Hesitating momentarily, as if to summon her resolve, she stood tall and erect, a black-shrouded shadow at the top of the staircase. The wind tugged insistently at her abayah and the hot desert sand stung her eyelids as she took a deep breath behind the folds of her veil. Then she went down the cement steps and out the front gate, into the maelstrom. – from A Thousand Veils, page 13 –
Fatima Shihabi, an Iraqi poet and journalist, and Charles Sherman, a New York corporate lawyer, are the protagonists of D.J. Murphy’s first (self-published) novel A Thousand Veils. When Fatima’s life becomes endangered from Saddam Hussein’s secret police, her brother Omar contacts Charles and pleads for his help to save her. Charles at first is reluctant, but later is oddly drawn to Fatima’s courage in the face of persecution. The novel takes place in just over a month in 2002 and is narrated alternatively from Charles’ and Fatima’s points of view. It tracks Fatima’s flight from Iraq through the desert into Saudi Arabia, and then on to Paris, and later back to Iraq.
A Thousand Veils demonstrates how the common thread of humanity can overcome the greatest of odds. Murphy explores the misconceptions of Muslim culture and touches on the terror which Iraqis faced under Saddam Hussein’s cruel rule. Through Fatima’s eyes, the reader gets a glimpse of the challenges women face in Arab countries, especially if they dare to be individuals and speak their minds.
“A writer has to mirror the concerns of ordinary people,” he told her. “Force humanity to look itself in the face, so that maybe, one day, one glorious day, it may decide to tidy itself up, make itself right.” – from A Thousand Veils, page 17 –
Murphy’s writing is at times luminous. He portrays the beauty of the Iraqi desert and the strength of its people with ease. I found the sections from Fatima’s point of view the most compelling – and it is her character which is the most strongly developed. Charles, on the other hand, felt wooden to me much of the time and I found I could not always relate to his character. Murphy has a tendency to become a bit preachy in his dialogue, reminding the reader that this is a novel with a message. Although the novel begins strongly, as it progressed the plot became a bit unrealistic to me.
Despite these flaws, A Thousand Veils is competently written, supported by having recently won the 2009 Colorado Authors’ League Top Hand Award for mainstream fiction. With his background in international law and experiences representing refugees seeking asylum in the United States, Murphy does bring legitimacy to his novel. The tension between Arab countries and the United States since 9/11 has changed Americans’ perceptions of Muslim culture, and I believe books like A Thousand Veils are important in that they seek to create cultural understanding. Murphy is donating 10% of the proceeds from the sale of the book to the United Nations High Commission on Refugees – a message that his novel is a work of passion for him.