The Genesis of A New Song and The Rendezvous

by Tricia Gibbs, MD

At precisely 6:58 a.m. on September 11, 2001, I received a phone call from my mother as I was packing school lunches for my kids. “Turn on the TV,” she said.

The images on the screen, of airplanes hurling themselves into Manhattan’s Twin Towers and exploding in flame, sent me on the search that led me to the creation of my novel, A New Song/The Rendezvous, and eventually, The Rendezvous, a film inspired by my book.

At the time, I found myself overwhelmed by a desire to repair the stories we tell ourselves as human beings. The power of narrative to influence action cannot be overstated. They define identity, create meaning, describe purpose and motivate action. The terrorists behind 9/11 told themselves stories that allowed them to crash high-speed inflammable missiles into two buildings containing thousands of innocent people. Consider the power of the Aryan myth on the imagination of pre-World War II Germany. Or of the Apocalypse described in the Book of Revelations on the mindset of those who have started wars for the sake of precipitating a messianic age.

In the days that followed 9/11, it seemed that some kind of essential misunderstanding of sacred texts, which were often quoted in those days, was occurring. As a Western-trained physician, I had limited knowledge of the subject. Modern thinkers like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens advocated chucking religion entirely, but it struck me that for the billions who believe in the sacred scriptures, that would be ineffective and alienating.

The best way forward seemed to be through those texts, not around them. I enrolled at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, where I received a master’s degree studying Quran, Islam, Bible and Jewish history. I learned that in both the Quran and the Bible, it is possible to find support for violence, tribalism and particularism, as well as universalism, pluralism and peace. I looked for interpretations that would permit the full expression of all faiths with differing, sometimes mutually exclusive, truths while promoting consciousness of our shared humanity.

In writing the novel A New Song (under pen name Sarah Isaias), my goal was to appeal both to the imagination and the intellect. If this work was going to influence the narratives in our culture, it must first be a good story. I chose the medium of the adventure novel. I put unconventional characters in the leading roles by casting a Muslim man as a romantic hero, not a terrorist, and created an iconoclastic love affair between a Muslim and a Jew. I sent them on a quest for a treasure worth finding: “a poem to redeem the world,” tapping into the East-West mysticism of popular poets like Rumi and Hafiz.

One of the most frequent responses to the book was that the story would make a great film.

Writer Terrel Seltzer agreed, throwing herself into the task of creating a screenplay. We found that some remodeling and adjustment were needed to allow the narrative to fit into the motion-picture template. With the input of director Amin Matalqa, we crafted a romantic adventure comedy filled with humor and intrigue, offering a Muslim American as the hero, and creating a Jewish love interest. We imagined the Middle East not as a hotbed of terrorists, but as home to an ancient, beautiful and sophisticated culture. The exotic became familiar, the threatening became trustworthy and admirable.

The Rendezvous is a great adventure story, beautifully filmed, scored and acted, but it is also much more than that. It is an attempt to repair a narrative that leads political figures to divide and exclude Muslims and other minorities, a circumstance that only inflames the terrorism it attempts to prevent. The movie is a new narrative thread in the fabric of our imagination. Its power should not be underestimated.