I recently met Kati Woronka (pseudonym) when she presented a paper at a conference on the implications of the Arab Spring for churches. She is a university lecturer in social sciences whose passion is the empowerment of local civil society for peace, especially in the Middle East and across the Arab world, where she has spent much of her professional life. As a qualitative researcher, Kati has explored the use of storytelling for peace and community reconciliation as well as for project monitoring and evaluation.
Kati Woronka is with us today to talk about Dreams in the Medina, her debut novel. Kati, what made you want to write about Syrian college students?
Kati Woronka: I did some very interesting research about Syrian women for graduate school, first a small project investigating the aspirations of students in Damascus, then a full thesis on the identity of Syrian women in the context of Muslim-Christian relations. Many people were fascinated by my choice of research topic and told me they'd like to see me publish my findings academically. I was resistant to that idea because academic publishing is often inaccessible, and so few people actually bother to read it. But I agreed with the sentiment that I was learning so much about a world that is largely unknown to many people in the West, at a time in history when the media paints the Middle East in such controversial colors. So, since I have a background in fiction writing, I decided to start writing up my research in the form of stories.
LH: What do you hope non-Syrian readers will take away from this story?
KW: A few months ago, I led a reflection exercise with some colleagues in England about the Syria conflict. I asked them to write down the first words that came to mind when they thought of Syria, and the words they came up with included: “war”, “crisis”, “sectarian”, “Islamists”, “dictatorship”. Their answers didn't surprise me, because those are words often used in news reports about Syria. But then I told them some stories about Syrian people, and was thrilled as their list of words changed: “hope”, “beauty”, “passions”, “family”, “ancient history”. My desire for Dreams in the Medina is that its readers will come to have greater interest in Syrian people, not just politics, and begin to share with me a love for the beautiful diversity and the rich cultural heritage that I encountered in Syria.
LH: You obviously have close friendships with girls like the ones we meet in Dreams. How did you develop those friendships?
KW: You're right. I am honored to count some Syrian women among my dearest friends. Before pursuing graduate studies, I studied Arabic in Damascus and lived in the university dorms where I spent long nights chatting with my neighbors in the Medina—much as the characters in the book do. Sharing student life has a way of creating deep bonds. I was fortunate to first move to Syria as a student rather than in a professional capacity, because I had little to offer and so much to gain. My friends became my teachers and welcomed me into their lives, and I learned to do the same.
LH: How do you think knowing the local language helped you to get to know the women who inspired your characters?
KW: Pride in Arabic language is a huge part of Syrian culture. That's one reason why so many Arabic words found their way into the story. Somehow, it's simply not Syrian without them. [LH: There is a glossary at the end of the book. Although I only found the glossary after I finished reading, the meaning of most terms was clear in the context.] At the same time, I was making friends through studying and practicing the language. So my Arabic improved, my cultural awareness grew, and the friendships deepened simultaneously. In the Medina, English is hardly spoken at all; in fact, few Syrian women speak any language other than Arabic. Also, because I learned Arabic, I was able to do extensive research interviewing Syrian women, and later other people throughout the Arab world.
LH: Kati will be offering a free e-book to a reader who comments on this blog or next Tuesday when I ask her about the challenges of writing a book like this. Comment both weeks to increase your chances of winning. As usual this contest is void where prohibited by law. The odds of winning depend on the number of entrants. Results will be announced, Sunday, February 2.LeAnne Hardy has lived in six countries on four continents. Her fiction reflects her faith, her passion for storytelling that stretches the mind and the cultures she has lived in. Learn more at www.leannehardy.net .