I was born in a small town in North Carolina where people love to tell stories. When I was little, my parents moved to Cleveland, Ohio, and that's where I grew up. People there like to tell stories, too. I grew up dreaming in stories and dreaming of faraway places.
I went to New York University for college. New York, Washington Square, the Village--it seemed an exotic adventure, and it was. I loved New York, and I've tried to keep within an easy distance. I had always wanted to be a writer of some sort, but meanwhile I stumbled upon linguistics. This field was fascinating to me because it attempted to make sense of words and how they fit together and how our brains understand them. I loved it, and I went on to graduate school at Harvard, where I could continue my study. That's where I discovered Arabic. The beauty of the language, the calligraphy, the aesthetic sense settled somewhere deep inside me and have never left. I studied two years in Egypt and spent a summer in Meknes, Morocco, recording dialect variation but also lolling about in the public baths, the souks, and Ramadan celebrations with the family of a muezzin in the medina.
I wrote my Ph.D. dissertation on three things I loved: Arabic, language change, and storytelling, particularly in the earliest Arabic version of The 1001 Nights, a text that bursts with scenes of medieval Baghdad and Cairo. What I love about these stories, aside from the raucous humor and the touchingly human characters, is the detail, the descriptions of the food people ate, their clothing, their homes, the streets, the markets.
After graduate school I plunged into a career that would take me back to the Middle East--this time as a commercial banker. That was a job that taught me things I didn't know, and it also required me to write a lot. Along in there I got married and had a child, rethought my life, and set out in yet another direction, still determined to write. Along the way I taught a course at Columbia University called "The Arabian Nights and the West," and courses on Middle East history at Drew University. I also spent a year as a visiting scholar, back at New York University again.
I have been the happy recipient of a number of grants and fellowships that have helped me immeasurably, including a National Endowment for the Humanities grant; a Radcliffe Grant for Graduate Women; an American Research Center in Egypt fellowship; a National Defense Foreign Language Title IV Fellowship; a Center for Arabic Study Abroad Fellowship; and, my favorite, a National Council of Teachers of English Writing Award for high school students, which started me thinking I might be a writer.
The books I've published so far are all nonfiction, but I have been working on fiction all along, for both adults and children. I've just finished a novel for middle grade readers set in Egypt in 1923 and other novels are in the works. I have an article coming out soon in Saudi Aramco World, about one of my favorite women in history, Zubayda, a queen who lived around 800 C.E. in Baghdad. You may have come across her as a character in The 1001 Nights, which is where I first encountered her. She was much more interesting, though, than her fictional counterpart: she was independent, complicated, hugely wealthy, and thoroughly generous. She's someone I would like to spend more time with, and I hope I will. Maybe I'll write her biography, or maybe I'll write a novel about her. I'm still trying out the possibilities.