Jewish-Muslim peace advocates speak through novel
by Rob Neufeld
When Bahia Abrams, Asheville author of “The Other Half of My Soul,” met Lina Adas, owner of Pita Express in Hendersonville, they discovered they had a few things in common.
Both their families are from the Middle East. Abrams was born to a Syrian Jewish family in Brooklyn; Adas to a Palestinian family that had been relocated from Jerusalem to a refugee camp in Jordan when she’d been four.
Both women had defied their strict parents to marry the men they loved. Adas had married a man not rich enough for her father; Abrams had married an Ashkenazi rather than Sephardic Jew.
Their third bond is their most recent one. Adas has translated “The Other Half of My Soul,” a novel about a love marriage between a Syrian Jewish-American woman and a Syrian Shi’ite man, into Arabic, with the hope of having its thriller-embedded message disseminated worldwide.
The English language book, published in 2007 by Asheville publisher Grateful Steps, continues to sell, garnering its latest rave from South Africa; and multiplying its hardcover sales now that it is available as an e-book.
Currently, the novel is ranked 6,000 among all Kindle books; and is number 6 in its category, Jewish fiction—an ironic classification, for Amazon only assigns one, and the bridge to Muslim fiction gets left out.
A few years ago, Abrams went to the Islamic Center of Asheville to attend a talk Adas gave, titled, “In Search of Peace and Common Ground.”
Adas read from her family heirloom, a 3,000-page edition of the Koran that includes Arabic, Urdu, and English texts. The Urdu is a survival of the Muslim population forced out of India during the Great Partition in 1947—when the Hindi document was transliterated into the Arabic alphabet.
“How do you reconcile that the Koran has hatred of Jews in it?” Abrams asked at the talk. The Prophet Muhammad had put wrath into his message of love after Jewish leaders in Medina had rejected him as an Arabian prophet.
“I don’t interpret the Koran that way,” Adas responded. “I see the beauty.”
She represents a large number of Muslims who attend to the enlightened heart of their Holy Book; view the anger in their gospel as Christians view God’s anger in the Bible—that is, as incident-specific judgments; and oppose the use of hatred among radical jihadists.
“Ask any woman in any village in Palestine what she wants,” Adas said in an interview with the Citizen-Times, “and she would say ‘ana badi salam’—‘I want peace. I want to be able to raise my children and not worry about a bomb coming into my home; or, when my kids are older, I don’t want them to be tempted by someone who might lure them to be a suicide bomber to go to heaven.’”
At the end of Adas’ talk at the Asheville mosque, Abrams passed her novel to her. A few months later, Adas called offering to translate it so that it could get into the hands of Muslim women from Indiana to Indonesia.
When Rami, the Ba’ath regime-funded Syrian, meets Rayna, the Brooklyn Jew, in the registration hall at the University of Maryland in “The Other Half of My Soul,” it is love at first sight for the two freshmen.
“A flame ignited and a glorious stream of energy rushed through his blood,” Abrams writes. “A wordless communication surged between them when she met his gaze.”
“American audiences love sex and violence,” Abrams says about her at-times sexy book. Certain parts had to be toned down and rewritten for the Arabic edition.
The couple’s sexual attraction is related to fate in the novel. Rami feels that he and Rayna had known each other in a previous life. Mating—and the completion of souls—acts as a major subversive force in the undoing of hate-mongering clannishness.
Rami’s U.S, opportunity has come about because of a leading terrorist’s ulterior motives—to develop alliances in South America’s Triple Frontier; and to monopolize a chemist’s oil-eating bacteria.
Thus, the novel uses a mixture of a high octane suspense plot and a high testosterone romance as a syrup to present the realities of interfaith marriage and persecution-hardened traditions.
Tradition and love
Adas and her husband, Mohamid, had been childhood friends in Husn, a refugee camp in which people had to walk three miles to get water. When Adas turned 18, Mohamid approached her father asking to marry his eldest daughter of seven girls.
Lina’s father said no and would not give a reason. “But she loves me and I love her,” Mohamid said, and was kicked out of the house.
Finally, common sense and fatherly concern won out, but not until after Lina had been beaten by an older brother and imprisoned in the house for a year. Mohamid had sent her letters during this time via Lina’s female fellow students at the university they all attended. The letters said: “I still want you. It doesn’t matter, we’ll fight this. We’ll get together.”
“Maybe this is a movie!” Adas exclaimed in the interview.
She related how she’d told her father, “If I don’t get married, then your other six daughters will stay here.” Tradition dictated that daughters must get married in age order; and that unmarried girls stay at home.
A former employer of Lina had appealed to her father about the girl’s intelligence and the shame of wasting it.
“As soon as we got married,” Adas stated, “we said, we’re not staying in this country.
The couple’s son, Ahamad, was born in 1988, after they both had gotten jobs and a house outside of the camp. Forty days later, the family was in the U.S.
“I’m not going to repeat history with my son,” Lina had vowed. Now, though her and Mohamid’s families do not communicate, Ahamad and his sister, Dalia, both practicing Muslims, are steeped in tolerance.
At the Hendersonville Elementary School, a dozen years ago, Dalia and a Jewish girl had been at each other’s throats constantly until their mothers brought them together in a play date at Adas’ house. It was Ramadan, and the girlfriend fasted until sunset with the Adases. Lina also had the girls hold hands all day, and since then, she says, “they have been best friends.”
Both Abrams and Adas are on peaceful missions, and give talks in various venues.
They are looking for a publisher for their Arabic edition who can reach international audiences. If the book causes a stir, all the better, Abrams says.
She herself had been disturbingly stirred; and had bestirred herself. Her son had been working on the 60th floor of the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, when he’d felt the first tremor. He got out four minutes before the North Tower collapsed. Abrams’ subsequent hatred of the Islamic terrorists—and all Muslims—led her, she says, to write “The Other Half of My Soul,” and imagine a coming together of historical antagonists.
Subsequently, she has made herself a student of the Koran and Middle East history. In 2011, she published “Alien at Home: Divine Intervention” a chronicle of the exodus of Elie Sutton, whose Syrian Jewish father had to export each of his seven sons out of the region to avoid ant-Semitic violence.
Adas has put aside her journalism career to put her cooking skills to good use. Her restaurant, Pita Express in Hendersonville, offers genuine, home-made Syrian foods, and is a gathering place. In that space, she teaches classes in belly-dancing and in the Arabic language. She goes out into the community to talk about diversity.
The Other Half of My Soul by Bahia Abrams (Grateful Steps hardcover, 2007, 371 pages, $24).
Bahia Abrams (l) and Lina Adas (r) at Pita Express (photo by Rob Neufeld)
THE EVENT AND MORE
Bahia Abrams talks about her book and inaugurates the Interfaith Discussion Series at Grateful Steps Bookshop, 159 South Lexington Ave., Asheville, 5:30 p.m., Jan. 17. Call 277-0998’ or visit www.gratefulsteps.org. Rescheduled for Jan. 24.
Pita Express is located at 1034C Greenville Highway, Hendersonville. Call 696-9818; visit pitaexpresshville.com/blog.
Regarding speaking engagements, contact Bahia Abrams at BahiaAbrams@aol.com and Lina Adas at w.Dove@Juno.com