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Novelist explores borderlands and gray areas of the Syrian war

August 7, 2017 at 6:20 PM EDT
In "Dark at the Crossing," the upheavals and horrors of the Syrian civil war are given fictional life, centered in the border zone between Syria and Turkey. Author Elliot Ackerman is a former Marine who served in Iraq and Afghanistan and now lives in Istanbul. Ackerman joins Jeffrey Brown for a conversation.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Now we kick off a week of books with a unique take on the conflicting loyalties and violence that define one of the most dangerous parts of today’s Middle East.

Jeffrey Brown has this new addition to the NewsHour Bookshelf.

JEFFREY BROWN: The setting is the border zone between Turkey and Syria, the upheavals and horrors of the Syrian civil war as they play out for a group of individuals, the stuff of today’s headlines given fictional life in the new novel “Dark at the Crossing.”

Author Elliot Ackerman lives in Istanbul and has reported from this area. He’s a former Marine who served in Iraq and in Afghanistan, the setting of his first novel, “Green on Blue.”

And welcome to you.

ELLIOT ACKERMAN, Author, “Dark at the Crossing”: Thanks for having me.

JEFFREY BROWN: I mentioned that this is an area that you have come to know, but where does the idea for a novel come in? And which came first, the novel or getting to know this world?

ELLIOT ACKERMAN: I think something I’m interested in my writing is often political themes.

But when we look at a lot of these political issues, whether it’s what’s going on in Afghanistan or the wars in Syria, the wars in Iraq, I mean, they’re incredibly complex, and in some ways almost impenetrable.

And I think one of the great things you can do with story, and particularly with a novel and character, is you can take a lot of these themes that are central to what’s going on in the world, but really distill them down into a single narrative. And so that’s what I try to do in my fiction.

JEFFREY BROWN: You got the obvious in-your-face drama of war, and you have got the geopolitical themes, right, but you have to give it a personal face. So, how do you do that?

ELLIOT ACKERMAN: I think you do it with character.

You start know — this novel is really about three characters. The first is a man named Haris Abadi, who is an Iraqi American. He’s really sort of someone of two identities, born in Iraq, but naturalized American, who, for a variety of reasons, wants to go fight in Syria.

And his efforts are stymied, and he meets up with a couple of Syrian refugees, a man and wife named Amir and Daphne. And you sort of learn their stories and the stories of their loss. They lost a daughter in the revolution.

And so what you see is a lot of these geopolitical themes kind of orbiting around these characters who are engaged, you know, in a pretty intimate narrative amongst the three of them.

JEFFREY BROWN: Are these based on people that you met in some ways? Are you taking notes from your work and thinking, oh, here’s where I can build a character or a story?

ELLIOT ACKERMAN: When you’re having an experience, there’s sort of questions that come up and themes that come up. And then, once you sort of have bored down on the themes of the story, you start building out characters who are wrestling with those themselves.

I work kind of in a tradition that used to be more predominant — and maybe it’s less so now — which is of novelists who were journalists.

JEFFREY BROWN: Right.

ELLIOT ACKERMAN: In the 20th century, we had a lot of that. We don’t have that as much now, largely probably due to changes in how journalism works.

But, oftentimes, when I’m out there, you know, these do seem like great places to set stories.

JEFFREY BROWN: The main character you talked about, Haris, he served as an interpreter of the U.S. forces in Iraq. And he decides to come back. Why?

ELLIOT ACKERMAN: You know, I think what’s interesting about war in general is, it can be — on the one hand, it can be a — almost a redemptive act. People will go to fight seeking some sort of redemption.

But it could also be sort of a very dark, nihilistic act. And sort of those two threads are kind of really splitting Haris. He doesn’t know why he’s necessarily going to fight. He just knows he’s drawn back to the war. And part of that also comes from the fact that he’s this man of two identities. He was an Iraqi who collaborated with the Americans during the war and then became an American citizen, but he feels conflicted between his American identity and his identity as an Iraqi.

And so he’s someone who resettles in the U.S., doesn’t necessarily find the life he wants there, but now that he’s left Iraq, he can’t go back. And so he is seeking, in some ways, and we don’t know, whether it’s redemption or almost a sort of self-destruction.

JEFFREY BROWN: You’re giving voices to people that we don’t often hear from, that we only kind of know about through the news, including ISIS fighters, the kind of hard-line voice we know is out there, but we don’t usually see represented in fiction.

You’re humanizing them in some way.

ELLIOT ACKERMAN: Heaven forbid, right, you humanize these people.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes.

ELLIOT ACKERMAN: And I think that’s what — just because you’re trying to humanize someone, or you’re trying to understand them, I think, is very different. We often conflate that with agreeing with somebody.

And I think that’s one of the great things fiction has the power to do. You know, it allows you to create a character, a character you might find despicable or with whom you might not agree, but then give them the power to basically make their cases as though they were making it before God.

And so, you know, specific to some of the journalism that I did, I met ISIS fighters and spoke with them and listened to them explain their beliefs. And some of their beliefs and some of the reasons they’re fighting makes sense.

I mean, if you’re a Sunni in that part of the world right now, you know, you’re under threat politically from a whole bunch of various actors. So talking to those people, it doesn’t necessarily mean that I agreed with everything, but I could definitely start to understand at least their viewpoint.

And then, as a novelist, I wanted to take what I had learned and, you know, put it into a story.

JEFFREY BROWN: And once you start the story, do you set all that aside, or do you keep your eye — one eye on the kind of ongoing events?

ELLIOT ACKERMAN: Well, I think, by the nature of the work I do as a journalist, I’m still following these events as they’re ongoing.

But the story is set at a very specific time in Syria’s war. It’s the time when really, in late 2013, when the revolution has at this point almost — it’s becoming very evident that it’s failed. As one of the characters in the book says, the revolution is over, so the war can begin.

And so it’s that sort of moment where it’s all fallen apart. So other events don’t necessarily affect it as much.

JEFFREY BROWN: The book is “Dark at the Crossing.”

Elliot Ackerman, thanks very much.

ELLIOT ACKERMAN: Thanks for having me.

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