THE OREGONIAN - 3 JUNE 2014
Nathan Deuel, a writer and editor in New York, moved to Saudi Arabia in 2008 with his wife, Kelly McEvers, who works as a correspondent for National Public Radio. The couple had a daughter a year later, and McEvers' career took off with assignments in Iraq and Syria. Deuel wrote about their lives and life in the Middle East in a series of essays that have been published in a book, "Friday Was the Bomb." Deuel answered a few questions by email:
How did you and your wife find yourselves in the Middle East? Where did you live, and what jobs did you have?
I was an editor in New York, first at the Village Voice -- where I thought I could spend the rest of my career, until a purchase by New Times -- after which I went to Rolling Stone. Despite the charms and arguable glamour of a glossy magazine, after just a year there, I quit my job, packed a bag, and walked to New Orleans. It took five months, and when I finally arrived -- having never been there -- I encountered a city that embraced art, food, and good living. My wife was charmed too but after a few months said she wanted to do something more difficult. In 2008 we moved to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, living first in a hotel, then in a dubious sublet on the 2,500-acre Diplomatic Quarter, home to all the embassies, and later in a grim apartment in a religious neighborhood north of downtown. Through a pregnancy and breast-feeding, Kelly was a stringer for NPR and various outlets, even pumping breast-milk one afternoon during military exercises on the border with Yemen. I meanwhile was writing essays for The National, a lavishly funded newspaper based in the United Arab Emirates. It was hard but wonderfully satisfying.
When you wife got the NPR job in Baghdad, what did you do and how did your relationship change?
In Saudi Arabia, life was difficult -- disorienting, hot, without alcohol -- but Kelly and I together were figuring out how to be, as Americans, storytellers, and new parents. Just before she got her dream job -- in Iraq -- my dad died abruptly of thyroid cancer. I was grieving my father, watching Kelly move to Baghdad, when I moved to Turkey with our 1-year-old daughter. While Kelly swashbuckled her way across Mesopotamia, swiftly becoming the correspondent she's perhaps destined to be, I cooked, cleaned, washed diapers, and held a tiny hand during vaccinations.
What was it like for you as a parent while your wife was in Baghdad? Did your daughter stay with you, or how did that work?
Kelly was in Iraq for 60 days at a time, and during those two months my routine was a relentless series of Skype sessions from Istanbul to Baghdad, an attempt to facilitate a digital motherhood. I wanted very much to be the best husband and father I could be -- but quickly lost sight of any kind of writer I had barely become. I struggled to find meaning or glory or even a sense of excellence in the routine of caring for a toddler. Grieving still for my dad, I found a sense of adventure replaced with the dull ache of worry and longing. In other words, with mortars landing around the mother of our child -- who traveled to Fallujah and other places I prefer not to recall -- I came to dread the possibility of yet another death in our family.
The war in Syria started while Kelly was working for NPR. How did that change her situation and yours?
While based in Iraq, Kelly began to watch with great envy as colleagues covered uprisings in Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt. "Put me in coach?" she wrote her boss, who sent her to Yemen, Bahrain, and later Beirut, to cover Syria. Young men in Homs were taking off their shirts and marching for freedom. We moved to Lebanon in 2011, and in theory this was a plum post: great wine, the Mediterranean, a stock of Ottoman-era homes, and a crew of convivial colleagues. Most importantly, perhaps, we'd be together again. The problem was that peaceful demonstrations in Syria turned into bloodbaths and soon enough an all-out civil war. 2012 was the most dangerous year on record for journalists; among the dead were Kelly's friends and colleagues, who hiked overland into rebel territory, where they embedded with guys with guns. Again and again, Kelly strapped on a battle helmet herself, loaded up a bullet-proof vest, and headed into the night. Spring of that year, the violence came over the mountain, first as a shoot-out one evening on our block, lasting until six in the morning, then as a series of rockets, car bombs, and assassinations throughout the capital. Our daughter turned 3 and I considered how to flee.
You were an editor in New York before moving to the Middle East. How did living there change you as a writer?
I first started writing seriously at The Village Voice, first as a reporter doing investigative work with Wayne Barrett, then as a kind of weird-o personal essayist, writing New York stories for the front of the book -- about a night sleeping in Central Park, a day at a Midtown Off-Track Betting parlor, an afternoon at the Staten Island Mall. Part of why I left Rolling Stone was perhaps that I was neither creating nor editing writing of this kind. In Saudi, I began to write about life in a misunderstood corner of the world, but in Turkey the writing began to turn inward, and by the time things were really unraveling in Beirut, I was grappling with some of the worst things we can all do to each other. In September, Kelly and I moved to Los Angeles, and we're both figuring out how to write about subjects more pacific. One thing I'm excited about is -- compared to the way, as an expat, you can kind of float above it all -- as an American writing about America, I now have a real dog in the fight, because this is my country. For instance, where we send our daughter to kindergarten is a kind of political act, and one we take seriously, and it's a tiny part of what feels like an intense and meaningful next chapter in our lives.
What are the most common assumptions people in the U.S. have about the Middle East? What would you like them to take away from your book?
I of course admire all the hard work undertaken by real journalists and reporters, who take enormous risks to deliver what we might call the first draft of history. But due to a variety of reasons, only the worst things get covered: massacres, barrel bombs, gas attacks, assassinations, corruption, and the miseries at a refugee camp. For what it was worth, I tried, in my essays and in this book, to show a different side. At the playground the day after a bomb, a sledding trip during a bloody winter, the warmth of a date plucked fresh from a palm in Baghdad. In many ways, I am as un-American as I've ever been, so it's hard for me to know what people think about where I've been or what I've written. Here's what I miss: A family of Christians fleeing Iraq, too proud to accept a blanket for their shivering son from my mother; the seaside promenade in Beirut, where conservative women in hijab jog beside women in bikinis drinking wine; the tattoo on the wrist of an artist in Istanbul, who invites me to an opening as we pick up our kids from daycare. Our empire may live on, and our sense of exceptionalism may remain bolstered by factors economic, technological, and military. But on the deserts, beaches, and mountains at the world's greatest crossroads, there is a people who live as well as anyone could ever hope to, ignoring how cruel a hand history may have dealt them this round.
This piece was published by Trop. Read the original here.