“My Fatima” is a historical novel for young adults and older readers. It describes the friendship between two teenage girls, one from Germany, and the other from the Middle East. Both girls attend a girls school in Beirut, Lebanon in the 1960s. The German girl, Trudy is the daughter of the ambassador to Jordan, while the schoolmate she admires and befriends is a Palestinian named Fatima. It turns out Fatima’s boyfriend, Ali, is a PLO militant. Just before graduating from middle school, Trudy is kidnapped by Ali’s team. Ali is killed in that incident, and Trudy is kept under Fatima’s watch. Although Fatima is deeply saddened by her true love’s death, she remains loyal to Trudy and manages to bring Trudy to safety. The story ends in a tragedy, which bears out the point that the world needs peace, not wars.
Targeted Age Group:: 13 and up
What Inspired You to Write Your Book?
I conceived the ideal of writing this story after I got over the shock of reading about the bombing of Beirut in 1982. I had previously lived in Beirut for a few years, and it pained me greatly to see the city reduced to piles of smoking rubble. I feared that my friends there were among the casualties. I wanted them to be safe. I wanted Beirut to be restored to the beautiful city it once was. Not having a magic wand to make my wish come true, I thought at least I could preserve the memory of the status quo on paper.
How Did You Come up With Your Characters?
When I went to school in Germany, there was a classmate named Trudy I really liked. I made her the main character in this story. Being placed in an unfamiliar environment in the Middle East, Trudy felt lonely. She needed a friend, but she was rather choosy. Therefore, the other main character, Fatima, had to be nearly perfect.
"Vati, how do you say 'Thank you.' in Arabic?"
"Shukran. Okay, how about 'How are you?'"
"Al salaam aleikum. That means 'Peace be with you.'"
"Gosh, that's hard. Can I just say Salaam?"
"You could. Or, you could say Marhaba, which means welcome or hello."
The year was 1966. It had only been one week since we arrived in Amman, Jordan, where my father had been appointed to serve as the German ambassador. We had overcome the jet lag, and most of our personal effects had been unpacked and placed where they belonged in our new residence. A tall and stately stone building, the embassy featured numerous arched doors and windows. Concrete
steps led to the guarded main door. The offices and the formal reception room and dining room were downstairs. We lived on the second floor. There were additional meeting rooms and a small gym on the third floor. A well-maintained
garden lay quietly behind the building.
My father spoke fluent Arabic, but my mother and I only understood German and English. Fortunately, the staff and servants at the embassy all spoke English, albeit with a heavy Arabic accent. Among them, my father's valet Amir
was the most articulate. This tall and mild-mannered man had a clean-shaven face, and the top of his head was mostly bald.
Amir was about forty years old, but he was not married. At night he stayed in a small room on the ground floor. My parents were pleased with the quiet, unhurried way in which he rendered his service to our family. I noticed that Amir rarely looked us directly in the eye. While he went about doing his chores, his eyes were naturally cast down. But even when he was speaking to us, he still gazed at the floor most of the time.
"Liebchen," my mother came into the sitting room and announced, "the guests will arrive soon. Please get dressed for dinner then go downstairs to wait for them. I showed Hessa how to make your favorite Obstkuchen. We'll have
it for dessert tonight."
"Danke schön, Mutti."
Hessa was our cook. She had been serving us Western-style foods. She said it would take a while for us to acquire a taste for the local cuisine. My mother agreed, as she knew that I did not care for lamb meat at all. It gave me goose bumps to think that people actually ate raw ground mutton around here.
I put on a white blouse with ruffled collar and cuffs, and then pulled my blue velvet jumper dress over it. This was the attire my mother suggested for me to wear for the dinner party. When I looked into the mirror, the first thing
that greeted my eyes was my father's nose. My father had a fine nose that stood proud and straight on his elegant face. A slight hook concealed the nostrils from the front view, adding a trace of intrigue to his countenance. My nose had
the exact same characteristics, except that I also had a few faint freckles that were sprinkled across my nose bridge and below my eyes. Those I thought I could do without. My witty blue eyes and short, straight golden hair in pageboy
style looked all right to me. In my opinion, they went well together. The more I studied my own face, the more I felt I could pass for a handsome young prince. I began to see why my ballet teacher back in Bonn used to assign a male role to me in our annual ballet performances. In "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs", I was Prince Charming. In another performance, the other girls danced as flowers, and Fräulein Marie cast me as the gardener in suspended trousers and a straw hat. I smiled, and a pair of curly quotation marks formed around the corners of my mouth.
When the guests arrived, my parents shook hands with them, and so did I. This was to be an informal dinner for us to acquaint ourselves with the principals of a couple of German businesses in Amman and a few local officials who were especially friendly towards West Germany. Some of the guests hugged and kissed among themselves. It was strange to see men kiss each other on the cheeks. Herr Bauer, my father's attaché, showed the guests to the formal
I sat quietly in an armchair by the rosewood curio cabinet while the grownups held a conversation over their liqueur. It was much like any dinner party we had had back in Bonn, except that now there was a mix of German and
Jordanian guests. One Jordanian lady turned to me and asked in English, "How old are you, my dear?"
"Fourteen," I answered.
The lady brought her palms to her cheeks and gasped, her large and bright eyes round as golf balls. Still agape, she turned to my mother, "Really? She's only fourteen?"
"Trudy is tall for her age. She takes after her father," my mother replied with a gentle smile.
The truth was that it was my fourteenth birthday. This dinner party served a dual purpose, just like the many other parties we had had before. My parents were expert at hitting two birds with one stone, so to speak. Although I
enjoyed the delicious appetizers, entrées and desserts served at these parties, I had secretly wished for a simpler birthday party with just my parents and me celebrating it, rather than a houseful of guests, with whom I had to be on my best behavior the whole time. On this happy occasion, I wanted to be able to eat, laugh, sing and dance to my heart's content. Instead, I had to sit up straight like a demure lady and listen to boring diplomatic talk with feigned interest. It was not fair.
The main dish that evening was roasted prime ribs, and Amir went around pouring Burgundy wine for the guests. I joined the toasts with chilled grape juice in my stemware. All of the guests spoke English as well as Arabic. It was
interesting to see my father talk with them one moment in English and the next moment in Arabic. I tuned in only when they spoke English. However, not being
that interested in politics, I did not really understand a whole lot of what they were talking about. After my father had had a few drinks, I could see a certain smugness steal up his face as he adeptly moved the conversation from one subject to another, and the guests nodded happily in agreement. After all, my father represented the German head of state, and it was nice to see that he had made a very good first impression in this country. I felt mighty proud of my father.
"Well," my father finally announced, "it happens to be Trudy's birthday today!"
Everyone cheered. They raised their glasses and roared "Happy Birthday!" to me.
On that cue, Amir brought in the large round Obstkuchen, which delighted everyone. As this cake had a glazed fruit topping and was decorated with whipped cream rosettes, my mother did not place any candles on it. Amir
carefully sectioned the cake and gave me a large piece with a complete canned peach half on it.
"Shukran," I said. Amir was visibly taken aback. This was the very first Arabic word I had ever spoken to him. After a momentary pause, he collected himself and whispered, "Afwan." Then he leaned forward to resume the task of serving the cake.
The man with a bushy brown moustache, who sat on my right side, took notice and smiled at me approvingly. He turned to my father and said in English, "Ambassador Heinemann, I think the Israelis have their eyes on the Gaza Strip. Do you think they are any match for the Egyptian forces?"
"Let's not spoil the evening by talking about those barbarians." My father replied without blinking his eyes.
The guest appeared to be immensely pleased by this remark. He raised his glass to my father and said, "Bottoms up!"
After dinner, the party repaired to the parlor again, where tea and brandy were served. By the time all the guests had left, it was already half past ten. We switched to speaking German.
My mother went upstairs for a little while and then returned with my birthday present. I removed the ribbon and opened the package to find a beautiful porcelain music box inside. On top of the music box was a pair of cute figurines that stood on a green grassy pad dotted with wild flowers. The two young girls, each wearing a pretty dress, held hands in a dancing position. The taller one had short golden hair. The other one sported a garland of yellow flowers that adorned her shoulder-length dark-brown hair.
"Oh, this is so lovely! Thank you very much!" I gave my parents each a hug and a peck on the cheek.
"Excuse me, please," Amir came in to clear out the teacups and glasses from the tabletops.
I wound up the music box then brought it up to my tilted head. The familiar tune of the song, "Brüderlein Fein", chimed out in deliberate, crystalline tinkles. I was immensely delighted.
The figurines turned slowly together and went round and round as the music played on. I watched them with absorbed admiration. What a charming pair of friends, and how happy and contented they appeared to be!
Then, I remembered something.
"Vati, do you really think the people in Israel are barbarians?"
"Of course not," replied my father. "They are the persecuted ones. They have every right to defend their young nation."
I saw my mother freeze. She threw a quick glance at my father, who got the message at once.
"Of course, if they become too aggressive, the Arab nations must put a stop to it. It's getting late. Let's wash up and go to bed." With this, he stretched his arms and let out an audible yawn. I covered my mouth and yawned quietly.
After Amir had left the room, my father whispered to my mother, "Do you suppose he understands German?"
"God only knows," my mother shrugged and whispered back. "Discretion is the better part of valor."
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