Monday, June 09, 2014

Researching the Historical Novel: Syria, a guest essay by Ann Chamberlin

In today's post, internationally bestselling author Ann Chamberlin takes readers through the on-the-ground research she conducted in Syria for her The Sword and the Well Trilogy, which is set in the 7th century.  It's both a fascinating journey and an informative and moving tribute to the Syrian people, past and present.  The final volume in Ann's series, The Sword and the Well, was published in April (306pp, $25.00 hb/$15.95 pb/$9.99 ebook).


Researching the Historical Novel: Syria
Ann Chamberlin

The Sword and the Well concludes my trilogy set in the early days of Islam. I struggled with the subject for thirty years, over such events that put the material into immediate perspective—and onto the butcher slab several times—such as the Salman Rushdie fetwa and the four or five invasions that my people have waged against the people I worked to sympathize with in its pages. I finally decided to keep the story to my original vision and to self-publish. The concerns raised by all these intervening events colored the view of every editor I approached and made them want to drag the story this way then that, not the way the history and the characters, often my best friends, sent me.

The final act I decided I needed to undertake before publishing was to visit as many of the sites as I could, to check that I had got as much right as possible from book research. I had already visited the Middle East ten times or so, but with the exception of Jerusalem and the Golan Heights, nothing I had seen appears in this book. Of course, having worked on an archaeological dig, as I described in my last guest blog with Sarah, I was fully aware of how much effect fifteen hundred years on anything I might see from a tour bus window. I was also aware that present-day Saudi Arabia, Mecca and Medina, were off limits to me.

A worshipper looks down at the Kaaba after night prayers on the roof
of the Masjid al-Haram. Source:  Omar Chatriwala
Licensed through Creative Commons

The massive, glitzy sites of today’s pilgrimage built with petro-dollars wouldn’t have a whole lot in common with the desert oasis into which Muhammad the Prophet, Khalid ibn al-Walīd and the rest were born anyway. The glimpse I once caught from a cruise ship on the Red Sea of an evening coastline strung with oil refineries and tanker docks would do just fine for researching the actual present Saudi Arabia. The ten days I’d spent among the Bedouin in the Sinai desert as a college student had given me as much a flavor as anything I would see, thirty years on, with the effects of Egypt-Palestine big-business smuggling and Salafi politics at work on the traditional society with which I’d first fallen in love.

The major exception to these limitations was Syria. My twelve-year-old heroine Rayah was born in the desert oasis of Tadmor (the Romans called it Palmyra),

Credit: Yvonnefm, Wikimedia Commons

and my hero Khalid ibn al-Walīd spent his final years in exile in the city of Homs. Khalid had conquered Syria from Byzantium in the name of Islam. He’d done the same thing with Iraq and parts of Iran, but this was the middle of the first decade of the twenty-first century, and my people, God forgive us, were busy sending these areas beyond the seventh Christian century, “back to the stone age”, although to my mind “the stone age” was infinitely more civilized. Fortunately, no major scenes in my books take place on the eastern side of the Arabian Peninsula. Now some, including my mother and George Bush with his axis of evil rubbish, wanted me to put Syria in the same list of “Places Impossible to Go to Now” (or ever). But as the thought of publishing these books grew in my mind, so did the desire to visit Syria. All these warnings did was to assure me I would have to go alone. I couldn’t buy a travelling companion for love nor money.

In fact, I had actual dreams of a great conflagration consuming the places I’d written of. These dreams told me I had to go now. A year or two would be too late. I actually thought it would be my people again who would cause this conflagration as we’d done to the sites I’d written about in Leaving Eden and my first novel, The Virgin and the Tower. In any case, I could do nothing to stop it. I could only go online to begin my search for places to stay, things to do and visas to get. I may be an intrepid traveler, but I am a menopausal woman, and I do like my nighttime plumbing not down the hall, especially when I know I will definitely get Khalid ibn al-Walīd’s revenge and pack my first aid kit accordingly.

I ended up loving Syria so much, I went twice, one year apart, the second time not to see the sites but to visit the wonderful friends I’d made. One year after my second trip, my son, with my encouragement, also went to Syria where he studied at the U of Damascus and had a volunteer job working with a friend of mine and the UN council on refugees. I was going to visit him near the end of his planned year there. One day, however, he left all his stuff, including his computer, just to spend the night over the border in Beirut in order to renew his visa. He was never allowed back, never retrieved his stuff. Watch the nightly news to see what happened after that, three years on.

At this point, I must apologize for the lack of pictures I myself took in Syria. I am not a techie person, would rather have a thousand words than a picture any day, and I feel that going through the world with a camera in front of your face keeps you from experiencing life without a frame. It has serious colonist overtones of “take the goods for your own profit and run.”

Nonetheless, I received training in a new digital camera from my other son before I left and dutifully took pictures throughout my first tour. I even formed an interesting relationship with an avid photographer and camera shop owner in Tadmor (we spoke French) and three local women who came to get ID photos taken (we spoke Arabic) over said camera. Upon my return to Turkey, however, a young man who wanted to be my agent said he’d take a look at my camera because for some reason I couldn’t bring up the photo I’d just taken of him and my translator whom he was treating abominably. No, he is not “a normal Turk”. He is “a normal grabby would-be agent and cocky young techie.” They exist everywhere, just to warn you. In one move, he erased all my photos. Needless to say, he is not my agent. And I am more confirmed than ever in my belief that photos can steal your soul.

The only photo you can’t find better versions of on the internet was the one I took of the kittens left to die within the fortress of Krak des Chevaliers. And I’d rather have that World Heritage site back the way it was then, before Assad forces bombed the rebel/freedom fighters who’d taken refuge there like medieval crusaders, than that photo.

Krak des Chevaliers.  Source: Wikimedia Commons

I remember sitting in the Istanbul airport having said good-bye to my good friends and fans. An older Syrian woman came and sat by me. She had just come visiting her son and grandchildren in Moscow and was so glad to find someone who spoke Arabic after weeks of Russian and Turkish. I did my best for her and we watched the migrants coming to and fro, plane loads with central Asian faces and Turkic on their tongues. It is a brave new world.

There was a long line when I finally found an ATM in Damascus to take care of the issue of credit card machines being few and far between. Extracting money was a communal effort, one young gentleman helping the older ladies (me, too) enter their PIN numbers when they couldn’t read the western numerals or the Arabic (in my case). This shocks everyone I tell, that I would trust a stranger, especially this one, with my bank information, but I never had half the problems from this transaction I might have had shopping at Target, and I loved the trust and helpful graciousness.

Scenes I remember from my trips:

Church of St. Simeon Stylites.  Credit:  Xvlun.  Source: Wikimedia Commons

I gazed up at the pillar where Simon Stylites stood for thirty-seven years. I viewed the shallow channel cut in the floor below the pillar where his waste would flow and be gathered by the faithful as holy water. A local farmer brought me a bunch of the most gorgeous, tasty green grapes. Even as I ate them, wet with his washing, I knew they would make my coddled stomach sick. But for good manners, I ate them anyway.

I remember young Turqi and his friends in their blue school uniforms in the narrow street of old Aleppo, taking turns with my camera, then his father yelling at him to “Come home.” How many of those bright young faces are displaced? Dead? Who dares to ask?

Mar Musa.  Credit: Franco Pecchio. 
Source: Wikimedia, licensed via Creative Commons

Two friends and I climbed to the desert monastery Mar Musa along with locals carrying bushels of apples to add to the fare the nuns cooked in great kettles, beans and salad and tea for a crowd. The eleventh-century paintings in the chapel have been restored—except those on the wall facing Mecca which remains blank so that Muslims and Christians may worship together in peace in the same space.

Ebla.  Credit:  Effi Schweizer.  Source: Wikimedia Commons

I got to visit the ancient site of Ebla whose massive archive is changing our view of the Near East in the third millennium BCE, which supplied hours of research entertainment in my favorite library. I saw the Aleppo Citadel

Aleppo Citadel.  Credit: Heretiq.  Licensed via Creative Commons

(also bombed),

Ugarit.  Credit: Zunkir.  Licensed via Creative Commons

Ugarit—The only thing I was denied access to was Yarmuk, the site of Khalid’s most famous battle when he defeated the Byzantine army. Scene in my book. Still a field of contention, it’s basically the Golan Heights.

Credit: Freedom's Falcon. Source: Wikimedia Commons

And I hear everything’s been looted from any of those sites not bombed to rubble by desperate people. I was in Syria when the Israelis bombed what they declared was a nuclear facility in the desert beyond Tadmor. I sat with others watching al-Jazirah anxiously. “This is the beginning of the holocaust,” I told myself. I didn’t guess where the biggest danger would really come from.

And then we found a new CD by Lebanese singer Najwa Karam.

Credit: Ahmed Zayer, Wikimedia Commons
Licensed via Creative Commons

We bought all the copies in the tiny closet-sized shop in the old city. The owner played it again, and we danced in the street, my Palestinian-Syrian friend pumping his umbrella in rhythm as rain dripped off the vines growing overhead. You can watch a music video which includes dancing in the street at a much different level than ours.

Sayyidah Zaynab Mosque, public domain photo, Wikimedia Commons

On my visit to the spanking new Sitt Zaynab mosque in a desperately poor neighborhood on the outskirts of Damascus, I had to swaddle myself in a serious black chador which seemed for a much taller woman; it dragged in the puddles. In any case, I did not have to run in it. I didn’t even have to sit; there was no space in the packed women’s section to do so. Your Iranian oil money at work in the glittering tile, gold and mirrors. Iranian tour buses came one after another; Sitt Zaynab is a Shi’ite female saint, granddaughter of the Prophet, a victim of the political wars that overtook the Islamic world shortly after my story ends. I suppose the economics of this site should have given me another jab of prophecy. Today, I’m told, signs abound in this battered neighborhood declaring, “By Hassan and Hussein, Sitt Zaynab will not be captured again.”

Hotel Baron restaurant from the 1940s; public domain photo from Wikimedia

In Tadmor and Aleppo, a major part of the tour was the hotels where Agatha Christie stayed, where she wrote part of Murder on the Orient Express. Where I will stay when I go again. If-- But that’s a big if. Although I saw none of this, Tadmor, they say, is where the government has a prison where thousands have been tortured or simply vanished over the years.

In spite of the rain in Damascus—so heavy that at one point, as we sat in an elegant restaurant on the Street Called Straight, water crept under the French doors and stood two inches deep on the restaurant floor—another image stays with me from these visits. This is passing field after field of crops grown no higher than my knee, then turned brown and brittle with plastic bags caught on every other stem. Syria, once priding itself on being able to send Mediterranean GMO-free crops to the European Union, was an early victim of temperatures of 40 degrees Celsius. Of climate change.

The young men who once worked these fields came to the cities for work, found none and began to grow discontent with the government of Bashar Assad, whose photo graced the rear window of every other car when I was there. Assad is my co-pilot.

Another telling image from our long drive on the desert road heading east was all the cars going the other way. Piled high with worldly possessions, grandmas and children, they came one after another. These were refugees from the mess my people created in neighboring Iraq, their numbers reaching somewhere between one million and three million, nobody’s really sure. Assad took them in on top of the Palestinians of a few decades before. Free education and cheap housing were promised, fine humanitarian goals no doubt. But more than one Syrian I met complained of the effect of this on their own bread and education options. Discontent grew.

I promised I’d describe these problems to my nation when I got home. I tried, but nobody was listening. Or did I not try hard enough?

I insisted, finally, that the city of Homs be included on my itinerary. “Why Homs?” asked my guide. He, a Damascene, was of the opinion that people in Homs were crazy. In fact, “He’s a Homsi,” is colloquial for “He’s crazy.” This is supposed to hark back to the Mongol invasion where the citizens of Homs saved themselves from the fate of every other town between them and the steppe by pretending to be crazy to a man. The Mongols passed on to more lucrative pickings.

My driver certainly thought the Homsi drivers were crazy. I didn’t think they were any worse than any other Syrian driver. But I wasn’t driving, thank God.

Credit: Abdulhadi Najjar. Source: Wikimedia Commons, licensed via Creative Commons

Nonetheless, he braved the crazies to take the crazy (me) to see the tomb of the hero (antihero?) of my book, Khalid ibn al-Walid. It was in a mosque called the Khalidiyyah, as is the neighborhood around it.

Silver scimitars hung from each lamp in this mosque, reflecting the brilliant green lights and marble of the walls. Khalid is known as the Sword of God, and at one point I wanted to have these chandeliers on my cover. I opted for a better choice.

Back at home, as the news reports of the civil war began to center on this neighborhood, I cringed. And then on July 23, 2013, the inevitable happened. Government forces scored a direct hit to the tomb and mosque. Shortly thereafter, I saw shadows of the fighters of Homs in a Sundance documentary entitled Return to Homs.

The men creeping through bombed-out houses to make their way to the barricades in that film spoke brave words (mad words?) “We are the sons of Khalid.” The filmmakers didn’t bother to explain what this genealogy meant, but without explanation, the end that happened within the last month of this writing when Homs fell was clearly visible on those haunted faces in spite of brave words.

What it meant to me is in the pages of my novel, the best I can offer for the people of Syria, on all sides. It proves that historical fiction is not a thing of the past.

Ann Chamberlin
author of The Woman at the Well (2011),
The Sword of God (2012),
and The Sword and the Well (2014)


  1. As a Syrian-American, I've been grieving the fact that I didn't get to visit before the civil war. It was really nice to read your entry - and I'll definitely take a look at your series.

  2. Such a pity, Amanda. I hope your family is well. Please let me know how you like my books.

  3. Thank you for your essay. The pain, the bitterness and the love come through. It's so hard, for so many.

    Your experience is part of what what so many of us have, loving a place so much, while knowing it is not a great place. As well as what and who one loves the evil committed there, the blood, the cruelty -- and often ongoing, century after century -- cannot be wiped away by the beauty and wonder that emerges out of it. In my case, one of those places is Mississippi.

    Love, C.

  4. Anonymous4:04 PM

    I hope someday human beings will have evolved enough to allow each other to live peacefully. Thanks for the lovely descriptions, Ann. Fascinating, and so much I don’t know about. I look forward to reading your books.

  5. Fascinating essay, Ann. A rich combination of history and current events.

    And the essay it very timely. "The Sword and the Well" next to me as I write, at the top (finally) of my must read list. I will be diving in tonight!

    Peace, shalom, salaam alaikum.

    You are a vivid and brave travel writer as well as novelist.

  6. Thanks, Shelley, Cynthia and Foxessa, for your comments. I would love to hear more about your Mississippi, C.