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Muhammad Najem on publishing his life story
"I thought it was never going to happen."
We’re just about five months away from the release of MUHAMMAD NAJEM, WAR REPORTER! If you haven’t already preordered your copy, now would be a great time to do so. Preorders actually matter a lot because they signal to the publisher how many copies to print, how much excitement there is for a book, etc. If you have preordered— and I know so many people have— THANK YOU!
Muhammad and I recently sat down to talk about what this experience has meant to him— and what message he wants to share with you. Here is a transcript of that conversation!
The following conversation is lightly edited for clarity and flow.
Nora: When I first messaged you and said, "I have this idea to write a book about your story," what did you think?
Muhammad: (Laughs) Well, I thought it was never going to happen.
Nora: (Laughs) Wait, really? You thought it was never going to happen?
Muhammad: I didn't believe in myself.
Nora: Why not?
Muhammad: Well, it was the first time for me, as a child or teenager, to even think about making a book about my life. People in [my hometown of] Eastern Ghouta don’t think about this: publishing a book about his life, and in the English language!
So I didn’t believe this idea could happen.
Nora: So in the beginning, when I was first interviewing you and we started working on it, were you just humoring me? (Laughs) Like, "Oh, I'll talk to her, but it will never really happen.”
Muhammad: Well, when we start working on the book, I put my trust in you. Because this idea will happen if we come together. Both of us, we can do things that's more than we think. So, I put my trust in you, and I said, "Let's try. If it happens, it happens. If not, not."
Nora: Well I wanted to ask you about trust. Was it hard to trust that somebody else would tell your story accurately and truthfully?
Muhammad: Yeah, it's hard to trust in anybody. I don't trust in anybody, I just choose the person who I can give my trust to. You have to be worried of people, especially in the world. So when we started talking, and you've got the idea, and you come to me in Istanbul… I can build my trust in you and we will do this together.
Nora: Was it the trip to Istanbul that made the difference for you?
Muhammad: Well, when you visit me in Istanbul, I saw that this idea will become real one day, and it's happened.
Nora: I remember in Istanbul the first couple days, you didn't really want to hang out with me!
Muhammad: (Laughs) Yeah well, because maybe the language, and also I wasn't friendly that time because I always sitting in home. I didn’t know a lot of people in Istanbul. So I was lonely and sitting at home. I wish you come again and we can hang around and stuff.
Nora: I think by the end of the trip, after we spent more and more time together and talked more, it seemed like you felt more comfortable.
Nora: Even on that trip, I never wanted to force you, of course, to do this. I only wanted to write the book if you wanted to, and if you seemed interested in it. I never wanted it to be my choice, I wanted it to be your choice and for you to have all the power to make the decision.
Muhammad: Exactly. Well, because of that, you've helped me become more comfortable. You gave me the choice to choose if I want or not. So I felt comfortable to, and we do it.
Nora: I am so grateful that you said yes, and that you trusted me because I know that was a huge step for you. I don't take that for granted. I'm so grateful.
And I think writing this book was hard, just because it's hard to write a book, but also I think it was extra hard because at every step, for every page and every word, I wanted to honor you and your family and your story, and it felt like this huge responsibility, in a good way.
Muhammad: Well, I really appreciate what you do. You did a great job, not just for you, for me, for everyone. I know you shared a story of not just me but also the war in Syria, and I'm really grateful of what you are doing and what you did for me. Thank you so much.
Nora: No, thank you.
Muhammad: I really wish I could write more books with you. It was entertaining and funny to do this and talking during interviews and things like this. It's really funny. It's not just a book about the war!
Nora: Yeah, I'm really excited to write more with you! And we're working on other things!
Nora: What do you want people to take away from this book after they read it?
Muhammad: Well, I hope they can know the experiences as they happened to me, and be more thankful for their lives they're living. They have everything. They have more safety especially in their countries. And they have their people in front of them. I become a refugee. I lose my father, friends, everyone, and I don't live in my home. I don't even have the ability to visit my country. I can’t go anywhere; I don’t have a passport. So all of this, it's really hard, especially when I was young. So those people, they have to be thankful for the lives they have now.
I want to develop my life. I don't want just settling down. I want to be in the top.
Nora: You are at the top.
Muhammad: Well, actually, I want to reach to a top that makes me also happy. I have a lots of goals, big goals I want to achieve, but I don't have the resources. I want to see more people, know more great people, do great things in this world.
Nora: I'm really hopeful that when the book comes out, even more people will hear your story and want to help. And maybe even help you get permission to travel or resettle somewhere. I have a lot of hope for that.
Muhammad: I hope so.
Nora: I just want to tell you, and I've told you this before and you know that I feel this way, but I am so proud to know you. And I think not only are you incredibly smart and incredibly successful, and I'm really proud of the work you've done, but also like beyond all of that, you are a good man, and you are a good person, and it is such an honor to see you grow up too. I've gotten to know you so well over the last couple years, and I am so honored to know you, and I think you're incredible.
Muhammad: Well, no words can express my emotion, but I really happy to know you and be writing a book together, and all the time we spent together, especially here in Istanbul. I really wish to see you again.
Nora: I'll come visit.
Muhammad: And that as soon as I have a passport, I'll immediately visit you and see your family. You have a wonderful family and this experience has brought us together.
Nora: That's been one thing that's been nice is my family has gotten to know your family very well. And it's not just us, it's our whole families.
Muhammad: And they have to eat yebrak! (Laughs)
Nora: Yeah, so we’ll have to eat yebrak together! And if people want to make yebrak, they can follow the recipe that will be in the end of the book.
Nora: That is my promotional remark for this. (Laughs) Is there anything else you want to say to people that are reading this?
Muhammad: Well, I hope that people who read my book, read with emotion, and read and feel what's happen when the words ran through my mind. I didn't say that these words just in rubbish, I say the reality that's happening with me. Maybe the words won’t give you the feeling when you live during a war, but at least we'll tell you a story of a boy who lives there and see everything happen over there. So I hope to read it with emotion and know exactly what happened with me and my life and be thankful.