My first novel, Diamonds Take Forever, was based loosely on my own personal history of heartbreak and happily-ever-after. My husband jokes that it’s a documentary and acquaintances who read it often asked which parts are true.
Sweet Dates in Basra, so titled for Iraq’s most emblematic fruit, the romantic encounters between Shafiq and Kathmiya, and the relatively idyllic years of cultural tolerance following independence, is loosely based on my father’s story.
Many elements are true. His brothers opened the first-ever movie theater in Old Basra, naming it “The Roxy.” My father drew inspiration from the poetry of Khalil Gibran. And while he never actually experienced romance as a teen, he was infatuated with a Marsh Arab maid whose skin was so pale she was suspected of having a European father.
I am still moved to tears when I hear stories about this family I never met, and I wrote this novel in tribute to the Iraq that I was raised to revere.
But for all of the colorful experiences I have drawn on in creating this work of fiction, one stands above the others in its authenticity: the loving relationship between the Muslim and Jewish families at the heart of the book. My father had a Muslim best friend he referred to as “brother” because they both nursed at the same breast. They broke through the wall between their courtyards to share the water supply. When the Muslim father died, my grandfather paid the widow’s mortgage while her sons were in law school. And when her eldest became a judge, he used his connections to help secure the release of a family member – who like the character fashioned after him in the novel was a staunch nationalist arrested for Zionism – from prison.
The solidarity between these microcosmic Jewish and Muslim families endured through successive wars, changes in government and sanctions.
I am still moved to tears when I hear stories about this family I never met, and I wrote this novel in tribute to the Iraq that I was raised to revere. Unlike the war-drenched country portrayed on the news, it is a place of pleasure and adventure, richness and warmth, friendship and family.
My father continued his Iraqi traditions after moving to America. If we invite six people over, we cook for twelve. There are always seeds for birds in the backyard. Growing up, we had a wooden swing, hanging from ropes, in the middle of the living room. I received my own version of this Iraqi treasure as my wedding present. Family is so important to my father, when he fell in love with my mother and found out she already had two children, she became even more perfect in his eyes.
But in more fundamental ways my father has brought the Iraqi spirit to the production. Family members, friends, neighbors and the strangers they bring are all welcomed with an overflow of warmth.
One tradition embodies many of these Iraqi ways: our annual grape harvest, when we make wine from the grapevine that my father cultivated up the side of his Manhattan home and onto its roof.
Back in Basra, he had also coaxed a vine to the roof, but it didn’t bear fruit. Still, my grandfather bought red grapes, crushed them manually, and put them in a large barrel where they would ferment, yielding around fifty bottles each year for the family.
The Manhattan vine didn’t bear fruit for seven years, but then slowly little bunches of grapes started appearing. It was nurtured with such love that by now we get hundreds of pounds every year – and over a hundred bottles of wine, up from nine the first time we made it.
In many ways, the process bears no resemblance to the primitive wine-making of my grandfather’s day. Where in Iraq they had no special methods or tools, in New York we use fancy equipment and techniques, from an elaborate machine that separates the grapes from the stems to sophisticated chemistry that calculates how much tannin to add.
But in more fundamental ways my father has brought the Iraqi spirit to the production. Family members, friends, neighbors and the strangers they bring are all welcomed with an overflow of warmth. Everyone is fed and cared for and made to feel part of the team. Young children get the low-hanging bunches while tall men lean out the windows and gather those that no one else can reach. When a basket full of grapes is lowered on a pulley from the roof to the garden, the kids love to yell that it is on its way, while the adults invariably joke that next they’ll put the children in it for a ride. All of us get our hands soaked while cleaning the Niagara grapes, or take a turn with the heavy, manual press, or sweep the leaves that rain down from the vine. It is such a shared enterprise that by the end of the evening, when we are all eating Iraqi specialties for dinner, we feel like a tight community.
I once asked my father how it was that the primitive system in Iraq yielded wine just as good as our much more elaborate New York process. He had told me that his father paid absolutely no attention to standard rules that forbid contact between air and wine or demand sterilized equipment. Even the cover of the big wooden barrel didn’t fit properly; it was just a large board that sat at the top. But whenever my father would go over and lift the cover, he would smell “this wonderful, wonderful fermenting wine.”
“What kept it from turning into vinegar?” I asked.
By way of answering, he told me about the time my mother suggested that they set out to produce some vinegar. “Hard as I tried, I couldn’t get any,” he said. Ever since then, he stopped being overly cautious and never had one year that the wine was bad.
“This issue of, ‘be careful it may turn into vinegar’ is highly exaggerated,” he observed. I thought of my grandfather who, back in old Iraq, knew that all along.