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Survival and resilience in new book by Mills professor

May said capturing the voices of the two men was like method acting on the page. (Photo courtesy of Meredith May)
May said capturing the voices of the two men was like method acting on the page. (Photo courtesy of Meredith May)

Meredith May couldn’t believe the story was true when she first heard it. Now, the story has turned into a book: “I, Who Did Not Die.”

May, a seasoned journalist and professor at Mills College, recently collaborated with Zahed Haftlang and Najah Aboud, to tell Haftlang and Aboud’s fierce story of survival, grace and humanity during the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s. The book was published by Regan Arts on March 28. May discussed the novel and her writing process with readers at DIESEL, A Bookstore on the evening of April 6.

In the midst of one of the bloodiest battles of the Iran-Iraq War, Aboud, an injured twenty-nine year old Iraqi soldier, met Haftlang, a thirteen-year-old Iranian child soldier who was ordered to kill him. Instead, Haftlang chose to nurse Aboud back to health. Twenty years later, both suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, the two men met again at a help center for torture survivors in Canada. At the time of their second meeting, Haftlang was struggling with depression. Reuniting with Aboud helped ease Haftlang’s pain.

When May explains the story behind the book, she says that many people respond with amazement and disbelief.

“It was so beautiful,” May said of Aboud and Haftlang’s life changing encounter and eventual reunion. “I wanted to be part of it.”

May described the writing process behind the book as method acting on the page. She spent five to six hours a day, for a month straight, working with the men to piece together their story and capture their distinct voices on the page. The book alternates between Haftlang and Aboud’s perspectives, and one of the challenges that May faced during the writing process was weaving the story together from the men’s memories while conveying their unique voices and the emotional weight of their experiences.

When May was first approached by Regan Arts, the book’s publisher, about the project, she chose to fly to Canada to meet with the men and see if they would trust her to tell their story. In their initial meeting, May stressed that she wanted to work as Aboud and Haftlang’s writer, and assured the men that all three of their names would appear on the book cover. May worked to establish trust between herself and the men, and said that Haftlang and Aboud could see the love that she had for their story.

Throughout the project, May witnessed how Aboud and Haftlang grappled with speaking their trauma aloud.

“They cried more for other people than for themselves,” May said. Both Haftlang and Aboud lost the loves of their lives to wartime violence.

Storytelling played a huge role in the writing process, and May worked with interpreters to translate from Arabic and Farsi, noting that there were many people in the room bringing the story to life.

Perhaps storytelling is itself an expression of survival. May said that Aboud spent seventeen years in prison and took on the role of storyteller, entertaining his fellow inmates and using stories to barter. As the inmates gathered around him, Aboud would retell the plot of Bruce Lee movies from memory, often embellishing and adding his own twists to the stories.

Aboud told May that she was a hero for writing the book. May laughed at the statement and said that Aboud and Haftlang were definitely the heroes.

“Before, I die and nobody knows (our story). Now, everybody knows,” Aboud said.

At the reading, May played recorded audio from her interviews with Aboud and Haftlang and read excerpts from the book.

I, who did not die book cover“I’m so impressed with the reading and how it incorporated both audio and writing,” said Sheila Navarro, a student of May’s at Mills College. Navarro, who previously took May’s podcasting class at Mills, thought the project was exciting because the audio recordings demonstrated how technology can be used to support the writing process.

Libby Dietrich, a rowing partner of May’s, also attended the DIESEL reading.

“Their [Aboud and Haftlang] reunion was serendipitous,” Dietrich said.

Dietrich also thought that being able to hear Aboud and Haftlang’s voices on the recording was a wonderful way to flesh out the story for readers.

When an audience member asked May how the experience of working with Aboud and Haftlang changed her, May said that working with the men has made her more spiritual, embracing the belief that there is something looking over each person.

The book comes out at an appropriate time, as March is the same month that President Trump attempted to ban migrants from majority Muslim countries.

“My heart is a lot more raw when I read the news today,” May said.

May will present the book at the Mills College faculty reading on April 12, in the Heller Rare Book Room. She will also read at the College’s Works in Progress Series, on April 18.