For whence did Dante get the material for his hell, if not from this actual world of ours? ~Schopenhauer
Elliot Ackerman doesn’t write war stories. As is true of most American writer-veterans of our 21st century wars-without-end, his fiction neither glorifies war nor condemns it, but tells stories about people torn from their moorings by forces that washed over their lives with the moral blindness of a tidal wave. His characters are exceptional only in their ordinariness, in how they bring believable lives to the narrative, and in how they provide a mirror in which any of us might see ourselves. The narrator and protagonist in Green on Blue, his first novel, is an Afghan boy who, after witnessing the death of his parents at the hands of the Taliban, evolves into the sort of man who would’ve been Ackerman’s enemy. Now, in Dark at the Crossing, Ackerman presents the reader with a guilt-ridden Iraqi who says he wants to join the Free Syrian Army, but doesn’t, not really, a Syrian man who claims to be devoted to his wife but whose behavior suggests otherwise, and a Syrian woman—the wife—who cares for nothing but going back to Aleppo, to her destroyed home, in a sort of grail search for the daughter who, almost certainly, is dead. Dark at the Crossing is a deceptively complex, richly layered tale in which the tragedy is relentless, and the lasting effects of war grind on in the violence that memory will not relinquish. As with Ackerman’s characters, there is no moment when the reader can breathe into the assurance that everything will come out right.
The year is 2013. Haris Abadi has travelled from America to Antep, Turkey. From there he makes his way to the Syrian border at Kilis, thirty miles away. He plans to meet a man known to him only by the email handle Saladin1984, who will take him across the border into Syria where he will join the Free Syrian Army. But Saladin1984 is nowhere to be found, nor does he respond to Haris’s repeated emails. When he tries to cross alone, the Turkish border guards tell him the border is closed. At a café, two men approach, an older, bearded man named Athid, and Saied, a young man with a terrible, unhealed wound concealed beneath his dark parka and red Che Guevera T-shirt. Hearing Haris’s story, they agree to help. Instead, they rob him of everything but the clothes he is wearing. Now Ackerman allows us to see a bit deeper into Haris. Where you might expect burning disappointment, there is,
…the optimism of having nothing left. Until he had lost his passport and money, Haris hadn’t realized what a burden they had been to him. Actions he felt no pride in had earned his American citizenship…Now he had been given a chance to reinvent himself, to make amends—if he could just get across the border.
What the reader doesn’t yet know is that Haris’s goal of joining the revolution is but the means to an end, that end being absolution. During the Iraq war, he’d worked for an American Special Forces unit as an Iraqi translator, which earned US citizenship and sanctuary in the States for him and his sister. He is haunted by the idea that he’d turned his back on his country and by the memory of Jim, the Special Forces operator he had both loved and loathed, whose lingering death Haris had inadvertently set in motion. His life in America had been flat, joyless, working as a janitor to support his entitled, ungrateful sister who’d moved to the other side of the world to marry a man he didn’t like.
But one senses there is more pulling Haris eastward. Yes, he feels guilty about having left Iraq, but having worked for the Americans, his and his sister’s lives would’ve been in mortal danger had they stayed. Haris felt guilty about Jim, but what the reader will soon learn about Jim is that he wouldn’t have given a fig about a democratic Syria. But he would have understood Haris’s desire to go back to It.
In his essay collection, Istanbul Letters, Ackerman writes, “In Istanbul, I often meet other veterans of the last decade’s wars, wanderers among the Arab Spring’s upheaval.” One of these is Vince, “a Marine turned English teacher.”
I asked Vince why he’d settled in Istanbul. He talks a bit about his job, the parts of the city he likes, the parts of the other cities he doesn’t like. But in the end, he says, ‘To be close to it’.
It’s the same it many of us need to be close to.
This isn’t a cause, although it can be. This isn’t a particular war, but it’s often that, too. If I were to describe it, I’d say it’s an experience so large that you shrink to insignificance in its presence. And that’s how you get lost in it.
Besides redemption for his perceived betrayals and finding a life with greater meaning than he’d found in America, was Haris also drawn by a desire to be close to it again? Jim thought so. One night, he comes to Haris’s quarters with a prized bottle of rum his Columbian wife had sent for his birthday. The two men are talking, sharing the bottle, as men will do, passing it back and forth—“taking communion”—as Ackerman puts it.
“You found your soul down there [in Columbia],” Haris says to Jim.
“I guess you could say that.”
“Do you think you’ll go back?”
“To Columbia? No. I mean, only if my wife makes me. The war’s pretty much over there. There’d be no point.”
Haris turned up his eyes, drawing a blank.
Jim canted his head, shaking it sympathetically. “It’s not what I found in Columbia, bud. It’s what I found in the war. This is where I belong.”
“What about home?”
“This is home,” answered Jim. He took the bottle from Haris and drank. They had emptied nearly a quarter of it.
“By making your home here,” said Haris, “you’ve destroyed mine.”
Jim drank again. “Or, maybe we’re now from the same home.”
It is a fascinating moment, heady, ironic. War as home. Maybe you’re more like me than you know. Maybe. But what seems to be the truest thing about Haris is that, until he meets Amir and Daphne, especially Daphne, he doesn’t know what he wants.
It is Amir who rescues Haris, Amir, who “spoke Arabic with a lisping accent, one common among well-bred Damascene families or posh business-men from Aleppo,” and who’s been making semi-regular trips to Kilis. When he finds Haris at the border amid a group of orphaned boys led by Jamil, a fourteen-year-old Syrian, Amir invites Haris to return with him to Antep with the promise that there is work to be found there. It is telling that Haris, who presents himself as one so dedicated to getting across the border and into the fight, can’t get into Amir’s car fast enough. As it will turn out, Haris and Amir have more in common than either might imagine.
As refugees, Daphne and Amir have fared rather well. When the civil war destroyed their home, Amir, assuming their daughter to be dead in the wreckage, hurried the severely injured Daphne across the border into Turkey where she could be treated. Now they have an apartment in Antep, “an industrial backwater along Turkey’s southern border with Syria.” Daphne works as a volunteer in a hospital that serves Syrian refugees, Amir for something called The Syria Analysis Group, owned by an “American man-child” named Marty, who is in lust, if not in love, with Daphne, who despises him. They are a dismally unhappy couple. She wants only to go back to Aleppo. He wants to leave it all behind and move abroad where Daphne has family. But Daphne won’t leave, and he won’t go back. It is Haris’s arrival, unwelcomed at first by Daphne, that will both energize her determination to return to Aleppo and, finally, present the opportunity for them both to cross the border.
Almost right away one senses that something is off with Amir, something hidden beneath the well-coiffed good looks, behind the abject, even hostile refusal to take his wife back to Aleppo, a refusal that has all but put her out of his reach. Why won’t he go back? Even if the threads of hope are microscopic, what sort of father is it who will not go back to look for his child? What sort of husband will not do what he can to ease his wife’s pain? Eventually, we learn that in the early days of the revolution, before the violence, Amir had been an activist, so caught up in the romance of revolution that when the violence began, he refused Daphne’s pleas that they take their daughter and leave. “A marriage, like a revolution,” observed Ackerman in an interview, “is an adventure of the heart. Two people living in different worlds give them up for the possibility of a world together.” True, but Amir had abandoned the marriage: “Though I’ve wandered in my marriage…my heart has only been unfaithful to Daphne once. You see, I fell in love with the revolution…My great infidelity is that I couldn’t extract myself. I couldn’t break my own heart.” So the revolution broke it for him when he set in motion the events leading to the moment when, having left his wife and daughter to run an errand, an explosion obliterated the building containing his home. Going back to Aleppo was the only way to confirm whether their daughter was alive or dead, and the only path that might lead to the restoration of the marriage. But that would require Amir to face what he’d done.
Great events, trauma, these sorts of shocks in a life tend to reveal character, magnifying what has been true all along, though partially hidden. The events of the revolution reveal Amir to be a man without qualities. He claims to have fallen in love with the revolution, but would not completely give himself to it. He claims to love his wife, but continues to sleep with other women and now refuses to do what it will take to help her find peace. Using a brilliant metaphor, Ackerman summarizes Amir’s character through a seemingly off the cuff remark during an exchange with Marty, who wants to train Amir to play goalie for his ice hockey team. “I think you’d be perfect…You never get to score, but you’re probably the most important player on the team. You’re part and apart, a player, but not really. You’d be perfect.”
Daphne is the interesting one. She is French-Syrian, “glamorous, like a transplant from the thick fashion magazines his [Haris’s] sister once read,” and who, between rare moments of near-tenderness, is the incarnation of Munch’s “The Scream.” Signs of depression are there; sleeping with the lights on, a wound-tight persona releasing into sudden outbursts of rage. For her, the war is a kind of palindrome; ISIS, the Free Syria Army, the regime, no matter where you start, the outcome is always the same, always tragic. While Haris and Amir fumble about, she is single-minded, finished with causes except her own, to go back to Aleppo, to find her daughter, a “delusion,” says Amir, that “is destroying her.” Victor Frankl, writing of his experience in the Nazi concentration camps, observed that the prisoner who could not visualize a time in the future when he would regain his freedom might very well experience “an existential loss of structure,” a state of mind so dangerous that one could, literally, die of it. Does Daphne really believe Kifa is alive? Probably not, but her insistence on clinging to a thread of possibility is what gives her meaning enough to go on living.
But how to get across the border? A blast of serendipitous irony will provide the answer. At the hospital where Daphne volunteered, Haris spots a familiar parka and, “folded next to it was the red Che T-shirt.” It was Saied’s shirt. One of the men who’d robbed him was in the hospital. Ackerman compounds the irony: Not only has Saied used his share of Haris’s cash to pay for surgery on his wound, Haris discovers that Saied is Saladin1984, and Athid, the other thief, is an ISIS brigade commander. From the beginning, Haris had been a mark, played by these two for a sucker. Saied offers a deal. For five thousand dollars, he’ll get them across the border.
That night, in a moment both strange and tender, Daphne makes hot chocolate for herself and Haris, using the recipe that her daughter had loved, insistently refilling his cup. When they agree to share their secrets, she brings out binders filled with the lesson plans she has prepared and will use to homeschool Kifa. Haris tells the story of his betrayal, how Jim had admitted that a man his Special Forces team would soon go after and either kill or capture was “probably not the right guy. After a while, though, the wrong guy or the right guy matters less.” Haris had just wanted to stop him, for his own sake, not see him injured. Then, like Amir, Haris couldn’t face what he’d done, refusing even to visit Jim in the hospital. Afterwards, as if to seal their partnership in the upcoming venture, Haris and Daphne make love, a quick, awkward coupling after which she invites him to spend the night in her bed.
Ackerman’s prose is spare, plain, with ample use of the declarative. Perhaps this is Ackerman the journalist seeping through. Some see the influence of Hemingway, though he cites Naipaul, Graham Greene, Andre Malroux, and William Styron. Of his writing, Andre Dubus III, one his teachers, said, “Unlike a lot of his classmates, it seemed easy for him to slip inside the private skin of another human being with words.” Both as a soldier and a journalist based in Istanbul Ackerman has witnessed what most of us wouldn’t care to imagine. Just as he does not judge the failings of his characters, he doesn’t heckle his readers for their ignorance but slips into their—our—vision the stories of a few that stand in for the tens of thousands whose names we will never know.
Critic James Wood, in How Fiction Works, asks the question, “How would we know when a detail seems really true? What guides us?” Citing the medieval theologian Duns Scotus, he writes, “Thisness is a good place to start. By thisness I mean…any detail that centers our attention with its concretion.” Not long after they cross the border, the truck in which they are riding makes an unexpected stop. Haris looks out:
Set up at the bend in the road was a checkpoint—three men standing by an empty fifty-five gallon diesel drum with a single strand of concertina wire blocking Route 214. A fire burned in the drum, its flames lapping at the rim…Up the road, just where the flames receded back into darkness, a dead dog lay by a blast crater. The speckled pattern of the explosion fanned out into the brittle macadam and across the dog’s body where it had bitten chunks of fur and flesh from its stomach. Gathered around the corpse were three cats, the same number as the men. The cats ate the dog, picking at its entrails with their nimble mouths. From time to time, when the cats fought over the most succulent portions, Haris could see the men laughing as they watched, their teeth white in the night.
The image is brilliant, unforgettable, searing itself into the mind. Why? In a single word picture/metaphor, Ackerman captures the hopelessness of the war, but it is more than that. The dog, the cats, the men waiting, “their teeth white in the night”—held within that image is the daughter abandoned beneath the rubble of her home, the band of orphaned boys abandoned at the border, Daphne’s hospital filled with the war’s wounded and dying, and Jim, the soldier, saying, “After a while, though, the wrong guy or the right guy matters less.” It is moral collapse, the near total abandonment of responsibility for consequences that envelop the innocent, the mirror into which the so-called civilized world, with its self-image of innocent victimhood, will not look.