Welcome back, fellow book lovers! James again, and we’ve got a special treat for you this week. We’ve got a middle grade author joining us this week. The amazing N.H. Senzai has just come out with her newest book, Escape From Aleppo, about a young girl trying to escape the war-torn Syrian city. Escape From Aleppo is easily one of the most moving and necessary books of the new year, and it’s sure to appeal to readers of all ages and backgrounds. I’m so glad that Naheed was able to join us today! Let’s get to the interview.
James: Hey Naheed! Thanks so much for joining us today. Your new book, Escape From Aleppo, is one of the most important books of the new year. While it's technically aimed at middle grade audiences, I couldn't miss the opportunity to talk to you about it, especially since it's already gaining a lot of crossover appeal. Can you tell our readers a bit about what they can expect?
Naheed: Thank you so much for the kind words and for having me as your guest!
Escape From Aleppo was a tough book to write. I felt a tremendous burden to accurately and sensitively portray the horrors of the Syrian war and its impact on its citizens. Readers have probably heard about the Arab Spring and the conflicts in the Middle East, but don’t know much about its root causes or what led to this terrible point in history. At its heart, ESCAPE FROM ALEPPO is an adventure story about a girl, Nadia, separated from her family as they flee the city of Aleppo, and how she overcomes her fears and comes up with creative solutions to solve her problems. Through Nadia’s eyes, readers will experience life in Syria, during good times and bad, the country’s rich culture, history and the complexities of the war.
James: Nadia's story helped bring life to the headlines about the ongoing civil war in Syria. As you pointed out, Nadia's story is representative of the twelve million Syrians who have become refugees since the war began. Why was it important for you to put their stories onto bookshelves?
Naheed: As Americans, whether we consciously realize it or not, we have a particular connection with refugees; at one point of time, most of our families sought refuge in this country. They arrived from all around the world, fleeing war, persecution, famine or just hoping to find a better life for themselves and their children. In ESCAPE FROM ALEPPO, readers have an opportunity to walk in the shoes of a young person whose life has been turned upside down by the trauma of war and the loss of everything they know and love. If we pause to reflect on our connection that at one point we were all refugees, we can build empathy and share in a common humanity.
James: What was your research process like? Did you talk to any refugees while writing this book?
Naheed: This, as with most of my books, was very research intensive, and I spent months absorbing and cataloging information! I’m lucky that I’ve lived and traveled in the Middle East for fifteen years, and have many friends in the region. It also helps that my husband teaches Middle East politics at Santa Clara University and he helped in putting the history and politics of the region in perspective. I spoke to many journalists and Syrians who shared first-hand accounts of the terrible conflict.
James: One of the things I appreciated most about your novel was the flashbacks to Nadia's life before the bombing of Aleppo. Those scenes really helped explain some of the history that led to the ongoing Syrian conflict. Why were these scenes important to you?
Naheed: When people see scenes of war and images of refugees fleeing death and destruction, that becomes a viewer’s only frame of reference for the country in conflict and its people. When writing ESCAPE FROM ALEPPO, I wanted to show that Nadia had a normal life before the war, like that of any teen around the world. Aleppo was an advanced, cultured city where she had a loving family, friends, supportive teachers, a sweet tooth, a passion for music and a dislike of Algebra! In showing the two sides of the coin, peace and conflict, I wanted to show how anyone’s normal, everyday life can be turn upside down in a matter of moments.
James: Throughout the novel, the city of Aleppo becomes so much more than a setting. It's a memory, a dream, a promise, a character even. I think that's why I loved that scene where people were trying to preserve Aleppo's art and history, even in the midst of conflict. Was that scene based on anyone or anything in particular?
Naheed: Aleppo, called Haleb by locals, is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, predating even the Pharaohs, occupied by Alexander the Great and his army, the Romans, Ottomans and the French. It’s a truly unique city whose destruction over the course of the war has been heartbreaking. In order to honor it in my own way, I wanted to showcase the wonders of the city, highlighting its beauty, architecture, culture and history. During the war, much of the art and historical artifacts were either destroyed or looted and sold on the black market. When I read about these losses, I wanted to weave it into the story.
James: I fell in love with Ammo Mazen almost immediately. He's kind and wise and selfless. Where did you get the inspiration for his character?
Naheed: The two age groups I love writing about the most are the young, because they have yet to experience the “firsts” of life, and the elderly, who are filled with knowledge and wisdom having journeyed through life. When I envisioned my main character, Nadia, I knew she was impetuous, stubborn and somewhat spoiled. For her to navigate through war torn Aleppo I realized she needed the foil of someone who could temper those traits. Ammo Mazen is the type of man I envisioned as the perfect guide who could help her mature, overcome her weaknesses and play to her strengths. He brought wisdom and compassion to the story, while hiding his own mysterious past.
James: I know that this book was written before the current Presidential administration. However, in many ways, it feels like a direct response to the ongoing debate regarding the Muslim ban. If the President was ever to read your book, what do you hope he'd take away from it?
Naheed: If President Trump happened to read ESCAPE FROM ALEPPO, my hope would be two-fold. First, he would see Nadia and her family as being no different than a family living in Queens or Miami; at the end of the day, all families, no matter their origin, want the same things - peace, security and a chance at a hopeful future. Second, my hope is that President Trump would better understand the history, culture and political dynamic taking place throughout the middle east. What is happening in Syria is a symptom of a broader malaise in the region and you can’t address the instability and conflict in Syria without understanding how it will impact other countries. The US should come up with a long-term strategy in the region rather than engaging in short-term tactical benefits; without it they will never be seen as an honest broker of peace in the region.
James: Here at PickMyYA, we often share #Pick6 where we highlight some books we think our followers would love. What are some books you'd recommend for readers looking to increase their #MuslimShelfSpace?
Naheed: Amina’s Voice by Hena Khan, Saints and Misfits by SK Ali, Malcolm Little by Ilyasah Shabazz, Wanting Mor by Rukhsana Khan, Where the Streets Had a Name by Randa Abdel-Fattah, A Beautiful Lie by Irfan Master, Habibi by Naomi Shihab Nye, and She Wore Red Trainers by Na'ima B. Robert
James: What's next for you, Naheed? Any future projects you can tell us about?
Naheed: I am working on a few picture books and a new novel!
James: Awesome! One last question, so let's end on a happy note... What's something that gives you hope for the new year?
Naheed: Despite all the trauma of 2017, whether political, economic, social or via mother nature, I have been humbled by watching good people rise up to take a stand against what is wrong. I hope 2018 brings more people to their feet, fighting for human rights, political representation and climate change initiatives, while condemning racism, sexism, homophobia, Islamophobia and other -isms and -phobias.
That wraps up today’s interview with Naheed. You can order a copy of Escape From Aleppo at your local bookstore or on Amazon. Be sure to grab a copy today. If you have any questions for Naheed or want to let her know how much Escape From Aleppo means to you, you can reach out to her on Twitter or through her website. Whatever you do, don’t forget to come back next week when I’ll be chatting with NY Times bestselling author Karen McManus about her twisty new novel, One Of Us Is Lying!