Introducing a new Book Review section on ScheerPost, edited by Eunice Wong.
By Chris Hedges / Original to ScheerPost
Salar Abdoh’s novel, “Out of Mesopotamia,” is one of a handful of great modern war novels. It tells the story of Saleh, a jaded, middle-aged Iranian reporter – one suspects a bit like Abdoh himself – who accompanies Shia militias, as Abdoh did, in Iraq and Syria during the heavy fighting between 2014 and 2017. A few thousand Iranian soldiers, including members of Iran’s elite Quds Force, along with thousands of Iranian volunteers, entered Syria and Iraq to assist the governments of Iraq and Syria in the battle against the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq (ISIS). ISIS, which at its height held about a third of Syria and 40 percent of Iraq, is led by Sunni Muslim extremists who consider the Shia Muslims apostates. ISIS has murdered thousands of Shias in mass executions and destroyed numerous Shia shrines and mosques. The Iranian-backed Shia fighters were vital in the crushing of the Sunni jihadists and functioned, for a time, as de facto allies of the United States, although the American forces, as Abdoh writes, “despised our skin and our faces and our weapons.” The Americans saw the Shia fighters, he writes, as “rodents, and we saw them as a hollow Goliath.” The fighting was chaotic, brutal and often senseless. Factions abruptly changed sides, as in all civil wars, to decimate those who a few days earlier were their allies.
Fratricides are the most savage conflicts, this one pitting one branch of Islam – Shia – against another branch of Islam, Sunni, over what Sigmund Freud called “the narcissism of minor differences.” These internecine conflicts, as I witnessed in the wars I covered in Central America, the Middle East and the former Yugoslavia, turn on cultural, ideological and theological absurdities, elevated to unforgiveable apostasies meriting death. They are sustained by myth and the yearning, as Abdoh writes, for “adrenaline” rushes and “vengeance,” especially once comrades are sacrificed for the cause. War lures the poor, the neglected and the lost, those whose lives seem to have no meaning or future, to the carnage. War is sold as the ultimate escape, the last chance for adventure, heroism and glory. But war promptly grinds up its acolytes into the maimed and the dead. It is a tale as old as war itself.
The reporter Saleh, fleeing a failed love affair and the grind of writing television scripts, makes his living as a war reporter by chronicling the suffering of others. This voyeurism forces him to question himself and his profession. Is he seeking truth? Is he attempting to convey the reality of war? Do his reports engender understanding and empathy? Or is his reporting part of the pornography of violence?
“A mother, child held tightly to her chest, walks by not glancing at you and not asking for food, even though she’s half-starved and her feet are sore and blistered,” Abdoh writes. “Maybe she had been a teacher in another life, a musician, a nurse, a housekeeper; she asks for nothing except that you – you who are not a part of her solution but, she suspects, a part of her misery – go away and take the soldiers you’re with along with you. You are searching for life’s meaning and this woman marches her misery march. What do you do? What do you file in your report? What is it you all want from us? she says. Says it matter-of-factly. As if reason had anything to do with why any of this was happening.”
Combat has a Peter Pan quality. It allows fighters, as well as war correspondents, to escape from the drudgery of daily life, to never grow up. War is a way, ironically, to cheat death by severing us from the normal markers of time and the responsibilities of living. This infantilism is not available to those left behind.
“None of us ever thought about how these once-, twice-, thrice-blessed mothers, wives, daughters, felt when they went down the street to buy bread in the morning,” Abdoh writes. “Ours was the laziest of paths, simply to die; theirs was calamity, followed by the backbreaking grind of daily life. Ours was fantasy; theirs raising that fatherless boy who’ll grow up to be the spitting image of his father.”
Abdoh uses Marcel Proust’s novel “In Search of Lost Time” as a literary foil. Saleh finds a copy abandoned near the border of Iraq and turns to it for solace and wisdom, as I did when I ploughed through the six volumes of Proust’s masterpiece while covering the war in Bosnia. War, with its brief, incandescent flashes of excitement and terror, is also defined by long periods of inactivity and boredom, perfect for those who seek to retreat into the pages of books. Proust, as Abdoh understands, explores the alienation, distortion of time, tricks of memory, symptoms of a dying society and a desperate longing to be something greater than who we are – all of which define war.
“In this war, nothing – nothing at all – made sense,” Abdoh writes. “People appeared and disappeared, ancient animosities suddenly boiled over, heads were cut off with such fierce regularity that it made you doubt the proper digits of your century, and there were so many sides and fronts and realignments that when you managed to grab a sliver of reliable Internet long enough to read a foreign paper, where they referred to the simple men you marched alongside as men who committed atrocities, you began to doubt everything, especially yourself: Am I a part of some beastliness? Where is this inhumanity they point to? It’s not here, no. Not in Khan-T where Moalem and I are trying to hold onto a goddamn useless red building.”
Life outside of combat is stale and redundant. War, as Abdoh writes, makes “everything else irrelevant.” It is not that one loves war, although there are psychopaths and sadists who love war – it is that the rush of combat cannot be replicated. The addictive narcotic of combat, which, like any narcotic, you need in ever greater doses, eats away at you. “The war had swallowed him up,” Abdoh writes of a character in the book, “and like all volunteers fighting there he was no longer good for anything else but playing the death game.”
The vivid and disturbing images, the night terrors and the flashbacks haunt those who return, making them aliens in their own land. War, as Abdoh writes, “is always in a state of becoming.” It is “…perpetual motion. Even after it’s over. You think you’ve won, then a few years later your win turns into a loss. Once you enter combat you’ve signed away anything good in this world. Men who don’t understand this simple equation have a habit of turning the world to shit.”
War brings with it a kind of schizophrenia. You are never sure where you are or where you belong. “I do not know in how many worlds a person can live simultaneously before they lose themselves completely,” Saleh reflects. In this troubled state, those who have not felt the dark, seductive emotions war elicits, or seen the suffering of war’s victims, become objects of disdain and hatred.
“There is something about coming back to peace that makes a man rot from the inside,” Abdoh writes of his return from the front to the cafes, art galleries and literary readings he attends in Teheran. “Not every man, I am certain, feels this way, and not everyone wants to rain rockets on people who do not know, or feel, that there is a war next door. But I felt it. Because I was rotting from inside.”
The torturers, the killers, the pilots who obliterate wedding parties and hospitals and gun down unarmed civilians, if found out, are treated as freakish aberrations. War, to perpetuate itself, requires us to believe in a Manichean world of good and evil. The diseases of nationalism and religious chauvinism, which grip whole populations like a fever in wartime, are not only about this self-adulation, but the rendering of those who oppose us into beasts. This simplified division of the world into absolutes, part of war’s attraction, absolves everyone from moral choice. If evil is embodied in those we fight, then their eradication is a form of purification, a chance to rid the world of evil itself. To perish in this crusade is to be transformed into a martyr, celebrated, at least for a moment, in the state-orchestrated rituals of war.
Iran was infected with this cult of death during the war with Iraq. The war began in 1980 when Saddam Hussein, with the support of the West, invaded post-revolutionary Iran in 1980. It ended eight years later – I was in Baghdad on August 20, 1988 when the ceasefire was announced – with no clear victor. The war, physically and psychologically, was to Iran what World War I was to Russia, France, Germany and Great Britain. It replicated the tactics of World War I with its labyrinth of trenches, its numbing, its landscape of shell holes, bloated corpses being eaten by rats, acres of mine fields, ruined towns, coils of barbed wire, constant chatter of machine guns and relentless boom of artillery, as well as its suicidal human wave assaults and senseless bayonet charges. At the end, it even culminated in poison gas attacks. Over half a million died. Hundreds of thousands returned from the war damaged beyond repair.
The Iranian state, to justify the collective self-slaughter, incessantly celebrates these heroic martyrs. And young men, trapped in the squalid slums of Iranian cities, sign up for this new war against the Sunni jihadists to become in death what they can never become in life, to equal the feats of the martyrs whose names and stories are told and retold to justify war’s folly. As did Proust, Abdoh understands the fevered yearning to become heroes in movies that play incessantly in our heads. This yearning has been enhanced by digital media, allowing suicide bombers to dream the night before their self-immolation about the millions of views their obliteration will attract on the internet. These fantasies divert us from all that is sacred and precious.
“Martyrdom was our shibboleth; we distinguished each other’s sincerity by the way someone talked too little or too much about it,” Saleh says in the novel. “We knew who was lying and who was telling the truth when they prayed for martyrdom. We were adept at intuiting when a guy was ready to leave this world. A certain light, a halo even, would surround him. He became extra kind. His prayers turned heroic. He cried a lot. This was not always the case and maybe not all of these things happened at the same time. But they happened enough times that my martyr radar was strong; I knew when a man was finally tired and felt like he’d done his share of protecting the holy places and was ready to leave this world.”
No matter how many people war devours, there are always new recruits, eager to obtain the imprimatur of combat and the status that comes with it.
“I looked to the side of the road that lead to the Zaynab, not nearly as crowded as that first time, and saw a group of young men, Iranians, sharing some bread and cheese next to one of the shrine’s many trinket stands,” Saleh says. “I knew their kind. They were me. And Nasif. They’d sold the shirts off their backs and somehow made it way out here to be Defenders of the Faith and Protectors of the Holy Places. But nobody let them into the inner sanctum of bloodletting. They didn’t have the right connections with the Guards, or lacked the skills, or were just plain unlucky. They’d come here because they had nothing else going on. They came because there was something to be said about defending the faith even if, like me, you haven’t much faith to begin with. I wanted to go over and kiss them. Martyrs by default, martyrs because of the poverty of their options, they were here to be immortalized as heroes. They wanted to enter the chronicles of sacrifice.”
The wars that Abdoh writes about have not ended. They still send out the siren call. They still pile up corpse upon corpse. They still leave families in grief. They still return to us men and women deformed by war. It is the triumph of death over life. These wars will not end until we look at what we are doing and what we have done. Abdoh’s novel lifts the veil on the murderous insanity.
“Out of Mesopotamia,” by Salar Abdoh. Published by Akashic Books, 9/1/2020. 240 pages. Fiction/Literature. ISBN: 978-1-61775-860-7.
Copyright 2020 Chris Hedges