Newsletter #4: Being There

Underread: The Baghdad Road, or Being There

In "Underread," my newsletter miniseries, I advocate for insufficiently adored pieces of nonfiction writing from 2017 or earlier. These are true reported works that aspire to longevity or something like it under the host of constraints and compromises all working writers deal with: deadlines, house style, intransigent editors, sudden shifts in consensus reality, getting scooped, killed, cut, or canned. Here's entry #2:

The Baghdad Road by Ghaith Abdul-Ahad in the London Review of Books

"The Baghdad Road" came out of the battle for Mosul a little over a year ago. The prose is sharp and the focus is tight on its handful of characters. Abdul-Ahad knows just how long he can maintain that focus before letting the tension slacken to give us a wider view of things, and his own slight presence in the piece is artfully done. There are few cliches and no heroics. He uses small, vivid details to gesture toward the surrounding horror, like all great war writing from Homer to Herr. It's really good.

Most war reporting in magazines tends to come with a lot of unfortunate news style explainers. As a reader—as this reader, anywayit's almost impossible not to skim over these predictably structured sentences looking for “information," rather than reading slowly and attentively for experience, effect, enjoyment, or whatever you want to call that kind of reading we reserve for work that challenges and engages us.

This is by design—you don't read a newspaper for Gertrude Stein sentences (or do you?)—but I'm always looking for ways to avoid the dull info dump and familiar syntax of news style in my writing, and I seethe with envy when I find a writer who excels at workarounds. One thing I admire about Abdul-Ahad is just that: his method of seeding information into sharp scenes with good rhythms. Even in an en medias res chaotic atmosphere filled with (to US/UK readers) unfamiliar places, names, and concepts, he gives the reader just enough to get through the next event or piece of dialogue. We’re forced to read slowly so as not to miss the next necessary thing. For the first several sections of this essay there is no looking away and no explaining, just the matter-of-fact, how-did-he-witness-that carnage of combat, minimally interrupted. Only after the piece is more than half finished does Abdul-Ahad begin to answer our questions about the Special Operations Forces and the fighting in Mosul, widening his scope beyond the immediate scene.

Here’s a great four-paragraph stretch of scene with no data dumping or politicking, no attempts to explain or contextualize:

Ali sat barefoot outside the school where he and his men had spent the night and watched the civilians walk by. He dipped some stale bread into a pot of yoghurt and had his first meal in 24 hours. ‘You know there were civilians in the house that was bombed last night,’ he said. ‘I tried to stop it, I called the commander to say there were civilians, but they went ahead with the strike.’

He was watching an old man trying to push a wheelbarrow with his wife in it over rubble in the street. Ali shouted to his men to help them, and one of them went over to lend a hand.

‘The neighbours tell me that most of the people got out but three died. Did I kill the civilians?’ he asked. ‘Will god punish me for that?’

An explosion ripped through a house across the street. The old man ran with his wife and hid behind the tank. Ali sat on his ammunition box sipping his tea and looked at the smoke bellowing from the house, chunks of masonry and shrapnel falling around him. ‘Haji, it’s OK! Don’t worry, it’s just a car bomb,’ he laughed at the terrified old man, who straightened himself up, got hold of the wheelbarrow and went on pushing his wife.

Are we reading fiction or nonfiction? There are flourishes of novelistic detail: the stale bread and pot of yogurt; the old man pushing his wife in a wheelbarrow. But there are also scraps of dialogue that make sense only in the context of a reporter (or somebody) standing there, listening. The way these are presented in the piece is important; they demonstrate a choice the writer made that he might not have after the work of whittling down hours of idle conversation into one or two sentences of reported speech.

As I’ve mentioned before (it’s become kind of a theme here), we don't read nonfiction writing the way we do a novel. In a novel, we'd wonder to whom Ali was talking. Himself? God? In fact, in a novel the dialogue would more likely appear as Ali's unspoken thoughts using a technique called free indirect discourse, something like: "Ali had heard that three civilians had died in the bombing he'd ordered. Had he killed them? Would god punish him for that?"

This is a technique that over the decades has bled over into literary nonfiction writing, including in places like The New Yorker. I don’t like it. Free indirect discourse in nonfiction wants to erase the writer from the piece by transforming reported speech (or even writerly observation/fantasy) into a character’s private thoughts. It wants to replace an observation with reality. But speech isn’t thought. Observation isn't reality. The two shouldn’t be confused. As a reader, it matters to me where the author picks up the idea that a character is thinking something. If it’s an invention, however well-sourced, we’re in the realm of speculation and the writer should say so. If it’s a quote, we should know it’s a claim by a subject and not necessarily true. What a subject says he thought during a scene is not necessarily what he actually thought. A subject who claims to feel no fear in a dangerous situation shouldn’t be uncritically described as “fearless.” Subjects lie, to others and themselves. However, if he can be shown to laugh at a nearby explosion, this might convey something of his mindset, whether fearless or trying to appear so. Similarly, a subject who says he is exhausted or hungry or besieged by guilt may or may not be; if he hasn’t eaten over 24 hours of combat, if he behaves in certain other ways or says certain things, the reader is left with a constellation of facts with which to draw a picture of reality.

This question of whether to show the mess or explain it--of showing vs. telling--gestures toward an important difference between nonfiction and fiction prose writing: namely, the presentation of reality and the position of the writer. In nonfiction, there is no omnipotence. Any claim to knowledge, especially knowledge of another person, is subjective. I tend to prefer to acknowledge rather than mask this fact. It's less disruptive to me when a nonfiction writer includes themselves in the piece as a flawed witness, even with the risk of gonzo indulgence that tends to accompany this choice, rather than attempt to extricate themselves from scenes they witnessed, which involves techniques that suggest an omnipotence no writer--save the fabulist--possesses.

Often the best thing a journalist can do in a scene is simply be there: to notice the explosion, the bread and yogurt, the man with his wife in a wheelbarrow, or the laughter after the explosion. Then to register that noticing without necessarily explaining the meaning of what occurred. To curate the important details rather than attempt to synthesize them for the reader. It sounds easy but it’s not—it’s no simple thing not to interject or look away, instead to let being there do the necessary work.

Thanks for reading. This is the fourth in an irregular series of newsletters, which you can browse by following the link at the bottom.

xo
Ben

P.S. Aspiring writers could reasonably protest that the ability to "be there" is a luxury of professionals and the leisure class. There's something to that; not everyone can or should report from Mosul. But presence can take many forms. As a second, optional reading, and a very different sort of war reporting, I recommend Eliot Weinberger's What I Heard about Iraq, also in the London Review of Books. Weinberger, presumably writing from the safety of his New York City home, shows us evidence of what all Americans were present for--what we all heard.