As we all do, I remember where I was on the morning of September 11th, 2001.
My husband and I were sipping coffee in our kitchen in Seattle, listening to NPR. As she described the planes crashing into the World Trade Center, the newscaster’s voice broke. Chilled to the bone I tried to call a childhood friend living in lower Manhattan but couldn’t get through.
An hour later I picked up the phone to hear the distraught voice of Samia Panni, my musical partner in the world-music singing group Abráce. “They’re saying Muslims brought down the Twin Towers, it can’t be true.” Sadly it was. Samia, who was from Bangladesh, had lived in countless countries and was raised in a Muslim family. She often said she had as much in common with my Jewish family and friends as I did. Her biggest fear was that that innocent Muslims living in America—the vast majority of whom were peace-loving citizens like herself —would be blamed for the destruction.
As the terrible weight of what had happened descended on us, Abráce turned to what we did best – performing music that bridged cultures and celebrated both differences and commonalities. In 2002, when we were invited in to sing in an Islamophobia conference at St. Mark’s Cathedral in Seattle, we realized that the eclectic repertoire we had worked so hard to build over the years could serve a worthwhile purpose.
Abráce moved with ease between rumbas and madrigals, from chants to the Yoruban Orishas to Gregorian-style hymns laced with indigenous Guatemalan rhythms. There was one song, however, that I always introduced in a wistful tone—Cuando el Rey Nimrod –a joyous retelling of the birth of Abraham with lyrics composed in Ladino (a mixture of Judeo-Spanish and Hebrew originally devised to confuse the ears of the Inquisition). To me this song hinted at the existence of the Convivencia, a time in Medieval Spain when Muslims, Jews and Christians respected each other, competed to write the best poetry in the languages of their choice, and even fought side by side.
At this point, my duel lives as singer and author began to merge and a premise for a novel took shape. What if a remnant of this tolerant way of life had managed to survive? What might its name be? Would it be hidden away somewhere in rural Spain or in the Kunlun Mountains of Tibet like Shangri La? This seemed far-fetched. I preferred my tales well-grounded no matter how adventurous, so I put the idea aside.
Until one night my husband picked me up at the airport and pushed a copy of the Seattle Times into my hands. “Maybe part of your story is right here,” he said. The front page article described the new law passed by Spain offering citizenship to the descendants of the Jews expelled in 1492. And it included a picture of the first Sephardic woman in Seattle to take them up on it.
I had found my protagonist. Seattle journalist Alienor Crespo would travel to Spain to complete her citizenship application and get caught up in protecting the rescued books from yet again being destroyed.
And that’s how Zahara and the Lost Books of Light was inspired by a song. I chose Zahara as the title because it means ‘light’ in both Hebrew and Arabic and I hoped it would guide me if I lost my way in what I knew would be a difficult but hopefully rewarding endeavor. My agent added “And the Lost Books of Light” to the title after I had finished writing the book.