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Rawah Arja is a passionate young Muslim author from Western Sydney whose work has featured at the Sydney Writer’s Festival, SBS Voices as well as the Sydney Review of Books. She teaches creative writing workshops at schools, specialising in reluctant readers and writers.
I was born into a family of 7 siblings in Western Sydney (Punchbowl) to Lebanese migrant parents.
I have been a teacher in both the primary and secondary sector for over 10 years as well as worked with schools as a Youth Mentor, predominantly high school boys from the community. I currently work with a non-for-profit organisation called AusRelief, implementing educational exchange programs with Australian and Cambodian students.
I chose to focus on these themes because not only did I feel they were important in a school setting and they link to curriculum, but particularly with male anger and the world we live in today and being Arab, this is an important topic and one that needs more attention.
While being featured in various Writer Festivals, online journals, YA showcases, interviews and blogs has been great, the highlight of my career has been my parents seeing my book for the first time. They had no idea that my debut book was dedicated to them and so it was an honour to see the joy on their face, reading their Arabic names in print.
My work has featured in a book called Arab, Australian, Other (Picador) edited by Randa Abdel-Fattah and Sara Saleh, as well as the Sydney Review of Books, SBS Voices, Sydney Writer’s Festival, Mudgee Reader’s Festival, WestWords and online blogs and forums.
Imagine living in a world where mirrors didn’t exist. You never saw yourself and you never knew what you looked like. That was me throughout high school as well as university, but in my case, not only was a Muslim woman rare to find in print, people like me were demonised and our stories were hijacked. I never felt like I made any connections to books hence the fact that I hated reading and found it really difficult to find a connection to the characters, the places—they did nothing for my world, the world of a Muslim.
I became a teacher, not because I wanted to but because my dad said that ‘a woman should be independent in her life and never be in a position where she needed to rely on a man, let alone anyone else.’ A degree was his answer. Yes, he’s amazing. But also, he had 7 children and not one of them lived out his lifelong dream of attending university, so I thought I’d take one for the team. Yay me!
But during my 10+ years in the teaching profession, I realised that the dislike for literature amongst my community was still prevalent and nothing had changed from my time. I noticed it was mostly boys who never read and so I spent my lunchtimes in libraries trying to find books that would spark that love for reading and books, just the way Looking for Alibrandi by Melina Marchetta or Does My Head Look Big in This? By Randa Abdel Fattah did for me.
It was hard. I observed in different boys’ high schools for weeks to get a better understanding of why reading to them seemed like a school chore.
‘We’re either the terrorists or we’re the bad guy with a big beard,’ one boy said to me. He was talking about the news but still, this idea was prevalent amongst most of the boys I talked to.
The answer was simple. If I wrote a book where I ignited their senses i.e., they could visualise the places, they could feel and connect to the diverse characters and created plotlines without explosions, then maybe they’d not only read my book, I’d inspire them to read the many wonderful Australian books out there, they’ve missed out on.
My passion is to create stories that any child of a minority group will feel proud of and know they matter. They matter to me; they matter to their community and school and most importantly they see themselves being worthy to be in print. They are inspired to take ownership of their narrative rather than sit and idle by while the world tells their stories.
Maybe on TikTok?