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What Are Words For?

Love—and heartbreak—for Syria inspired her to write

There’s a saying that there are 99 words for God in the Quran, and since “God” means “love,” all these words also mean love.

For Emily Robbins ’07, a woman who chooses her own words with precision and invests each one with power, that poetic reflection reaffirmed her appreciation for Arabic—and inspired the title of her debut novel, A Word for Love (Riverhead Books).

“As an Arabic student at Swarthmore, I learned the ancient story of Qais and Leila, where he loves her so much that he gives up his own name and is only called ‘Crazy for Leila,’” she says. “The idea that language can have such a strong tie to love that we can lose our identity and end up with a new one excited me.”

Echoing this immortal story, A Word for Love is the tale of Bea, a young American who travels to Syria to study a mysterious classical manuscript known only as “The Astonishing Text.” Its poetry, romance, and wisdom illuminate essential human truths Bea discovers about love in a time and place beset by war. 

Written in elegantly spare prose—“so clear and clean you could drink it,” according to fellow novelist Kathryn Davis—the book reflects Robbins’s fascination with the ways political and historical complexities overlap with the human heart’s—and how we endlessly, linguistically reinvent ourselves and one another.

As a Swarthmore student, Robbins  initially chose to study abroad in Damascus to better understand the region of the world where her activist cousin, Rachel Corrie, famously died in a protest in 2003. 

“My experience there made me start loving Arabic apart from Rachel—for myself,” she says. “That—and living with a host family who was politically active at a time when that was very dangerous—shaped my idea of how one can be political in the world.”

After graduation, Robbins returned to Syria to complete her first Fulbright fellowship, continuing the research for what would become her debut novel and delving deeper into the inner workings and weavings of words.

“Arabic is a language based on three letter roots, so it’s very clear which words are related,” she says. “Making those relationships, like realizing that the word for ‘together’ is related to the word for ‘university’—which is related to the word for ‘Friday,’ the day of prayer—allowed me to start making connections between words in English that I hadn’t thought to make before.”

Although Robbins is researching her next novel in Jordan on a second Fulbright, she continues to draw inspiration from Syria as a reminder of why, no matter who we are or where we live, the twinned might of art and love can open our eyes, break our hearts, and remind us what it is to be human.

A Word for Love takes place somewhere that no longer exists the way that it once did and never will again,” she says. “People kept asking me whether I was going to set it during the revolution, but that never seemed like a choice I wanted to make. It feels even more important now to have stories of love and stories of Syria as it once was in order to show us what is—and always will be—at stake.”