Ausma Zehanat Kahn is the award-winning author of the hugely successful Khattak and Getty crime novel series. This sequence of books has brought Ausma critical acclaim for stories centred on solving crimes in some of Canada’s most vulnerable communities. From Toronto to Tehran, Sarajevo to The Hague, these works of fiction cover cross-cultural, political and geographical borders, in solving some of the most complex and challenging criminal cases.
It was the fourth novel in this series ‘No Place of Refuge’ (or ‘A Dangerous Crossing’, as it was titled in the US), which featured in the best-selling Heady Mix collection: Lost and Found. Lost and Found was a theme that connected with many of our readers, who perhaps had only previously been exposed to the shocking headlines and heartbreaking images in the media when it came to understanding the refugee crisis. Lost and Found aimed to showcase individual human stories that focused on the details of the perilous journey to safety. A snapshot of what is lost and what is found when someone is so violently uprooted from their country and culture.
We were thrilled when Ausma, currently living in Colorado, accepted our invitation to discuss her novel, along with her thoughts on the refugee crisis, Western stigma and the upheaval and destruction of Syria’s ancient land. This fascinating conversation took place over Zoom in March of this year.
So after our introductions, we got straight to the heart of the book’s theme with our first question…
‘For the first time in 1,300 years, the call to prayer did not sound in Aleppo.’
To us, this line taken from ‘No Place of Refuge’ encapsulates the theme we were trying to distil. Why was it important for you to communicate the enormity of the situation through these small details? How do you think that helps the reader grasp the horrors of war?
That’s a great question. I think I wanted to, particularly in ‘No Place of Refuge’, write about what had happened to Aleppo, the bombardment and the destruction of an entire city. But something on such a massive scale is really hard to relate on an intimate and personal level.
Aleppo is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities of the world. Before the war, it was declared the cultural capital of the Muslim world. So, you see this massive scale of destruction, but for me to personalise it was to talk about this incredibly ancient city, where Friday prayers are an essential part of the lives of Syrian Muslims. It’s just something that you would never miss.
Through many stages of the war and the bombardment, the call to prayer kept sounding, and people kept going to the mosques, but then the Assad regime feared that rebels were gathering there. So they decided to target and to shut down the mosques. It just became too dangerous for anyone to gather in a group because of this bombardment.
The sentence you have pulled out, allowed me to do two things at once; to talk about the scale of the war, but talk about the intimacy of the loss that worshippers would experience as part of their daily routine, and then place this moment in its historical context. It’s so much grander that way. I thought that that would make it personal and make people understand what’s being lost.
That’s a crucial part of the story too, for your readers to understand that deep contextual history of places in Syria.
Indeed throughout the book, you use major news stories to inform your story. How far was that a consideration to show a more human side behind the headline?
Well, so again, I was trying to do two things. I always like my books to be as factual as possible before I depart into fiction. And I wanted to give a sense of the overarching scope of the crisis, all the moving parts of it all around the world, whether it was what’s happening inside Syria, or the people trying to risk crossing the Mediterranean, or those stopped in Turkey, or those stopped in Greece. How do they get past all these almost militarised borders, setting up that view, and then personalising it in all these small ways.
People would have heard, perhaps in the British press, that the Calais Jungle had been set on fire, and they were moving refugees and migrants out of that camp, or that there were fires at the refugee camps in the Greek islands as well. That’s the kind of news item that you look at a second, but you don’t really understand what it means.
There’s a scene in ‘No Place of Refuge’ where the refugee camp is set on fire by Greek ultra-nationalists. I wanted to give my readers the sense of people risking everything in the world to make the crossing, they’ve lost everything already. They’ve lost their country. They may have lost members of their family. They’ve lost their homes, their money, their possessions, their belongings. They may have lost children at sea. They may have lost family members along the way.
Then you get to these camps, like Calais or Lesbos, and you lose everything again by an additional act of violence, or resistance, or lack of welcome, or fear, or misinterpretation of who you are, the culture you come from and what you represent.
Until you’re inside those camps, and you’re inside the head of the character like Ali and the little girl that he’s shepherding around as part of this refugee experience, you don’t know what it means to have your tent burnt down.
You don’t know what it means to burn plastic because you have nothing else to burn for heat, and the toxic fumes that come up over the camp. It’s a way of taking something immense and making you experience it in this very visceral way.
And so, are these stories the experiences of real people?
I had done a lot of interviews with Syrian refugees. I had talked to people who volunteered in the camps. I had talked to people who sponsor refugees. I’d spoken to lawyers who are trying to navigate that system on behalf of refugees. And I’d spoken to people whose job it is to stop refugees from coming through. It helped me to understand all points of view. I’d spoken to people who knew islanders who had welcomed refugees and those who didn’t welcome refugees. I was trying to paint that picture as thoroughly as possible.
That must have been such an extremely moving part of researching your book, and we’re sure a huge part of why so many of our readers connected with the characters you write about.
Audrey is one of the characters abducted, she is a White Canadian aid worker. Her government springs into action, but for so many refugees already missing, lost or dead, there is no search party. How far was it your aim to highlight the disparity between action and inaction, and the inequality based on what side of the fence the person sits?
That was something important for me in the book. That’s why I framed the story through the lens of Audrey being missing, because she’s from a wealthy upper-class family. Her brother is a famous public intellectual in Canada, he has resources and contacts to call upon to galvanise people in the search for one person. But then you think of all the people lost in the Mediterranean whom their families will never see again, or the missing children along the routes. Those families will never be able to connect with them. We don’t know what happened to those children.
The headlines in the first couple of years of the refugee crisis, and particularly in the British press, were very inflammatory, very much designed to inflate people’s fear and suspicion.
Language like ‘swarms’ or ‘hordes’ were continuously used. There was a shift from using the language of refugee, because refugees have legitimate right to seek asylum and governments who are signatories of the Refugee Convention have a legal obligation to provide asylum.
The press had shifted away from using the word refugee, and used the word migrants, which quickly acquired this very negative connotation.
If the people who were seeking asylum became this undifferentiated mass, then I think it became very difficult for the individual citizen of different countries to think about these people as human beings with stories and histories of their own.
I was trying to show that, for someone like Audrey with privilege, she’s very distinguished as an individual. Whereas it was a sharp contrast to the refugees coming across who were not, and who no one was bothering to connect with their families, and to search for those who lost their lives in the Mediterranean.
It was an enormous contrast. It made me think also of the contrast between the way we publicise the murder or disappearance of, say, a White, blonde girl, like Jon Benet Ramsey or Natalie Holloway, and how there’s so much attention focused on this one missing girl, where there’s virtually no press about missing and murdered Indigenous women, or missing Black girls in Washington DC.
It shows us which lives matter, which lives are more important. That was very much an underlying theme of ‘No Place of Refuge’. How do we think about this other, this undifferentiated mass? How do we connect to them on a human-to-human, individual level?
Ausma, thank you so much for sharing the story behind the book. The context is a vital part of the novel, and we’re sure our readers will be eager to hear it.
As the final part of our interview, we’d like to invite you to read a passage from ‘No Place of Refuge’ which to you most encapsulates the theme of the book.
Sure. I’m reading a section that features my female detective, Rachel Getty. She’s on the islands, the Greek island of Lesbos, to investigate and investigate the disappearance of Audrey. She’s wandering around the different refugee camps on the island, and she’s assisted by an Italian Coast Guard captain. He asks her to come with him to work as refugees come on the boats. It’s her first real hand experience of what it means to take the crossing…
What a poignant insight to such an important topic and conversation. From the loaded meaning behind words and the impact our lexis can have on perception, to the human story behind the headline, Ausma’s dedication to presenting a balanced and accurate story is truly remarkable.
A huge thank you to Ausma for taking the time out of her schedule to chat with us, and if you haven’t already read ‘No Place of Refuge’ then Ausma’s best-selling novel is available to buy via our diverse bookstore now.