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Bombs Over Sad Dad: IMing with Nathan Deuel


If parenting is the hardest job in the world, imagine doing it in a place of civil unrest. Nathan Deuel's book, Friday Was the Bomb, spans the five years he and his daughter Loretta spent in Turkey and Lebanon as Deuel's wife, an NPR foreign correspondent, reported from Baghdad and Syria. As much asFriday is about living in the Middle East, it's also a moving autobiographical tale of isolation and fatherhood. Here, Deuel has penned a book about fragility with the robustness of an empathetic essayist and the careful eye of a seasoned journalist.

I spoke with Deuel over Gchat about his time abroad, raising his daughter Loretta, the wonders of the internet, and the show Homeland.

Kevin Nguyen: Nathan, what's your book about? Can you describe it in IMs?

Nathan Deuel: It's about moving to the Middle East in 2008 with my wife, who was a stringer for NPR. We scored visas to Saudi Arabia, one of the least understood and most mysterious countries in the world. We struggled to make a life there and to understand it and to make friends, and then we had a baby there, too.

It was hard and crazy and it all seemed to pay off when Kelly got her dream job.

The problem is that the job was in Baghdad.

The book then follows me to Turkey, where I attempted to raise Loretta mostly by myself, while Kelly dodged mortars and saw the end of our war there.

Then we moved to Lebanon, allegedly this really amazing posting. It was great, until the Syrian uprising turned into a civil war.

After half a decade, we were tired and bleary and strained and it was time to come home, whatever that means.

I think that's the book.

Kevin: So were you writing Friday Was the Bomb while you were in the Middle East? Or mostly after you returned to the States?

Nathan: Much of the book was written as essays while we were in the Middle East. Like the GQ piece aboutHomeland, which was conceived as a way to show how great Beirut was... then a bomb went off.

Kevin: That was my fav essay!

Nathan: I'm glad you liked that one!

Kevin: Which is funny because I don't like Homeland.

Friday Was the Bomb > Homeland

Nathan: Thanks! A lot of those essays, especially the title piece, were me being really freaked out by life events and writing about them pretty much immediately as a way to try to figure them out for myself, and my family, and friends back home—and in theory for people I'll never meet. Unless they come to bookstores in May and June!

It was really hard for Kelly to take her career into turbo-drive by going to Iraq. And then I meanwhile am bivouacked in this marvelous gilded cage of an apartment in Istanbul, changing diapers.

And in many of the places I'd go in Istanbul—the neighborhood I lived—it was just inconceivable to Turks that a man would stay at home to take care of a kid. I'd be walking around with this little blonde cherub, me often hungover and pissed and confused, and little old Turkish ladies would take me by the arm and sigh, as if to say:

"We're so sorry your wife is dead"

Because that's the only possible reason you'd be alone with a child in the middle of the day. In Brooklyn it's kind of a cliché, but in Istanbul, being a stay-at-home dad was lonely and insane for me.

Kevin: As much as the book is about living abroad, I think the things that felt universal were all the meditations on loneliness.

Nathan: I thought a lot about what it meant to yearn for community and to what degree I was or wanted to be or cared about being an "American." But wrapped up in all that was a huge question about purpose and one's role as a citizen. So often it was clear that the most important thing I could do was take care of my little girl.

And Skype with my wife five times a day so she could see her.

And make nutritious food for us and try to keep everyone happy.

But there was not that much glory in that.

Or perhaps slightly more charitably to myself—as glory sounds selfish and egotistical—I often yearned for higher purpose. And so it was with writing that I felt like I was taking some of my experiences and frustrations and thoughts and ideas and doing something larger than the sum of a quiet life lived.

Bear in mind, too, that I was married to a war correspondent! Who'd swoop in on some flight, wrapped in scarves, having braved some fresh chaos. She'd be on the radio every day for weeks, win awards, get all this recognition. And it was like, hmm, I made a nice soup today.

Kevin: Haha, hey soup is hard to make. (No it isn't.)

So you and Kelly moved in 2008.

Nathan: Yep, we moved to Riyadh in Sept 2008. It was just as the economy was collapsing

Kevin: It doesn't seem like that long ago, but Twitter had only existed for two years at that point.

Nathan: We both found Twitter in Saudi and immediately fell in love with it. That country has the highest rate of Twitter usage in the world. They are crazy about it!

Kevin: And Skype let you communicate with Kelly five times a day.

Do you think your experience would've been bearable without the internet?

Nathan: Oh, man, yeah—the internet was everything. It was my marriage, my friends, my family, my news, my school. It's really very very hard for me to imagine our life if there hadn't been internet. I mean, especially when Kelly was in Iraq, on those two-month rotations, stuck in the country for long stretches at a time, then she'd come out, exhausted and traumatized by the work and the separation, and we'd all recuperate togetherfor a month, before revving it up again.

When she was in, we really did Skype like five times a day—an hour in the morning, at lunch, at dinner, a couple times in the evening. She got to watch Loretta learn how to walk, etc.—on her screen.

But it was also kind of torture too. Sure, there's something great, too, about just being gone, and then really being there when you get back. But the intimacy you give up over the tubes is somehow dissatisfying and maybe even misleading or thin or destructive? Like all those hours of "Can you hear me? What? You're breaking up? I'll call back."

I think now of all the letters we didn't write each other because we had the screen, you know? That said, I am a crazy email person. Always have been.

But living abroad that half decade I spent a lot of time just staying in touch with friends, colleagues, mentors.

I love writing emails.

Kevin: Maybe you can answer mine for me.

Nathan: Hah! I'm not at inbox zero but I never have more than about ten in there.

Kevin: That might be even more impressive than raising a daughter by yourself in the middle east!

So there are these couple lines I really like in the book that are actually in the acknowledgments

Nathan: Oooo you did your homework!

Kevin: "Many of these essays are set against a suffering far greater than any I will likely ever experience. There's something unsettling about spending so much time on my discomfort. I encourage you to judge me harshly, if you wish."

Nathan: Yeah, those lines are probably first and foremost written to people who think I'm a dick for writing about my (white, wealthy, educated) discomfort when I could have been writing about Syrian refugees or political malfeasance or better yet just volunteering?

Kevin: I loved this! It's like you're saying "bring it on, judgmental parents!" Did you and Kelly get a lot of flak from friends/family for deciding to raise your daughter in a dangerous place?

Nathan: I rarely got all that much flak. Kelly got and gets much more. It's hard-wired into much of our culture that the man is a jerk. He drinks and doesn't call and maybe sleeps around and his career is important and we're used to him being gone. This was more or less true of foreign correspondents for a few generations.

What made Beirut so interesting is that almost all the big-time correspondents were women, many of them with kids. So they all would talk about how hard it was (and also gratifying) to be mothers and women with big careers that took them into danger. Not so much the expats but local colleagues and people Kelly would meet often thought she was nuts to leave her daughter.

Here in America, though, I think she's starting to see some judgment of her choices that takes the attack and critique to a whole new level. American men have a hard time talking to powerful American women, perhaps.

Kevin: They're just scared!

Nathan: I know our families are insanely relieved we are back. Kelly and I were always nuts We met in Cambodia, worked on a fishing boat in Alaska together, hitchhiked around and thought it was a great idea to do things like walk from New York City to New Orleans, which I did over five months in 2007. So people who knew us were used to us endangering ourselves and taking the hard route, so to speak.

But I know the grandparents found it much more difficult to bite their tongues when we were toting around their little blonde granddaughter to Yemen and northern Iraq and such.

Kevin: Have your/Kelly's grandparents read the book yet? Do you think it would help them understand?

Nathan: Not yet! They've read some of the previously published pieces.

Loretta and I were with them this summer, which was a really big period in our transition, so they were witness to the big talks and hard decisions we made: to leave Beirut, to come to America, to settle in Los Angeles.

I think they enjoy reading some of my pieces or when Kelly gets personal. She did a one-hour documentary about being a war correspondent. It's very intense: first-person whispering tape while being shot at or riding around behind enemy lines.

Kelly interviews the daughter of a dead war reporter, who tells her she's lying if she says she does it to make the world a better place—"It's fun, admit it."

In that doc, at the end, Kelly reads aloud a letter she wrote to Loretta and I—a letter we would have been given if Kelly had been killed in Syria. I've never heard that letter. When I listen to the doc, I skip that part. When we have some time, we'll burn that letter on the beach here in Venice, where we live now.

But Kelly's parents have heard that letter.

Kevin: Holy hell!

Nathan: I think there's only so much a normal suburban American can ingest. At a certain point they overload.

Kevin: So maybe Kelly's grandparents are the only people I would not recommend Friday Was the Bomb to.

Nathan: They love us and want what's best for us. But not only do they not really ever try to tell us what to do, I don't think it would even occur to them to try.


This piece was published by the original here