CHICAGO: “Out of Mesopotamia,” by Salar Abdoh, journeys through a labyrinth of life, from warzones to non-warzones. Abdoh’s profound novel follows a middle-aged man named Saleh, an Iranian journalist who has embedded himself on the frontlines of the wars in Syria and Iraq against Daesh. Taking every opportunity to escape from life in Tehran where he writes for the art section of a newspaper and avoids his state handler and most of the people in his life, Saleh finds himself teetering between life and death as he witnesses the atrocities of combat and befriends men who live to die.
Readers first meet Saleh in Syria where evil lurks around every corner of the war. Traveling with squadrons of soldiers, some of whom he can call friends, Saleh attempts to understand the war, or the chaos of it, where death is but a moment and ever-rolling replacements for soldiers are always near. He is surrounded by men who are protecting their holy sites, preserving the land of their forefathers, and by those who only wish to become martyrs. To them, the fight is their duty and because of their lack of options, they leave behind their families in the hope that they will bring prestige to their name when they are gone. The fighters are “vultures perched on Mesopotamia’s tired bones.”
Abdoh weaves Saleh’s story and the war seamlessly, the juxtaposition of writing about war and actually fighting in it forces predicaments on Saleh’s life. How can he go back to living life when he has witnessed men who live to die? He is living and writing history simultaneously as it happens and losing himself while doing so. He distances himself from life when death is always so close. And he struggles with his own career in the media, where these men who live to fight and die are the ones that bring him and his colleagues the most prestige.
With first-hand experience with militias in Iraq and Syria, Abdoh travels between war and peace in his novel, picking up on the in-between moments, the ones that are not glorified and where suffering is silent. He insightfully encompasses war’s surroundings, the stories that deal with the consequences of war and patriarchal society, where fighters and survivors, much like the art Saleh writes about, lose and gain value with life and death. Where courage is not sought after but mimicked. Through his restless main character, Abdoh explores life and its moments, the value of those moments, and their ever-quiet passing.