At the Jerusalem launch of her novel, Ilene Prusher talks about the journey from journalism to fiction and back.
Writing Photo: Tovah Lazaroff
Writers like to keep a clear line between fact and fiction, maintaining a wide berth between reporting and creative writing. But what happens when a journalist writes a novel about journalism? Especially when she writes a book about a 33- year-old female journalist in Iraq, just after the fall of Saddam Hussein, when she herself was a 33-year-old female journalist covering the same story?
In order to write Baghdad Fixer, author Ilene Prusher used two separate desks: her “work” desk, where she continued her daily work as a reporter for a variety of publications, including as Arab affairs reporter for The Jerusalem Post; and her “fiction” desk, a separate piece of furniture. The latter was where Prusher culled her own experiences from covering a dramatic part of Iraq’s history for The Christian Science Monitor in 2003 and reshaped them into a riveting novel.
“I dreamed from the age of eight that I’d write books one day,” Prusher said in a a conversation with The New York Times’s Jodi Rudoren at the Jerusalem launch of her book on December 20, at Mishkenot Sha’ananim’s Jerusalem Press Club.
“But I can’t imagine leaving [journalism]. I wrote a book about journalism. Am I a novelist? It seems kind of like cheating,” she joked.
Baghdad Fixer is told from the point of view of Nabil al-Amari, a 28-year-old English teacher who happens upon journalist Samara (Sam) Katchens by accident and becomes her fixer – the local contact who translates interviews, advises on cultural customs and makes contacts with sources.
“I am fascinated with the role of the fixer,” Prusher says. “Someone comes from abroad and is your boss overnight. Especially here, with all of the complexity of [Sam] being American and the role of the American government here, what is it like to be the cultural conduit?” The author speaks about the traditional “holy trinity” for war reporters, who normally travel in threes – foreign journalist, local driver and local fixer.
“A fixer fixes everything,” Prusher explains. “We would be immobilized without them in a war zone.”
Throughout the book, she deftly examines the cultural clash between Nabil, thrust into the role of cultural ambassador and protective of his crumbling country, and Sam, who chafes against the cultural expectations of women and anything that stands in the way of her story.
When Sam begins to push harder to break a big story, the characters slip into more dangerous territory, eventually changing both their lives and thrusting Nabil’s family into danger. Prusher says she never imagined the story as a thriller, though many critics have categorized it as such. The 661-page book is a fast page-turner.
Nabil loves languages – English, whose idioms he attempts to master, and Arabic, whose poetic phrases often fall flat when he translates them to Sam. In addition to the plot, the reader receives a crash course in Arabic, with phrases and colorful explanations sprinkled throughout.
According to Prusher, the goal of her writing was to explore the ways that the West and the East smash into each other through Nabil and Sam. That gap becomes apparent when Nabil realizes that in Arabic there is no word for “fixer.”
“‘Now, as I lie here in the middle of the night, I find myself trying to tell Sam that there’s no easy way to translate fixing,’ he muses. ‘It’s impossible to find just the right word for “fixing” in Arabic. There is islah, but that’s more commonly used as reform. We also have the world thabbata, which could be said to be fixing. There is also inquadh, which is either saving or salvation. There is shifa, which means healing. And then there is i’ada and jadada, which are like restore and renew.... I just know that I can’t think of one word in Arabic to fit everything that I want the fixing to be, or which describes what my job was supposed to have been.’”