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Debut novelist brings frontline perspective on Middle East

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    Malu Halasa

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A former Rolling Stone journalist with Ohio ties who has written extensively on the Middle East will visit Perrysburg this weekend to promote her debut novel.

Malu Halasa, who grew up in Akron, will discuss Mother of All Pigs at 1 p.m. Saturday at Gathering Volumes, 196 E. South Boundary St., Perrysburg.

Mother of All Pigs centers on several members of the Sabas family, who are Christian in their predominantly Muslim village in Jordan as they struggle to survive in the shadow of the Syrian civil war. Among the key characters are Fadhma, a mother of 13 children, many of whom have immigrated to the United States; her adult daughter Samira, who becomes involved in a Syrian women’s political organization; and stepson Hussein, a butcher and retired military officer who decides to sell pork in his shop.

“We look at the Middle East as highly sectarian — the Muslims are there, the Christians are there, the Sunnis vs. the [Shiites], and it’s all divided up,” said Halasa, who has lived in London since 1994. “But in my experience and my family’s experience, people co-exist and become friends across these divides. I kind of feel that the conversations we have about the Middle East in America and in Britain sort of ignore that.”

Though she spent her formative years in Ohio, Halasa is of Jordanian and Filipina descent and spent much of her journalism career writing and reporting from the Middle East. She said her family background is what initially sparked her interest in the region.

“Over the years, I think I have come to see myself as not only a writer but as an engaged writer and editor, which means that I am looking for the way you tell a story or you tell about the experiences of the region that goes beyond the headlines.”

While Mother of All Pigs is Halasa’s first novel, she has written several nonfiction works, including Syria Speaks – Art and Culture from the Frontline (2014); Transit Tehran: Young Iran and Its Inspirations (2009); The Secret Life of Syrian Lingerie: Intimacy and Design (2008); Kaveh Golestan: Recording the Truth in Iran (2007); Transit Beirut: New Writing and Images (2004), and Creating Spaces of Freedom: Culture and Defiance (2002).

“I like this really complex wide view on the Middle East,” she said. “In my nonfiction books, I’ve always seen them as a platform for voices of the region and I kind of felt that those books were filled with their stories ... as a reporter and a journalist that’s what you do. With fiction, I feel it’s my story and I can control it.”

Halasa began writing Mother of All Pigs in the 1990s as she explored her own family’s past. For example, her uncle had a pig farm in the mountains in Jordan and her family has a history of women being politically active. While many of the book’s characters share traits with acquaintances and relatives, she says they are symbolic of any family living in Jordan.

“I think that doing that reporting on the ground, I have a very different view from looking at the region from afar or looking at the region through an academic, political prism,” she said.

One of the key components of Mother of All Pigs is the impact women can have on society.

“It’s all come down to the hijab,” she said of the perception of women in the Middle East. “And I think that’s incredibly shortsighted.”

She also aims to capture the sense of humor found in the Middle East.

“That really comes from my experiences on the ground and working with Syrian activists,” she said. “In the face of such dire, terrible bloodshed, and violence, these people are very funny. Humor is a way of surviving.”

Halasa grew up in the 1970s in a diverse, working-class neighborhood in Akron and later attended high school in rural Richfield, Ohio, where she was the “odd one out.”

“It’s really interesting now that in America identity is a key thing,” she said. “When I was growing up in America, you didn’t really shed light on your ethnicity; you didn’t want to stand out.”

Though her family was assimilating, Halasa said that when reading, she sought out stories about a family like her own.

She credited a high school teacher who traveled to India and taught world fiction when she returned.

“That’s when it really started to open up for me that there were these other stories,” Halasa said. “It wasn’t American, but it was from the world. I could slowly see that my experience was not so on the edge, that there were people doing this sort of fiction.”

Though Halasa spent just more than a decade in Ohio, she considers that time as key to her upbringing. She said she knew from the age of 13 that she wanted to write.

In an immigrant family, Halasa said the focus was on careers such as law and medicine, so her wanting to write “was kind of jarring to my parents.” She said her father once questioned where she would find her inspiration.

“I don’t think I’m mad at my father for saying that,” she said. “In a way, he was trying to prepare me. It’s an arduous road to write.”

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