Novel provides window into Syrian conflict

By Richard Harris

Author Elliot Ackerman is a journalist, former White House Fellow, and Marine veteran who served five tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. He has covered the Syrian War since 2013 and is also the author of the novel “Green on Blue.” Not surprisingly, his novel “Dark at the Crossing,” has a clear ring of truth about its subject.

Most of this novel takes place in the very recent past in Gaziantep, Turkey, a fairly major city within close proximity to the Syrian border at the primary crossing to reach the nearby devastated city of Aleppo, Syria. Perhaps unexpectedly, not that much actually happens in this novel. Its major interest comes in the way it presents the daily life in one of the most troubled areas of the current world.

Although we continually hear depressing headlines from this war, we do not necessarily have a good sense of what day-to-day life on the border would be like. This book provides that view.

The story mostly centers on Iraqi-American Haris Abadi, a former translator with the U.S military. He has left his home and his sister in Michigan with the intent of sneaking back into Syria to fight for its freedom. Exactly who he would be fighting with is less clear, even to him.

At that time and place the brutal Islamic State (Daesh) seems to be the major force against the Syrian government forces of Bashir Assad. Haris’ complex motivations for giving up his comfortable life to return to Syria are never completely clear, although we gradually learn he has his own demons from the Iraq War.

The other two major characters are Amir and Daphne, a couple who have fled from Aleppo to Turkey after apparently losing their young daughter in the Syrian fighting.

Like Haris, Daphne, though not Amir, wants to return to Syria, at least in part to look for their daughter. Thus, this opportunistic pair of Haris and Daphne make preparations to cross the border, with the help of Amir and some shady mercenary characters who may or may not have the pair’s best interests at heart.

As the frontier is officially closed, finding a way to get across involves expensive bribes and dealing with some very unsavory men of questionable loyalty. In that setting one never is quite sure if the person one is dealing with is from the Islamic State, the Free Syrian Army, the enforcers of Assad, or someone just out to line his own pockets. Haris’ first attempt to enter Syria ends in his being robbed at the Turkish border town and forced to return to Gaziantep to work on a “Plan B.” This is when he meets Amir and Daphne and starts making plans with them. Haris and Daphne’s eventual voyage across the border hidden in the back of a truck with other travelers under a canvas cover is truly harrowing.

There are interesting examples of subtle subversions in the face of such tragedy. For example, some characters named their dog “Bashir” as a slam against the Syrian dictator.

Life in Gaziantep goes on fairly normally, although the city park is full of homeless Syrian refugees whom the residents have largely accepted as part of the new reality.

Not surprisingly, this book does not have a happy ending, nor is it a particularly satisfying one from a literary perspective. But its senseless untidiness is probably quite true to life for people’s existence on the doorstep of one of the world’s nastiest wars in recent decades.

This is a good, if not great, novel, but its most valuable contribution is in providing faces for this tragic conflict and a sense of what daily life its shadow must be like. It is not pretty. Richard Harris is a professor emeritus of psychological sciences at K- State.

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