Interview By Hillary Moses Mohaupt
Kathryn K. Abdul-Baki spent her childhood in Iran, Kuwait, Beirut, Honolulu, and Jerusalem, thanks to her parents, a white American woman from Tennessee and a Muslim man from Jerusalem.
Dancing into the Light: An Arab-American Girlhood in the Middle East is Kathryn’s memoir of growing up within both expatriate Western communities and the larger Middle Eastern society of Kuwait and Jerusalem. Even as a child, she was already caught in both the joys and struggles of being both Arab and American, yet not fully either, when her young life was disrupted by tragedy. The memoir weaves together love, loss, hope, and music into a lyrical meditation on identity, family, and belonging.
Hillary Moses Mohaupt: Congratulations on this book, which feels at once like a trip around the world and an intimate portrait of one particular family. Can you tell me about the journey of writing this book, and how it went from an idea to a full manuscript in its current form?
Kathryn Abdul-Baki: This book started for me as a way to delve into why I’m so fascinated by dance and why certain music moves me the way it does. I started doing formal dance lessons later in life. I was in my mid-forties and it just sort of hit me: I need to get away from the computer and writing my books, because by then I’d written for many, many years. Originally the book was meant to be from the perspective of an adult, with flashbacks into my childhood experience.
But once I went back to my roots, my love for dance and certain kinds of music, particularly Latin music, the book went back to my parents, and my father in particular. I’d handed the first fifty pages to a writing group I belong to and someone said, “You know, this is getting really confusing going back and forth. Why don’t you just try to do it linearly, and then see what you have?” So I started doing that, and it all came back, slowly, one piece at a time, and that’s the way I let it go on. The book only goes to a certain point in my life, to where the lights went out in my life, and then restarted. When I started to write linearly I found that I could go into more depth and try and write from a child’s perspective, without an adult’s input, yet also with an adult’s awareness of the whole life trajectory.
HMM: I was curious about the opening of the book – how it opens with the dance – and how you move backwards in time from there. I was curious about how you would come back to that. And I loved the way that the book closed, as you said, so that the lights go down and then they come back up again. You tied it all together really beautifully, to bring the adult perspective back in to say, “Here’s the end of that part of the story, but there’s more.”
KAB: I just felt I really couldn’t just go and have moments of flashback. There were too many things that really were influential in the way I developed as a human being so that I had to go step by step and try and bring the reader along to show the progression. It is a coming of age story, but more about a childhood.
HMM: While this book is the story of your childhood, it’s also the story of this particular time in the Middle East. For example, when you leave the airport in Jerusalem for the last time, you acknowledge that this was the last time and that the next time you visited your family there it was a whole production. I’m wondering if you could talk a little bit about the places that you mention in this book, and how you went about researching the political pieces that you might not have known about as a child.
KAB: When we lived in Tehran, I was a child – from 4 years old to 6 years old – but I was very aware. I was an only child, so I absorbed a lot. Iran was a very different place from what we see now. We lived an expat lifestyle so my parents were always out at parties. As a child I wasn’t aware of the political events that surrounded that time, and so that I did research quite a bit to make sure I got all the facts and history correct. That’s important: When we talk about a story, the first thing that’s going to ruin it for any reader who has any knowledge and background is to have inaccurate facts.
I knew my father was in Iran with the U.S. government setting up schools; I was aware that he worked for the military but he was a civilian, and I didn’t know all the details that surrounded his work. So I went back and researched that whole period. The same with our time in Kuwait, where we moved in 1958. I was only six, and we lived out in this compound in the middle of nowhere. You drove across the desert and then you arrived at this compound. I didn’t know that much about the early Kuwaitis and where they came from. They were big on trade, fisherman, nomads.
The place I went to school was a little fishing village. The fathers of my classmates were either fisherman or pearl divers. It was a very small village. And in the middle of the desert, between that village and our compound, there were nomads. You’d see a black tent that would be set up one day, and then two days later, gone. And then another tent would go up. A lot of this I had to research, but a lot of the things I describe are all from memory. There were only one or two things where I couldn’t possibly have known, like what the discussion was between my parents, and I had to kind of imagine that, but almost all of the description is pure memory, except for the historical facts.
HMM: Was the research a combination of looking at materials online and books?
KAB: I got a lot of it mainly from books and some online sources that are a little bit newer. But some of it was historical facts, and well known. Those facts are fixed in stone, but then you have to bring it back into the story. People want to read why is that affecting the story you’re writing about.
HMM: I wanted to talk a little bit about the effect of technology. You wrote about sharing recorded messages with your family in the United States. I’d never heard of that technique, and then minute I read it I thought, “That’s brilliant!” I’m curious if you still have access to those recordings, or to any of the letters your mother wrote, to help reconstruct any early memories you didn’t have in your head.
KAB: The letters were preserved by my grandmother. She took them all and preserved them and so I got them after she passed away. There are about 60 or 70 pages of one page letters. My mother would write to her almost twice a week from Tehran. I don’t have anything from Kuwait—for some reason either she stopped writing them or my grandmother stopped saving them. As for the recordings, there weren’t even cassettes then—there were regular tapes. So over several days we would talk a little bit, and when the tape was full we would mail it. You could use telephones in an emergency, but you just didn’t have access to phones that could call overseas. We didn’t even have a telephone at all until I was nine and a half or ten.
The tape recordings were were preserved by the family. My son who is very tech savvy was able to put them on a CD and then online, but the sounds change a little bit, so my mother’s voice was not quite as I recalled it. A little deeper. These are very old tapes—we’re talking about fifty, sixty-year-old tapes. That’s the way we communicated. With WhatsApp we can go on for hours. We’ve progressed so fast.
HMM: Does that change how you’ve stayed connect with your family today? Does it make it easier?
KAB: It does for sure, because with some cousins and friends overseas I can just use WhatsApp and we don’t have to worry. It makes it much easier – I forget about it, and then I think, oh I can just WhatsApp them, or FaceTime them. It certainly makes it much easier to stay connected. And as much as people deride Facebook, I stay in touch with my cousins all over the world all the time because I can tune in any time I want and send a message on Facebook whenever I want. That’s been the good thing about Facebook.
HMM: I guess the downside is that you have the physical letters still but it’s hard to preserve a Facebook message. There are pros and cons to every kind of communication.
KAB: Exactly. I think it’s really sad in a sense that my kids won’t have this physical evidence of the contact I’ve had, the back and forth.
HMM: You mentioned earlier that you mostly made up the conversations you really couldn’t have known about between your parents. Can you talk a little bit about how you went about doing that?
KAB: I’m of two minds on this. I don’t mind reconstructing a little bit, because you remember the gist. But you don’t want to go out on a limb and make up all kinds of things. I wanted to be as true as possible. But sometimes you get to a point where you’re a little stumped because you need a little dialogue. And I didn’t have much dialogue in the earlier versions of the book. So I had to construct it.
There’s a scene where I’m sitting at the table, and we had za’tar and olive oil. And the way Middle Easterners do it is you have a bowl of za’tar and a bowl of olive oil and you tear off a piece of bread and you soak it in the oil and then you dip it in the za’tar and then you eat it. Nobody puts the oil and the za’tar in their own plate. And at this moment as a child I wanted to do that. It’s the only time I remember my mother saying, “Kathy, put that in your plate please.” And I remember my father being upset with her in quiet way, and saying, “Jean, this is how it’s done. Let her do it the way she wants.” I remember the gist of the conversation, the feel of it, her reaction, but I didn’t remember the exact words. So there I had to make it up. So, that’s an example where you’re not going to deviate too much from the truth, you’re just going to add a little bit, because you need some dialogue. It gets kind of tiring for the reader if it’s just a page of text. Or, for example, at the very beginning of the book, when my parents are dancing. I remember them dancing but I said some pretty specific movements that I couldn’t possibly remember. So it’s little imagined, but again, it was not deviating. Here and there, you do a little bit of that in creative nonfiction.
HMM: That’s the creative part of creative nonfiction, staying true to the feel of it.
KAB: I think authors don’t need to be too afraid of doing that for memoir. Not history—you don’t want to make up conversations that are important, but in something like this, that really is insignificant, it does add flavor. This is something I learned in writing the memoir—I had to break up the look for visual interest and relief, and also for the feel, so you can get a feel for the people.
HMM: There’s a lot about your parents and your relationships with your parents—and your grandparents—in this book. Did writing this book help you understand your parents in a new way?
KAB: It really did. It made me question a lot of things, too. I used to have a lot of conversations with my father as adult, so some of this I knew later in life.
For example, as a very healthy adorable little 18-month-old, my brother went off to have his heart repaired in an experimental surgery and actually died as a result of the surgery. I had always accepted the fact that he needed to have the surgery done, and it was done, and he didn’t make it. However, I never really understood the conflict my parents had over it. My mother wanted him to have the surgery, she was very Western minded. My father understood that part, but looking at a healthy child, he said, “Let’s hold off another year or so.” But my mother was very sick at the time and he didn’t want to burden her further by having her worrying. So he finally said, “Okay, we’ll have it done.” He took my brother to have the surgery, and my brother survived a day or two, but then he died.
I never really understood how much my father had been against having that surgery, but now I have a cute little three and a half year old grandchild, and I thought, wow, would I want him to walk in and have this kind of surgery? Sure, if he needed it, but what if? So it brought it back that much more, why my father was so tormented by this, because he really felt guilty. He never resented my mom but I could feel it and I began to understand his sadness a lot more. So that was one of the things that was really hard to relive.
And then every time I would come to the part where my mother was in the hospital, I would almost have to get up a walk away from the computer. It was overwhelming, just too difficult to write up, even though I know it and it’s been with me all my life. Yet somehow recreating that scene just made me all the more aware of how poignant and sad it all was. So I would come back to this scene a day or so later, and by the thirtieth or fortieth rewrite it became someone else’s story.
HMM: I think one of the things that is really beautiful in this book is that there are these really difficult moments that are about death and loss and even about the changing connections between you and your grandparents, you and your father—the moments in life when relationships change. And yet there’s also this through line of dance and music and food and parties—the beautiful pieces of life, the lively parts of life. So I really appreciate that you dance—not to overuse that metaphor—between the hard parts and the less hard parts. How did dance help you understand your grief in a different way?
KAB: I had kind of a basic education in dance as a child, and my parents were very good dancers. It seemed to be an era where people danced a lot. So they at least knew a little bit about dancing. It was the social aspect of the dance that was really important when I was younger, because we would go out to these parties and for those few hours on the dance floor everything would be great.
My father really loved the Caribbean music. And I’ve always loved that music. So it became clearer, as I was writing the book, the roots of why I really gravitate to African, Afro-Cuban rhythms. What we danced then was social. When I went into dance more professionally, teaching it, it satisfied my inner need for joy. Not that I didn’t have it in my life – I did – but there was something inside that I just needed. And through all the years I spent writing, I poured a lot into my books but I needed to move, I needed to get out and see people, and move with them the way I had when I was younger.
The book is dedicated partly to my husband who actually learned to dance because he felt, “I better learn or I’m going to be left behind!”
HMM: Your father said you should become a writer like your mother. Can you talk about how that influenced your path to become a writer, to write the books that you’ve written?
KAB: I never actually thought about being a writer. I liked to sit and make up stories and my mother used to make up stories and tell them to me. I didn’t even know she’s been a writer. She left the house when I was nine and all I knew then was that she was mommy and she was socially involved, which my dad’s job required. So when he said to me, “Be like your mom,” I had no idea what he was talking about it, but then it sort of put it in my head
I think part of that was that I wanted to bring her back to life so much. And my father thought it would be a good profession for me because I could raise my kids and be home and have a profession. I know for a fact had I been more into engineering or medicine, he would have supported it, because for him education was very important.
People tell me, “Oh, you’re lucky, you’re talented.” Well, maybe we have to have a little bit of talent, but for writing I think it’s 99% hard work and dedication. Even if you write something that’s brilliant one day, you come to it the next day and you say, “nuh-uh” and you scratch half of it out. Maybe it’s an acquired talent also. When people say, “you’re so lucky,” I say, “All you have to do is sit in that room, hour after hour, day after day, and you’ll come up with something!” And a good imagination helps.
HMM: How or where do you find support for writing? Who are your first readers?
KAB: My first readers are generally my writers’ group, although sometimes I don’t want to show anybody until I’ve given it a couple of drafts on my own, because I don’t want it to be influenced by somebody’s opinion. But I’ve gone more and more to independent editors to look at drafts and tell me what works, what doesn’t work. There are different editors for different drafts in a book, and each one has given me a different slice of the pie.
HMM: And then you have to put the pie together.
KAB: And then you have to put the pie together! You should always show your work to someone else, but only after you’ve really worked on it. Otherwise, someone has suggested something early on and I’ve gone that route, and even after the book’s published, I’m thinking, “I shouldn’t have done that. I should have gone with my instinct.”
HMM: I think there’s a confidence you have to have, to not put it out there too soon. I appreciate that reminder—that you as the writer are the owner of it and understand it the best.
KAB: It’s hard, because the minute you finish it you want someone to look at it and get feedback. I think if you can be patient, you yourself can work on it, and then after a few times you can give it out. It needs time to bubble up and ferment. And I don’t want to have too many opinions. We’re 8 in our group, and sometimes I’ve found that having 7 different opinions is more confusing that helpful. Sometimes you want one person who’s astute, whose opinion you respect, to read it and give you feedback. It works for everybody differently. You find yourself and have more confidence.
HMM: It comes back to put yourself in the seat, in the room.
KAB: Put yourself in the seat and just be fearless and do it. Sometimes I wonder if my father were around what would he say? “No, that’s not the way it happened.” It’s funny, we create these things in our heads.
HMM: What do you hope readers understand about the world after reading your book?
KAB: First of all, when I lived in the Middle East, it was a peaceful place. It was a wonderful place to grow up. There was no danger. It was probably like small town America. It was very safe, an idyllic place to grow up. The Six Day War in 1967 changed a lot of things, but the Middle East was a very different place from what we see on TV.
The other thing is that there is light at the end of the tunnel. For me it was dancing. We had to go through these difficult periods, but the book does have a happy ending. My father did remarry—he married a lovely woman who took very good care of me. There was a big cultural shift, because my life did change from being a very American one to being more of an Arab one, but it went along and it flowed.
And finally: opposites can not only attract but they can thrive. Different cultures can be brought together. I grew up in a bi-cultural, bi-religious home, and it was never an issue. My mother’s family accepted my dad and his customs, and my father’s family adored her and respected her as being different but fine. The two cultures, which were in some ways very different, were very compatible in many ways. With the right attitudes people can learn to get along and have a good life.