An American family living in Turkey — the mother working as a war correspondent and the father raising their infant daughter — goes on vacation with their in-laws. Tired of Istanbul, their home, and tired from work, they visit Burgazada, a nearby island resort. Looking to unwind, they book a place with a pool, and they look forward to relaxing. That’s when things get Hitchcock-y: far from being pastoral, the island is bloody. Discarded spinal cords litter their patio because the place is lousy with cannibal birds. They drop skeletons from the sky. They shit brazenly. They deprive the family members of sleep.
“Fucking birds,” Nathan Deuel complains one morning.
“I hate them,” his mother-in-law responds.
To readers of Friday Was the Bomb, Deuel’s collection of essays about living in the Middle East and trying to raise a family, the ordeal makes for a vivid story: there’s gore; there’s action; there’s Schadenfreude. It’s easy to laugh. For Nathan and his family, however, the stakes are too high for amusement. This trip was supposed to be a chance for the family to decompress. It was supposed to be a chance for Deuel and his wife, Kelly McEvers, to spend time together, to enjoy some peace before parting ways again — her to Baghdad, him to single parenthood in a foreign city. When each goodbye could be your last, it’s important that the time you spend together is perfect.
It’s easy to read this essay, “The Cannibal Birds of Burgazada,” as a particularly cynical analogy. Here you have visitors entering foreign territory during a time of violent unrest. Local inhabitants who look identical to one another are engaged in fierce combat, motivated by reasons unknowable to newcomers. The visitors, who never before knew — let alone cared — about the plight of these locals are suddenly appalled because they’re being personally affected by the conflict. Still, all the visitors can do is endure, report on the story, and then leave the place. And although they’ll occasionally remember the jarring images of violence, they’ll never have to endure it again.
Those locals, meanwhile, are still killing each other.
Deuel, to his credit, seems aware of this possible interpretation. As an American man living abroad, he knows that if shit hits the fan, he can pack up and leave. He knows that as real and jarring as the violence in Syria becomes, he does not live there. He knows that it’s his wife who dons the flak jacket, not him — and she does this willingly. In the Acknowledgements for Friday, he notes that many of the collection’s pieces are “set against a suffering far greater than any I will ever likely experience.” Because of this, he admits that “there’s something unsettling about spending so much time with my discomfort.” He invites readers to judge him “harshly,” if they choose.
The thing is that it’s difficult to judge someone harshly when they’re being so honest and open with you. There’s no fun in it. Like Eminem at the end of 8 Mile, Deuel repeatedly burns himself before we get the opportunity to scoff at him on our own, and in this way he wards off criticism by depriving us of our best fodder.
For example, right as we begin to think he’s being paranoid, he admits he’s being paranoid. When he’s projecting his anxiety onto passersby in the street, worrying if strangers will “hit him in the face” for no apparent reason, and we write in our page margins Would Deuel feel this way if he lived in Prague? we get, pages later, his admission that “everything I’d struggled with the last five years — worrying, death, guilt — would dog me no matter what country we lived in.”
This goes on for nineteen essays. It’s a peculiar slight of hand, and it shifts readers’ focus from a position of detached, emotionless superiority (I don’t think I’d be worried about that…) to, instead, an intimate look at the wellspring of Deuel’s nervousness: the very real and abiding stresses of raising a family, and of being separated from your spouse. By being so honest and clear about these unshakeable fears, Deuel’s anxieties become our own. It’s a move that would make most novelists jealous. In this way, Friday succeeds where others — like Dave Eggers — have failed.
Throughout the Middle East, there’s a common sentiment known as Insha’Allah, or “God willing.” Among several interpretations of the saying is the belief that certain things are out of an individual’s control, and that certain occurrences in the future are preordained. In practical terms, the saying can also take on additional meaning: there’s no use worrying because it’s all part of a larger plan anyway. It’s all out of my hands. In the UAE, this version manifests itself in the form of widespread disdain for seat belts (If I crash, I was supposed to crash, there was nothing to be done…) Elsewhere, it more benignly excuses tardiness for appointments (I got there when I could, it was out of my control…).
Since 2011, when my mother, step-father, and sister moved to Amman, Jordan, they’ve come to use a version of this belief as a cure-all for the general anxieties of travel, of living in a new place, and of being somewhat isolated from the rest of our family. (Full disclosure: Deuel profiled the three of them for the Financial Times last year.) The takeaway becomes something along the lines of: what will happen will happen, and we can only worry about the things within our control.
Of course, this ability to cope with anxiety is a privilege borne not only from faith, but from the privilege of living in a safer, less stressful environment than, say, Deuel’s family — and both are worlds apart from those living amidst the most violent fighting in the region. Still, in reading Deuel’s essays I was struck again and again by how much he could use this same sort of coping mechanism, such as when, following a car bomb within Beirut city limits, Deuel frantically checks his Twitter feed for updates about the body count. He looks at images of the explosion’s aftermath, and he worries, yet again, about his wife stationed abroad. In an internet café, he watches “a girl sip a strawberry smoothie, a boy bite into a sandwich, and an old man struggle to plug in a new iPhone.” For Deuel, the level of calm possessed by his local peers is as unattainable as it is perplexing.
But make no mistake: Deuel chose to check that Twitter stream, and he sought out those pictures. As a family man, he feels obligated to stay informed because knowledge is all he can have in that moment. Like a radio picking up a higher frequency than others, Deuel is sensitive to all of the violence surrounding him, and he struggles to cope. But the truth remains that this masochistic gathering of information cannot and will not lead to increased power over his or his family’s situation. A bomb can go off tomorrow and he could be standing near it or he won’t be — that he checked Twitter won’t make a difference. The locals who’ve grown up around such violence understand this, and they are, tragically, either accustomed to such random turns of fate, or they’re too busy and panicked to focus on much beyond self-preservation.
And the truth is that these fears would follow him no matter where he went. If you seek out news of calamitous events and senseless violence, you will see examples everywhere you look. Spend an afternoon reading a police blotter and you’ll soon feel like a piano hangs above everyone’s head.
Ultimately, there’s a relationship between chronic worry and the exacerbation of personal dread. Deuel comes to realize, admitting at one point, “I could… point, in theory, to all that this worrying makes possible, such as my punctuality. But in reality, I admit, most of the time, the fact that I think too much probably leads more often to an increase in my personal misery — in a ratio disproportionate to the timeliness it occasions.”
Back in Burguzada, beneath the murderous birds, Deuel and his family came to ignore the screeching and to accept the gruesome detritus raining from the sky. They adapted to the birds in the way that they adapted to the heat. They adapted because they had to — because there’s not much else they could do — and before long, to Deuel’s “immense relief,” the days “melted into one another, …the bones and the cries of the birds eventually became part of the landscape, the background noise to our vacation routine.” Insha’Allah, Nathan.
New this week: All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr; American Innovations by Rivka Galchen; The Snow Queen by Michael Cunningham; The Temporary Gentleman by Sebastian Barry; An Untamed State by Rumpus editor and Year in Reading alum Roxane Gay; Wonderland by Stacey D’Erasmo; The Painter by Peter Heller; and Friday Was the Bomb by Millions contributor Nathan Deuel.
Dzanc Books began the submissions period for its 2013-2014 Non-Fiction Award. The indie press is looking for memoir, political, historical, and biographical manuscripts. Millions contributor Nathan Deuel – whose book Friday Was the Bomb will be published by Dzanc in May — will select a winner from among a list of ten finalists, and the top manuscript will be published in the Fall of 2015. The deadline to enter is June 30, 2014.