1) How did you decide to write this story?
I write as part of my exercise in living. To experience the world around me, to translate what I see and hear to understanding; and to try to make sense of things that seem contradictory. But specifically, for this story I wanted to tell the tale of reason in Islam. As Aliuf says is his final speech inside Djinguereber Mosque, the challenges within Islam are not religious – they are philosophical. So I wanted to use a story to tell the tale of how the dearth of reason infiltrates societies and leads to violence; and how men and women can be saved through its re-discovery. My stories are also about people – about what motivates them to make the decisions they do, and how they can sometimes go wrong. And I write to honor those who seek freedom, even at the greatest of all costs.
2) What kind of a research process have you gone through?
I researched this book for two years. I was lucky, I was living in Mali during those years and so I had the raw material all around me. Tuareg friends and Muslim scholars who helped me think through so many things. The Tuareg and their great sand seas, the culture that has allowed them to hold their land against all odds; the ebb and flow of Muslim tradition and history over north Africa and how it has influenced everything. Mythology and faith and legend. I read books, and I read a lot on the internet too. Making notes as the story progressed.
3) Can you tell us about the protagonist, Aliuf Ag Albachar?
Aliuf could be any of us. We all make decisions based upon what we know, what we learn, who our influences are and what opportunities are presented. Aliuf was not a bad boy, and he is not a bad man. Neither perhaps is he a remarkable man. He is a boy who becomes a man under the most challenging of circumstances; poverty, violence, loss – geopolitical toil. Each decision he makes, you who read the novel could see yourself also taking, no matter what you believe. Aliuf is all of us. And his epic sacrifice, at the end. Well, maybe in that he was great – because how many of us would give the ultimate prize to right wrongs that we commit? Perhaps not too many.
4) Aliuf’s life changes with books he reads in the library. He reads Islamic scholars such as Ibn Tufayl, of Ibn Sina, Ibn Rushd. Old works of Al-Ghazali and Nasir al-Din al-Tusi. What about you? How did you obtain information about those scholars? Which resources have you used?
I have a degree in theology – in my case Christian theology. Many of the arguments are the same; the role of God in the world and man’s responsibility to his own free will. How He reveals Himself, and what our responsibility is toward that revelation. I knew what to look for. So I read. And when I read one thing, often times in the margins there was something else, another name, and I would write down that name and look it up later. Studying the next scholar, and the next and the next – back into history. So much is available in English, thankfully. While I speak English and French and Spanish, I do not unfortunately speak Arabic. But I was able to read parts of the great philosophers and theologians. And in this process I came upon the Mu’tazila, which appeals to my Aristotelian ideas of individual responsibility and our special nature as beings created in the image of God.
5) Salif, a friend of Aliuf, is very effective on Aliuf’s decisions. What does Salif represent in the book?
Salif represents the other choice. While Aliuf’s choices were made to embrace the work of his mind, his rational thought and allow himself to be led wherever it would take, Salif on the other hand chose violence and hate and embraced that journey. They were both the same, as children, but grew apart as they continued down making decisions based upon the options presented to them by life.
6) In recent years, ‘so-called’ jihadist movements are on the topic of the world and you wrote about it. Why did you choose an African country instead of Middle East?
That is easy, its because I was living in Mali at the time and had the opportunity to research everything firsthand for years. I suppose if I’d been living in Syria or Iraq, my story would have been about a young man from Sham. That being said, as I studied Tuareg culture and history I found that I really enjoyed learning about something so old and so unique. The Tamasheq language is one of the oldest, the culture and people are unique, alone sailing their sand seas. Yet with deep traditions and roots that pre-date Islam. In another life I might have become an anthropologist, because I love to learn about things that have been lost. Mali, the oldest of places, fed my imagination.
7) What can you say about radicalism and its roots in Africa?
Radicalism in Africa isn’t different perhaps than other parts. There are so many reasons people choose jihad. Poverty. Anger. Revenge. Lack of opportunity. Fundamentalist religion that provides easy answers to everyday problems. Violent Islam gives it a direction, a purpose. As part of the next wave of ‘global revolution’, after fascism and communism, it inspires especially young men who feel powerless or ignored and gives them purpose and direction and gives their lives meaning. All this is true in Africa as well. Add this to the tremendous corruption, governments propped up by the “west” that no longer feel the need to respond to the consent of those they govern – and violent Islam gives them the tools and the narrative to try and change this. That’s where the violence comes from.
8) In your book, You tell how an ordinary person suddenly can be radicalized. What kind of measures can be taken? How can young people be saved?
Young people need something exciting. People talk about “empowering moderate voices” but moderate voices are not exciting; do not inspire those who are looking for meaning and energy and purpose. But there is an answer; because the fight for liberty is not moderate. It is radical and scary; and it too gives life meaning and energy and purpose. Empowering young people, not to seek violence over others but to help in the global fight to set each other free – and in the process setting themselves free. This is the most exciting of ideas; and this is the answer. Giving young people a way to escape their oxygen-less dictatorships and write and paint and fight for what they believe in; making music and finding a way to experience their faith that acknowledges that we are all created by God. Those are the challenges for those who wish to see the violence end.
9) As an American writer, how much effective do you think the West on this radicalization? Many Muslim countries see the western countries responsible about that. What do you think about it?
It is not controversial to say that violence begets violence. When the west responds to violence by our own violence, we legitimize the violence and create more jihadis. This is a mistake. But this is against western values as well; when we remember what they are. Values of family and faith and individual responsibility and liberty to make decisions as we see them, as long as they don’t harm the lives of others. The west should remember this, to tell the story about opportunity and individual power to take control of your own life. I know many Muslims in the west, and they too love the ability to provide for their families and give meaning to their lives. We should remind people that is what the end goal is – and live by those principles.
10) Do you have any new book project?
I am finished with a 4th novel, called “I Charles, From the Camps”. It is about northern Uganda and a young man’s journey that makes him join the Lord’s Resistance Army. This is another terrorist organization, that one ‘Christian’; the story is a hard one, perhaps without a happy ending and comes from my time living in Uganda almost a decade ago.