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Dark at the Crossing: A novel Hardcover – Deckle Edge, January 24, 2017
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“One could argue that the most vital literary terrain in America’s overseas wars is now occupied not by journalists but by novelists...Elliot Ackerman is certainly one of those novelists...He has created people who are not the equivalents of the locally exotic subjects in your average NPR story, and he has used them to populate a fascinating and topical novel.”
—Lawrence Osborne, New York Times Book Review
“Ackerman, who lives in Istanbul and has written some fine reportage from the Turkish borderlands, knows Gaziantep well and sharply depicts its incongruities . . . He shows boldness and empathy in trying to envision modern conflagrations from foreign vantage points.”
—Sam Sacks, Wall Street Journal
“Ackerman’s eye for detail grounds this novel in a space that quickly transports readers into a world few Americans know . . . Dark at the Crossing is not only a fictional meditation on remorse, betrayal, love and loss, but also a journey that returns us to the beautiful and broken world we live in.”
“Dark at the Crossing promises to be one of the most essential books of 2017.”
“Visceral, unsentimental and in a style that begs to be underlined and savored, this is a novel about how people carry the emotional and physical scars of war through their lives, and how war both demolishes and becomes home . . . The many references to actual street and district names, smells and unique predicaments, such as underfunded, understaffed hospitals that are teeming with refugees, heighten the book’s authenticity and earnestness.”
“Dark at the Crossing is every bit as taut and harrowing as the place it depicts, a region where fifteen years of relentless war play out in filthy refugee camps and upscale shopping malls. Elliot Ackerman has written a brilliant, admirably merciless novel of broken lives, broken places, and good intentions gone awry.”
—Ben Fountain, author of Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk
“Infused with profound knowledge, empathy, and chutzpah, Ackerman’s writing is hauntingly evocative and beautiful. It is a rare writer who is not afraid to deal with the toughest conflicts, ask the hardest questions, show the darkest side of even heroes, and still manage to renew our faith in humanity.”
—Elif Shafak, author of The Bastard of Istanbul
“Here is a thriller, psychological fiction, political intrigue, and even a love story all wrapped into a stunningly realistic and sometimes horrifying package. Put Ackerman on the A-list.”
—Library Journal (starred)
“Elliot Ackerman’s quietly subversive sensibilities make him one of the most potent and original writers to emerge from that elite platoon of men and women who, since 9/11, have laid down their guns to pick up a pen. Once again, here in his second novel, Dark at the Crossing, Ackerman insists American readers immerse themselves in the humanity of their country’s enemies and victims. His work is a unique and bittersweet blessing of raw grace and naked, bleeding empathy.”
—Bob Shacochis, author of The Woman Who Lost Her Soul
“Once again, Elliot Ackerman dares to imagine his way into the minds, lives, and fates of people too many American writers would judge as inaccessible—perhaps even forbidden. The result is a book whose emotional acuity is matched only by its literary artistry. They don’t award medals of valor to novelists, but while reading this book I often thought, Maybe they should.”
—Tom Bissell, author of Apostle: Travels Among the Tombs of the Twelve
“Ackerman has done a masterful job of creating a novel of ideas that invites thoughtful consideration of the folly and futility of war and the failure of idealism . . . The text is beautifully written, and the rendering of the setting is superb. Dark at the Crossing makes a significant contribution to the literature of war.”
“Ackerman is a magnificent storyteller. Dark at the Crossing is a quietly but intensely profound novel. It captures this epic moment in Middle East history in human terms. It’s a riveting read. I couldn’t put it down.”
—Robin Wright, author of Rock the Casbah: Rage and Rebellion across the Islamic World
“Welcome to a dark world illuminated by visions that the writer Elliot Ackerman has brought back from his wars, his journalistic investigations, and from his artist’s imagination. We see a professional soldier’s overused muscles, the smile of an Ivy League war-profiteer in his bathrobe, a Turkish woman’s seductive glamour—all with lifelike clarity. This novel makes us see and hear as if we are there, too close for comfort, as Ackerman’s hero and heroine are drawn, against any self-preserving logic, back across the border into the maelstrom of Syria. Can anyone make this dark crossing and remain true? Ackerman’s heroes try. Like Robert Stone’s A Flag for Sunrise, to which Ackerman’s novel bears comparison, both for its sophisticated understanding of current affairs and its grim realism, Dark at the Crossing is a disturbing report on the ancient paradox of war in which life and death, good and evil are intimately intertwined. After the bodies fall, the green grass grows over them. We look at the graves and ask, ‘What does it mean?’ In this stunning, grief-inspiring book, it seems to me that Ackerman confesses we do not know. I don’t think anyone can ask more of a piece of literature than this delivers.”
—Atticus Lish, author of Preparation for the Next Life
“A timely and unsettling novel . . . A stark and multifaceted portrait of the civil war in Syria.”
“Elliot Ackerman’s slow-build, atmospheric, and profoundly compassionate novel offers an unexpected and unique perspective on the most volatile conflict zone of the present day. Richly detailed and told with the force of first-hand experience, Dark at the Crossing is a courageous and vital work.”
—Greg Baxter, author of The Apartment
“Timely . . . Former Marine and current Middle East scholar Ackerman explores territory familiar to him but uncharted to most of us. Ackerman humanizes a war fraught with tragedy and seemingly without resolution.”
“Ackerman makes clear the tangled, shifting lines in the war . . . This is a tightly packed, nuanced narrative in which virtually every character introduced plays a pivotal role. The story is told with economy and a sense of urgency even when the characters seem to be stuck in a holding pattern.”
—Washington Independent Review of Books
“Affirms [Ackerman’s] high regard among contemporary storytellers. His story blends tension and substance and is anything but ordinary.”
“Dark at the Crossing features a novelist fully growing into his literary powers . . . Ackerman’s gift for prose and dialogue are on full display. He crafts a brutal love story and also beautifully depicts a violent part of the world largely misunderstood by those on the outside of the battle lines. A must read for anyone attempting to further their understanding of the Middle East, as well as our shared humanity.”
“Dark At The Crossing is written with exquisite care – for both its exactness of language and its materials . . . Ackerman’s American readers are afforded a chance to enter the emotional range of those they have abandoned in Syria – and in the end, Ackerman doesn’t hold back when the horror mounts.”
—On the Seawall
“Ackerman extends an impressive amount of empathy toward each of the characters . . . Instead of trying to make a grand statement about what war means, Dark at the Crossing illustrates how war can mean different things to different people.”
About the Author
ELLIOT ACKERMAN, author of the critically acclaimed novel Green on Blue, is based out of Istanbul, where he has covered the Syrian Civil War since 2013. His writings have appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The New Republic, and The New York Times Magazine, among other publications, and his stories have been included in The Best American Short Stories. He is both a former White House Fellow and Marine, and served five tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan where he received the Silver Star, the Bronze Star for Valor, and the Purple Heart.
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Top Customer Reviews
I want to do both of those things—this novel is a remarkable accomplishment, with prose painting vivid pictures of Southeast Turkey and Northwest Syria—its people, the suffering and the landscapes—and a strong plot that keeps the pages turning fast (I read the novel in one day). In multiple places, the novel gets to the heart of why people fight, why wars go on: “I thought they were driven by a cause. But the fighting doesn't go on because of ideas. It goes on because of loss. If I was robbed of my daughter, I would be lost from this world. I'd take up arms and fight like a dead man alive, killing until I was killed.” - Says a Syrian farmer who chooses not to fight because it's more important to live for his family, a novel idea to the protagonist (p. 222). And Ackerman writes of people finding themselves in situations where they have only one option: the protagonist Haris “thought of the sleeping bundles around the elms, the boy Daoud, Saied. With such little control over their circumstances, their lives also contain but one option—they couldn't simplify themselves further. Haris wondered if he had reached that point of reduction.” (p. 122)
There's no doubt that Ackerman has a lot of experience in war and observing the Syrian conflict from Turkey which he draws from for this novel, and readers without familiarity with these topics might read this well-crafted novel and think that it has cleanly cut to the heart of these hermetic issues. But with more familiarity of these places, people and situations this novel covers, it becomes clear that it has some issues, both cultural and historical, some minor annoyances and others more problematic.
The cultural issues broke the spell for me, similar to how a veteran might get upset seeing a hand grenade produce a huge fireball in a movie or characters firing an assault rifle for minutes straight without reloading. These are not big deals and can be excused the same way we give Hollywood artistic license. It pained me to read “Delvet” Hospital in so many lines, as it's a key location in the novel. In Turkish, delvet is not a word, but devlet means “state” so that Devlet Hospital would mean State Hospital, or Public Hospital. An ISIS (referred to as Daesh throughout the novel) fighter, Athid, is depicted in a way that makes him at least understandable if not relatable. He is pious, so he doesn't take sugar in his tea, since the Prophet didn't, but he keeps a pet dog which the Prophet declared haram, saying angels of God won't enter a house where a person keeps a dog, and that each day you keep a pet dog, your number of good deeds is reduced. Daphne is the daughter of a Syrian Muslim man and a French Christian woman, which leads Saied to say, “If you were purely Muslim, it'd be better.” But in Islam anyone born to a Muslim father is purely Muslim—there's no half-bloods, which is why it's allowed for men to marry Christians and Jews (the Prophet did and had children by them) but women are only allowed to marry Muslim men so the children will always be Muslim. And our ISIS fighter Athid looks at this French-Syrian woman and says, “she looks Christian, like the Virgin Mary.” (p. 204) This again breaks the spell for me because it's not clear why an Islamist would consider the Virgin Mary a Christian—Mary and her son Jesus are both revered as Muslims in Islam. Again, these issues are minor and for someone less familiar with these things, they wouldn't even be a blip on their radar.
The historical issues were more problematic for me, and being clothed in such a gripping novel, and purveyed in such powerful and literary prose, they're even more likely to be taken without question by those less familiar with the Syrian conflict. These are not historical issues that merely break the spell for me, but ones that seem almost deliberate and immoral. For those familiar with the usual lines of propaganda intentionally reducing the complexity of the Syrian conflict, this novel reads as crypto regime apologia. The protagonist can only list regime “corruption” as his reason for wanting to fight: “He spoke about the corruption of Assad's regime, the unity of all Arab peoples, about an Arab duty to participate in revolution.” (p. 45) But in only one instance is the Assad regime's institutionalized brutality, which made revolution not an ideal but a necessity, ever alluded to, and this in the periphery of showcasing the savagery of one particular rebel named Abu Sakkar. Abu Sakkar was a real Syrian rebel who cut out the heart of a dead regime soldier and took a bite of it on camera as a scare tactic. While this video is displayed for us in a BBC segment running in a main character's apartment, Abu Sakkar explains that he did it because he found video on his victim's phone of the man raping a mother and her two daughters and then slaughtering them with knives, and that the regime had killed most of Abu Sakkar's family in a similar fashion.
It's only in this portrayal of the rebels as savages do we get any real idea of what caused the revolution—otherwise, it's only explained as naive idealism. All of those who participated in the revolution are depicted as naive idealists who are repeatedly blamed for the war engulfing Syria during the novel and still to this day: “Educated, idealistic men began our revolution, but every time I looked into this boy soldier's face and he spoke clipped Arabic, with cigarette yellowing his teeth, I knew the uneducated would have the final say in my country's future.” - Daphne's husband Amir (p. 138). And Daphne says, “The Islamists hijacked the revolution from the Free [Syrian] Army. If it weren't for the Free Army, Kifa might still be with us. They're all the same, and none of them are good.” (p. 175) And Amir says to an ISIS fighter, "If we never created the revolution, the Daesh, the Free Army, none of you would exist [...] You are my fault. Everything I've lost is my fault." (p. 198) This reads like crypto regime apologia to me because the talking point that all rebels and ISIS fighters are the same, and that everything is the protesters's fault is a regime propaganda staple that it uses to justify targeting democratic opposition while using ISIS as an anvil to its hammer.
It was not “Educated, idealistic men” who began the revolution to protest regime “corruption.” Protests began in Daraa in March 2011 after fifteen school boys were arrested for writing the popular Arab Spring chant, “The people want the fall of the regime,” on buildings in their neighborhood, and all of them then tortured in custody for a month. When their fathers went to the police intelligence headquarters to ask for their children back, they were told by the police that they no longer had children, and if they needed help making more, send them their wives and the police would make them pregnant. The local community protested for the release of these children, and in solidarity for the kids being tortured in Daraa and the countless political prisoners disappeared from their families, protests grew around the country. This is the opposite of naive idealism of educated men—it is the fighting after your children being taken from you that the old farmer I quoted above mentions (except these people were simply protesting with signs and flowers for the troops). Unable to tolerate any dissent, the regime responded to these protests with snipers, machine guns, and tanks, while arresting and torturing more kids and bloggers (like Hamza Khatib, a 13-year-old arrested at a protest in Daraa in April 2011 and his corpse later returned to his family, beaten blue, full of cigarette burns and with his genitals cut off and stuffed in his mouth).
From what the Assad dynasty did to Hama in 1982—leveling the city with artillery and planes, killing tens of thousands for resisting the dictatorship—Syrians knew that there was no turning back, lest they be disappeared into the government's Gestapo-style torture chambers for the rest of their lives like so many before them, the bodies of whom we've seen resembling Holocaust victims in leaked photos from Military Hospital 601, in Damascus within view of the presidential palace. The Free Syrian Army didn't form until June 2011 in order to protect these daily protests from the increasingly barbaric regime response. This was never idealism—it was survival and response to barbarity the regime wanted to provoke. While arresting and torturing children and bloggers in early 2011, the regime released from Sedneya prison in Damascus hundreds of Al-Qaeda jihadists it had sponsored in Iraq from 2003 to 2008. (The regime had them in custody after imprisoning them when they tried to return to Syria where they were once invited by the official Syrian Mufti's fatwa in 2003 to receive training and help joining the jihad in Iraq.) The Assad regime released these jihadists while imprisoning nonviolent democrats in order to present to the world that the revolution was all radical jihadists the regime protected the world from. (And if the world didn't accept this false narrative then the Syrian regime would loose these radicals on the Western world until it did.) This is the same view Ackerman paints of the revolution by the time the novel takes place, while never mentioning the regime's complicity and only mentioning its extreme barbarity once in the periphery while showcasing one particularly barbaric rebel.
The way this novel paints the Syrian revolution is precisely how the regime wants it portrayed in order to hide its own monstrous and primarily responsible role in the war, and present itself as the only good option. I don't level any accusation of malice at Ackerman for this stance and his novel's propagation of it, but it seems he opted for oversimplifying the matter in a way that blames those protesting against the torture and murder of their children for all the war and extremism the regime deliberately ensured would follow.
If Ackerman had given these real reasons for the revolution and the formation of the Free Syrian Army, and not dismissed it as naive idealism, then we might know better why people fight in Syria. As this stands in comparison to the rest of the novel, it's similar to the veteran's complaint about hand grenades producing huge fire balls in movies—it's an oversimplification that keeps the story under 250 pages. But this oversimplification is not as harmless as the cultural issues I mentioned above—this sadly blames the victim for all of their woes while absolving by omission the main antagonist of this whole war, a narrative which has been used to justify supporting the regime and thus driving more and more young people towards extremism since they feel betrayed between a hypocritical Western world and the murderous governments it often supports.
All in all, I really appreciated this novel for its artistic form and its attempt at peering into the abyss. Like Elliot, I'm a former Marine who's spent my post-military life living in and observing the Middle East—I got to know Elliot in Istanbul and I'll forever be grateful for our friendship. That's probably why I have such a detailed view of this novel. If you're looking for a deep mediation on war in general written in masterful prose, then this novel is among the best, but if you are looking for something to help you understand the complexities of Syria, consider referring to nonfiction historical accounts written by peer-reviewed experts who have fluency in the languages and contacts among all factions, like Charles Lister's The Syrian Jihad, for example.
Congratulations on this accomplishment, Elliot! I had a great day reading this and look forward to your next book.