Interview With Storyteller Maryam Sinclair

Alhamdulillah I had the honor of interviewing the remarkable storyteller - Mehded Maryam Sinclair. She is the author of The Fall of the Tyrant; A Trust of Treasures, A Mercy to the Worlds, The Bowing of the Stars; Miraculous Happenings in the Year of the Elephant and When Wings Expand - the winner of the 2011 UK Muslim Writers' Association Competition.

I have all Maryam Sinclair's audio and books for my children, and that is the main reason for this interview, to promote high quality educational audio and books for children, by a fascinating Muslima. Here is an extract of her thoughts on the power of stories...

"I discovered the power of story when my sons were babies. I noticed how they responded whenever I told them anything, so I started telling them whatever I could, whether it was an account of our trip to the grocery store that morning or a rundown of what we had to do to make dinner or an actual story. I noticed when they were a bit older how they would act out, over and over, a story I had told them, endlessly exchanging roles."

The Interview

Please share with us the format, a brief description, and the dates of your publications?

  • Miraculous Happenings in the Year of the Elephant is in book, audio CD and mp3 format and was published in 2008. It is about the events in the Year of the Elephant and behind Suratul Fil.

  • A Trust of Treasures is in book format and was published in 2010. It is a story about the beauty of Allah's Creation and His Creation of man to benefit and appreciate all that He has Created.

  • A Mercy to the Worlds is in audio CD and mp 3 format and was published in 2010. It is about the coming of Muhammad (may Allah bless him and give him peace), from re-discovery of Zamzam to his encounter with Bahira the monk.

  • The Bowing of the Stars is in audio CD and mp 3 format and was published in 2010. It is about moments from the life of Yusuf (peace upon him).

  • When Wings Expand is in book format and was published in 2010. It is about a journal of 10-yr-old Muslim girl.

  • The Fall of the Tyrant is in audio CD and mp 3 format published in 2013. It is about the story of Musa (peace upon him) from birth to exodus.

What is the true meaning of storytelling, and what made you become a storyteller?

Storytelling is living, actually. Things happen to us, occur to us, inspire or puzzle or scare or delight us, and we immediately want to tell someone about them. Once they are told, shared, understood, they become different. Did you ever have the experience of telling a personal story on different occasions in different times to different people who happened to ask, and then on a particular time, your telling was deeper, more profound, maybe even made you choke up or cry when you never had before? This is an indication of how much a transaction storytelling is. The quality of a person’s listening has a huge impact on the teller.

I came to storytelling through the door of theater and dance. I didn’t have any experience with either until after I had my first child. My exposure to those included a study of world literature and mythology and folklore. I was delighted by all of it, but it was when I saw the response of my young child to it, I was really hooked. Later when I had completed my masters’ degree in counseling and was working in an adolescent drug and alcohol abuse treatment center, I began to realize the tremendous value of the life of the imagination.

My involvement with creative movement, literature, poetry, folklore, mythology, and the creative expression one must develop to work onstage, turned out to be a source of healing for me and is what eventually led me to Islam. It’s true I’ve had to unlearn some mistakes along the way, but I still found great value in such studies and believe I would have been impoverished without them.

I am sure there are those who will insist that people in the time of our Prophet, may Allah bless him and give him peace, were not involved in such things, but I beg to differ with them. In that time it was ordinary for everyone to have vast amounts of things stored in memory….poems, legends, tracts of recent and ancient history, lines of descent. Theirs was an oral culture. Instead of being privately and separately involved in reading books, they were intimately connected by shared memory.

This is, I think, the magic ingredient that brings healing, that brings the fitra to life. However, it must also be said that the road I took was full of pitfalls, a road without divine guidance. One of those pitfalls is the blurring of the line between what is true and what is fiction. Another is the difficulty presented by fiction that makes absolutely no effort to distinguish between good and evil. And a third is the unbalanced individuality that can come from focusing too much in ‘creative expression'.

I have wondered what is the significance of Mehded in your name?

The name Mehded was given to me. It is from an Arabic root which means 'opening a way which has been blocked.' InshaAllah.

I am curious about the sister behind the voice of your beautiful CD's (and I am sure others are as well), please share some of your background with us.

I am a little (almost) old grandmother living in Amman Jordan. I have 2 sons and 6 grandchildren….3 grandsons and 3 granddaughters, from 2 to 11, Alhamdulillah. I was born in Cleveland, Ohio and spent my first three years on the beach of Lake Erie. I lived in Turkey for 10 years teaching language and storytelling. As a child I was a passionate Catholic, aching to touch Isa (aleyhisalam) and his mother, Maryam, and indeed this is what brought me into Islam 40 years later, alhamdulillah. English is my first language. I have studied German and Russian extensively but used them minimally. I have extensively used Turkish and Arabic but studied them minimally. I am continuing my studies of Arabic and pray that I can be busy with that for the rest of my life inshaAllah.

I had read somewhere about your tough life growing up, what helped you survive and become someone with purpose?

I remember being told that I was stubborn and headstrong, and I am sure this is true because now I have had to work really hard to bring things into balance again. Still, I am grateful for having had those traits; I believe they helped me to survive some rough seas while I was growing up.

Growing up among people who were destroying themselves....I had from Allah the will to survive alhamdulillah so from the very beginning I had to strike out on my own. I still have great difficulty being a team player because I never learned how to trust that the people around me would do the right thing and always felt I must do it myself or be destroyed.

Another thing I think helped me survive was my ability to create a world with my imagination and then inhabit it. Later, as an adult when I began studying the theater arts and storytelling I learned how to use these capacities for specific purposes, not for escape, and I discovered that this capacity, which Allah has created for humans alone, is a gift with tremendous potential for healing and spiritual advancement. The most appropriate thing for us to do, then, is to learn how to use it; otherwise we are ungrateful.

I have so much love for the Islamic concept of fitra and understand the sacrifices that sometimes must be made to protect it. I guess the point is that everything that has and will happen is by the will and permission of Allah, and it's not always for us to understand or be in a position to do anything about it. If we truly love Him we must somehow stop protesting and complaining in the wrong ways, and learn how to do it in the right ways. May He help us and clarify for us what we need.

Alhamdulillah, that is a wise way of looking at life. Most of us have someone we look up to, who do you admire the most?

I remember very clearly feeling that Isa aleyhisalam and Maryam were my hero/heroine and I remember weeping with longing for them. Incidentally they became my doorway to Islam. When I discovered what Islam had to say about each of them, it was all over for me alhamdulillah. I honestly cannot think of anyone else who fits that description for me.

What inspired you to start writing and producing childrens' books and CD stories?

I found a great void of well-written materials capable of capturing imaginations with these best of all stories.

How do you research the content for your stories?

I work from Qur'an and Hadith, consult the Arabic sources with the help of tafseer and hadith scholars, and check everything with experts to assure correctness. Lots of dua and begging for permission. I start with the Quran. I spend hours with tafseer scholars who are studying the Arabic works of the most prominent scholars. With the Fall of the Tyrant, I studied works of Egyptian history and archaeology, because settings and realities of the events are known Alhamdulillah. "

You produce mostly audio books, why do you feel this is so beneficial for children?

The most powerful developmental tool of language is listening. The most powerful tool of belief is the ability to imagine and listening especially to these materials, is one of the best gifts you can give to your children. This is my intention: if it happens, it is Allah’s lutf upon us: Listening is the primary of the four language skills i.e. listening, speaking, reading and writing, because it is the first thing that a child listens in the womb long before the other language tasks are even possible.

If the listening is impaired in some way the child will not learn to speak. Language development is powered by listening. Listening also activates imagination and the production of mental images, two things that distinguish the human from all other life-forms. The vast majority of human progress has been made because of listening. The presence of written texts available to all is a relatively recent phenomenon.

In the past, information was transmitted aurally and memorized. It is an incredibly powerful activity when used properly. It can heal, it can soothe, it can inspire, it can occupy and inform and educate. A child who listens frequently to quality spoken language will have an enhanced ability with reading and writing and speaking later on. A child who listens to the ways that Allah has cared for us in the majestic events of human history will be better citizens, will have stronger faith, will be more valuable to other humans.

About the books, I have always felt hesitant about picture books. The reason I work in audio is that for me the most important benefit is the visualizing kids do as they listen. This action is essential to development. Being engrossed by a story one has listened to over and over again is a remarkably edifying activity. None of this is possible with illustrated texts. It is a great loss. There may be other benefits conferred by picture books but to my mind the most valuable and enduring ones come from listening, without ready-made images to restrict the natural flow of inner images.

What was the biggest challenges you faced while producing your work?

The first challenge was having to heal from the distortions I was carrying with me from having grown up a Christian. I had nothing to prepare me for the reality of the verifiable truth of Islam. The Revelation has been preserved in its pristine form in a language that is still being spoken today. The sayings and doings of the Messenger, may Allah bless him and give him peace, have been painstakingly preserved by the most extraordinary scholastic effort the human race has ever seen.

I had grown up among people who had lost the Revelation when they rejected and distorted the teachings of Isa aleyhisalam. So what they did, what I learned growing up, was ‘just make it up.’ There is an extraordinary Jewish folktale about the religious leader, the Bal Sham Tov, who knew the rituals, the prayers, and the places that brought the grace of Allah to the earth. But as time passed, some aspects of the rituals were list, but it was OK because still the prayers and the places were known. A bit more time passed, and then the places began to be forgotten. Well, that was OK because they still had the prayers. But soon too these were lost, but not to worry, because they could still remember and tell the stories about how the people once had all these things.

When I first heard that story it appealed to me because of the hope and the mercy it shows. But that was before I had encountered the extraordinary corpus of Islam, that so obviously carries the ancient traditions of all prophets within it, and before I learned the truth about the Jews’ rejection and the Christians’ distortion of Isa aleyhisalam. Once I knew those things it became very clear to me that for two thousand years people have been in a massive denial and I felt immensely grateful to have been released from it.

So then the mandate became clear; whatever I wrote had to be verified, substantiated. And for a few years I struggled with how to do this while telling, for instance, the events of the life of Yusuf aleyhisalam, in language that would attract and sustain the attention of children. I received help on this from Faraz Rabbani who communicated with a couple of Muftis in Pakistan, one of whom was Taqi Usmani. From these communications I learned some guidelines: Whatever is said must not contradict what is known among scholars about the prophet or companion. Any details for the sake of rhetoric must be consistent with what is known about the historical time and place. Any speech attributed to them must have been already given in the Qur’an. One is not to ascribe motivations, thoughts, or actions to them that are not clearly indicated in the Quran.

At first I had people telling me things like, “Well you can’t say ‘figs’ because the Qur’an says ‘fruit.’” Finally on the advice of an accomplished scholar, I took the work to the Grand Mufti of Jordan, the late Sheikh Nuh Ali Salman, may Allah be pleased with him. We went with another scholar, a native Arabic speaker, who translated a couple of pages, sentence by sentence. The Mufti said, “This will surely inspire love. I will do all I can to help you with this.”

What advice can you give to parents who struggle with raising kids in a busy, fast moving world?

Keep the TV and all its newer incarnations away if possible. Avoid toys with batteries, that make a lot of sounds. Video games have no real value. Try to use CD players or mp 3 players to provide your children with rich audio experiences. Keep computers and tablets away from children until their major developmental tasks have been accomplished.

Insist that your children learn how to sit still and listen. Start this in their infancy. Know that even the youngest child understands what is going on, so if you are treating them as if they understand, you are opening the door to the development of integrity.

It changes an infant to have his/ her mother chatting about what is going on and what will happen next, rather than moving him/her around like an inert thing with no consciousness. If you start this way you can build to help your child learn to understand how he/she fits in and what is being asked of them. Treating them like the center of the universe, dropping all your needs and expecting others to drop theirs, for them, will backfire."

What is the most important thing a parent should do for their child?

Teach them the skills they will need to stand before Allah, again and again, long before they die.

Will you be sharing anymore wisdom on Muslimommy?

InshaAllah I intend to write some articles, about my work, and the things we need to do as Muslims.

What is your motto, Hadith or Quranic verse that helps you stay on track the most?

The dua of Adam (aleyhisalam) after his fall from Paradise: "Our Lord! We have wronged our own souls. If Thou forgive us not and bestow not upon us Thy Mercy, we shall certainly be lost."


Where can we purchase your CDs and books?

The audios and books are available from my website, some mp 3's are available from Amazon and iTunes, and my books are on Amazon.

Jazakallah Khair for your time in sharing a bit of yourself with our readers Sister Maryam!

All my children are captivated by her storytelling and I love the elegant way, that Sister Maryam relates the details of a story. You can tell she does it from her heart. It believe that these stories will stay in a child's mind for a long time, and can be played over and over again throughout their childhood.

Thank you Mehded Sinclair for your dedication and providing kid-friendly and helpful parenting resources! Sister Maryam has also generously offered a FREE audio download of her book, A Trust of Treasures.

Click HERE to access the free recording!

Purchase Mehded Maryam Sinclair Audio and books on her website STORIES OF LIGHT. You can also find her wonderful books and audio on Amazon!

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