Interview by Adam Levant


In your latest novel Jerusalem Spring, you have used a modern-day refugee camp in Jerusalem as the setting. Since you are Lebanese, why did you not choose a refugee camp in Lebanon as the setting?

Jerusalem is the centre of the Arab-Israeli conflict. In addition, for me Jerusalem doesn’t express only the location but also the symbolism of the city in terms of its being a religious centre, full of diversity, and symbolic of every other conflict from the beginning of history. At the same time I didn’t want to talk about anything related to Lebanon directly because I wanted to be objective and to try not to take sides.

The theme of the book is ‘hope overcoming prejudice’. To that end and since you yourself are an immigrant residing in the USA, have you faced any prejudices?

Personally, I haven’t faced any major instances of prejudice. But when I hear about it happening to my friends or on the news, it affects me. It’s like I can’t separate myself from my brothers and sisters in humanity. I feel injustice very strongly. For example, I can’t accept that a woman should give up her seat for a man - not in the nineteen sixties during segregation and certainly not in the twenty-first century in Jerusalem, or any other place in the world.

As a Middle Eastern author how difficult is it to get the story across in a language that is not your mother tongue and what differences might there be had the story been written in Arabic?

With this question I have to talk about my wife, Sonja, and all the work she did with me to get the story ready. It was really a team effort. She not only encouraged me to write the novel, but she was part of the whole process and I was able to count on her. For me it was easier to do the first part of the book in English because it’s about American history, which I first heard and learned about in English. But it was more difficult to write the second part of the book because I was essentially translating everything I know about the Middle East to English.

Do you think your latest novel can, in some way, help the Middle East peace process?

The idea of the book was a message of peace and hope I wanted to share by presenting a view of the hardship experienced by everyone in every side of any conflict. Add to that the parallel between 1960’s segregation in the US and the current conflict in Jerusalem. It’s a way to explain to the western world what is happening in the Middle East in a more tangible way, because people respond to what’s tangible, rather than intangible. For example, Americans are not shown daily life in the refugee camps in Jerusalem or anywhere else; the news is quite sanitized. My hope is that by taking concrete examples the western world (especially Americans, in terms of this story) can see that there is a solution for the problem in the Middle East and the way to make that solution happen, just as the US was able to resolve segregation of blacks and whites.

You describe your latest book Jerusalem Spring as being your first novel. Yet you have already published a book entitled Maximum Alaska, which is a photographic journal that takes the reader on an intimate tour of the amazing people and scenery of Alaska. Which book did you prefer creating?

Maximum Alaska was the photographic journal I created because I wanted to share how much beauty can be seen in ten days in a vast land at a time of year when sunset and dawn are only a few minutes apart. Jerusalem Spring is my first novel, and I wrote it because I had a strong message to share about the need to better understand and learn from our history so we can work towards a better society. Both books are special for me but Jerusalem Spring is the preferred one.

You have gained numerous achievements in terms of your art: sculpture, graphic design and painting. What would you consider to be your greatest accomplishment in life so far?

I feel that every work is an achievement at the time the person does it. That is the case for me on any project I do. Jerusalem Spring is my latest work and I feel it’s my greatest accomplishment and hope it will help future generations.

What piece of literature in the world today impresses you most?

Room by Emma Donoghue; she created an amazing story inside a tiny space. The mother so convincingly conveys an entire world to her child that the child has no sense of the limitations of the room. It was incredibly moving, especially since by the time the story was published, I was a parent, and it made me reflect on the lengths parents go to for their children to provide for their happiness and security.

If I visited your home, what kind of books would I find in your book collection? Would any one genre of books stand out?

Fine art books and magazines, National Geographic, and books about Lebanese history.

If you were writing a book about your life, what would the title be?


What does the future hold in terms of writing, new titles?

I’ve started a couple of projects, but I’m still in the early stages. One book explores the issue of immigration, which is obviously central to my life and a familiar story to so many people throughout the world. It will have a Lebanese slant this time; since it’s not political in any way, I don’t have to worry about objectivity like I did when writing Jerusalem Spring.

Photo by Fares El Jammal