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The Cleric and I

A blood-red canopy hung over the late-afternoon Manhattan skyline. I sat staring out the window of the university office—trying, and failing, to ready myself to teach a graduate seminar in creative writing. The call from my partner at the time, M, a war documentarian, had come from Baghdad just a few minutes earlier. “Salar, I was sure I was smoking the last cigarette of my life.” No doubt it was a Bahman-brand cigarette M had been smoking, one from the three to four packs a day he’d consume and carry everywhere, and which would inevitably throw me into fits of allergy and despair. This particular cigarette, or two, he had smoked behind a tree, a date palm, while an ISIS sniper toyed with him for a quarter of an hour. A quarter of an hour is a lifetime when you’re being hunted by a sniper. The place: Jurf al-Sakhar, about fifty kilometers south of Baghdad, where Shia fighters had just managed to take back in two days of intense fighting what the Americans, with all their technology and superior firepower, could not or did not want to in more than a decade.

How can one share any of this with a dozen graduate students in New York City? One can’t. Which is why, when forced to negotiate a multiplicity of worlds, some people wind up going crazy. I felt a bit of the same on that late afternoon as I walked into the classroom, gazing vacantly for the next few minutes at expectant faces that had paid full tuition to hear their sometimes tiresome, sometimes promising short stories and novels-in-progress discussed during a weekly seminar.

Over the next year I would live dozens of variations of this disconcertion. There would be times when I would take a flight out of Baghdad or Erbil, catch a taxi at New York’s JFK Airport, and tell the driver to take me straight to the university, where I was slotted to teach a class within the hour. It was and is a parallel existence. When you enter a classroom and your students are complaining that the printer in the department has been broken for two days or that it’s too hot in the city’s subways, there’s really nothing to say in return; you can’t reproach anyone for not understanding that you’ve just come from a place where everything is broken, where one of your favorite cheap food joints has already been blown up twice, where you know plenty of men who have to wear twenty pounds of flak-jacket armor every day in over one-hundred-degree weather. So you turn mute. People ask, “How was your trip, Professor?” You smile and say, “It was fine. Thank you.”

Why did I begin to send myself there, to that broken place? I suppose because I am interested in knowing about the circumstances of people at the limits of their endurance, and also because I took this particular war against ISIS and the forces supporting it personally. I’d published a few books and was grateful, as a writer, for a very hard-to-come-by fulltime teaching gig. But satisfaction eluded me. The pen is meant to be mightier than the sword, but I’m less convinced of that well-intentioned thought every year. I wanted to understand what courage might mean with an actual blade in the balance. I wanted to go to the source and learn what drives men and women to take bullets for one another. For these reasons, at some point in the winter of 2015-16, I found myself in Iraq again, with M, both of us cameras in hand and trailing a cleric from the Diyala province named Seyed Jabar.

A video exists of Seyed with the People’s Mobilization Forces (better known as the Hashd al-Shaabi) during a battle to take a bridge from ISIS. You can watch and hear him, dressed in a clerical outfit that covers his prosthetic leg (the leg was shattered beneath the knee by a landmine during the Iran-Iraq war, when Seyed fought against Saddam), prodding the men forward. As the fight progresses, Seyed, who is fairly tall, drags and pushes the fighters; he exhorts and pleads. There’s an elemental passion in him, an almost childlike dedication, in the heat of battle. He wants to see it through to the end. As I spent increasingly more time with him, I understood that this was his approach to just about everything: delivering morning sermons, mediating tribal disputes, playing ball on quiet afternoons with his children. He was tireless and steadfast. He would not admit fatigue. If a “martyr’s” family needed to be visited and he had just spent a long day taking supplies to the frontlines, he would not excuse himself or leave what should be done today for tomorrow. These things were important to me because nothing in the bloodless life of writing in the twenty-first century could compare, in my mind, to the ways in which Seyed negotiated the extremes of existence. He gave hope to countless people fighting who were just then fighting for their lives.

One day, on a visit to the frontline at Baiji—the town itself had been reduced to a pile of rubble and bullet-riddled concrete that gave a clear idea of what the end of the world might look like—I watched as Seyed stirred the enormous pots of rice and stew we had transported with us. At the same time he was calling out to the fighters, “Shabab, shabab,” young men, young men, “come eat!” He had just arrived from comforting a young man who’d recently lost three of his brothers to ISIS (Seyed himself had lost four, two to Saddam and two more to the wars that followed). In that moment, as M filmed and I stood to the side and listened to a battle of mortars raging less than a mile away, the question came: Would I take a bullet for this man?

I would like to be able to say that I immediately thought, “Yes, I would.” But I let the question hang, rest. I knew that I’d revisit it soon. I hadn’t come here just to make another documentary alongside M. I’d come to learn something about myself and how I might relate to a man who had just lost three brothers to battle. As much as I respected M for his profession, I knew enough about documentary work to understand there was an element of opportunism in it. The fact that the sniper had hunted M did not make my partner particularly courageous. He had been there for a scoop. Turning a camera on Seyed and the others was not enough for me. To stop there would amount to my failing as a writer, my failing the writerly impulse toward constant self-questioning.

The question I’d asked myself, and the warring all around us, were part of me. ISIS was an existential threat to my country, Iran, which lay a mere hundred and fifty miles due east. But in a larger sense, because I came from the Middle East, much of my life had, by default, been entangled with religion and religious struggles. While I held an inborn deference for it, because of my upbringing and geography, I had also seen how faith can turn into intolerance in a moment, and intolerance into slaughter. ISIS became the primary target for my rage against bigotry. It hated everything that did not conform to its blind read on Islam; in the name of religion it massacred entire populations and enslaved women and children. Which was why, long after our documentary was over, I kept coming back, well into 2017. And why I turned away from the video camera and tumbled instead into thoughts about bullets and courage and my own readiness to protect my ideals. Every time we walked past a lost body part in the middle of nowhere or Seyed—a steadfast Shia cleric—brought food and medicine to displaced Sunnis who were theoretically the “enemy,” I was reminded of how close I felt to this particular struggle, of the self-searching that had propelled me to come over in the first place and continued within me. In this one man I found again my original hunger to enter a life of writing.

A few days after Baiji we were at the frontlines again, near the Makhoul mountains. We found ourselves in one of those unconvincing trenches, where you feel desperately exposed. There was wide open space and not a whole lot of firepower to back us up. Once more, mortar rounds fell nearby, and now and then the unmistakable ding of a bullet whizzed past. Things were not urgent yet, but the feeling of exposure was real, and I wondered how these Shia volunteers, who had put their lives on the line to do the world’s fighting, managed to stay put day in and day out. Did they not know fear? Of course they did, just as they knew plenty about the sheer boredom of trench life. But they also had no choice but to be here; their homes were only a short drive away from where we were standing.

There was a sniper rifle in one of the dugouts. One of the guys took it out, crawled up the rise, and pointed it in the distance, toward the enemy. I clicked my camera. Other men took turns bringing the sniper rifle up that rise while I continued clicking. As we had the previous week, we’d brought food and supplies to these men from down south and they were hugely grateful for it. At some point, a kid—he might have been all of seventeen—came up to me and without a word slipped something in the knee pocket of my tactical pants. He smiled and I smiled back, and because we spoke different languages and circumstances were chaotic the gesture didn’t even register until a little later. He’d given me a pair of cheap gloves in their wrapper. These were the only thing in the world that this teenager had that was new and, he probably felt, worth giving as a gift of thanks. Around those parts nights got bone-chillingly cold in winter. To give your new gloves to another person is, to me, just about the deepest show of brotherly love. I still don’t know who that kid was, or if he’s still alive; I heard that there was a major attack on that position two weeks later. I remember thinking: Here’s a guy you would want to have your back at night, when you can’t even see your own freezing hands two inches in front of you. Here’s a guy you know you can trust.

People are often shocked when fighters speak fondly of war. But it is not the war itself, I’m convinced, that they look back on with nostalgia. It is a longing for that sense of selflessness and commitment that you’ll seldom, if ever, experience in civilian life. That sense that what you do and do not do in the instant of war is not gauged through the prism of gain and profit. Those things may indeed come later, but they are never right there, when your life and the lives of your brothers are hanging on the razor’s edge. It is this simplicity, this clarity, that one yearns to return to afterward. The kind of clarity that comes when you glance twenty paces ahead and see Seyed talking to the fighters, including the kid who gifted you the fresh pair of gloves. Despite your inadequate Arabic, you know that Seyed is asking after the men’s health and well-being. You cannot see it from this distance, but assume that his strong jaw, hidden partially by an ample grayish beard, is set firmly as he listens, and that he has that slightly mischievous, determined gaze he gets when he’s performing a duty, any duty. This is a man who shoulders the burden of the world. It is his choice. His reason for being.

Now you turn and see your partner and his ubiquitous camera, the same partner you almost lost in another battle, not so long ago. You think about your family in Tehran, barely six hundred miles away. You think about your young son back in New York City and your writer’s life and your students, and also this double reality that will never disappear and might even turn you out of your mind one day, if it hasn’t already.

You have your answer.

It took a while coming, but you are as close to sure as you’ll ever be. You are still careful, because you don’t want to create an idol out of this man in your head. You remind yourself that he is someone who is doing the work that he has set out for himself and doing it well. Very well. And despite or because of that, the answer is yes: yes, you would take a bullet for this man in the black turban, tending to other men fighting the world’s fight, right here and now, in this moment.

First published in the April 9, 2018 issue of Guernica.

© Salar Abdoh. By arrangement with the author. All rights reserved.