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A Failed Revolution And A Failed Marriage In 'Dark At The Crossing'

Jan 21, 2017
Originally published on January 21, 2017 12:27 pm

Elliot Ackerman's new novel Dark at the Crossing is about a man who escaped one conflict zone with his life, and now wants to break into a new one.

Haris Abadi — an Iraqi who worked for U.S. special forces during the Iraq War and later became a U.S. citizen — wants to put his new life on the line to free Syria from the cruel grip of Bashar al-Assad.

But Haris is turned back at the Turkish-Syrian border, then robbed, then taken in by Syrian refugees who make him look into his own commitment. Is it to Syria — or, ultimately, his own definition of himself?

Ackerman, a former Marine who now lives in Istanbul himself, tells NPR's Scott Simon that Haris is a man of two identities. "He is an Iraqi, born in Iraq, but a naturalized American citizen, and he's someone who stands in conflict with himself."


Interview Highlights

On Haris's conflicts

He feels a draw back to that part of the world, specifically what's going on in Syria, you know, a cause that he feels at least at face value is just, meaning fighting for democratic reforms in that country — as opposed to the experience he had in his own country, fighting alongside the Americans in a war that he felt to be unjust — so, you know, he's a conflicted person.

On marriage and revolution

The person Haris meets, Amir, who is a Syrian refugee and a former activist in the revolution, is stranded in this border town, which is a place called Gaziantep — which is today a real crossroads for anyone engaged in the Syrian civil war. And Amir is there with his wife Daphne, and as you quickly learn, they lost a daughter in the revolution ... as a mother, Daphne is sort of unable to reckon with the loss of her daughter, and is drawn back into Syria, whereas her husband won't go. And that's sort of, when Haris meets them, that's the rift in their marriage.

And so there are a lot of parallels I could see in the emotional journey someone would take in a revolution. If you think about it, in so many ways in our own lives, on a more intimate level, a marriage is ... a tiny revolution in and of itself. We give ourselves entirely to another person, we upend our world for whatever that nascent love is we feel. But when a marriage falls apart, there is a real reckoning with how you make a life again in the wreckage. And so I could see that type of parallel emotional journey.

On Syria now

The thing that captivated me most, and still does — you know, Faulkner has this great quote, it's from his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, saying "the only thing worth writing about is the human heart in conflict with itself." And often as a novelist that's what I'm looking for, because that's what I want to write about.

And sitting out at restaurants with friends of mine who are from Damascus or from Aleppo and talking to them, if they had been in the revolution the thing that you could see is, we would start a meal, particularly [in] 2013, 2014 with them very earnestly ... saying "Elliot, you don't understand, you know, President Obama needs to start supporting the Free Syrian Army with the troops and with weapons, and we can still win this." ... And by the end of the dinner, you know, ... they would be looking down in their dessert, saying, "I regret the whole thing. I wish we'd never gone on the streets. I've destroyed my own home by doing this and now I'm sitting across the border relatively safe while my family is suffering." And you could see, on the one hand ... they're very proud — and should be — for going out in their time and standing in the streets and demanding democratic reforms against an authoritarian rule. I mean how can you fault anyone for doing that? But the reciprocal has been that their homes have been destroyed. They can never go back to their country.

A friend of mine who's a Syrian poet once made the point to me, he said, "you know, Eliot, it's wonderful now. I'm a poet, and I've left my country for the first time in my life. I can write whatever I want to write." He said the problem is, you can't be a Syrian poet without Syria.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Elliot Ackerman's new novel is about a man who escaped a conflict zone with his life and now wants to break into a new one. Haris Abadi is an Iraqi who worked for U.S. Special Forces during the Iraq War and who became a U.S. citizen. He wants to put his new life on the line to free Syria from the cruel rule of Bashar al-Assad. But Haris is turned back at the border, then robbed, then taken in by Syrian refugees who make him look into his own commitment. Is it to Syria or, ultimately, his own definition of himself?

Elliot Ackerman's book is called "Dark At The Crossing." And Elliot Ackerman, who's author of the previous novel "Green On Blue" is now based and writes in Istanbul. He is a former White House fellow and U.S. Marine who won the Purple Heart and Silver Star for service in Iraq and Afghanistan. He joins us from New York. Thanks so much for being with us.

ELLIOT ACKERMAN: Thanks for having me.

SIMON: Where does the character of Haris come from? In your own experience?

ACKERMAN: You know, I think he's a man of two identities. He is an Iraqi born in Iraq but a naturalized American citizen. And he's someone who stands in conflict with himself. He feels a draw back to that part of the world, specifically what's going on in Syria, you know, a cause that he feels, at least at face value, is just, meaning fighting for democratic reforms in that country - you know, as opposed to the experience he had had in his own country, fighting alongside the Americans in a war that he felt to be unjust. So, you know, he's a conflicted person.

SIMON: Do romance and revolution get all mixed up in your experience?

ACKERMAN: You know, absolutely. The person Haris meets, Amir, who is a Syrian refugee and a former activist in the revolution, is stranded in this border town, which is a place called Gaziantep, which today is a real crossroads for anyone engaged in the Syrian civil war. And Amir's there with his wife, Daphne. And as you quickly learn, they lost a daughter in the revolution and...

SIMON: In the bomb blast of their apartment.

ACKERMAN: In a bomb blast of their apartment in the revolution. Amir had rushed his wife across the border to get medical care. And when she basically came to, as a mother, Daphne is sort of unable to reckon with the loss of her daughter and is drawn back into Syria, whereas her husband won't go. And that's sort of - when Haris meets them, that's the rift in their marriage. She wants to return. He refuses to go back.

And so, you know, there are a lot of parallels that I could see, you know, in the emotional journey someone would take in a revolution. You know, if you think about it, in so many ways in our own lives at a more intimate level, you know, a marriage is sort of, in so many ways, a tiny revolution in and of itself. You know, we give ourselves completely to another person. We upend our world for whatever that nascent love is we feel.

And - but when a marriage falls apart, you know, there is a real reckoning with how you make a life again in the wreckage. And so I could see that type of parallel emotional journey with, you know, many of the people I'd come to to meet. And as I started writing the novel, I quickly realized, you know, this was the story of a failed revolution told through the prism of a failed marriage.

SIMON: Haris is presented with a choice that's a dilemma. He'd like to be with the Syrian Free Army, whom he respects. But on the other hand, ISIS seems to be making a more - how do we put it? - well, effective campaign against the government.

ACKERMAN: And when, you know, Haris arrives in this border town, Gaziantep, with these aims to cross into Syria to fight alongside the Free Army, which, at least in the revolution's early days, seemed fairly clear and seemed to be fighting for, you know, an irrefutable cause to bring democratic reforms to Syria. But as the revolution bogs down and gets mired in all the complexities of what is really a war of attrition, Haris's reasons for fighting and the people who are there fighting - their reasons are questioned.

You know, what is the motivation? You know, why are they fighting? And how do wars then just start to feed on themselves? And we see throughout the course of the book, you know, Haris as he is stranded just across the border. You know, his motivations are questioned. He himself questions them, as well as other characters.

SIMON: When you're making use of your experience for a novel, do you find yourself giving lines to characters that were something you wish you had said?

ACKERMAN: Am I writing a novel where I say, oh, I wish I had said that? Not so much. I mean, there are things that I've noticed I do in my writing that I initially thought were just sort of instinctual. But, like, for instance, when I'm writing a first draft, I have often noticed that I will give characters the names of real people that I know, even if they're different. And I do that early not because I'm crafting the character exactly around someone who's a real person.

But early on in the process of writing, it's very important for me to try to feel close to my characters. And by having them be a - having at least the name be that of a real person sort of allows me to get there a little bit quicker. And then, inevitably, that name no longer seems appropriate. And I change it. And then the character becomes their own person.

SIMON: What are your hopes for Syria now?

ACKERMAN: You know, I'll say the thing that captivated me the most and still does - you know, Faulkner has this great quote. It's from his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, saying, the only thing worth writing about is the human heart in conflict with itself. And often, as a novelist, sort of that's what I'm looking for because that's what I want to write about.

And, you know, sitting out at restaurants with friends of mine who are, you know, from Damascus or from Aleppo and talking to them if they'd been in the revolution, the thing that you could see is, you know, we would start a meal, particularly in 2013, 2014, with them very earnestly because I was the one American there - saying, Elliot, you don't understand. You know, President Obama needs to start supporting the Free Syrian Army with troops and with weapons. And, you know, we can still win this.

And then, you know, they would bring out the entree. And, you know, the dinner would proceed. And by the end of the dinner, you know, those same people will be sitting there as they'd been, basically extolling the virtues of the revolution. By the end of the dinner, they would be, you know, looking down on their dessert, saying, you know, I regret the whole thing. I wish we'd never gone out on the streets. I've destroyed my own home by doing this. And now I'm sitting across the border, relatively safe, while my family is suffering.

And you could see on the one hand, they were - you know, they're very proud and should be for going out in their time and standing in the streets and demanding democratic reforms against an authoritarian rule. I mean, how can you fault anyone for doing that? But the reciprocal has been that their homes have been destroyed. They can never go back to their country. A friend of mine, who's a Syrian poet, once made the point to me - he said, you know, Elliot, it's wonderful now. I'm a poet. And I've left my country. For the first time in my life, I can write whatever I want to write. He said, you know what the one problem is? You can't be a Syrian poet without Syria.

SIMON: Elliot Ackerman - his novel "Dark At The Crossing." Thanks so much for being with us.

ACKERMAN: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.