Former dean and university professor Avraham Shama is the author of four nonfiction books and numerous articles. His short pieces have been published internationally and in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and the Christian Science Monitor. The memoir Finding Home: An Immigrant’s Journey (2016) is his newest book, “a powerful tale of dislocation, despair and transformation.” Born in Iraq, Avraham now lives in the United States.
What is your elevator pitch for Finding Home: An Immigrant’s Journey?
Remember Alan Kurdi, the three-year-old Syrian refugee who drowned and washed to the Turkish shore? Finding Home: An Immigrant’s Journey is about another child who survived the trauma of exile to tell his story. It is an intimate, lyrical memoir of an Iraqi child looking for home, a powerful tale of dislocation, despair and transformation shared by refugees and immigrants at all times, including those refugees seen on TV almost every night. Narrated in the first person, it captivates the reader with its candidness, honesty and hope. The protagonist is a seven-year-old Jewish Iraqi child living a peaceful life with his parents and many siblings in the countryside near the Hanging Gardens of Babylon by the Euphrates River. When things change abruptly for the worse in 1951, he and his family flee to Israel, where they spend years living in tents and shacks in sub-human conditions in transition camps. He becomes a day laborer, survives a terrible disease, becomes an adult with a different name and personality, gets a college education and a doctorate, and ends his search for home in the United States, amazed and happy with his life.
When readers turn the last page, what do you hope they take away from it?
I hope that at least some aspects of the book will resonate with all readers and remind them of events in their own lives. Several American-born readers of the book, seemingly not connected in any way to this story which spans Iraq, Israel and the United States, felt an immediate connection with it. They told me some of the family dynamics portrayed in the book, as well as the fears, aspirations and hopes of the protagonist were reflected in their own lives. I guess that is why we all read: to see ourselves in others, know that we are not alone, feel human and connected with fellow human beings, especially when life’s events are difficult, even impossible.
What was the hardest part of writing your memoir? The most rewarding?
When I was very young and living in a transition camp I contracted typhoid fever and almost died. For many years, I did not dare think about that deadly experience. Every time the thought of writing about it crept to my mind, however faintly, I would run away to save my life. Deep down, however, I knew one day I would face that brutal experience. This happened a few years ago in my old age, when I confronted it and found a way to convey the many weeks of confusion, fever and psychosis to readers. I tried many different writing styles until I found a suitable one. Writing about this set me free and helped me understand myself. For me, memoir writing was a path for knowing myself better, which was most rewarding.
When did you know you wanted to write your story? What prompted the final push to begin?
I have published many academic books and articles, but I always knew that someday I would write my memoirs—not only mine and my family’s, but of a whole generation of 120,000 Jews who had to leave Iraq empty-handed like refugees and start over. But I did not want the exposure which comes with writing my own memoirs. I was much more comfortable writing academic books because I was not personally invested in them. Then I took a class about memoir writing and immediately began writing.
Tell us how the book came together.
I say I “began writing,” but reality was a lot more complicated. My research required several overseas trips to interview relatives and other sources about life in Iraq before I was born and the difficulties of life in Israel later. This was important and urgent as many of my relatives were already very old. Then, of course, I had to make decisions about what to include in the book, how to tell the story, etc. This was a process of trial and error, sifting and distilling until I found my voice and rhythm. I wrote in the mornings, edited in the evenings and decided how to tackle the next morning’s writing in my sleep. And my conversations with my characters in my sleep were most satisfying. As usual with me, my better writing is my re-writes, many re-writes, and extensive editing way before a draft is submitted to an editor. My guiding principle, always, was to engage readers in the conversation, to lure them into the plot and to make them crave hearing the narrator’s familiar voice chapter after chapter. I decided to publish the book through CreateSpace and to hire an Albuquerque artist to design the cover. I had two excellent editors who contributed to the readability of the book and whom I sometimes drove crazy because I kept changing my mind, sometimes about small details that most readers would not notice. In all, the book took about three pregnancies from start to finish.
What surprising facts did you discover while doing research for Finding Home: An Immigrant’s Journey?
In researching the book I found out that beginning in 1947 the Jewish Agency, and later the state of Israel, secretly sent Zionist messengers to Iraq to convince the Jewish population there to migrate to the infant and poor state of Israel. Their means of persuasion included setting fires to Jewish Synagogues and businesses. The Iraqi Jewish population immediately assumed those fires were set by hateful Muslims and decided that Israel was the only safe place for them. Imagine that: Jews from Israel killed Iraqi Jews and harmed their synagogues and businesses in order to push the rest of the Jewish population of Iraq to move and populate the barren land of the new state of Israel.
Do you have a favorite quote from the book you’d like to share?
Thinking back about my favorite quote from the book, I realize it did not pertain to an action, a deed or something that one of the characters said. Rather, it pertained to a feeling, a mood that concluded turmoil or an inner emotional explosion. When such an emotional chaos happened and the characters found a way not to fall to pieces, they reaffirmed their lives by saying “all is good, right and proper.” Like a mantra, this had the effect of cooling their inner fires and establishing peace and acceptance. I found this very reassuring, even rejuvenating. Strangely, I began using it myself. And it works!
KL Wagoner (writing as Cate Macabe) is the author of This New Mountain: a memoir of AJ Jackson, private investigator, repossessor, and grandmother. She has a new speculative fiction blog at klwagoner.com and writes about memoir at ThisNewMountain.com.