Nathan Deuel isn’t breaking big stories in Friday Was the Bomb: Five Years in the Middle East, his debut essay collection about the five years he spent in the Middle East. He’s not investigating global problems or charting the aftermath of conflict. Instead, he writes about access and everyday life, and how we make lives for ourselves when we must rationalize our roles in places we don’t fully understand or belong.
Deuel moved to Saudi Arabia in 2008 with his wife, Kelly McEvers, a National Public Radio foreign correspondent. Their daughter was born in Riyadh a year later, and as McEvers began spending long stretches of time in Baghdad and other areas of Iraq, Deuel found himself grappling with his new role as father in Riyadh, and later in Beirut.
We spoke recently about the complications of work and family far from home, literature’s contemporary representations of the Middle East, and how essays function in singular and collective forms.
The Rumpus: In the essay “Homeland in My Homeland,” you write about the popular Showtime program Homeland and its rendering of Beirut, where you were living at the time. Can you talk more about popular culture representations of conflicts in the Middle East? Do you think they’re being represented fairly, by news and entertainment outlets?
Nathan Deuel: Gosh, who does a good job representing the far away? Living in Jakarta back in the day, with my wife Kelly, we lived in the slums in the master bedroom of a house owned by an Islamic scholar, which he maintained for his second wife. It was a weird scene. We cooked over a stove in an alley, sharing a communal thing of rice with the wife and her sister, stored in a glass jar in which mice cavorted. The second wife, displaced by us when we began renting that room, would emerge early each morning from her slightly smaller bedroom, and she’d begin these long mournful karaoke covers of Air Supply. We’d hardly slept, because a train ran at all hours a few feet from our bedroom and beside the tracks was an open-air brothel. To get around the city, I mostly walked, sticking to footpaths along the muddy rivers—a city where you either had $300 million or $300. We had the latter. It was always so bittersweet, when I’d arrived at the luxury mall, spending dollars we didn’t really have on cheese and beer, and it was hard to square all I’d seen and was living with and where I had come from and what I hoped one day to accomplish against that outdoor brothel, the forest of trees beside the river where prostitutes would tack up hand mirrors to the bark, which served as their little make-up stations, tiny combs and brushes stuffed into the crooks of trees.
I mean, I kind of loved Year of Living Dangerously, that old Mel Gibson movie about the 1965 coup in Jakarta, but at just two hours and starring…Mel Gibson, it was so laughably simplistic. But any representation is. There is always this painful moment of reduction. It’s just how you reduce. And what you hope to accomplish. And the burden of making something important gets more complicated, as an American or Westerner—especially a white male—who’s gone somewhere like Jakarta or Phnom Penh, where I lived before, or the Middle East, subject of this new book.
William T. Vollmann is a huge influence in this regard, in that he really views his writing as a kind of activism. He’s so forward about who he is and what he’s trying to accomplish and he brings this muscular sense of self and mission to his writing that feels both very principled and also lovely and odd and convincing. I don’t want to presume to speak for him, really, but every time I write, I do so knowing that it is a strange privilege to have traveled as much as I have, to have been over there, and that it is moreover an honor to have the time to write, and all this is a kind of challenge to make anything I write add up to something.
For Indonesia, I was too young and dumb and weak to put my time there into any order. And I’m honestly not sure how much my essays from more recent years say. But I do think they stand—as writing and as the slow accumulation of five years of thinking and living and reading—as a not completely useless translation of a few places on earth and how you might conduct yourself there, if you were a husband and an American and the father of a little girl.
Rumpus: During the time depicted in Friday Was the Bomb, your wife was working as a reporter throughout the Middle East. Did you actively set out to write about this period? What role did observation play in your essays and in your life?
Deuel: In 2008, I was coming off a half-decade as an editor, and I didn’t realize, until I started writing over there, how much I had been hungering to be on the other side of the desk, far away from a New York that had turned me sour. Luckily enough, we relocated to the Middle East at a fortuitous time, in that Saudi Arabia’s embassy in DC thought it was a good idea to let my wife and I live in Riyadh, a fairly unprecedented level of access to one of the world’s most closed-off cities in one of its least open countries. Secondly, a new daily newspaper was founded in the United Arab Emirates. Lavishly funded and wondrously staffed, The National was paying well and in a position to publish some really excellent work. (Even if in later years it began committing errors of judgment that made it impossible to work for them anymore.)
My first dozen published pieces were all with The Review—a weekly cultural section of The National, edited at the time by current NewYorker.com editor Jonathan Shainin, novelist and story writer Peter Baker, and current Pacific Standard deputy editor John Gravois. That outlet’s interest in my writing, which astonishes me still, combined with the fact I was somewhere bizarre and misunderstood and largely inaccessible, meant that I was actually kind of making a living as a writer and doing so by writing stories that felt like they were making the world smaller and better understood. In a strict Islamic kingdom that had gone from a sort of pre-modernity to a wave of 1980s excess in a single generation, I wrote about what it looked like thirty years later: the peculiar state of its first luxury hotel and the pride of its Egyptian owner; Twitter usage among the kids who were otherwise bored out of their minds; how to take a public bus; how a festival functions when religious police are there to see you’re having no fun; and much more. It was awesome. It was awful.
Things got more complicated once our daughter was born, when my wife went from being my partner in crime to NPR’s correspondent in Baghdad. That’s when the gaze shifted much more from the world I was observing outside of myself, to the turmoil in my own life and how I was holding up next to my wife’s giant new job.
It’s interesting to talk about observation. Because in Saudi Arabia I was doing more reporting and traditional journalism, I suppose. In Istanbul, I started reverting to an older mode of writing—one I’d always preferred, which is this strong observational poise. Surrounded by journalists and by sets of facts that often seemed to contradict each other or suggest only darkness and death and reasons for cynicism, I fell back on writing about what I saw.
You have to understand, this artistic move happened during the build-up to what became an all-out war in next-door Syria. Friends were dying, bombs starting coming closer and closer, and all along, we knew every day that government troops were slaughtering innocent people, who in turn picked up guns and started shooting back. The specter of death haunted me, and with bureau chiefs from The New York Times, CNN, BBC, TIME, etc. at all the dinner parties I was going to in Beirut, my most powerful move felt like something smaller and counterintuitive. If I was to write my way through this, if I was going to contribute something meaningful and enduring, it wasn’t going to be with some reporting. It was going to be with careful, humble, odd observation—a kind of storytelling flag planted in the ground that said: this is what I’m seeing, this is what life is like, this is my story.
So confused and overwhelmed by a life I couldn’t completely understand, this was my act of defiance, my move toward self-preservation, and I suppose it’s not really up to me to decide if I was deluding myself. (I know some of my friends are eager to see me move on!)
Rumpus: Many of these essays were previously published. Did you intend for them to become a book? Can you talk a bit about how essay collections, and how this essay collection, functions? Did you arrange the essays in the spirit of a particular narrative function?
Deuel: When I left Rolling Stone, I walked out the door and five months later I’d made it all the way on foot to New Orleans. That was a crazy thing, and by last spring I’d been trying to sell a book about it for seven years or so. It’s hard—sometimes maybe you have to give up on a book and move on. So one night, I saw that Coffee House was looking for essay collections. Looking at a folder of crap I’d written, I though, Well shit, maybe I have myself an essay collection? So I started copying and pasting, hit save, counted the words, and hell if it didn’t look like a book.
Now that copy/paste mess has very little in common with the book in bookstores today. In a stroke of luck I’m still grateful for, I had an amazing editor at Dzanc in Jeff Parker, who is a novelist, short story writer, and MFA professor at UMass Amherst. He really challenged me to cut a lot of the extraneous pieces, shake up the chronology, and write a few new pieces. Of the twenty-five or so in the final collection, really just a little more than half are previously published. Two I wrote entirely anew, and to my surprise, I think the book now is something between a book of essays and a coherent, mostly chronological memoir. I never expected that.
Not all essay books need to hang together this way! Mine has an actual timeline in the beginning, after all. It has a first essay that sets the table and a final essay that brings it all to a kind of close, and in between is a kind of narrative of what happened. Pulphead, which had been inspiring me at the time, is more a snapshot of a few years in the life of one of our great writers, with no sense of an overarching narrative, which is fine. A book like Leslie Jamison’s smash hit The Empathy Exams hangs together around an idea. I guess my book is more like one of Joan Didion’s early California essay books—a portrait of a time and of a place and of a life. Mine is much crappier than hers, obviously.
Rumpus: How did you navigate writing about locations and cultures to which you were an outsider? Do you feel writers have an obligation to push beyond what they know?
Deuel: My essays each answer your question in very different ways. Did I push what I knew? I think I tried, in each piece. But in their sum, I’m not sure yet if I know whether I succeeded in offering up a point.
It’s fun to think in another medium: music. Some of the bands my friends all love—Smog, Silver Jews, Will Oldham’s projects—all achieve this sweet spot at the intersection of melancholy, humor, self-disclosure, narrative, humility, insight, and darkness. They’re never too serious, never too light, never too ponderous, always very ambitious. It’s a delicate balance. I think really good writing, the kind of stuff I’m always trying to achieve and admire in others, is attempting to plot a similar path toward excellence. A friend the other day tried to put it this way: going for that intersection is trying to achieve something “real,” and that’s all I’m ever trying to get down on the page. Something real, some depiction of life as I see it, which does life justice. It connects to that idea of observation, of trying to have an authentic and unforced connection between real life and the things that appear on the page. The hope, and I’m still testing this out and completely unsure, is that if you hit that level of “realness,” then edification and meaning and beauty is achieved.
Rumpus: What was your primary impulse in exploring Saudi Arabia and Lebanon through essay-writing? Was there anything you were particularly concerned with?
Deuel: Every time I walked out the door in Saudi Arabia, I felt like I was encountering people who were blown away by meeting me and I was likewise challenged and enchanted by the chance to meet them. So few people from America ever get over there. There’s no tourist visa. You either arrive as a pilgrim, going to Mecca, or you gain access to the country as an employee, journalist, or official of some kind. The chance to work unsupervised as a writer and journalist was almost too good. I learned a lot.
After that, my wife moved to Iraq and I took our daughter to Turkey. This was a very difficult time for me, and with a couple decent exceptions that are not in the book, this era was a time when I began trying to write through my own confusion, fear, and frustration. In Lebanon this posture deepened, when the violence came closer and closer—shooters and explosions literally outside our door. By the time we left, I was exhausted, and I’ve never been so excited to be back in America, writing about what feels like an old place with a new set of ideas and references. (I’m kind of obsessed right now with homelessness, gentrification, and income inequality.)
Rumpus: Were there any writers who were particularly influential to you during this project? Which contemporary writers do you most admire for their ability to render place evocatively?
Deuel: Like any dutiful essay writer, I was blown away by Pulphead, for Sullivan’s ability to be funny and insightful, smart and humble. Each of those pieces is a kind of master class in how to solve different kinds of problems involved in telling a story.
Another huge influence was Josip Novakovich. He really is the master of taking a normal account of life and making it huge, gorgeous, frightening, hilarious, and eternal. I love him.
Elif Batuman is a writer I look up to big time, for her ability to make stories spiral from something very specific toward the infinite, and also Suzy Hansen, who has a book coming out about Turkey that should melt some eyeballs. She’s smart and funny and knows that country well.
It was always humbling to be around the crew of foreign correspondents in Beirut—fearless, brilliant, and truly gifted storytellers and people who were pretty much all women: Ann Barnard, Liz Sly, Aryn Baker, Anne Barnard, Abbie Fielding-Smith, Maria Al-Habib, and the old gentleman man Jim Muir, all of whom I miss and hope stay safe.
Original Rumpus art © by Kristen Radtke.