Out of Mesopotamia, a novel by Salar Abdoh
Akashic Books (Sept. 2020)
Imagine getting into Iraq and Syria as an observer of the war on ISIS, and yet very soon after you’ve been close enough to RPGs to smell the explosion and feel the ground shake, you find yourself back in your old life, giving literary readings at swank bookstores in cities at peace, or attending highbrow academic conferences where nobody’s dying, except perhaps bored audience members. Juxtaposing the two realities — one savage and ridiculous, the other sane and predictable — is what the author is after in Out of Mesopotamia.
Salar Abdoh grew up in Iran but left the country with his family at the age of 14, when Iran’s student-led revolution was subsumed by supporters of Ayatollah Khomeini. Although the “Islamic Revolution” kept Abdoh and his brother Reza Abdoh, the late experimental playwright, away for many years, Abdoh has made a point of returning and living in Iran as often as possible. Today he teaches creative writing in an MFA program in New York City, but to write this novel he drew on firsthand experience traveling in Iran, Iraq and Syria to observe the war on ISIS. Rather than write a nonfiction book, Abdoh decided a novel would be better able to capture the themes, experiences and stories of both himself and those he encountered in a way that would stay with readers and convey the strangeness of modern war, as well as the disorientation of what it means to split time between places like New York City, Tehran, Baghdad and war-torn cities in Syria.
The narrative follows Saleh, a journalist who typically writes art reviews but decides to travel to Syria with Shia-backed militia fighting ISIS to cover the war and ends up in Iraq after a brief stint at home in Iran. It is a relatively short and engaging read that, at the same time, is full of details, depth and characters that stay with you long after you finish the book. Abdoh takes heavy subjects and themes and presents them with a deft, light hand; at times it feels as if you’re meeting his characters as you would old friends you are catching up with. The author tells several stories at once in a way that is easy and natural to follow. Descriptions of war are written so beautifully that they are easy to digest in their holistic entirety:
The countryside was a flat nothingness. Occasionally on parallel dirt roads a dot moved and we didn’t know if the thing was ours or not. Nothing was taken for granted in victory. Because victory had been here before. And it always managed to slip away. Like fish. Or happiness. We drove in three trucks, hardened men who breathed retribution and the diesel stench of war and loved it.
Out of Mesopotamia may be about the campaign against ISIS and the Islamic State, but it reveals how fighting the caliphate is about proxy wars for many individuals and nations, both within and outside the region. The novel is a microcosm about art, love, cultural history, identity, intuition and the many palimpsests of seeing and knowing, in addition to life and death, what we need to let go of and can’t let go of, and the regretful legacy that colonization has bequeathed to us all. It also nods to the clumsiness of American foreign policy more than once and how it can be viewed from a Middle Eastern perspective, as in this musing by Saleh: “I wondered if our pretense was not worse than that of the Americans, who variously dropped bombs on the enemy and on us and put it all down to saving civilization.” Or, when he asserts that the Americans “were not really an enemy but more of an apparition and a nuisance, by turns obscenely generous and then stingy, and then generous again and without a comprehensible mission in Mesopotamia,” and “we’d take a little air support from [them] every now and then rather than have them kill us.”
What makes Out of Mesopotamia essential reading is that it underscores the humanity of its characters while emphasizing the absurdity of war and colonialism’s aftermath, pointing out what existed before and what remained after Sykes-Picot divvied up the region — quite as if Europe owned the world. Abdoh handles topics like these without any sort of preaching, letting characters speak for themselves. Listen to Saleh when he argues with his handler over wanting to go to Syria, pointing out how the borders are arbitrary:
Ever heard of the Sykes-Picot Agreement? A midlevel British diplomat and his French counterpart decide to produce budding new countries a hundred years ago, and because of that you are telling me I can go to Iraq but not Syria? Why the hell not?
And the handler replies,
…don’t give me any more history lessons. I don’t give a damn about the Sykes-Picot Agreement. Who are they? And what agreement? Forget it. I don’t care.
In this vein, the characters speak for the themes. Memorable are Miss Homa, an artist turned star who finds fame in late life but wants to die far from the lavish art parties of Tehran, in a religious capital after not having been religious all her life; Zahra the Beheader, who takes revenge on the already-dead men who killed her family and is murderously exploited for her story; Abbas the sniper, who is as close to God and the flow of life as a later-mentioned cleric in a way that makes you think of “yoga and mindfulness and saintly patience.”
And there is Jasim, who lives in Baghdad and is always speaking poetry:
He sang in the loveliest Arabic that a man can sing: “The greatest loves relinquish all hope of union.” Then he laughed, bitterly. “Listen to me! Am I quoting the great al-Mutanabbi or the great Ibn Zaydun or only my humble self on a street named after the great Abu Nuwas?
“Tell me, how many ways are there to die in Mesopotamia?” the protagonist asks Jasim. “Six thousand years passed, brother Saleh, and we are still counting the ways.”
There is also Atia, a woman journalist who asks the hard questions when interviewing the “big men” of the regime, who stands up to censorship to capture nuance, and is known to never back down but also settles for marrying her boss, a mediocre poet who writes peace poems that the main character calls “antiwar noise” and that are read in famous world capitals.
Another memorable if minor character is Claude Richard, a Frenchman who moved to America, lost his family to an affair there, and comes to Syria to find personal meaning and respect in the war and who is not able to be properly honored by his comrades upon his death, for fear that the story of a white man dying among them would get out into the world and they’d be charged with his murder. Abdoh creates minor characters who steal or alter the protagonist’s original works for nationalistic media outlets or use their knowledge of French to look down on other Iranians in their own family who don’t speak the foreign language well. Every character, even the ones readers only meet in one sentence, is rich with detail, for instance the pilgrims in Samarra who have trekked a thousand kilometers with eyes filled with trance and rapture who “are worth being born into this world for.” Or the Arabs who are “born into poems” and die there, “poets all, from day one.” The way the author juxtaposes Persians and Arabs through the characters and their commentary is another interesting layer the keen reader will enjoy. The main character has love and respect for the Arabs:
“There was a reason that Lawrence of Arabia had gotten carried away with himself in these landscapes and wrote about it as if he were writing about something divine. He had come into contact with that touch of the divine about the Arabs — no matter which side of the fighting they were on. Their dignity was like skin; it never wore off, even when they had to turn to infidelity. In all of these ways they were different than us Iranians and the fighters from other places.”
Just as the minor character, Claude Richard, searches for meaning in these Middle Eastern conflict zones, so too does the main character, while acknowledging that finding individual meaning is not a solution for war’s victims:
There is something shameful in witnessing the hunger of an honorable woman. 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. 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.
The novel reveals what is hidden from plain sight, just as Saleh’s bad left eye whose issues become more acute as he is around the dead and dying and is even able to see a halo appear above them just before their passing. This book shows us more than one view, as echoed in the protagonist’s left eye and right eye being as different “as the moon and the sun” and begs the question of “how many worlds a person can live in without losing themselves completely” and whether losing oneself completely is actually something satisfactory, such as in martyrdom for those who seek it.
Out of Mesopotamia comments on war and the implications of social media within it. As Abdoh has said, “I wanted to capture the strangeness of combat in the 21st century and social media, of being able to be in battle and yet be in Tehran sipping coffee a few hours later.” He writes of soldiers taking “pictures of themselves five minutes before dying. Then, three minutes before dying — if luck and bandwidth were with them — their smile was making the rounds on the Internet, immortalizing them just as they were about to leave the world.”
If you are paying attention to subtext, this book is a revelation and will tell you a great deal about the state of the world and the region. It will hit you hard in your core and heal you at the same time, as good art often does. Out of Mesopotamia nearly produces an out of body reading experience as it transports the reader to the war zones the author toured, while capturing the inherent beauty and strangeness present in both war and art.