Love in a Torn Land
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“Inspiring and unforgettable, LOVE IN A TORN LAND shares Joanna’s passionate and unflagging determination to survive and fight – for love, life, and the freedom of her beloved Kurdistan.”

What do you know about the Kurds?

You’ll soon know a lot more if you read a true story about my latest heroine, Joanna al-Askari. Joanna’s life reads like a thriller. Growing up Kurdish in Baghdad, Joanna faced many challenges, but nothing could have prepared her for what was coming. After falling in love with a handsome freedom fighter, she fled Baghdad for the Kurdish mountains. Temporarily blinded in a chemical attack, buried in rubble after a bombing attack, nearly dying during a hair-raising journey on a mule over the tallest mountain in Kurdistan into Iran, Joanna thought she was safe, but more challenges were yet to come.

Jean Sasson Q&A:

Q: Why did you write about Joanna?

A: As you might imagine, I am approached by many women who have led compelling lives that really should be written about. However, since every book takes two or three years, from the interviews and research to the actual writing to the book tours, I am forced to be very selective. Admittedly, I am most drawn to the most mysterious “behind the scenes” stories. Therefore, I was pulled like a magnet when I heard about Joanna’s story.

I met Joanna through her brother, Ra’ad. Although I had read of the Kurdish struggles since the end of World War I, I didn’t really know how adversely individual Kurdish lives were affected by the decisions made on behalf of Kurds by other governments, or even their own. I had read general accounts of the Iraqi government’s efforts to wipe out their Kurdish population, and had cringed at the horrifying statistics, and was familiar with the no-fly zone and the need to protect Kurdish life. But I’m a firm believer that to understand the whole picture, one must first understand the impact on a single human life.

When Joanna came unexpectedly into my life’s path, I really liked her as a person, and I quickly realized that that I wanted to know more about her, and that her life story would fill in the gaps about Kurdish life and Kurdish struggles.

Q: Tell us about the process of writing Joanna’s story.

A: Surprisingly, Love in a Torn Land was one of the most difficult books I have written. There were a number of reasons for this, but the most challenging drawback was that while Joanna certainly remembered the most dramatic and key moments of the story, she had been so traumatized by the events that she had difficulty recalling the small details. Remember that this woman lived in fear under the Baathist regime, then, after falling in love with a Kurdish Peshmerga, or freedom fighter, and joining him in the forbidden zone, an area of Kurdish land that Saddam had deemed a total Kurdish kill area, she ended up surviving a murderous bombardment for two years. Every day of those first two years of her marriage, she was in mortal danger. Then her village was hit by deadly chemical attacks, and Joanna was temporarily blinded, living in fear that she had lost her sight forever. After that she was bombed and buried in rubble, barely escaping with her life. Courageous Kurds who were good friends were among the dead. Immediately she was on the run across the treacherous Kurdish mountains, hunted to be killed. She had no choice but to ride a mule over the highest mountain in Iraq, a feat that few people could survive. A death occurred on that trip, in fact. She lost her much anticipated unborn child while on the highest point of the mountain. After surviving many close calls, she ended in exile, in Iran, a country at war with Iraq. After seeing the gruesome sights of tent refugee cities, she discovered that her favorite auntie was murdered in the chemical attacks at Halabja. Alone, without any family member with her, she delivered her first child under an extremely frightening situation.

It’s no wonder that she was so traumatized that it took incredibly long and emotionally interviews to get to the necessary details.

Although we met several times in person, most of the interviews were conducted by telephone, to London. We talked nearly every day for two years. I found that I couldn’t ask direct questions of Joanna, as she generally became so nervous that she could not recall the details I needed. Oftentimes she would burst into tears, which, of course, made me feel terrible. I felt that I was inflicting additional pain on someone who had endured the most monstrous situations. I found success only when I would get into a general conversation about the events and then would insert the important questions while our conversation was flowing.

But, once I had the story, what a story it was!

Q: How did a southern woman from a small town of only 800 people get to the Middle East in the first place?

A: My life’s course is directly related to my almost fanatical love of a good book. From an early age I was an avid reader, books being the only thing that could take me away from that little town. My favorite stories were about real people and events, mainly stories about world travelers whose personal accomplishments had left the world a better place. For example, when I was aged 10 or 11, I became enamored of Dr. Tom Dooley, the young physician from St. Louis who became a legend in the 1960’s after establishing hospitals in Laos and other Southeast Asia countries. That wonderful man could have been a society doctor in the states, but instead, risked life and limb to provide the most basic health care in jungle hospitals. I daydreamed of joining him in his jungle hospital, but sadly, I never had the chance because he died prematurely at age 32. I was still in high school when I learned that he had died of cancer. I was devastated. From that time on, I knew I would travel, thought I would write, and hoped I would make a difference in the world. Although I can’t compare myself to Tom Dooley, I am certain that I have inspired many others to stand up for basic human rights.

When I got the opportunity to live and work in Saudi Arabia, I jumped at it.

Q: Why do you think you became a voice for women from the Middle East?

A: From the moment my feet touched the sands of Saudi Arabia, I could see that native females faced enormous difficulties. I lived in the kingdom for 12 years, from 1978 until 1992, and over time I was privileged to meet many of those women. I developed a special bond with one particular Saudi royal, who the world now knows as Princess Sultana. Later, after I had written The Rape of Kuwait, Princess Sultana convinced me to write about the difficulties of life behind the veil. She wanted a book that would shine the light on the horrible injustices occurring in her country. It was the first book in that particular genre, and since then, the reading public has clamored for more stories about modern women who are struggling against ancient social codes. Nowadays there are dozens of very important books about individual women who are struggling to overcome. And, to think that it all started with Princess Sultana! That makes her very happy, I must say.

And, as I mentioned earlier, I do like to provide information that is little known to others. When I wrote about Princess Sultana, little was known about women of Saudi Arabia. After writing the second book about the princess, I remember being interviewed by Katie Couric, when she was with NBC’s Today Show. Katie was totally intrigued by the plight of Saudi women, as she had traveled to Saudi Arabia during the first Gulf War. Yet, off camera, she told me that she was never allowed to meet or even talk with one Saudi woman. So, I had personal insight that even the most well-known journalists had difficulty obtaining. Once again, when I wrote about Mayada, there was little information regarding the personal lives of Iraqi women under the Baathist regime. In 1998, Saddam was furious at the UN Inspectors, and the United States government, and he said, “No more American journalists.” I was fortunate that I was allowed an exception to travel inside Iraq during that very heated time, and I was given unusual access to ordinary Iraqis.

Both Princess Sultana and Mayada drew my full attention because I knew that it was nearly impossible for their stories to become known to the world without someone from the outside becoming their voice.

Q: Why do you write most of your books in first-person?

A: I am a person who feels very deeply. I’ve been told by a few people very close to me that it’s a curse, because I suffer a lot, but I don’t think it’s a curse, I feel it is a gift.. I become so totally immersed in the lives that I write about, that I feel in my heart and soul that I “become” that person. Princess Sultana and Mayada and Joanna have all confessed to me that when reading my drafts of their experiences, it was like I lived their lives right along beside them. In fact, I became so upset when I wrote about the fate of the shadow women sharing Mayada’s cell, that I had to take to my bed. I became physically ill! I didn’t write Mayada’s story in first person, only because there were a number of very important characters in Mayada’s life who deserved a lot of writing attention, so first-person from me didn’t apply to her story.

I have come to realize that I’m a writer who assumes a role, much like an actor, shutting out their own realities – I live it and breathe the story during the writing process. I become so involved that oftentimes I’m told by dear friends that I act rather oddly during the writing process, and they are probably right. Several times I have become so grief stricken that I weep. I talk to myself. I lock myself away during the writing of a book. For example, while writing Joanna’s story, I only left my home and office four times during the last 93 days of the writing process, and percentage wise, not much more than that while writing any book. I’m totally unaware of any other world but that of my heroine. So, when I tell their story in first-person, it is an honest accounting of their life, their feelings that come through me.

Q: Did any of your heroines actually write parts of the book that was about them? For instance, we have read that you had in your possession the diaries of the princess. Did you take the material word for word from her diaries? Further, we know that Mayada is now working as a journalist in Dubai. Did she write any of the material in the book MAYADA, DAUGHTER OF IRAQ?

A: The answer to all three of your questions is no, but I’ll explain further. I have never considered writing a book with another writer. I wouldn’t do it, in fact, for a variety of reasons, the main one being that my writing style is totally different from most non-fiction writers. In fact, many readers have told me that my books read like fiction, which I don’t know if that is good or bad! But, however they might read, they are true stories. However, although the women did not write the sentences in the book, all had to provide me with information. Interestingly, the process of gathering material has been different with each person. With the princess, I read some of her musings and thoughts from childhood, which were very sparse, and her details did not go very deep. She did keep a few diaries, although they were for the most part, undated, and very difficult to follow. So, with her, I got the best material through our many conversations. As far as Mayada, yes, absolutely, she is a very fine journalist, and was a journalist in Iraq prior to my even meeting her. However, we never discussed her writing the book. I’ll use an example with my own writing style: My style of writing is not suited at all for newspaper or magazine articles. I would fail miserably. Mayada is great at what she does, but I haven’t asked her if she would like to write books in the manner that I do. I believe her answer would probably be no, but I can’t speak for her. With Mayada being a journalist, I admit it was an easier project, because she understood how I needed every little detail, I received the answers to my questions using two methods. I would write questions and send them to her via e-mail, and she would respond with the story, with the facts included. Other times, she would write to mention a certain interesting story that happened to her, or her family, or someone she knew, stories I had no knowledge about, and if I thought it could be weaved into the story, then I would ask the detailed questions to get the information I needed to tell the story in its entirety. Once I really got into a story, many times I would telephone her in order to go one step further, to try and fully understand her emotions about certain topics, to experience in my heart what had happened to her. Then, after I felt I had lived the event, I would sit down and write it as I believed she had felt it. Once I had it down, I would send the story and/or a chapter to Mayada and she would read it and alert me if I had gotten something wrong. However, Mayada will tell you that she was always amazed at how I captured the essence of her emotions. With Joanna, the entire experience was more challenging, as I mentioned earlier, only because she had more difficulty recalling small details, details a writer MUST have to write descriptions. Although I had tidbits of her story prior to writing, I didn’t have nearly enough material to write a book. Therefore, it became necessary for daily phone calls to flesh out what I knew. We would eventually get to the heart of the matter, but frankly, we were both exhausted by the time that happened. Also, with Joanna, there was no back and forth with e-mail, instead, my follow-up questions were posed over the telephone, and face-to face questioning during two different trips. I went to London to meet with her, and then she flew to the States to meet with me.

Q: Back to Joanna, then. What is happening in her life, now?

A: She is living in London. She has two boys, Kosha and Dylan. Sarbast goes back and forth to Northern Iraq, to Kurdistan, helping rebuild. The boys have traveled there more than once, to get a feel for their heritage. Joanna follows everything that happens in the Kurdish area of Iraq. She loves the country of her birth, and shares in its joys and sorrows, all the while, realizing the extreme importance of a stable Middle East.

Most importantly, she is following the Kurdish genocide trial. Although she felt justice was done with regard to Saddam Hussein’s execution, she keenly felt that Saddam should have remained alive to answer for all his crimes against humanity. There are several hundred thousand dead Kurds, in their graves, their families crying out for justice. Joanna’s Auntie Aisha is one of those thousands.

At least “Chemical Ali” will answer for the great Kurdish crime. In fact, he earned his notorious title of “Chemical Ali,” solely for what he did to the Kurds. He was Saddam’s henchman, boastfully murdering innocent men, women and children, taking pleasure to murder them in the most gruesome manner possible.

Q: What is your hope for this book?

A: Joanna and I both hope that this book about her life will help to ensure that the people of the world stand together to make certain that all stand against genocide whenever and wherever such atrocities burst out. Of course, we know that genocide is occurring even as we speak, in Darfur, for example. It is unbelievable what some human beings can do to other human beings. All of us who care must keep on broadcasting the stories in an attempt to awaken those who are not taking notice.

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