(Curated Story via southphillyreview.com)
On early Saturday mornings, Queen Village resident Mir Khalid Ali rallies his two children for Brazilian jiu-jitsu classes.
Among a laundry list of tasks getting his gang out of the door, Ali, a writer, traveler and global strategic marketing manager, has discovered one chore to be particularly daunting – tying his young daughter’s ponytail.
Tussling with the stubborn strands, the frustrated father found himself personifying the hairstyle – its temper, its strengths, its own preparation for martial art classes.
“It became this character,” Ali said, as the deeply rooted writer inside of him began perceiving the ponytail in a new light.
Gradually, the ongoing jest with his daughter generated inspiration for his first published children’s book, “The Jiu-Jitsu Ponytail,” which was recently released for purchase online.
Paralleling his own experiences, the book follows the story of elementary student Noor as she struggles with her father to properly tie a ponytail, which eventually comes to life itself, before a jiu-jitsu tournament.
As Ali, who was born in Saudi Arabia before moving to the United States at the age of 7, began brainstorming sketches and storylines, he grasped deeper interpretations of the drafts.
“It was definitely channeling, for me, that angst that I felt trying to tie that ponytail,” he said. “There’s that very basic – hair seems to have a mind of its own, and then, feeling the angst as I was trying to tie my daughter’s ponytail…But, maybe, a deeper aspect of it, honestly, for me, was representing femininity and this idea that something that is feminine is seen by some folks as being weak. The idea of taking that – something feminine – and showing it as this powerful, strong, sort of empowering aspect, to me was one of the driving forces.”
For Ali, writing has served as a constant since childhood.
After attending high school in Minneapolis, Ali studied political science at Columbia University. Following three years working as a senior business analyst for Pepsi-Cola in New York, Ali took a leap of faith, traveling the world for seven months. Journeying through Europe and Western Asia, he started composing a travel blog, archiving his serendipitous adventures.
He eventually landed in Pakistan – home to his family – where he then met his wife Leena. The couple started a family and after Ali worked for four years at the Pepsi-Cola location in Dubai, the family relocated to Chicago, where he received his MBA at Northwestern University. When he was offered a position with the the Dow Chemical Company in the greater Philadelphia area, the family settled in South Philly.
Building up the Brazilian jiu-jitsu classes, Ali says he had been writing occasionally but this was an opportunity to delve back into his storytelling.
While the book, which is illustrated by North Carolina artist Taahira Halim, works to reconsider a classic ponytail as a symbol of feminism, it also examines the role of men in women’s path toward independence, especially in today’s day and age.
“Men definitely have a very important role to play in all of this, and I think it absolutely starts at home – how we treat our daughters, sisters, wives, mothers,” Ali said. “And so to me, this role of a man and in this whole discussion around female empowerment through the role of the father, was a very important message and theme that I wanted to communicate.”
With years of business disciplines under his belt, Ali decided to self publish the book through donations raised with crowdsourcing funds. Kicking off in fall 2018, the online fundraiser was also an opportunity to gauge how well readers would respond to the story, which, although geared toward children ages 6 to 10, is intended to be appreciated by the whole family.
Surpassing expectations, the drive was supported by 137 backers who pledged $7,071 in total, according to the crowdsourcing website, with approximately 500 books printed. While a humbling amount of support stemmed from the immediate Queen Village community, Ali says purchases were made by readers living as far away as Sweden.
The author attributes the book’s themes, particularly its notions of parenting, to the story being so well received.
“Many parents really like the idea that she has a choice,” say Ali’s wife Leena Ali. “(Noor’s) father does not impose on her or doesn’t force her to go ahead and continue (jiu-jitsu.) She has a choice, and I think that’s very important in terms of the whole women’s rights movement – that, as girls, we have a choice.”
Similar to the ponytail, the sport itself also serves as a metaphor.
Compared to other forms of martial arts, Brazilian jiu-jitsu requires a particular level of mental keenness, comparing the activity to a game of chess. Ali says it’s not just about how many powerful pieces you have but how you play those pieces.
Always thinking one step ahead, athletes must contemplate a particular approach toward body-to-body contact, planning how to grab, hold and twist their opponent before eventually getting them to submit – much like tying a ponytail.
“For me, as the story came together, this idea that initially the ponytail is sleeping and then wakes up is very relevant,” he said. “This idea that this feminine aspect of this character is asleep and wakes up and then takes on this powerful role, I think, just really resonates with me.”
Andy Gonzalez is a coach at Aces Jiu Jitsu Club. He has earned his BJJ Brown Belt under 2nd Degree Black Belt, Professor Mikal Abdullah. Follow Andy on Twitter at @GoGoGonzilla
Andy lives in Austin, Texas with his wife Amanda and their 3 beautiful children. Andy is also the father of a Marine who is honorably serving in the United States Marine Corps.