Operators of Art and War: Salar Abdoh Interviewed by Michael Archer

On writing about the Middle East from the inside.

Out Of Mesopotamia3

A few years after Guernica was founded, Salar Abdoh stopped me in the hallway at City College, where we both taught. He wanted to pitch me stories about what was going on in Iran. At the time, in 2007, the Western media was fixated on the country’s very public, outspoken, and controversial President Ahmadinejad, and his nuclear program, which President Bush insisted would lead to WWIII. But Salar, already an accomplished novelist, presciently deemed neither of immediate consequence. Instead, he was focused on humanizing the people of his native country. What resulted was a three-part series focused on the roles of art, fuel shortages, and codes of modesty in shaping and understanding the struggles and, yes, beauty in the everyday lives of Iranians.   

Eight years later, when ISIS pushed into Baghdad, Abdoh began, during breaks and hiatuses from the university, embedding with Iranian and Iraqi soldiers in their fight to drive the Islamist group out of the region. He called on these experiences, along with the same singular perspective on what matters in understanding the people and conflicts of the region, to write Out Of Mesopotamia (Akashic Press), published this September. It’s an unprecedented novel, one that captures the brutality, absurdity and, yes, beauty of war from the grounded perspective of an Iranian man straddling multiple worlds. 

Abdoh and I chatted over Skype, just days after Joe Biden had been declared president-elect. He was in Tehran; I was in the Bronx.

—Michael Archer   


Michael Archer I remember you were embedded in Iraq again when the 2016 election was called for Trump. You had said most Iraqis and Iranians didn’t think it made any difference, that all Americans were the same. Now, you’re in Tehran, and Biden won. How are people reacting? 

Salar Abdoh If anyone thinks President Obama and his successor are the same, they should have their head examined. 

When Trump and his clique won 2016, I knew immediately that the Nuclear Deal with Iran was going to be over. To be on the cusp of defeating ISIS—we still had a way to go but we were getting there—and then to see the sudden tectonic shift in Washington was a real punch in the gut. The next four years proved my fear was real.

This time around, I was in Iran. Many, many Iranians were on pins and needles about the outcome. Because of Trump’s draconian sanctions they had seen their purchasing power reduced to a shell of what it was just a couple of years ago. They’d had their most decorated military officer assassinated by the Americans in Baghdad. They’d been and are cut off from any civilized international transaction, financial or otherwise. So the American elections mattered to them. Probably more so than to anyone else on Earth except Americans themselves.

But there was and is another crowd of Iranians. These are the people who simply want the Iranian regime reduced to ashes no matter what the cost. If Iran is dismembered, if there is civil war, if there is an invasion and millions end up being refugees, it makes no difference to them. As long as the Islamic regime goes away. Their hostility against the Islamic regime is an obsession, and their obsession is blinding. Besides the well-funded Iranian opposition media complex, there are a lot of so-called intellectuals in this lot. They don’t know what war is, except what they see on TV, and they cannot fathom what economic sanctions do to a nation’s common people. Even if they do understand, they couldn’t care less. You cannot really engage in any sort of constructive conversation with such crowds.

MA You mention the “so-called intellectuals.” Obviously, Out of Mesopotamia paints a vivid picture of war in that region, but it’s juxtaposed with the art and literature scene. Saleh, our protagonist, has a foot planted firmly in both places. Why did you decide to write a “war novel” that’s also about the world of high art?

SA The question is something I wrestled with as I fell into the meat of the novel. By default, I’ve always been in both worlds. It didn’t begin with the war with ISIS.

I wasn’t a combat soldier, but we’d been in the same convoys and huddled in the same trenches season after season. In the same way, I wasn’t exclusively an art writer or scriptwriter or literature professor or journalist. But I have done each of these things over the years. This war was, for me, a story of connects and disconnects. I was, for instance, in the Diyala or Nineveh provinces zeroed in on an enemy position one day, and the next, I was in Tehran at an art gallery opening or in New York teaching a fiction workshop. 

There’s a lot of beauty to all of these worlds–even, I admit, to the world of war. But there’s a tremendous amount of bullshit. War has its operators and so does art. At some point, I realized I was going to depict all of this and show intersects of these worlds, which are huge in a troubled geography like the Middle East. I was also going to show, if I could pull it off, that what sometimes seems like the right thing on the surface isn’t always the right thing, and vice versa.

For instance, you might see unbelievable brutality in war from a person and think this person is pure evil. But you cannot know the trajectory that has brought them to this point. Conversely, like in the novel, you might get someone writing smooth anti-war poetry, yet because you are on the inside you know that this person is full of it. Their poems, the entirety of their being in fact, is fraudulent. Fraudulence in high art is a lingua franca. It is everywhere and understood and used by everyone. Even (and especially) by those who go out of their way to pretend otherwise. I was interested in depicting this in relation to war, because I knew something about it. 

MA You also know something about interrogations, which also plays a role in the novel. Would you be willing to share some of the lighthearted, hilarious even, stories about times you’ve arrived in Tehran and the authorities wanted to speak about your work? What those sit-downs are like?

SA In North America, if you tell someone you’ve gone through some kind of interrogation, usually they’ll imagine unbearable stress or torture, or some kind of profound psychological torment. I don’t want to make light of any of these things, because they do exist, but that’s only half the story.

In Out of Mesopotamia, Saleh ends up having this running exchange with his interrogator about Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time or Remembrance of Things Past. I did not create this exchange out of a vacuum.

One day I was sitting with my interrogator, a guy I may have easily shared a drink or coffee with in another time and life, and we were talking about characters in one of my stories and why he thought I should have made this move instead of that move in the story.

Now, some other writer might take umbrage at this, but I thought, “This is pretty amazing. I’m sitting here having a literary discussion about my own work with my interrogator. How cool is that!” And his sidekick goes to me, “Mr. Abdoh, we’ve chewed through every sentence you’ve ever written.” And I’m thinking, “That’s even cooler!” Who pays attention to anything a writer does or writes in America? Yet I got these gentlemen right here chewing through every sentence I’ve written. I thought, “I don’t mind if we do this again some time!”

Now a different sort of personality might come out of an interrogation and want to tell the whole world about how they’ve been maltreated. I can understand that. But I saw the whole thing through a very different lens. If a couple of guys at the Ministry of Security want to go through my writing with a fine-tooth comb, I don’t have a huge problem with it. I do think the trouble starts when you are pushed into the wilderness of censorship or, worse, self-censorship. That’s a different thing. It’s not scary. It’s just really, really demoralizing. What’s the point of writing if you’re going to censor yourself only so that you can get published?

Portrait of Salar Abdoh ​by Mehri Rahimzadeh.​​

Photo of Salar Abdoh by Mehri Rahimzadeh

MA Saleh’s running exchange with his handler felt sort of le Carre-esque to me. I also knew, of course, you hadn’t created that out of a vacuum. I’m not certain if you’d refer to Out of Mesopotamia as a roman à clef, but I’ve known you and your work long enough to know there’s a lot of Salar in Saleh. And you’re writing closely from experience, as you did in Tehran at Twilight, your previous novel. Talk a bit about the reconciling of your real and fictional selves in these works. 

SA A novel has the topography of a rihla, another elegant word from Arabic which to me signifies more than just a journey but more like a spiritual odyssey. When you mine the self for works of fiction at the level of a novel, all sorts of things happen. And if you happen to be in the middle of an actual and not a fictional war, then you might begin to bend your character toward the fiction you are imagining. Because war can be theater. Dangerous by turns. But also false. False bravado, for one thing. A meta-quality that is not always healthy or true. You have to be careful not to lose track of yourself as a writer and turn into an actor instead. Writing about the Middle East from the inside, not the outside, has all these potential pitfalls vis-à-vis the self. 

MA The novel seems to reject templates. One thing I haven’t heard or read anybody ask you in regard to the novel is about the women characters. How did you go about crafting the female characters to reorient the Western gaze on Middle Eastern women, particularly through their involvement in political life? 

SA A few years ago, at one of Tehran’s international film festivals, I was at an after-party at the home of Iran’s grand dame of documentary film. At some point she came up to me, visibly annoyed. One of the European guests, a woman, had just said to her, “This hijab you have to wear must feel like a prison.” The obvious answer to this complacent and condescending remark was to tell that person to go fuck themself. And, in so many words, my friend had done just that. What I mean to say is that, honestly, the so-called Western gaze is no gaze at all. It’s blindness.

Now, in the novel, Saleh also isn’t always blunt in what he’s getting at. Like when he calls the Kurdish female fighters “the darlings of the war.” What Saleh, in his roundabout way, is taking issue with is the objectification of these formidable women as other-than-male warriors in the Western imagination. In a lot of the photographs taken of these women, you see the “gaze.” In their military fatigues and their weapons strapped to their shoulders and the videos of them dancing together dressed in all the accoutrements of war, they are often exoticized and glorified as if they were decorations, pretty little flowers in the morass of war.

This, I think, is what Saleh objects to. Men, women, fighting, defending, killing and dying—should it matter who is who? 

MA Saleh’s issue with this way of seeing Middle Eastern women is, obviously, a political statement, couched in a fictional character and world. It’s got me wondering about your thoughts on the term “political art” and reminding me of a conversation we published in Guernica between artist Jonathan Santlofer and critic Peter Schjeldahl. Santlofer noted that being an artist has a political aspect, but overt political art struck him as problematic. Schjeldahl replied that his problem with political art “is not that it’s bad art necessarily, but that it is terrible politics.” Essentially, I think Schjeldahl was saying nobody goes to the museum to discover what artists think about the issues of the day.

SA There’s a good deal of truth in the Shjeldahl-Santlofer views. I too mull these things. And yes, when political art goes on the catwalk, I tend to recoil as well. I suppose geography, and what exactly is happening at the time in that geography, can play something of a role in whether one’s art is politically informed or half-informed or utterly misinformed. 

As for Out of Mesopotamia, it is a war novel in that the reality of war and combat is depicted in it. But it is also about a few other things, like everyday life in the vicinity of war. By default, such a novel can also be seen as political, because politics is the context and paradigm in which the war, and the fragile peace, issue from. There is no way around that.

And just to backtrack to Marcel Proust for a second, politics is scattered throughout that book. It doesn’t make it a lesser masterwork. Nor does it make it a purely political one. 

MA I had a feeling we’d get back to Proust, so central to Out of Mesopotamia. Very early on, Saleh finds a volume of Remembrance of Things Past in a burned-out building, and Proust becomes this overriding reference in the novel. But there are also mentions throughout to literary figures who wrote about war—Hemingway, Graham Greene, Tim O’Brien. Had you meant to center Proust and incorporate these other authors when you began the book, or did they sort of find their way into the narrative as you went along?

SA These writers came out naturally because they and others are novelists who wrote on war and whom I have read, and often reread, for a long time now. The Western canon of war literature was right there in the back of my mind all the time. I respected it, and at the same time wanted and needed to perhaps transcend and most certainly deconstruct it. I was coming to war from an entirely different perspective—you might call it the perspective of not the invader but the invaded, though that does not quite hold true or give it justice in this case either. 

At the same time it was, for me, a sort of call and response, which is why, for example, Saleh consciously recalls that famous quote from a Hemingway story: “In the fall the war was always there, but we did not go to it anymore.” He then tweaks and reverses it so that it becomes: “In the fall peace was always near, but we did not go to it.” Why? Why does one beg to stay in war? Why the very real desire some folk have for martyrdom? These are all themes that need a language. I tried to find that language with a little help from old friends before I eventually had to carry on, on my own. 

MA Well, at least with martyrdom you put your reader on alert early on that Saleh is going to engage with why some seek it. He also says no matter how much he tries, he won’t be able to fully convey what drives folk, to use your word, to it. So, well, have you figured it out? Or did Saleh? 

SA Dying for a cause can bring on improbable motivation. And when you are in the company of other men, and women, who speak the same language, the language of death—the language of attraction to death—you can get carried pretty far by the wings of that obsession. Then when you get to that actual place, meaning when you are killed in action, there are several options for the living. One of those options is that your comrades will apotheosize you, because, well, that’s the language you have been talking all along. 

Even the ones who don’t believe in the bluster will do it, even the cowards, even the secret non-believers (of which there are always some), because they really haven’t any other choice. You can’t suddenly just up and talk another language if the language of the glory of death is what you’ve been waxing. This apotheosizing is a self-fulfilling orbit. The more it happens the more attractive it becomes and the more would-be martyrs are born in and out of the killing fields.

Now why and how this particular language gets its beginning, how it all starts, that’s a whole other story. Shia Islam, for instance, gets its kickstart from an instant of martyrdom by a grandson of the Prophet some 1,400 years ago. Everything that comes after that is pretty much a ritualization of that moment in history. Shiism then is ritual par excellence, perhaps more so than Catholicism even.

This is, for example, why theater is such a big part of Shia Islam. Everything in Shia Islam is reenactment and dying and dying again. This does not mean that trauma does not exist. But it is only one among a variety of options. In Out of Mesopotamia, Saleh describes a commando who has survived three weeks of coma after the enemy has shot and thrown him off a roof. Yet he does not appear to suffer a millisecond of PTSD whatsoever. Saleh says that if you were to sit this guy in a classroom and try to drill PTSD into his head, he still would not know it. There is an entire system behind such a man. And men like him exist. I’ve seen them. 

This is why I’m always wary of generalized explanations about men who have gone to war. No two people will come out of it the same. There are men who, truly, need war like they need air to breathe. They cannot function without it. They become non-entities in peace. They need martyrdom to be a constant possibility, and not just a figment of theirs or someone else’s imagination. 

MA I’m reminded of Chris Hedges’s War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning. I’m probably not going to get the exact numbers right, but he talks about humans only having been entirely at peace like eight percent of the years in recorded history. 

SA I think that’s the right number.

MA Now I’m wondering what Saleh would have thought of Hedges, back when he was a war correspondent. Saleh often finds himself working with other journalists and war photographers, and documentarians in conflict zones. But he doesn’t seem to have a very high opinion of them, or himself as part of that group. How come?

SA This is a difficult question for me. There are journalists, war photographers and documentarians doing truly first-rate work. Some of them are dying for the risks they take. They have empathy and realness, courage and deep, deep care for the people and conflicts they cover. At the same time, there is an element of opportunism if not downright shadiness in aspects of all these jobs. When you are around them long enough, you will see it. 

What Saleh takes issue with, in others and himself, is this ability to move in and out of war—and this may not even be an entirely fair assessment on his part—while the victims of war are going nowhere, or if they are going somewhere it is usually as refugees and under horrendous circumstance.

The truth is that you can be a war correspondent in the morning and in the afternoon be having a drink with your pals in Tel Aviv or Beirut or Istanbul. There’s potential for bullshit in this. You think you know what the other suffers with your photographs of their misery, which you might go on to put on display at a gallery show later in the season in New York or London, but you don’t have a bloody clue. Your knowledge of the situation stays behind the lens, and the lens can be a powerful wall between you and the calamity you cover.

To be a writer, like Saleh, and not a pure journalist or photographer or documentarian of conflict compounds all of these feelings. Writers—not always but enough of the time—question themselves, their motives, their very reason for doing the craft they do. This puts Saleh at odds with the people he has to work with. At the same time, he needs them because they are his bread and butter. He carries that guilt, and whenever he can help it he does something about it. Eventually he crosses, and he’s a combatant. He carries a gun and shoots, even if his eyes are bad and he doesn’t strike at anyone or refuses to execute an enemy combatant whom he knows has killed a lot of innocent people. He wants to commit, but he doesn’t fully. He lives a purgatory that is a special domain of many a writer. And therein he’ll remain.

Out of Mesopotamia is available for purchase here.

Michael Archer is a founding editor of Guernica Magazine, where he was Editor-in-Chief for thirteen years and a recipient of the PEN/Nora Magid Award for Magazine Editing. He is currently the chief editorial advisor for both Guernica and Adi. His commentary, reporting, and fiction have appeared in numerous publications.

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