Category archive: Travel

Writing about sheikhs

When I was a child my family went through a very difficult period for several years. Reading was always my escape, and one day in my prairie school’s tiny library (two bookshelves!) I found a small volume called The Arabian Nights. The book was a compilation of stories from the 1001 Nights, with illustrations that (I was to discover many years later) were done in Persian miniature style. I thought that book was the best magical mystery tour imaginable. I read those stories over and over.

It was all so far from any life I had ever known or read about that I thought it was all fairy tale. I had no inkling then that Samarkand and Bokhara and Zanzibar and Shiraz were real cities. Nor did I guess that the bazaars and markets, the palaces and baths and harems, the women’s veils, the Kings’ rich costumes and large crowns, the language of genie and fairy were all, in one corner of the world, much closer to real than imaginary.

But I dreamed about them, all the same, flying carpets and domes and deserts and minarets, magical jewels and ravishing princesses, genies in tarnished lamps. I dreamed of Samarkand and Isfahan and Baghdad.

We left that prairie town very suddenly one day, and I didn’t go back again for many years. When I did, I discovered that The Arabian Nights had never been returned to the school library, but had mistakenly been packed up with our things. The school no longer existed, the town itself had returned to the prairie. The magic book that had meant so much to me was still mine. And of all our possessions there, that book was the only thing that I took away with me.

Slowly I learned that the places whose names I loved to pronounce were real cities, that in the bazaars of those cities there still were indeed streets of copper workers and lamp makers and potters and artists and artisans! That the strange languages of magic and mystery I had found in those pages were spoken by real people on the earth. To discover that there was a deep reality behind those stories I’d so loved was to have my heart opened to the magic all over again.

The first Middle Eastern country I ever travelled to was Morocco, and it was like falling in love. I don’t think I have ever been so moved, so touched, so seduced by any travel as I was by my first visit to that intoxicating country. I’ve travelled more since; I’ve seen some (not enough!) of those ancient palaces and fountains, the deserts and mountains; I’ve studied the languages; I’ve watched the artists and artisans at work, and I’ve met some of the warmest and most open, as well as thoughtful, intelligent and educated, people on the planet. I’ve combed the bazaars for antiques and inlays, lamps and vessels in copper and brass, gold and rubies and emeralds, damascene blades, miniature paintings on parchment and camel bone. And while I haven’t yet found a working magic carpet, sometimes I’ve felt as if there must be one in the shop just down that twisting alley….

My first book (The Indifferent Heart) came to me while I was in Casablanca. Its story is set in Morocco, and I tried to pour my sense of the magic, my joy in the richness of that country into it, to share my delight with my readers. The book sold to the second publisher I sent it to, and launched me on a life of fiction writing.

But it was only after another twenty books that my editor asked me why I had never again used this rich and intense background in a book. And I looked and could hardly believe that it was so. So then I wrote Bride of the Sheikh, and out of its success was born the Sons of the Desert mini-series.

If you enjoy my sheikh stories even half as much as I enjoy the writing, if I have shared with you some of the delight of that escape I experienced as a child, I’m very happy.

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