A Book of Belonging

NYU Abu Dhabi senior Maryam Alshehhi published her Arabic children’s book that addresses questions of belonging and identity.

The journey for NYU Abu Dhabi senior Maryam Alshehhi to publish a children’s book was rife with challenges. After several attempts of meeting with publishing houses – and several rejections– Alshehhi decided to pause, reflect on her work, and try again. 

Working in student jobs with the NYU Abu Dhabi Admissions department, the Arts Center, the Arabic department, and several research and editing positions, Alshehhi set her sights on saving enough money from student jobs during to publish her passion project herself –all before even becoming a senior at NYUAD. 

The self-funded Arabic children’s book “What does it mean to belong?” is the result of engaging conversations about the concept of home, faculty mentorship, and university programs such as the FYD (First Year Dialogue) and the RealAD reality show that resonate with the diverse student body. 

But as is often the case, Alshehhi found that this question had been framing the way she viewed her experience at a University that students from 115 countries call home. It’s not only a question that Alshehhi spends time thinking about, but it is also a question that NYUAD students want their students to consider from their first day. 

Beginning with engaging in conversations with students and several faculty members including Najwa Belkziz from the Library Summer Scholars Program in 2021, Alshehhi gradually learned the process of fine tuning the book into what is now a published children’s book. This journey taught her a lot about the world of storyboard drafts and illustrations, along with writing through a child's eyes, editing, and navigating different perspectives from the publishing house and the illustrator which she learned thoroughly from their expertise.   

Emphasizing on the beginning, Alshehhi mentions that the conversations picked up pace during the pandemic lockdowns in 2020, when the frantic pace of our daily lives took a slower turn towards self reflection, acceptance, and introspective thoughts. However, the idea of the book and answering the question at the heart of many people’s young lives began much earlier. 

The book hit at the very heart of Alshehhi’s experience growing up in Ras Al Khaimah and Abu Dhabi, but also she found that many of her peers around her experienced the same. 

“After 2 years of dreaming, researching, reaching out, being rejected, editing, re-editing, saving money, and purely following my passion- my first book is finally here! It was purely inspired by my conversations at NYU Abu Dhabi and was supported by several faculty members. Growing up in between two cities, Ras Al Khaimah where my family is originally from and Abu Dhabi where I was born and raised, I always questioned belonging in the background, but NYU Abu Dhabi allowed this question to thrive and exist in words and stories that might (hopefully) resolve this endless query!” she said. 

The story, which follows the protagonist Maha, who was named after Alshehhi’s youngest sister, follows a young girl navigating the often tumultuous world of belonging. In her journey, she begins to seek answers to this abstract term through the people, places, things, and moments that live in her memories. 

In publishing a book that has been bursting to be expressed, Alshehhi has helped not only herself navigate through the experience of growing up in an increasingly multicultural world, but also what she hopes will guide many children  that search for meaning to the series of abstract terms that exist out there. 

The book was published in Abu Dhabi’s International Book Fair this year, and is available on Sail Publishing’s website.