be the single-track thinking of Islamist fundamentalism or the equally narrow thinking of Islamophobia. Take a story like the one we’ve called They Can’t Both Be Right! In this, Mulla Nasruddin is asked to settle an argument between two men, in a tea house. Nasruddin listens to the first man and says, “You are right.” Then he listens to the second man and says, “You are right.” Then the owner of the tea-house says, “Well, they can’t both be right!” And Nasruddin says, “You are right!” This is a brilliant, light-hearted way of pointing out that the world cannot be seen in black and white (as more and more people seem happy to see it.) In another story, called Don’t Ask Me! the donkey Nasruddin is riding is startled by a snake. As the donkey gallops madly off, a young farmer calls out, “Where are you going, Nasruddin?” Nasruddin calls back, “Don’t ask me! Ask the donkey!” Can you feel how this has a message for anyone who thinks they have simple answers to the challenges of our times? When an out-of-control donkey is carrying you, how can you sit there stiffly certain about where you are going? At one level this tale is just a funny anecdote. But scratch its surface (or the surface of the other stories in our book) and you find wisdom. Nasruddin asks fresh questions in the face of ready-made answers. The stories in Riding a Donkey Backwards offer new ways of thinking to anyone numbed by the world, or feeling driven to recrimination and aggression. These are reasons why we wanted to bring Nasruddin, his provocations and his heartfelt laughter to life for young readers.”
How was the book created?
“Khayaal Theatre’s Eleanor Martin joined Luqman and me in the writing process. And it turned out to be a fruitful collaboration, with lots of discussion, and drafts to-ing and fro-ing as we worked out which Nasruddin stories to include and how to tell them on the page. Otter-Barry Books brought Iranian illustrator Shirin Adl on board, and Shirin came up with the wonderfully crafted illustrations which make Riding a Donkey Backwards so beautiful to look at.”
With thanks to Sean Taylor. You can buy Riding a Donkey Backwards here.