Author Interviews
2:41 pm
Sun May 18, 2014

Revolution, Fatherhood And 5 Years In The Middle East

Originally published on Mon May 19, 2014 6:54 am

In 2008, Nathan Deuel and his wife packed up their things and moved to Saudi Arabia. That country, famous for being largely closed to Westerners, was newly open to a handful of journalists. The couple moved to Riyadh. A year later, in 2009, their daughter was born.

Then came the Arab Spring. In the midst of political convulsions, and with an infant, the family decided to stay in the Middle East, even when Deuel's wife, foreign correspondent Kelly McEvers, became NPR's Baghdad Bureau chief. As the region erupted in revolution, Deuel moved with their young daughter to Istanbul, then to Beirut.

Nathan Deuel's memoir of his time in the Middle East is titled Friday Was the Bomb: Five Years in the Middle East. He spoke with the host of Weekend All Things Considered, Arun Rath.


Interview Highlights

On moving to Saudi Arabia in 2008

It was a moment in Saudi Arabia's history when they were opening up enough to let journalists live there. Prior to that it was very difficult to go there at all, so it's us and just a handful of other journalists, and it was a fascinating time to encounter this place that's so misunderstood and so difficult to visit. And at the same time, Kelly gets pregnant. So it gave us an incredible entre to the country because it's such a family oriented place ... it really disarmed the situation for me to soon to be a father, her to soon to be a mother, and allowed us to talk to people we might not have otherwise talked to.

On living in the Diplomatic Quarter in Riyadh

You kind of couldn't be more remote. The DQ is this huge new project built for all the embassies when they moved them from Jedda to Riyadh and it was on the far edge of the city and we'd see coyotes and we'd hear strange movements of vehicles. It was a scary place to live.

On remaining in the Middle East with a small child

I have to tell you that the birth of our child completely changed me. Once Loretta was born in 2009, my nerves got a little shot. I found myself worrying more and seeing some of the dangerous — or perhaps adventurous if you want to be charitable — things we used to do; I was no longer attracted to them because I had like this tiny, beautiful human being who needed us.

On living in Istanbul with a small child

In some ways I was so kind of humiliated by all the simple things I had to do like getting the Internet to work and when the water ceased working for seven days and we were using cloth diapers. Just figuring out what to do with my daughter's dirty diapers in Istanbul. At the same time, Tahrir Square in Egypt is exploding and there are there are these exhilarating, wonderful things that I feel tangentially a part of, but my duties at the end of the day were to make sure this 1-year-old was happy and learning how to walk and clean and safe and warm.

On being a dad at home with the child

I have a group of friends back in like Brooklyn and Manhattan who are embracing and loving that new role. Kind of that new dad, that new sincerity, that sense that there's glory and fellowship in being the dad at the playground. Meanwhile, I'm in Istanbul where I go to the historic square that's 4,000 years old and I'm surrounded by Turkish people who look at me with genuine concern because generally speaking to be a man alone with your daughter again and again during the day is to have someone look at you and think "Oh, that's so sad that your wife is dead." Because that's the only possible explanation for the fact that you're in public with your daughter during the day, again and again.

On moving back to America

When we first came back I think there was a sense for all three of us that to live abroad is to exist in a box and you have all these sort of rules and confines. Because you're a visitor, you're on a visa. To come back to America, this sense that this is ours, it's a tremendous feeling of freedom to be back in America and a tremendous sense of responsibility too. Like just to decide where Loretta goes to school is the act of a citizen of a country. We are living out politics when we do that. Whereas when you live abroad, a lot of what you do is just sort of it seems very light and very temporary.

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Transcript

TESS VIGELAND, HOST:

It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR West. I'm Tess Vigeland. In 2008, Nathan Deuel and his wife packed up their things and moved to Saudi Arabia on journalist visas. A year later their daughter was born in Riyadh. And then came the Arab Spring. In the midst of political convulsions and with a new infant, the family stayed in the Middle East. Deuel's wife, foreign correspondent Kelly McEvers, became NPR's Baghdad Bureau chief. Deuel moved with their young daughter to Istanbul, then to Beirut.

Nathan Deuel's memoir of his time in the Middle East is titled "Friday Was the Bomb." He spoke with the regular host of this program, Arun Rath.

ARUN RATH HOST: I sat down with Nathan Deuel at NPR West and began by asking him about that fateful decision to leave the states six years ago.

NATHAN DEUEL: It was a moment in Saudi Arabia's history when they were opening up enough to let journalists live there. Which prior to that it was very difficult to go there at all, and it was this fascinating time to encounter this place that's so misunderstood and so difficult to visit. And at the same time you know, Kelly gets pregnant.

And so it gave us, like, an incredible entre to the country because it's such a family oriented place. So it really disarmed the situation for, you know, me to soon to be a father, her to soon to be a mother, and it allowed us to talk to people who we might not have otherwise talked to.

HOST: So I want to have you read a passage from the book. This is a description of your time in Riyadh and specifically you were staying in the diplomatic quarter or the DQ, I should say, so people don't think you're talking about Dairy Queen.

(LAUGHTER)

DEUEL: Definitely not Dairy Queen. OK. (Reading) A few weeks passed and I felt more and more that I was living in a ghost town. With its wide avenues and spacious public squares, the DQ is designed to accommodate a daily stream of visitors. But this vision had been clouded by bomb attacks that Saudi extremists carried off within the city between 2003 and 2006, killing nearly 200 civilians and soldiers.

Westerners fled Riyadh. Concrete barriers, tanks and soldiers were posted around the city. In the remote outskirts along the broad mesas and flats surrounding the DQ, the tires of military four by fours on patrol had worn deep grooves into the soft sand.

HOST: And again, you know, having a newborn you could have that sense of isolation but that just sounds so cut off.

DEUEL: Yeah, you kind of couldn't be more remote. The DQ is this huge new project built for all the embassies when they moved them from Jeddah to Riyadh and it was on the far edge of the city and we'd see coyotes and we'd hear strange movements of vehicles. It was a scary place to live.

HOST: So I've got to ask you, obviously you're both journalists and you're both attracted to things that other people might run away from ordinarily. Still though, you're in a family way and you go to the Middle East. Are you nuts?

DEUEL: Yeah, that's a completely fair question. And I have to tell you that the birth of our child completely changed me. Once Loretta was born, my nerves got a little shot. I found myself worrying more. And seeing some of the dangerous, or perhaps adventurous if you want to be charitable, things we used to do, I was no longer attracted to them because I had this, like, little tiny, beautiful human being who needed us.

HOST: I know, like a lot of people, myself included, when you become a parent, when you become a dad you talk about that switch that kind of flips. You start to worry about stuff a lot more. But for you in your case, you're actually in a place, a very unstable part of the world. You actually have a lot more stuff to worry about than most new dads.

DEUEL: Yeah, I mean, in some ways I was so kind of humiliated by all the simple things I had to do, like getting the Internet to work and when the water ceased working for seven days and we were using cloth diapers. Just figuring out what to do with my daughter's dirty diapers in Istanbul. At the same time, Tahrir Square in Egypt is exploding and there are these exhilarating, wonderful things that I feel tangentially a part of, but my duties at the end of the day were to make sure this, like, 1-year-old was, like, happy and learning how to walk and clean and safe and warm.

HOST: Right. And one thing, you know, it flips that - obviously it flips that traditional gender dynamic. We're of a generation of men, we're supposed to be OK with that kind of thing.

DEUEL: And, you know, it was interesting. Like, I have a group of friends back in, like, Brooklyn and Manhattan who are, you know, sort of embracing and loving that new role. Kind of that new dad, that new sincerity, that sense that, like, there's glory and fellowship in being the dad at the playground.

Meanwhile, I'm in Istanbul where I go to the historic square that's 4,000 years old and I'm surrounded by Turkish people who look at me with genuine concern because, generally speaking, to be a man alone with your daughter again and again during the day is to have someone look at you and think, oh, that's so sad that your wife is dead, because that's the only possible explanation for the fact that you're in public with your daughter during the day, again and again.

HOST: When you came back to America, did you have any sense of culture shock? Were there things that made America seems weird now?

DEUEL: Yeah, when we first came back I think there was a sense for all three of us that to live abroad is to exist in a box and you have all these sort of rules and confines. Because you're a visitor, you're on a visa. To come back to America, this sense that this is ours, it's a tremendous feeling of freedom to be back in America and a tremendous sense of, I think, like, responsibility too.

Like, just to decide where Loretta goes to school is, like, the act of a citizen of a country. We are living our politics when we do that. Whereas when you live abroad, a lot of what you do is just sort of it feels very light and very temporary.

HOST: As crazy and dangerous as it was, is there anything that you miss about that life?

DEUEL: Yeah, I mean, I think all three of us, to a certain degree, miss the electricity of living next to history. It was very exciting to - for something major to happen and for us to gather the tribe, is what we called it. It's been difficult to downshift from that sense of being on the edge of history to just kind of a normal American life.

HOST: Nathan Deuel's new book is called "Friday Was the Bomb: Five Years in the Middle East." Nathan, thank you.

DEUEL: Yeah, yeah, it's been nice. Thanks a lot.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VIGELAND: Coming up, Godzilla is back.

(SOUNDBITE OF ROARING)

VIGELAND: Just how did they make that sound? Well, sh-h-h-h, it's a secret.

ERIK AADAHL: We actually were sworn to take it to our graves with us.

VIGELAND: I'll try to pry it out of them anyway in the next part of ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.