Luan Gaines interviewed author D.J. Murphy about his novel A Thousand Veils,
helping refugees obtain asylum in the U.S., the "newly visible Muslimwoman," and veils real and metaphorical.
Interviewer Luan Gaines: A Thousand Veils is based on a true story. Can you give us a brief description of the truth behind your fictionalized novel? What is the significance of the title?
D.J. Murphy: For 25 years I practiced international law in New York, Paris, Saudi Arabia, the Midwest, and many other places around the world. I was a dealmaker, a corporate lawyer for some of the biggest companies in the world - Citibank, Mitsubishi, Krupp, governmental clients in the Middle East, investment banks like Goldman Sachs and Merrill Lynch. Deals and contracts were my livelihood and my life. Yet, from time to time, on the side, I handled pro bono cases for refugees seeking to come to the United States, either for asylum or for more temporary stays.
In 1997, at the request of one of my partners, I took on a refugee, a poet from the Middle East, as a client. After some extraordinary efforts over a period of many months, I succeeded in obtaining political asylum for the client here in the United States. When the news came, I called the client’s brother to let him know. The two of us cried uncontrollably for a long time, eventually being forced to hang up the phone and wait to regain our com-posure. I was profoundly moved—in a way that no deal, however intriguing or remunerative—could ever have affected me. And so I decided to take early retirement, at 52, in order to fictionalize that story, while naturally preserving the confidentiality of my client’s affairs. So, much of the main contours of the story, all the emotion, and many of the details are true, but obviously I’ve had to change a lot to protect those involved.
As for the title, I chose the title of my book eight years ago, well before the publication of Khaled Hosseini’s recent book with a similar title, A Thousand Splendid Suns, also set in the Middle East, in Afghanistan. Frankly, I liked the resonance of my title with A Thousand and One Nights. There’s also the fact that Arabic literature often speaks of multiplicities of veils. There are the seven veils of Salome, the Koran refers to 77,000 veils, and Sufi poetry contains many references to veils. And finally there is the idea that we all wear veils of a certain kind--not the abayah or the chador necessarily, but the invisible veils that mask our true natures. And that’s the usage Fatima makes of the phrase in the book. She even takes Charles to task for wearing too many of them.
Is Fatima Shihabi representative of the educated Iraqi women of her generation?
Fatima, like Charles, is by design an iconic figure. She’s what Miriam Cooke, Professor of Islamic Studies at Duke University, refers to as the “newly visible Muslimwoman.” She merges traditional Islamic culture with her female persona. She’s in touch with herself, sure of her identity, and, like many Muslims of her generation and culture, somewhat knowledge-able about Western culture, although instinctually critical of it. As emerges in the novel, she finds some of its worst aspects (such as the afternoon soaps, Sex and the City, the degree of violence, etc.) personally distasteful, and indeed morally repugnant. She chides Charles for what she perceives as excessive consumerism in the West, its materialistic obses-sion, its loss of family values, its self-absorption, its lack of spirituality, and what she calls Charles’s “toxic” life style. By no means a feminist in the Western sense—indeed she rejects this nomenclature—Fatima is intelligent, articulate, unafraid, self-possessed, and yet sensitive, a thoroughly modern Muslim woman. As a writer, she’s literary in the way that so many Arab men and women are; she loves words, writes poetry, and is cultured in all those ways.
At the same time she embodies the very traditional values of Islam. Fatima is extremely loyal to her brothers, proud of her family, and close to it--so close to her daughter, in fact, that she puts aside any concerns about her own life in order to care for her daughter’s. She feels the guilt that her brother Majid, who stands for conservative Muslim ideology, inflicts on her. When her luck runs out, as it does at various points in the novel, she surrenders herself to the will of Allah, as any good Muslim would do. Without question, she’s proud of the fact that she’s a Muslim, and defends her religion quite capably—so much so that she puts Charles, paragon of Western capitalism that he is, on the defensive.
Say what you will about Saddam Hussein, he improved the condition of women considerably during his reign. Thus, women of Fatima’s generation would have benefited enormously from these changes. Many young women were encouraged to go to university, women were accorded legal rights they had never seen in Iraq, and many more women took up careers in business and government than ever before. Thus, while in the novel Fatima may appear “Westernized,” an observation that Charles himself makes, Fatima is a Muslim woman who truly epitomizes her culture.
After my editor in New York read the novel’s manuscript for the first time, she told me, “Don’t change a hair on her beautiful head.” Through the many subsequent drafts of the novel, I didn’t.
Fatima’s emotional journey begins pre-9/11 but is made more difficult after the attacks. How does the world’s changed attitude, in particular America’s, affect her quest for asylum?
Attitudes toward Arabs changed considerably after 9/11. Many more Americans became prejudiced toward Arabs, and according to various polls, a substantial number strongly so. The war in Iraq did nothing to diminish those prejudices, and today a majority of Americans admit that they harbor prejudice against Muslims.
It had always been difficult for Iraqis to gain asylum in America, as laid out in the novel. Not surprisingly, after 9/11 it became even more difficult for Iraqis to enter the United States under its asylum program. There are currently a total of 2.2 million Iraqis who have fled the country and 2.7 displaced within the country. Since the war began, five years ago, we’ve admitted into the United States only 6,000 Iraqi refugees. (Most of these were admitted in the last three years after enormous international pressure was mounted on America to open its doors a crack wider.) That compares to close to 1 million South Vietnamese refugees that America took in during the War in Vietnam. I’ve discussed some of these issues in a blog that appears on the book’s site on Amazon.
How does Fatima’s Muslim faith define her as a woman, wife and poet? Are there conflicts in these roles, and if so, what are they?
As a so-called “Muslimwoman,” Fatima had to forge a character incorporating the elements of her role as a traditional wife and mother together with her growing self-identity as a woman and a poet. Through most of the book, she struggles with her guilt over, on one hand, having abandoned her daughter in Iraq and having occasioned the deaths of those who helped her on her journey, and, on the other hand, her need to find refuge in the West, the “Promised Land” that will afford her the intellectual freedom she craves. She’s also forced into an abusive marriage by her brother Majid, made to wear the veil by her husband, Abdul, even as she secretly writes her poetry, which gives her an outlet for her frustrations. She’s tormented by all these conflicts. As a writer who tries to “[f]orce humanity to look itself in the face,” artistic freedom matters enormously to her, and yet, as the child of the desert, as the product of Bedouin culture, she feels deeply the tug of traditional values, not only as a wife but also as a mother. How she deals with this particular conflict is an impor-tant theme in the novel.
Educated along with her brothers, Fatima takes the veil willingly. Please explain her decision to do so and the significance of such a choice for this woman.
She actually has little choice in the matter. Leila Ahmed, Professor of Islamic Studies at Harvard, writes in her seminal work Women and Gender in Islam that historically it was the Muslim family that enforced the custom of veiling girls from the start of puberty. In Fatima’s case, it’s her father who plays the role of transmitter of the ancestral culture. “It’s your invitation to take up the honored role of your mother,” he says, “and your mother’s mother, in Islamic society.” Reluctantly at first, Fatima does take the veil, although she chafes under the constraint of a black cloth whose physical confines she could hardly reconcile with her soaring imagination. After she accepted it, and experienced the onset of menstruation, she felt differently about her brothers, and they about her. And when they railed against her because of these changes, she could hardly stand it, and she was effectively obliged to achieve a new persona. This was a watershed moment in her maturation.
What roles do Fatima’s brothers play in her evolving dilemma? How does each aid or interfere with Fatima’s security?
Fatima’s brothers, with whom she had always felt close as a child, continued to play important roles in her life. Omar sparks her artistic, expressive side, which runs counter to constraints she feels—not only from the veil but also from the weight of traditional Arab culture. Majid, an ardent fundamentalist and symbol of classic Arab tradition, calls upon her sense of Muslim duty and propriety, first as a woman in traditional Arab culture, in order to coerce her to marry Abdul, and then, in her capacity as a mother, to induce her to return to Iraq to look after her daughter, Latifa. The older Abdeljelil, presented in the novel as Fatima’s benefactor, gives her sanctuary after her disastrous marriage and divorce from Abdul, provides the means for her to attend university, and then continues to help her and Latifa (Fatima’s alter ego). I hesitate to say in what manner lest I give the story away.
Once her father dies, Fatima is no longer protected from society’s demands or her brother’s decisions. On what basis does Fatima’s brother choose her husband?
In accordance with traditional Arab culture, the eldest male child becomes the patriarch of the family when the father dies. In the absence of Omar, who lives in America, Majid assumes this role and, as a traditional, conservative Muslim, selects a husband for Fatima from among eligible male relatives. Tribal custom, even in pre-Islamic times, was for the husband to be selected from within the tribe in order to encourage solidarity of the family. And sometimes the family decides that the marriage is to be to an older man. This is the stuff of novels in the Middle East like From Sleep Unbound by Andrée Chedid. These practices have continued into modern times among more conservative Muslims in certain countries.
Why does Fatima’s husband suddenly turn against her? Is there a connection between his new position with Saddam’s Secret Police and his scorn for his wife?
Surely the marriage must have started off badly, with Fatima having refused initially to marry her much older cousin, who had four daughters older than Fatima, his first wife having died. Then, Fatima’s failure to bear a male child certainly has been used by many men, in the Mid-dle East and elsewhere, to justify divorce. In addition, very possibly Abdul’s service in Saddam’s Secret Police might have given him the chance to monitor Fatima’s activities, including her private poetry-writing. It was well known that Saddam’s Secret Police possessed surveillance capabilities that would have enabled them to do that. All these facts, combined with the tension she and Abdul must have regularly experienced arising from the difference in their ages and perspectives, could very well have led to Abdul decision to divorce her.
Fatima Shihabi is a devout woman in a secular society. Can you explain the distinctions between her life in Iraq and the difficulties she faces (for example, her divorce and troubled relationship with one of her brothers)? Is this more a cultural than religious issue?
As Professor Leila Ahmed notes, the Koran is somewhat ambiguous on the subject of divorce, with some reformist Muslims arguing that divorce is not one of the fundamental precepts of Islam, and indeed belongs solely to the domain of cultural issues. Moreover, the Koran does not explicitly permit divorce for failure to bear a male child, and thus Abdul’s stated reason for the divorce would surely seem culturally based. As for Majid’s claim that Fatima had neglected her responsibility as a mother, that claim almost certainly would have been perceived by Majid as morally based, since traditional Muslim law considers it the duty of a woman not only to bear children but also to care for them. As a committed Muslim (though not especially devout) and product of Muslim culture, Fatima obviously felt pangs of guilt brought on by Majid’s chastisement for her having left Iraq. She probably would not have discerned whether that guilt is culturally or religiously based. In fact, most issues she confronts are quasi-religious, quasi-cultural. In any event, it’s this guilt, as well as the close bond she feels with her child, that dictates her actions toward the end of the novel, in spite of the dangers they present to herself and to Charles. In the novel I’ve tried to show that these actions were entirely plausible for a woman like Fatima who emerges from a distinctively Arab culture, governed by its own proper norms of behavior.
Fatima finds respite in her poetry. Please describe Fatima’s unique talent and how it brings comfort to her in a dangerous world. How significant poetry to Fatima’s char-acter in A Thousand Veils?
Fatima’s poetry is at times terse, naturalistic, expressive, and poignant. “For me, poetry is a sharp dagger in a silver sheath,” she says. She means that poetry should be targeted at the world’s faults, and preferably laden with a message, as in “The End of the World,” which Charles aptly describes as “a call to action for women.” It is exactly this kind of poetry, the call to storm the barricades, that very likely helped provoke the vengeance of Saddam’s son Uday, after he presumably learned that she was circulating her writings outside Iraq.
For Fatima, poetry also serves as a solace, a sort of emotional buttress. She invokes it at key dramatic moments in the novel, such as when her favorite brother, Omar, leaves for the United States, moments of great love, keen despair, or deep nostalgia. Poetry expresses the emotions she feels, but also allows her to escape from a tumultuous world of horrific evil and depravity into a land of ineffable beauty.
What are the new challenges Fatima faces as a single mother and a journalist, with-out a husband to protect her?
Single mothers, at least those in the Western sense, are rare in the Arab world. The umma, or Muslim community, male-dominated, viewed independent women, es-pecially divorced women living outside the influence of a man, as a threat to patriarchy. Thus, divorced women are shunned, and thus are almost always poor and disadvantaged. Few Muslim men are interested in marrying a divorced woman, especially one with a child. Thus, Fatima is truly “saved” by her older (and relatively wealthy and powerful) brother, who enables her to graduate from the university, get a job as a journalist with Babel, and then return to Babel after she’s arrested the first time. Otherwise she could easily have become a beggar on the street.
Working as a journalist to support herself and her daughter, at what point does Fatima find herself unable to remain silent? What are the consequences of her actions?
Fatima by her nature--expressive, self-confident in her new status as Muslimwoman, a bit head-strong, but at all times socially committed, and deeply concerned about her fellow Iraqis--could not have kept silent in the face of what was happening in Iraq in 1999-2002. Initially she held her tongue, but the disappearance of Professor Khalifa, her mentor, prompted her to act. She had to write about the deplorable conditions in Iraq, and for some time circulated her writings anonymously in the West. Given the known vindictiveness of Saddam Hussein and his sons, they would have had every reason to try to learn the source of the damning articles about Iraq that appeared in the world press in those days. And it would not have been surprising if the Secret Police had found her out, given their prowess in sur-veillance technology.
Leaving Latifa with her brother’s family, Fatima flees her country, unable to get no farther than the airport in Saudi Arabia. Why is she of particular interest to Saddam’s Secret Police?
First, she’s in possession of a state secret, namely the fact that Saddam was trying to develop a dirty bomb. While Hans Blix and the weapons inspectors never actually found evidence of weapons of mass destruction (WMD’s), there have been various reports by scientists close to Saddam that he had made some efforts to design a WMD of some kind. Whether such re-ports are factual or not is quite irrelevant to this novel, since a dirty bomb by its very nature would have been well within the technical ability of Saddam’s scientists (designs can be found on the Internet), and as explained to Fatima in the novel, easily constructible out of available materials, and then even more easily concealed. One could easily imagine Saddam, who was known for his cunning and cruelty, charging a select group of his scientists with the task of developing such a perfidious device.
Second, given that Saddam’s Secret Police may well have known that Fatima was traitorously sending her writings to be published out of the country, and given that Saddam and his sons were known for their vindictiveness, this alone could arguably have served as sufficient motive for the Secret Police to try to kill her. In writing the novel, I toyed with the idea of employing this motive alone as the reason why the Secret Police go to such extraordinary lengths to kill Fatima. However, I felt the reader needed to possess a stronger, more compelling reason for such extraordinary efforts than a simple desire to seek revenge. While the claim (even in a novel) that Saddam had tried to develop any sort of nuclear bomb could be viewed as sensationalistic, I decided that, given the nature of a dirty bomb, the bounds of verisimilitude would not be transgressed if I were to employ, as an additional motive, Fatima’s knowledge of Saddam’s presumably aborted effort to build such a bomb. In sum, Saddam, given his depraved mind, could very well have had the desire, and most probably would have had a way, to set in motion some sort of effort to make a dirty bomb as depicted in the story. And, almost certainly, if he had done so, he would not have wanted the world to know about it.
How and why does Charles Sherman, a New York attorney, become aware of Fatima Shihabi’s predicament, and what conflict does he face in accepting her case?
I’ve faced exactly the sort of conflict that Charles encounters. There are the demands of one’s regular corporate clients, the need to preserve one’s family life--to watch one’s children grow up, the politics of a big law firm, the relationship with one’s own spouse, and the burden of a gut-wrenching refugee case. I know full well how conflicted a lawyer can be. Frankly, a lot of lawyers do hesitate to take on the additional burden of a refugee case precisely because this kind of case is so emotional and draining. A life is at stake, and unless one devotes close to full attention to the client, things can go wrong--very quickly. I’ll never forget how in the actual case that inspired the novel the client at one point decided to return to the client’s native country despite almost certain imprisonment and death. Just as is re-counted in the novel, I had to hold the client’s hand and use all my powers of persuasion to change the client’s mind. And all the while the secret police were looking for the client.
This explains why I set in such dramatic terms the scene at the beginning of the novel in which Omar, Fatima’s brother, initially makes Charles aware of Fatima’s pre-dicament. If it hadn’t been for Art Hauck, Omar most probably would never have gotten the chance to talk with Charles, in the middle of one of the biggest deals of his career. And, as the story unfolds, it’s only in incremental steps that Charles becomes emotionally involved in Fatima’s case, eventually to the degree that his involvement jeopardizes that deal.
How have the events of 9/11 transformed Sherman’s life? Is he seeking catharsis in helping Fatima and the brother who has made a life in America? What of Sherman’s nearly realized personal ambitions?
The events of 9/11 worked a major transformation in Charles’s psychological make-up. Partially this was due to the effects of those events upon Charles’s companion, Sarah. Art Hauck, Charles’s mentor, understood this. It was the sagacious Art who referred Fatima’s case to Charles, with all the ramifications played out in the novel.
The major effect of 9/11 was to make Charles begin to question the larger significance of “playing in the sandbox” with Whitherspoon. The banality of 9/11’s evil, the trauma of its horror, experienced up close by Charles, shook his values to their foundations. What, after all, was one more deal? What, after all, was material success? And what, after all, was ambition itself? What did they mean if in a figurative heartbeat they and the dealmakers and the deals themselves could all vanish because of some cruel and senseless act? It’s as if suddenly all the sand castles that Charles and Witherspoon had built, with all their carefully constructed crenellated battlements, had been kicked to smithereens by the town bully. And the wonderfully wise Art knew this, too.
East meets West in Paris, where Mrs. Shihabi and Sherman come face to face. How do they bridge their differences? Whose life is ultimately changed more by this unex-pected relationship?
Charles and Fatima bridge their differences through talk. And they surely do enough of it in the novel! This explains why I had to sequester the two central characters at an Alpine resort removed from the fray of the city. Frankly, I had in mind the wonderful dialogue between Hans Castorp and Settembrini in (and on) the Magic Mountain, a place apart, perfect for meaningful discourse. And Charles and Fatima engage in a similar probing, in-quisitorial encounter, perhaps even a little thrilled to find their cultures’ bêtes noires in the flesh before them, in microcosm. In the end, it’s the relationship that they develop, and not their sparring, that draws them together.
As a result of this encounter, both central characters clearly experience their epiphanies. Charles sets his sights upon a larger, more human existence, while Fatima learns the significance of true love. Charles’s life is changed more by the relationship, I would argue, because he is in a sense “redeemed” by the love of a woman from the success ethic to which his culture has condemned him. No less than Margarite’s redemption of Faust or countless other literary salvations of men (and women) by love, Fatima’s effect on Charles is pervasive. Primed by the lingering effects of 9/11 and by the remonstrations of his companion Sarah, Charles walks away from imminent fame, success, wealth, and power in order to become a defender of human rights, henceforth applying his considerable legal skills on behalf of refugees and asylum-seekers.
Recall my earlier comments that both Charles and Fatima are iconic figures, archetypes of their own cultures. With these transformative changes in both of them, brought about by their love for one another, I’m suggesting that Islam and the West likewise will undergo a similar evolution, and that Islam over time will both inform and transform the West, and that the West over time will both inform and transform Islam, in a manner that will raise both cultures to a higher level of human existence. The twain, East and West, do meet, and they prosper together.
Does Charles appreciate the depth of Fatima’s poetry? How does her work epitomize the soul of her country in spite of Saddam’s brutality?
Charles is by design a “wanna-be” aesthete, whose own self-image is of someone who is in tune with high culture, with sensibilities actually far more developed than his actual knowl-edge about culture. (For example, as he walks around Paris in the rain, he muses whether it was Mimi or Marcello who had burned their poetry in La Bohème. As many readers might know, it actually was neither one; it was Rudolfo.) He gets in over his head very quickly when he’s forced to talk about history, art, or music. This isn’t at all surprising, of course, for someone who’s steadily beating the drum of deal-making.
So, then, quite naturally, his response to Fatima’s poetry is as an intelligent, interested, but relatively untutored critic: He enthuses.
As one of her prison guards said, as he ground his cigarette into her cheek, “Power always can destroy beauty.” But like the scar, which only served to accentuate Fatima’s beauty, Fatima’s poetry serves in the novel to point up Saddam’s brutality. Arabic is a poetic language, and it’s been said that every Arab in her soul is a poet. In a land so pervaded by Saddam’s cruelty and depravity, Fatima’s poetry is a summer day in the dead of winter.
What is the lesson of A Thousand Veils? Has this story affected your life and work?
My editor in New York City instructed me “never to teach or preach” in a novel; it’s the story that has to capture the reader’s attention and carry his or her interest. And so, I’ve tried to create a compelling and suspenseful novel. Judging from the comments of my read-ers, I’ve succeeded in doing that. Nevertheless, from a stratospheric height A Thousand Veils can be read as a modern allegory. In its simplest reading, Charles, repre-senting the West, is redeemed by Fatima, representing Islam. Each transforms the other, but their relationship elevates them to a yet higher level of human existence, where their shared values and goals can be pursued in common. How do they achieve that? It is only by thwarting the forces of evil, represented by the demonized Saddam in the novel, and by evading the shoals of antediluvian thinking, represented by Majid and by Witherspoon. In effect, I believe that through the process of synthesis and antithesis (in the Hegelian sense), there will be a melding, a reconciliation, of Islam and the West. And Islamic values like those focusing on the family and the liberal (in the classic sense) political traditions of the West will synthesize and make us all better humans. With these thoughts in mind, my read-ers may speculate as to the significance of other characters in the novel, including Sarah, Art Hauck, and George Washington. It’s the sort of analysis that book clubs especially find illustrative.
Proxy war or not, Iraq and America are trapped in the language of war versus the language of understanding and accommodation. What might Fatima think of the state of her country today?
What has happened in Iraq is not about words. The enormous human catastrophe taking place in the country deadens the brain, numbs the tongue, cuts short one’s breath. It stifles one’s ability to speak any words. Even Fatima herself could never find words enough. She would be appalled about what has happened to her country.
In the novel, of course, Fatima does find the words, indeed takes to heart her dialectical to-and-fro’s with Charles. She would be keenly disappointed about the differences in language of which you speak. Truly America as well as those in power in Baghdad, both Sunnis and Shi’ites, are mired in miscommunication, much in the domain of language, amidst all the posturing, the politicking, and the pettiness that has characterized almost all the interchanges between the major players. And Fatima. herself a passionate yet respectful advocate, would be dismayed over how the tone of the discourse had plummeted into diatribe.
What did you find most rewarding when writing A Thousand Veils, and the most difficult?
The most rewarding was to listen to my characters. They spoke to me as dear friends of many years. And when they laughed, I laughed, too; when, impassioned, they argued their points into the night, my face too turned red, the veins of my forehead popping out; and as their relationships deepened, I too was drawn in, expectantly, head over heels; but when tragedy came into their lives, I cried, sometimes for days. I shall love them all forever.
The most difficult was the character of Fatima. I read many books by and about Muslim women (you can access my reading lists on various sites on the Internet, including Amazon), about Arabic poetry, about the problems women face not only in the Arab world but also in the West (some of which I knew from my days practicing law), and about the veil. In the end I nailed her character on the first try. She’s not really changed since the earliest drafts of the novel (of which I count 23).
D.J. Murphy, an international corporation lawyer, has worked for law firms in New York City, Paris, and midwest America, representing large multinational companies. He also worked pro bono publico to assist refugees seeking asylum from political or religious persecution. After retiring from law practice in 1999, he taught for five years as a Visiting Professor at Ecole Supérieure de Commerce in Bordeaux, France. Ten percent of net royalties from this book go to nongovernmental organizations providing humanitarian assistance to refugees.
Luan Gaines is a contributing reviewer to curledup.com.
Her interview with D.J. Murphy was written in conjunction with her review of A Thousand Veils. © Luan Gaines/2008.