War Stories

I wrote a review essay for The Progressive on Phil Klay’s short story collection Redeployment and Sinan Antoon’s novel The Corpse Washer.  My essay’s not online, but you should all subscribe to The Progressive anyway. It’s a fine magazine with a long history (since 1909). My essay begins this way:

In January 2006, I was in Beirut, researching an article I was thinking of writing on Iraqi refugees in Lebanon. With the help of friends and contacts, I was able to interview some Iraqis who agreed to speak to me at some personal risk since they were living in the country illegally. If the Lebanese authorities discovered them, they risked not only arrest and detention but also being sent back to Iraq.

All of their stories, including Selwa’s, were harrowing.

A Chaldean Christian from Mosul, Selwa had moved with her husband and children to Baghdad many years ago. Following the 2003 invasion, Selwa’s husband was unemployed, and Selwa began working as part of a cleaning crew for the American military.

That was enough to anger the insurgents, who delivered a letter with a knock on the door to her house in Baghdad. The letter was written in Arabic, on embossed letterhead, and carried an issue number (#1107). It was titled “A letter of threat,” and was formally addressed to Selwa’s husband by name. It read:

“We have learned, after intense scrutiny, that your wife Selwa works with the American forces, and we know the hour that her work begins and the hour it finishes. And if you continue in this situation, your destiny and the destiny of your wife and children will be death, and there is no other solution. We warn you that she is to leave this treacherous job or by the will of God she will get punishment for the sake of everybody who commits apostasy.”

I asked Selwa what she felt when she received the letter. “Terror,” she replied. “We packed and left in one day.”

Selwa showed me the letter the night I interviewed her in a skeletal apartment in a poverty-ridden district of Beirut. She also showed me her identification badge for the 501st Forward Support Battalion and a photo of her and co-workers titled “Cleaning Team 2005.” Her story was completely credible to me. The group that issued the threat, emblazoned on the letter, was Tawhid and Jihad in the Land of Two Rivers, the precursor to what we now know as ISIS.

I would like to tell you that I published my article and that Selwa and her family were granted refugee status and now live happily away from the war in their homeland. But that’s not what happened.

I did pitch an article about Iraqi refugee seekers in Lebanon to some magazines, but no one was very interested. This wasn’t the war story people wanted at the time.

I’ve always regretted not trying harder to get that article published. To this day, I feel as if I failed Selwa and the others. I’m telling you this not to expiate my own guilt, though, but to make a more specific point.

We have expectations for our war stories. They should be full of heroism and sacrifice, along with recognition that combat is horrific. Our love for these stories is insatiable, as if we believe the nobility of the soldier is a way to convince us of our own national decency… (continues)

(The Progressive)

 

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