Haris Abadi wants to die. He lost his passion for living while interpreting for American army interrogators during the Iraq war, though his loyalty earned him American citizenship. Now he has bribed a few officials, made his way to Turkey, and wants to cross into Syria to join the Free Syrian Army. Unfortunately, as he learns, borders exist for a reason, to keep people like him out.
Author Elliot Ackerman’s résumé reads like a mid-Twentieth-Century British author’s, a man absurdly overqualified for everything, who nevertheless dedicates himself to telling stories. A former Marine and CIA adjunct, White House staffer and NGO executive, he now lives in Istanbul, working as a stringer on Middle East issues for American audiences. He’s also won accolades for his short fiction, and this is his second novel.
Though an American citizen, Haris is essentially a man without a country. His pronouncements on wanting to enter Syria and overthrow Assad sound idealistic at first. But, beaten and robbed at the border, penniless in Turkey where he doesn’t speak the language, his ideals prove disposable. He bounces between some half-generous street kids and a Syrian expat who has connections. But he still keeps trying to enter the war zone.
Stranded in Antep, Turkey, Haris washes up with Amir and Daphne, an unhappily married couple who crossed the border the opposite direction. They lost everything when the Free Syrian Army mishandled a weapons cache in their building. Daphne still carries the scars after being dug from the rubble. Amir is disillusioned, ghosting through Turkey’s rich refugee life, but Daphne wants to return to Aleppo and find their daughter.
Ackerman writes with a slow voice, more interested in Haris’s inner turmoil than deep pronouncements on world affairs. Readers expecting a wild ride through Syria’s active war zone will find this novel a jolt. Fundamentally, this is a literary novel, a book not about actions or events, but about us, the readers. Like Jane Austen or Nathaniel Hawthorne, Ackerman doesn’t write about a specific time, he holds a mirror to his audience.
Syria offers Haris the sacramental garb of martyrdom he seeks. He proclaims loyalty to the Free Syrian Army’s professed ideals, but seems largely unaware what those ideas are. He ballyhoos his inside contacts, primarily a man he’s only met through e-mail, a Nigerian Prince of Syrian nationalism. If he paused, he’d realize he’s probably getting scammed. But if he paused, he’d also realize he’s trapped alone with himself.
In Daphne, Haris finds a kindred soul, somebody equally trapped in the past and unable to comprehend the present. Both want something they’ll only find in Syria. Haris will regain the purpose that war once provided him; Daphne will find her daughter. Both have pinned their hopes on vapor, but that’s only because they don’t really want what they want. Syria gives them a chance to die.
Americans like to romanticize the expatriate experience. We think citizens living abroad all crowd into one apartment and dance relentlessly, like Hemingway, Baldwin, and Gertrude Stein in Paris. Ackerman throws up a glamorless contrast to that mythology, a colony of Arabic-speakers in Turkey drifting through life, no longer alive but unwilling to die. These are people without a homeland, without an anchor, without souls.
In early chapters, Haris inveighs against the evils of both Daesh and Assad. He uses Islamic language, but has no particular personal religion. When the Free Syrian Army proves as morally corruptible as the enemies he seeks, Haris quickly shifts allegiances, even seeking partnership with the Daesh operative who robbed him. He still attempts to present himself as morally upright, but readers will realize, he fools himself because he must.
This isn’t a war novel about violence and heroism. Ackerman provides a literary insight into the workings of one human mind seeking to imbue life with meaning by finding something worth dying for. This proves a frustrating and ultimately chilling journey, one signposted with all the frailties of human morals and justification. But it’s a deeply humane story. It’s about the war, but again, it’s also ultimately about us.