Skip to main content
Outdated Browser

For the best experience using our website, we recommend upgrading your browser to a newer version or switching to a supported browser.

More Information

Nonfiction

The Cleric and I

A memoir of an unexpected friendship between a New York writer covering the fight against ISIS and a Muslim cleric leading that fight.

A blood-red canopy hung over the late-afternoon Manhattan skyline. I sat staring out the window of the university office—trying, and failing, to ready myself to teach a graduate seminar in creative writing. The call from my partner at the time, M, a war documentarian, had come from Baghdad just a few minutes earlier. “Salar, I was sure I was smoking the last cigarette of my life.” No doubt it was a Bahman-brand cigarette M had been smoking, one from the three to four packs a day he’d consume and carry everywhere, and which would inevitably throw me into fits of allergy and despair. This particular cigarette, or two, he had smoked behind a tree, a date palm, while an ISIS sniper toyed with him for a quarter of an hour. A quarter of an hour is a lifetime when you’re being hunted by a sniper. The place: Jurf al-Sakhar, about fifty kilometers south of Baghdad, where Shia fighters had just managed to take back in two days of intense fighting what the Americans, with all their technology and superior firepower, could not or did not want to in more than a decade.

How can one share any of this with a dozen graduate students in New York City? One can’t. Which is why, when forced to negotiate a multiplicity of worlds, some people wind up going crazy. I felt a bit of the same on that late afternoon as I walked into the classroom, gazing vacantly for the next few minutes at expectant faces that had paid full tuition to hear their sometimes tiresome, sometimes promising short stories and novels-in-progress discussed during a weekly seminar.

Over the next year I would live dozens of variations of this disconcertion. There would be times when I would take a flight out of Baghdad or Erbil, catch a taxi at New York’s JFK Airport, and tell the driver to take me straight to the university, where I was slotted to teach a class within the hour. It was and is a parallel existence. When you enter a classroom and your students are complaining that the printer in the department has been broken for two days or that it’s too hot in the city’s subways, there’s really nothing to say in return; you can’t reproach anyone for not understanding that you’ve just come from a place where everything is broken, where one of your favorite cheap food joints has already been blown up twice, where you know plenty of men who have to wear twenty pounds of flak-jacket armor every day in over one-hundred-degree weather. So you turn mute. People ask, “How was your trip, Professor?” You smile and say, “It was fine. Thank you.”

Why did I begin to send myself there, to that broken place? I suppose because I am interested in knowing about the circumstances of people at the limits of their endurance, and also because I took this particular war against ISIS and the forces supporting it personally. I’d published a few books and was grateful, as a writer, for a very hard-to-come-by fulltime teaching gig. But satisfaction eluded me. The pen is meant to be mightier than the sword, but I’m less convinced of that well-intentioned thought every year. I wanted to understand what courage might mean with an actual blade in the balance. I wanted to go to the source and learn what drives men and women to take bullets for one another. For these reasons, at some point in the winter of 2015-16, I found myself in Iraq again, with M, both of us cameras in hand and trailing a cleric from the Diyala province named Seyed Jabar.

A video exists of Seyed with the People’s Mobilization Forces (better known as the Hashd al-Shaabi) during a battle to take a bridge from ISIS. You can watch and hear him, dressed in a clerical outfit that covers his prosthetic leg (the leg was shattered beneath the knee by a landmine during the Iran-Iraq war, when Seyed fought against Saddam), prodding the men forward. As the fight progresses, Seyed, who is fairly tall, drags and pushes the fighters; he exhorts and pleads. There’s an elemental passion in him, an almost childlike dedication, in the heat of battle. He wants to see it through to the end. As I spent increasingly more time with him, I understood that this was his approach to just about everything: delivering morning sermons, mediating tribal disputes, playing ball on quiet afternoons with his children. He was tireless and steadfast. He would not admit fatigue. If a “martyr’s” family needed to be visited and he had just spent a long day taking supplies to the frontlines, he would not excuse himself or leave what should be done today for tomorrow. These things were important to me because nothing in the bloodless life of writing in the twenty-first century could compare, in my mind, to the ways in which Seyed negotiated the extremes of existence. He gave hope to countless people fighting who were just then fighting for their lives.

One day, on a visit to the frontline at Baiji—the town itself had been reduced to a pile of rubble and bullet-riddled concrete that gave a clear idea of what the end of the world might look like—I watched as Seyed stirred the enormous pots of rice and stew we had transported with us. At the same time he was calling out to the fighters, “Shabab, shabab,” young men, young men, “come eat!” He had just arrived from comforting a young man who’d recently lost three of his brothers to ISIS (Seyed himself had lost four, two to Saddam and two more to the wars that followed). In that moment, as M filmed and I stood to the side and listened to a battle of mortars raging less than a mile away, the question came: Would I take a bullet for this man?

I would like to be able to say that I immediately thought, “Yes, I would.” But I let the question hang, rest. I knew that I’d revisit it soon. I hadn’t come here just to make another documentary alongside M. I’d come to learn something about myself and how I might relate to a man who had just lost three brothers to battle. As much as I respected M for his profession, I knew enough about documentary work to understand there was an element of opportunism in it. The fact that the sniper had hunted M did not make my partner particularly courageous. He had been there for a scoop. Turning a camera on Seyed and the others was not enough for me. To stop there would amount to my failing as a writer, my failing the writerly impulse toward constant self-questioning.

The question I’d asked myself, and the warring all around us, were part of me. ISIS was an existential threat to my country, Iran, which lay a mere hundred and fifty miles due east. But in a larger sense, because I came from the Middle East, much of my life had, by default, been entangled with religion and religious struggles. While I held an inborn deference for it, because of my upbringing and geography, I had also seen how faith can turn into intolerance in a moment, and intolerance into slaughter. ISIS became the primary target for my rage against bigotry. It hated everything that did not conform to its blind read on Islam; in the name of religion it massacred entire populations and enslaved women and children. Which was why, long after our documentary was over, I kept coming back, well into 2017. And why I turned away from the video camera and tumbled instead into thoughts about bullets and courage and my own readiness to protect my ideals. Every time we walked past a lost body part in the middle of nowhere or Seyed—a steadfast Shia cleric—brought food and medicine to displaced Sunnis who were theoretically the “enemy,” I was reminded of how close I felt to this particular struggle, of the self-searching that had propelled me to come over in the first place and continued within me. In this one man I found again my original hunger to enter a life of writing.

A few days after Baiji we were at the frontlines again, near the Makhoul mountains. We found ourselves in one of those unconvincing trenches, where you feel desperately exposed. There was wide open space and not a whole lot of firepower to back us up. Once more, mortar rounds fell nearby, and now and then the unmistakable ding of a bullet whizzed past. Things were not urgent yet, but the feeling of exposure was real, and I wondered how these Shia volunteers, who had put their lives on the line to do the world’s fighting, managed to stay put day in and day out. Did they not know fear? Of course they did, just as they knew plenty about the sheer boredom of trench life. But they also had no choice but to be here; their homes were only a short drive away from where we were standing.

There was a sniper rifle in one of the dugouts. One of the guys took it out, crawled up the rise, and pointed it in the distance, toward the enemy. I clicked my camera. Other men took turns bringing the sniper rifle up that rise while I continued clicking. As we had the previous week, we’d brought food and supplies to these men from down south and they were hugely grateful for it. At some point, a kid—he might have been all of seventeen—came up to me and without a word slipped something in the knee pocket of my tactical pants. He smiled and I smiled back, and because we spoke different languages and circumstances were chaotic the gesture didn’t even register until a little later. He’d given me a pair of cheap gloves in their wrapper. These were the only thing in the world that this teenager had that was new and, he probably felt, worth giving as a gift of thanks. Around those parts nights got bone-chillingly cold in winter. To give your new gloves to another person is, to me, just about the deepest show of brotherly love. I still don’t know who that kid was, or if he’s still alive; I heard that there was a major attack on that position two weeks later. I remember thinking: Here’s a guy you would want to have your back at night, when you can’t even see your own freezing hands two inches in front of you. Here’s a guy you know you can trust.

People are often shocked when fighters speak fondly of war. But it is not the war itself, I’m convinced, that they look back on with nostalgia. It is a longing for that sense of selflessness and commitment that you’ll seldom, if ever, experience in civilian life. That sense that what you do and do not do in the instant of war is not gauged through the prism of gain and profit. Those things may indeed come later, but they are never right there, when your life and the lives of your brothers are hanging on the razor’s edge. It is this simplicity, this clarity, that one yearns to return to afterward. The kind of clarity that comes when you glance twenty paces ahead and see Seyed talking to the fighters, including the kid who gifted you the fresh pair of gloves. Despite your inadequate Arabic, you know that Seyed is asking after the men’s health and well-being. You cannot see it from this distance, but assume that his strong jaw, hidden partially by an ample grayish beard, is set firmly as he listens, and that he has that slightly mischievous, determined gaze he gets when he’s performing a duty, any duty. This is a man who shoulders the burden of the world. It is his choice. His reason for being.

Now you turn and see your partner and his ubiquitous camera, the same partner you almost lost in another battle, not so long ago. You think about your family in Tehran, barely six hundred miles away. You think about your young son back in New York City and your writer’s life and your students, and also this double reality that will never disappear and might even turn you out of your mind one day, if it hasn’t already.

You have your answer.

It took a while coming, but you are as close to sure as you’ll ever be. You are still careful, because you don’t want to create an idol out of this man in your head. You remind yourself that he is someone who is doing the work that he has set out for himself and doing it well. Very well. And despite or because of that, the answer is yes: yes, you would take a bullet for this man in the black turban, tending to other men fighting the world’s fight, right here and now, in this moment.


First published in the April 9, 2018 issue of
Guernica. © Salar Abdoh. By arrangement with the author. All rights reserved.

Read About Context Explore Teaching Ideas

A blood-red canopy hung over the late-afternoon Manhattan skyline. I sat staring out the window of the university office—trying, and failing, to ready myself to teach a graduate seminar in creative writing. The call from my partner at the time, M, a war documentarian, had come from Baghdad just a few minutes earlier. “Salar, I was sure I was smoking the last cigarette of my life.” No doubt it was a Bahman-brand cigarette M had been smoking, one from the three to four packs a day he’d consume and carry everywhere, and which would inevitably throw me into fits of allergy and despair. This particular cigarette, or two, he had smoked behind a tree, a date palm, while an ISIS sniper toyed with him for a quarter of an hour. A quarter of an hour is a lifetime when you’re being hunted by a sniper. The place: Jurf al-Sakhar, about fifty kilometers south of Baghdad, where Shia fighters had just managed to take back in two days of intense fighting what the Americans, with all their technology and superior firepower, could not or did not want to in more than a decade.

How can one share any of this with a dozen graduate students in New York City? One can’t. Which is why, when forced to negotiate a multiplicity of worlds, some people wind up going crazy. I felt a bit of the same on that late afternoon as I walked into the classroom, gazing vacantly for the next few minutes at expectant faces that had paid full tuition to hear their sometimes tiresome, sometimes promising short stories and novels-in-progress discussed during a weekly seminar.

Over the next year I would live dozens of variations of this disconcertion. There would be times when I would take a flight out of Baghdad or Erbil, catch a taxi at New York’s JFK Airport, and tell the driver to take me straight to the university, where I was slotted to teach a class within the hour. It was and is a parallel existence. When you enter a classroom and your students are complaining that the printer in the department has been broken for two days or that it’s too hot in the city’s subways, there’s really nothing to say in return; you can’t reproach anyone for not understanding that you’ve just come from a place where everything is broken, where one of your favorite cheap food joints has already been blown up twice, where you know plenty of men who have to wear twenty pounds of flak-jacket armor every day in over one-hundred-degree weather. So you turn mute. People ask, “How was your trip, Professor?” You smile and say, “It was fine. Thank you.”

Why did I begin to send myself there, to that broken place? I suppose because I am interested in knowing about the circumstances of people at the limits of their endurance, and also because I took this particular war against ISIS and the forces supporting it personally. I’d published a few books and was grateful, as a writer, for a very hard-to-come-by fulltime teaching gig. But satisfaction eluded me. The pen is meant to be mightier than the sword, but I’m less convinced of that well-intentioned thought every year. I wanted to understand what courage might mean with an actual blade in the balance. I wanted to go to the source and learn what drives men and women to take bullets for one another. For these reasons, at some point in the winter of 2015-16, I found myself in Iraq again, with M, both of us cameras in hand and trailing a cleric from the Diyala province named Seyed Jabar.

A video exists of Seyed with the People’s Mobilization Forces (better known as the Hashd al-Shaabi) during a battle to take a bridge from ISIS. You can watch and hear him, dressed in a clerical outfit that covers his prosthetic leg (the leg was shattered beneath the knee by a landmine during the Iran-Iraq war, when Seyed fought against Saddam), prodding the men forward. As the fight progresses, Seyed, who is fairly tall, drags and pushes the fighters; he exhorts and pleads. There’s an elemental passion in him, an almost childlike dedication, in the heat of battle. He wants to see it through to the end. As I spent increasingly more time with him, I understood that this was his approach to just about everything: delivering morning sermons, mediating tribal disputes, playing ball on quiet afternoons with his children. He was tireless and steadfast. He would not admit fatigue. If a “martyr’s” family needed to be visited and he had just spent a long day taking supplies to the frontlines, he would not excuse himself or leave what should be done today for tomorrow. These things were important to me because nothing in the bloodless life of writing in the twenty-first century could compare, in my mind, to the ways in which Seyed negotiated the extremes of existence. He gave hope to countless people fighting who were just then fighting for their lives.

One day, on a visit to the frontline at Baiji—the town itself had been reduced to a pile of rubble and bullet-riddled concrete that gave a clear idea of what the end of the world might look like—I watched as Seyed stirred the enormous pots of rice and stew we had transported with us. At the same time he was calling out to the fighters, “Shabab, shabab,” young men, young men, “come eat!” He had just arrived from comforting a young man who’d recently lost three of his brothers to ISIS (Seyed himself had lost four, two to Saddam and two more to the wars that followed). In that moment, as M filmed and I stood to the side and listened to a battle of mortars raging less than a mile away, the question came: Would I take a bullet for this man?

I would like to be able to say that I immediately thought, “Yes, I would.” But I let the question hang, rest. I knew that I’d revisit it soon. I hadn’t come here just to make another documentary alongside M. I’d come to learn something about myself and how I might relate to a man who had just lost three brothers to battle. As much as I respected M for his profession, I knew enough about documentary work to understand there was an element of opportunism in it. The fact that the sniper had hunted M did not make my partner particularly courageous. He had been there for a scoop. Turning a camera on Seyed and the others was not enough for me. To stop there would amount to my failing as a writer, my failing the writerly impulse toward constant self-questioning.

The question I’d asked myself, and the warring all around us, were part of me. ISIS was an existential threat to my country, Iran, which lay a mere hundred and fifty miles due east. But in a larger sense, because I came from the Middle East, much of my life had, by default, been entangled with religion and religious struggles. While I held an inborn deference for it, because of my upbringing and geography, I had also seen how faith can turn into intolerance in a moment, and intolerance into slaughter. ISIS became the primary target for my rage against bigotry. It hated everything that did not conform to its blind read on Islam; in the name of religion it massacred entire populations and enslaved women and children. Which was why, long after our documentary was over, I kept coming back, well into 2017. And why I turned away from the video camera and tumbled instead into thoughts about bullets and courage and my own readiness to protect my ideals. Every time we walked past a lost body part in the middle of nowhere or Seyed—a steadfast Shia cleric—brought food and medicine to displaced Sunnis who were theoretically the “enemy,” I was reminded of how close I felt to this particular struggle, of the self-searching that had propelled me to come over in the first place and continued within me. In this one man I found again my original hunger to enter a life of writing.

A few days after Baiji we were at the frontlines again, near the Makhoul mountains. We found ourselves in one of those unconvincing trenches, where you feel desperately exposed. There was wide open space and not a whole lot of firepower to back us up. Once more, mortar rounds fell nearby, and now and then the unmistakable ding of a bullet whizzed past. Things were not urgent yet, but the feeling of exposure was real, and I wondered how these Shia volunteers, who had put their lives on the line to do the world’s fighting, managed to stay put day in and day out. Did they not know fear? Of course they did, just as they knew plenty about the sheer boredom of trench life. But they also had no choice but to be here; their homes were only a short drive away from where we were standing.

There was a sniper rifle in one of the dugouts. One of the guys took it out, crawled up the rise, and pointed it in the distance, toward the enemy. I clicked my camera. Other men took turns bringing the sniper rifle up that rise while I continued clicking. As we had the previous week, we’d brought food and supplies to these men from down south and they were hugely grateful for it. At some point, a kid—he might have been all of seventeen—came up to me and without a word slipped something in the knee pocket of my tactical pants. He smiled and I smiled back, and because we spoke different languages and circumstances were chaotic the gesture didn’t even register until a little later. He’d given me a pair of cheap gloves in their wrapper. These were the only thing in the world that this teenager had that was new and, he probably felt, worth giving as a gift of thanks. Around those parts nights got bone-chillingly cold in winter. To give your new gloves to another person is, to me, just about the deepest show of brotherly love. I still don’t know who that kid was, or if he’s still alive; I heard that there was a major attack on that position two weeks later. I remember thinking: Here’s a guy you would want to have your back at night, when you can’t even see your own freezing hands two inches in front of you. Here’s a guy you know you can trust.

People are often shocked when fighters speak fondly of war. But it is not the war itself, I’m convinced, that they look back on with nostalgia. It is a longing for that sense of selflessness and commitment that you’ll seldom, if ever, experience in civilian life. That sense that what you do and do not do in the instant of war is not gauged through the prism of gain and profit. Those things may indeed come later, but they are never right there, when your life and the lives of your brothers are hanging on the razor’s edge. It is this simplicity, this clarity, that one yearns to return to afterward. The kind of clarity that comes when you glance twenty paces ahead and see Seyed talking to the fighters, including the kid who gifted you the fresh pair of gloves. Despite your inadequate Arabic, you know that Seyed is asking after the men’s health and well-being. You cannot see it from this distance, but assume that his strong jaw, hidden partially by an ample grayish beard, is set firmly as he listens, and that he has that slightly mischievous, determined gaze he gets when he’s performing a duty, any duty. This is a man who shoulders the burden of the world. It is his choice. His reason for being.

Now you turn and see your partner and his ubiquitous camera, the same partner you almost lost in another battle, not so long ago. You think about your family in Tehran, barely six hundred miles away. You think about your young son back in New York City and your writer’s life and your students, and also this double reality that will never disappear and might even turn you out of your mind one day, if it hasn’t already.

You have your answer.

It took a while coming, but you are as close to sure as you’ll ever be. You are still careful, because you don’t want to create an idol out of this man in your head. You remind yourself that he is someone who is doing the work that he has set out for himself and doing it well. Very well. And despite or because of that, the answer is yes: yes, you would take a bullet for this man in the black turban, tending to other men fighting the world’s fight, right here and now, in this moment.


First published in the April 9, 2018 issue of
Guernica. © Salar Abdoh. By arrangement with the author. All rights reserved.

Definitions

cleric: A priest or religious leader, especially a Christian or Muslim one. (Oxford online dictionary.)

ISIS: A militant group with a radical fundamentalist interpretation of Sunni Islam, attempting to establish an “Islamic State” via invasions of existing countries. ISIS has committed mass murders of civilians and has been designated a terrorist organization by the U.N.

Erbil: The largest and most populous city in Iraqi Kurdistan.

Diyala province: A region in Eastern Iraq and a major front the war between ISIS and its opponents.

People’s Mobilization Forces (Hashd al-Shaabi): A coalition of various militias fighting ISIS, sponsored by the current Iraqi government. Although many of the fighters are Shia Muslims, this group includes fighters of various religions and nationalities.

Iran-Iraq War: An eight-year war between Iran and Iraq that began shortly after Iran’s Islamic Revolution (1980-1988).

Shia: One of the two main branches of Islam. Followers of Shia Islam believe that the prophet Muhammed’s rightful successor was his cousin and son-in-law, Ali ibn Abi Talib.

Sunni: One of the two main branches of Islam. Followers believe that the rightful successor to Muhammad was Abubakr, who was chosen by a committee of high-ranking Muslims after the death of Muhammad.

Meet Salar Abdoh

First, find out what growing up was like for Salar Abdoh in his essay Hunger.

Next, watch Abdoh describing his experiences following the forces fighting ISIS, including a few paragraphs that went directly into “The Cleric and I.”

(Watch on YouTube.)

Finally, read another essay of Abdoh’s about an unlikely connection: “Gilad, My Enemy”, published in Tablet magazine.

Hear the Names

Listen to pronunciations of the Persian terms in this story, read aloud by Mandana Naviafar.

(Listen on SoundCloud.)

From the Battlefield to the Classroom

Look at photos and videos of the “double reality” described in this essay. (Captions by Salar Abdoh.)

Salar Abdoh, Seyed Jabar, and two sniper comrades, one of whom was killed the following day.

Salar Abdoh and three of his students at the City University of New York.

"The World's Fight" Against ISIS

Seyed Jabar, “the Cleric,” distributing food to just-freed Sunni villagers. (Seyed Jabar follows an opposing branch of Islam, Shia.)

In this essay, Abdoh writes that the war against ISIS is “the world’s fight.” Look at the Wilson Center’s timeline of the fight, entitled “The Rise, Spread, and Fall of the Islamic State.” (The timeline’s title turned out to be premature: in 2019, ISIS resurged. For more information, see the Playlist tab.)

Finally, learn what many people get wrong about Seyed Jabar’s army, the People’s Mobilization Forces, in this article from The Century Foundation. (Short on time? See the “What you should know” section on the right.)

The Iran-Iraq War

In “The Cleric and I,” Abdoh mentions another armed conflict that took place in Iran: the Iran-Iraq War, which you can read more about in this BBC timeline.

Or, for a visual sense of the Iran-Iraq war, take a look at this photo gallery by photographer Jassem Ghazbanpour.

Background on Iran

New to learning about Iran? Read the country’s profile on encylopedia.com.

Two Iranian women walking down an alleyway with old buildings and parked motorbikes.

Alleyway in Hamoomchaal, by Kamyar Adl. License: CC BY 2.0.

More from Salar Abdoh

Watch Abdoh talking about his novel Out of Mesopotamia, about a war reporter covering the fight against ISIS.

Then, read more work from Abdoh:

  • Lies, Fame, Memory, Illness,” a memoir of Abdoh’s older brother Rezaa child prodigy and theater pioneer who died tragically young, published in the Michigan Quarterly Review 
  • War Has a Life of Its Own, a review of new collection of poems from a Syrian poet, also published in the Michigan Quarterly
  • An archive of his recent essays in Guernica 

And find Abdoh’s most recent books on Amazon.

The "World's Fight" Continues

A poster supporting pro-democracy movements in Northern Syria, photographed on a street in Portland, Oregon. By Alan, 2018.

Read about the 2019 ISIS resurgence in some of the places where Seyed Jafar and his men were fighting.

Browse the New York Times‘ archive of stories about the Kurds, who battle ISIS in northern Syria. For the perspectives of Americans who, like Salar Abdoh, formed close ties with fighters, read “American civilians who fought in Syrian Kurdish units against ISIS watch a dream unravel,” from the Washington Post. The article describes the effects of the withdrawal of U.S. military forces from the region in fall 2019.

Finally, listen to an NPR story about a Danish town with a unique approach to fighting ISIS.

Life After ISIS?

What happens to ISIS fighters captured in battle? And what happens to their wives and children? Read about their lives in Syria’s “pop-up prisons” in The New YorkerThen, read this New York Times article about why many Western countries refuse to take back the children of ISIS fighters.

Finally, find out about the ISIS prison breaks of fall 2019.

(Watch on YouTube.)

More Writing in the Second Person
  • The Japanese poem Do Not Tremble, which addresses the Earth during an earthquake
  • The Japanese short story The Farside, in which an unknown speaker addresses the protagonist
  • The Russian story Hello?, addressing a stranger on a bus
  • The British coming-of-age novel Dusty Answer, by Rosamond Lehmann
  • The short story collection Self-Help, by Lorrie Moore
  • The Beatles song For No One, about trying to understand a loved one during a breakup
More Writing About Understanding (or Misunderstanding) Others

Other stories of about understanding others and transcending labels (or not) on WWB Campus:

  • The Guest, an Egyptian story of a grandmother from a different religious background (See Teaching Idea 2)
  • The Neighbor, a Persian story about a clash between a woman and her “dragon” of a neighbor—but which is which?
  • A Dream in Polar Fog, from Russia, about a Canadian explorer’s failure to see beyond his prejudices

Films: 

  • The 2016 independent film Miss Stevens, about moments of understanding and misunderstanding between a teacher and her students at a drama festival
  • When They See Us, a 2019 Netflix series based on the Central Park Five murder trial.

    (Watch trailer for When They See Us on YouTube.)

Literature available elsewhere:

The essay Gilad, My Enemy, also by Salar Abdoh, where he also poses questions to himself:

Can I really be this glad to be safely tucked inside Najaf and Kufa with fellow Shia, instead of being 40 miles out in that inhospitable desert where bullets and knives await whoever happens to have the wrong first name?
Yes, is the answer.

More Writing About Communities

Other stories of building community on WWB Campus:

Elsewhere: 

More Writers At War
Comic panel depicting a lined notebook with history notes on Beirut with a drawing of a baby's head crying in the middle

First panel from “A Subjective History of Lebanon,” by Mazen Kerbaj, transl. by Edward Gauvin.

More About Living Between Two Worlds

Memoirs and Interviews:

  • Gilad, My Enemy, also by Salar Abdoh, in which he writes: for those of us who occupy two worlds, at least on paper, there’s always that sense that things could fall apart any minute . . . 
  • Goli Taraghi, another Persian writer with work on WWB Campus, discusses her life “between two worlds” in an interview with The Boston Review.
  • Fragments From a War-Torn Childhood, by Amir Ahmadi Arian, who also wrote the introduction to the Iran collection on WWB Campus.
  • The Wondrous Deer of the Eternal Hunt, about a former prisoner of the Soviet Gulag who set out to make a life for himself after being freed.

Photo Essays:

Books:

To access these Teaching Ideas, please register or login to WWB-Campus.
English

A blood-red canopy hung over the late-afternoon Manhattan skyline. I sat staring out the window of the university office—trying, and failing, to ready myself to teach a graduate seminar in creative writing. The call from my partner at the time, M, a war documentarian, had come from Baghdad just a few minutes earlier. “Salar, I was sure I was smoking the last cigarette of my life.” No doubt it was a Bahman-brand cigarette M had been smoking, one from the three to four packs a day he’d consume and carry everywhere, and which would inevitably throw me into fits of allergy and despair. This particular cigarette, or two, he had smoked behind a tree, a date palm, while an ISIS sniper toyed with him for a quarter of an hour. A quarter of an hour is a lifetime when you’re being hunted by a sniper. The place: Jurf al-Sakhar, about fifty kilometers south of Baghdad, where Shia fighters had just managed to take back in two days of intense fighting what the Americans, with all their technology and superior firepower, could not or did not want to in more than a decade.

How can one share any of this with a dozen graduate students in New York City? One can’t. Which is why, when forced to negotiate a multiplicity of worlds, some people wind up going crazy. I felt a bit of the same on that late afternoon as I walked into the classroom, gazing vacantly for the next few minutes at expectant faces that had paid full tuition to hear their sometimes tiresome, sometimes promising short stories and novels-in-progress discussed during a weekly seminar.

Over the next year I would live dozens of variations of this disconcertion. There would be times when I would take a flight out of Baghdad or Erbil, catch a taxi at New York’s JFK Airport, and tell the driver to take me straight to the university, where I was slotted to teach a class within the hour. It was and is a parallel existence. When you enter a classroom and your students are complaining that the printer in the department has been broken for two days or that it’s too hot in the city’s subways, there’s really nothing to say in return; you can’t reproach anyone for not understanding that you’ve just come from a place where everything is broken, where one of your favorite cheap food joints has already been blown up twice, where you know plenty of men who have to wear twenty pounds of flak-jacket armor every day in over one-hundred-degree weather. So you turn mute. People ask, “How was your trip, Professor?” You smile and say, “It was fine. Thank you.”

Why did I begin to send myself there, to that broken place? I suppose because I am interested in knowing about the circumstances of people at the limits of their endurance, and also because I took this particular war against ISIS and the forces supporting it personally. I’d published a few books and was grateful, as a writer, for a very hard-to-come-by fulltime teaching gig. But satisfaction eluded me. The pen is meant to be mightier than the sword, but I’m less convinced of that well-intentioned thought every year. I wanted to understand what courage might mean with an actual blade in the balance. I wanted to go to the source and learn what drives men and women to take bullets for one another. For these reasons, at some point in the winter of 2015-16, I found myself in Iraq again, with M, both of us cameras in hand and trailing a cleric from the Diyala province named Seyed Jabar.

A video exists of Seyed with the People’s Mobilization Forces (better known as the Hashd al-Shaabi) during a battle to take a bridge from ISIS. You can watch and hear him, dressed in a clerical outfit that covers his prosthetic leg (the leg was shattered beneath the knee by a landmine during the Iran-Iraq war, when Seyed fought against Saddam), prodding the men forward. As the fight progresses, Seyed, who is fairly tall, drags and pushes the fighters; he exhorts and pleads. There’s an elemental passion in him, an almost childlike dedication, in the heat of battle. He wants to see it through to the end. As I spent increasingly more time with him, I understood that this was his approach to just about everything: delivering morning sermons, mediating tribal disputes, playing ball on quiet afternoons with his children. He was tireless and steadfast. He would not admit fatigue. If a “martyr’s” family needed to be visited and he had just spent a long day taking supplies to the frontlines, he would not excuse himself or leave what should be done today for tomorrow. These things were important to me because nothing in the bloodless life of writing in the twenty-first century could compare, in my mind, to the ways in which Seyed negotiated the extremes of existence. He gave hope to countless people fighting who were just then fighting for their lives.

One day, on a visit to the frontline at Baiji—the town itself had been reduced to a pile of rubble and bullet-riddled concrete that gave a clear idea of what the end of the world might look like—I watched as Seyed stirred the enormous pots of rice and stew we had transported with us. At the same time he was calling out to the fighters, “Shabab, shabab,” young men, young men, “come eat!” He had just arrived from comforting a young man who’d recently lost three of his brothers to ISIS (Seyed himself had lost four, two to Saddam and two more to the wars that followed). In that moment, as M filmed and I stood to the side and listened to a battle of mortars raging less than a mile away, the question came: Would I take a bullet for this man?

I would like to be able to say that I immediately thought, “Yes, I would.” But I let the question hang, rest. I knew that I’d revisit it soon. I hadn’t come here just to make another documentary alongside M. I’d come to learn something about myself and how I might relate to a man who had just lost three brothers to battle. As much as I respected M for his profession, I knew enough about documentary work to understand there was an element of opportunism in it. The fact that the sniper had hunted M did not make my partner particularly courageous. He had been there for a scoop. Turning a camera on Seyed and the others was not enough for me. To stop there would amount to my failing as a writer, my failing the writerly impulse toward constant self-questioning.

The question I’d asked myself, and the warring all around us, were part of me. ISIS was an existential threat to my country, Iran, which lay a mere hundred and fifty miles due east. But in a larger sense, because I came from the Middle East, much of my life had, by default, been entangled with religion and religious struggles. While I held an inborn deference for it, because of my upbringing and geography, I had also seen how faith can turn into intolerance in a moment, and intolerance into slaughter. ISIS became the primary target for my rage against bigotry. It hated everything that did not conform to its blind read on Islam; in the name of religion it massacred entire populations and enslaved women and children. Which was why, long after our documentary was over, I kept coming back, well into 2017. And why I turned away from the video camera and tumbled instead into thoughts about bullets and courage and my own readiness to protect my ideals. Every time we walked past a lost body part in the middle of nowhere or Seyed—a steadfast Shia cleric—brought food and medicine to displaced Sunnis who were theoretically the “enemy,” I was reminded of how close I felt to this particular struggle, of the self-searching that had propelled me to come over in the first place and continued within me. In this one man I found again my original hunger to enter a life of writing.

A few days after Baiji we were at the frontlines again, near the Makhoul mountains. We found ourselves in one of those unconvincing trenches, where you feel desperately exposed. There was wide open space and not a whole lot of firepower to back us up. Once more, mortar rounds fell nearby, and now and then the unmistakable ding of a bullet whizzed past. Things were not urgent yet, but the feeling of exposure was real, and I wondered how these Shia volunteers, who had put their lives on the line to do the world’s fighting, managed to stay put day in and day out. Did they not know fear? Of course they did, just as they knew plenty about the sheer boredom of trench life. But they also had no choice but to be here; their homes were only a short drive away from where we were standing.

There was a sniper rifle in one of the dugouts. One of the guys took it out, crawled up the rise, and pointed it in the distance, toward the enemy. I clicked my camera. Other men took turns bringing the sniper rifle up that rise while I continued clicking. As we had the previous week, we’d brought food and supplies to these men from down south and they were hugely grateful for it. At some point, a kid—he might have been all of seventeen—came up to me and without a word slipped something in the knee pocket of my tactical pants. He smiled and I smiled back, and because we spoke different languages and circumstances were chaotic the gesture didn’t even register until a little later. He’d given me a pair of cheap gloves in their wrapper. These were the only thing in the world that this teenager had that was new and, he probably felt, worth giving as a gift of thanks. Around those parts nights got bone-chillingly cold in winter. To give your new gloves to another person is, to me, just about the deepest show of brotherly love. I still don’t know who that kid was, or if he’s still alive; I heard that there was a major attack on that position two weeks later. I remember thinking: Here’s a guy you would want to have your back at night, when you can’t even see your own freezing hands two inches in front of you. Here’s a guy you know you can trust.

People are often shocked when fighters speak fondly of war. But it is not the war itself, I’m convinced, that they look back on with nostalgia. It is a longing for that sense of selflessness and commitment that you’ll seldom, if ever, experience in civilian life. That sense that what you do and do not do in the instant of war is not gauged through the prism of gain and profit. Those things may indeed come later, but they are never right there, when your life and the lives of your brothers are hanging on the razor’s edge. It is this simplicity, this clarity, that one yearns to return to afterward. The kind of clarity that comes when you glance twenty paces ahead and see Seyed talking to the fighters, including the kid who gifted you the fresh pair of gloves. Despite your inadequate Arabic, you know that Seyed is asking after the men’s health and well-being. You cannot see it from this distance, but assume that his strong jaw, hidden partially by an ample grayish beard, is set firmly as he listens, and that he has that slightly mischievous, determined gaze he gets when he’s performing a duty, any duty. This is a man who shoulders the burden of the world. It is his choice. His reason for being.

Now you turn and see your partner and his ubiquitous camera, the same partner you almost lost in another battle, not so long ago. You think about your family in Tehran, barely six hundred miles away. You think about your young son back in New York City and your writer’s life and your students, and also this double reality that will never disappear and might even turn you out of your mind one day, if it hasn’t already.

You have your answer.

It took a while coming, but you are as close to sure as you’ll ever be. You are still careful, because you don’t want to create an idol out of this man in your head. You remind yourself that he is someone who is doing the work that he has set out for himself and doing it well. Very well. And despite or because of that, the answer is yes: yes, you would take a bullet for this man in the black turban, tending to other men fighting the world’s fight, right here and now, in this moment.


First published in the April 9, 2018 issue of
Guernica. © Salar Abdoh. By arrangement with the author. All rights reserved.

Read Next

Dramatic clouds over a mountain and ocean in Puerto Rico
[class^="wpforms-"]
[class^="wpforms-"]