Set in post-9/11 Iraq and New York, a man and woman bridge two cultures in a valiant attempt to find safety for a poet-journalist whose words tell the story of life in Iraq under Saddam and her carefree childhood with a family who allow a daughter the same education as her four brothers.
Unable to write about her country under the sanctions, Fatima Shihabi has her heart set on freedom by the time she is forced to flee, perhaps a place in the U.S., but history is against her, America deeply wounded by an event that profoundly altered the political landscape. Fatima’s struggle defines the world of oppression she seeks to escape, with no place to shelter in a new age of terrorism.
Successfully navigating the Iraqi border into Saudi Arabia, Fatima is arrested in an airport before her plane departs. The intent is to return this woman to Iraq, where she will surely be tortured, then killed. It is only through the aid of a high-powered New York attorney, Charles Sherman, that Fatima receives a last-minute reprieve, the lawyer using all his career contacts to save her from deportation.
Allowed to stay in Saudi Arabia for ninety days, Mrs. Shihabi soon realizes Saddam’s secret police have followed her every move. She agonizes over the safety of her daughter in Iraq, Latifa, who is living in Fatima’s brother’s household. Fatima’s concern for the plight of suffering women and children has brought her to this place, the object of scrutiny for the secret police suspicious of her intimate knowledge of regime activities.
While Sherman is repulsed by one dead end after another, Fatima desperately attempts to evade her stalkers, Sherman finally able to arrange a visa to France, where Fatima must remain anonymous, well below the political radar. Hoping to evade detection, Fatima learns the harsh lessons of life as a political exile.
The two finally meet in Paris, Sherman accompanied by Fatima’s older brother, Omar, a professor at Columbia University. Thus begins the final, frantic phase of their pursuit of sanctuary, the secret police tenacious, confidant that the dissident will meet her fate. Through long, intimate conversations, Fatima and Charles speak of her work and love of family, her Muslim faith that so intimately informs every aspect of her life.
Charles admits to lingering horror of that terrible day in New York and how it haunts him, one year later; Fatima shares her passion for poetry: “For me poetry is a sharp dagger in a silver sheath.” Misconceptions crackle between them, but reason prevails, both better able to appreciate the difficulties that have brought them together.
In a compelling story that literally tells itself, the drama is propelled by Fatima’s flight and her desire to reclaim her daughter, a cyclical journey that takes her from Iraq to Saudi Arabia to France and back to Iraq in a tragic denouement. This tale of Fatima Shihabi’s courage in the face of death is painful and provocative, the clear notes of a poet’s voice ringing across time and circumstance.