You say you've written a novel called The Cailiffs of Baghdad, Georgia
, and people ask you: Why Georgia? Why Baghdad? (Many of these people know that you were born in the Midwest and have lived there all of your life.)
The Georgia part is easy to explain. My mother was born in Gordon, Georgia. She grew up in the area around Milledgeville. When I was a kid, I didn't know there was any such thing as a "vacation" that wasn't a trip to Georgia. I'm old enough to remember going with my sister to the lunch counter in the dime store in downtown Macon, the two of us holding hands, feeling nervous about where we were supposed to sit. On the other hand, de facto segregation was so complete in Milwaukee in the 1960s that I never met a single African American until I went to high school.
I've been writing about Southern things for a long time. In high school, I wrote haikus about sweet tea and fried okra and baking powder biscuits with homemade peach preserves. One of my first published short stories, "Roof Raising," was about my great aunt Aileen's house in Macon, where we used to stay: a big old stucco house with multiple fireplaces but no central heating that met its end one bitter winter when all the pipes froze. When two of my Georgia stories — one called "You Love That Dog" and another entitled "A Note to Biographers Regarding Famous Author Flannery O'Connor" — were chosen for publication in Algonquin's New Stories from the South series, I felt as though I'd been issued my Southern Writer's license at last, even if I was from Wisconsin. (Incidentally, my mother attended Peabody High School in Milledgeville with the future famous author. Sometimes I think that everything I've ever written has been both an argument with Flannery O'Connor and a tribute to her.)
For years I thought I'd write a book of connected short stories, one each for my maternal grandmother (Mattie Califf McCullough) and her eight siblings — Etta, Evie, Ralphord, Clifford, Ebenezer, Elmo, Aileen, and Gladys — and maybe one for my great-grandmother Daisy, whom I knew from childhood as a tiny white-haired lady who enjoyed talking back to the television.
Then, in March 2003, the Baghdad part entered the picture. I remember thinking, "We're bombing the Cradle of Civilization!" I got it into my head that I wanted to write a novel in which Americans had a relationship to Baghdad that was different from the one being developed in 2003. For my Americans, I thought immediately of characters like those to be found in my mother's Georgia childhood. She herself had pointed out to me the Califf/Caliph pun, offering it as proof that "we go way way back, Mary Helen." While I am not above building a novel on a pun, I figured I'd need more than that to go on.
You can learn at lot, reading old books about Baghdad. I learned, for example, that when Caliph Abu Ja'far al Mansur founded Baghdad in 762 A.D., he called his new capital "Madinat al-Salam," which means, "City of Peace." I learned that Harun al-Rashid, the Caliph of the Arabian Nights, transformed ninth-century Baghdad into a world-renowned center of learning. I also learned that the British Mesopotamian Expeditionary Force made a lot of strangely familiar mistakes in the area during the First World War, although, with the help of the Arabs, the Brits defeated the Turks, and the modern state of Iraq was assembled.
One lucky day, in a deserted corner of my university library, I found all 10 volumes of Sir Richard F. Burton's Plain and Literal Translation of the Arabian Nights Entertainments...with Introduction, Explanatory Notes on the Manners and Customs of Moslem Men and a Terminal Essay upon the History of The Nights. These thick green books with hand-cut pages and gold lettering on their spines — "printed by the Burton Club for Private Subscribers and limited to 1,000 numbered sets, of which this one is Number 395" — would turn up on the teacher's desk at Threestep School in my novel.
From the same library shelves came a travel memoir called The Camel-Bells of Baghdad (Houghton Mifflin, 1934), from which I learned when to say "oosh" and when to say "yek" to a camel. The author, Janet Miller, was a physician from Nashville, Tennessee, which is not that far from Georgia. In addition to being a treasure trove of details about Baghdad in the 1930s, Dr. Miller's memoir neatly connected the Georgia part of my novel with the Baghdad part. In real life, Janet Miller traveled around the world in the 1920s and '30s — battling sleeping sickness in Africa and setting up clinics in Japan — a one-woman Doctor Without Borders. In my novel, Dr. Miller introduces young Grace Spivey to the Middle East by employing her as a travel companion, preparing Miss Spivey for her future role as the worldly teacher who will turn Depression-era Threestep, Georgia, upside down.
In the meantime, I was making regular trips to Georgia, where I prevailed upon relatives like my mother's cousin Royce to drive us around and show us places where the family used to live. (One house, near O'Quinn's Mill, became the Cailiffs' house in my novel.) I drew maps and took pictures and visited graveyards with my mother, who was busy conducting research of her own. In the cemetery behind Camp Creek Primitive Baptist Church, she brushed leaves off a flat stone marker and cried, "It's my Uncle Ross! I found my Uncle Ross!"
But it was on Sapelo Island that I discovered, to my amazement, a most definitive link between Georgia and "Baghdad," whose meaning had expanded in my novel, as in the world, to encompass a broad swath of history and culture.
I had known for a while that I needed a coastal island for purposes of the plot, so my husband and I set out for the Georgia coast. If you want to visit Sapelo, and you don't have business on the island, or friends or family there, then you have to take a tour. The ferry ride alone is worth the price of the tour we took, which also includes a seat on a Bluebird school bus expertly driven on washed-out sand roads by a state park ranger and tour guide who also happens to be a resident of Hog Hammock, Sapelo's one remaining town, which means that she can stop at home and pick up sandwiches for the couple who didn't know they were supposed to bring a lunch. Like everyone else, we snapped pictures of the R. J. Reynolds, Jr., mansion (built on the site of the antebellum one), the tabby ruins of plantation buildings, the shell-and-dirt batteries built by slaves during the War, the (truly) pristine beach, and the Spanish moss streaming like feather boas from the rearview mirrors of the bus.
At the Visitors' Center & Gift Shop, I was scanning the pamphlet racks when my husband tapped me on the shoulder and led me to a display I had missed. Under the glass was a photograph of a little handmade notebook, lying open. Its pages were crowded with Arabic script!
I didn't have to look far at all for an Islamic/Arabic connection to Georgia. That notebook had belonged to Bilali Mahomet, a devout and literate Muslim from Futa Djallon in West Africa who had been captured as a teenager and enslaved on a plantation in the Bahamas. Bilali was in his 40s when a young Georgian purchased him for his knowledge of Sea Island cotton and brought him to Sapelo in 1802, together with his wife (or wives) and several grown daughters. As slave overseer, Bilali managed Thomas Spalding's plantation for almost half a century. Bilali was buried with his Koran in 1859. His great-granddaughter Katie Brown and other descendants were interviewed by the Georgia Writers' Project and photographed by Muriel and Malcolm Bell in 1939 for the book, Drums and Shadows: Survival Studies among the Georgia Coastal Negroes. I bought a copy in the gift shop.
Reading further about Sapelo Island, I learned this: In 1862, when the Confederacy abandoned the defense of the coastal islands, most of the slaves on Sapelo — Bilali's many grandchildren among them — were loaded into boats and carried inland for "safekeeping." They were marched to the Milledgeville area — my mother's backyard, you may remember, where my story was already taking place. Some returned to Sapelo later; others didn't.
Had my fictional hero — Theo Boykin from "Baghdad, Georgia" — existed in fact, he might very well have been a descendant of Bilali Mahomet, an African Muslim whose talent and integrity — as well as his loyalty to his religion — made him locally famous.
Baghdad, Georgia, it turned out, was not such a fanciful notion after all.