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Interview with James Carroll

Decades ago, James Carroll was a hostage in the U.S. Embassy in Kuwait, an experience he turned into a memoir. Using his first-hand knowledge of life in the Middle East, this month, he published a work of fiction about a Kuwaiti man seeking truth and salvation. Read on to learn more about Carroll’s time in the Middle East and why he thinks it’s an important place and people to give attention to.

What inspired you to write Kuwaiti Seeker?
I wanted to put life into a character I imagined in Kuwait. While Islam is the stated religion of almost all Kuwaitis, many do not have a heart-feeling for their beliefs. The social, political, and religious amalgam of Islam is the center of their lives, but it is impossible for them to translate this system into a belief that assures salvation. Islam is dependent upon works and carries no promises.

My main character, Yacoub, is loosely patterned after the Biblical Jacob. Like Jacob, he was given to trickery. God saved Jacob and Yacoub despite their sins.

You've written non-fiction about your time in the Middle East. What was it like to write fiction about a place and a people so familiar to you?
There is no way I could have given any sense of reality to this story, or even conceived of it, without having lived and traveled widely in the Middle East. I’m indebted to earlier writers such as H.R.P.Dickson, the British political agent in Kuwait during the early twentieth century. His description of the shepherd bringing the lambs and ewes into the fold at night in The Arab of the Desert evokes a picture of the Great Shepherd. But seeing, living in the setting and feeling it for myself, the daytime temperatures up to 130 degrees, the sand seeping into every crevice, the warmth of the people, the fact they will take time to form a relationship, much more so than a Westerner, all these contribute to the story.

What is one thing you hope readers learn or remember from reading Kuwaiti Seeker?
When Yacoub was at his lowest ebb in sin, the Lord rescued him and saved him. The Lord is able to do the same for us.

Why is it important to write about and learn about the people and events and places of the Middle East?
The Middle East in general and Arabs in particular have a bad press these days in the West. We need to understand they are more like us than they are different. Yes, their customs differ from ours. Their culture is family and tribe-based, while we are individualistic. But their hopes and desires are otherwise the same as ours. They want the same things: peace for themselves and their families, a hope for the future, the right to determine their own ways, and freedom from despotic leadership.

What most surprised you about living in Kuwait?
Just about everything. When we first arrived in Kuwait, we had seven children, and two were stroller-size. When my wife got out the stroller to go to the market, she discovered you can’t push a two-kid stroller through the sand. And the market looked so different from the US variety, it took her two days to locate it.

I found I needed to do all the business-related tasks – getting residency visas, drivers licenses, car insurance, etc. My wife was accustomed to doing all this stuff, and, well, Kuwait is really a man’s world.

How long has it been since you've been there? What about that time will you never forget?
I was last in Kuwait about three years ago. Although it’s been 28 years since the invasion and my release from Iraqi custody, I’ve returned to Kuwait many times for short term teaching visits. The thing that impresses me, even after all that Kuwait has been through, is that I don’t see any spiritual change in the people. I pray for this, but it hasn’t happened yet.

Of course, the big event for me in Kuwait, as far as spiritual significance, was my time trapped in the Kuwait Embassy (Faith in Crisis – How God Shows Up When You Need Him Most).

What advice can you give to others who might want to write both non-fiction and fiction based on their life experiences?
The non-fiction write (Faith in Crisis) was easy for me. During the Iraqi invasion, I kept a detailed diary (maybe painfully so), and the story wrote itself. I had intended it for a family record if I didn’t make it out.

For Kuwaiti Seeker, I needed to learn a new skill. My career in medical research necessitated the discipline of scientific writing, which in terms of fiction writing is “telling”. For fiction, that’s a disaster. I needed to learn, and am still learning, to “show”.

When you aren't writing, how do you spend your time?
At 73 I’m still working part-time as a pediatric neurologist at the med school. I love hunting and fishing. But if I’m not writing, I feel guilty.

Any parting words?
God saves weak men and women.


Lisa Bartelt is a child of the flatlands fulfilling her dream of living near mountains in Pennsylvania. She loves reading, writing and listening to stories—true ones, made-up ones and the ones in between—preferably with a cup of coffee in hand. Wife, mom of two, writer, ordinary girl, Lisa blogs about books, faith, family and the unexpected turns of life at

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