'Not From Here,' stories by Nathan Deuel

Holiday in Baghdad

Rising to stretch my legs, I surveyed my fellow travelers, who had just endured a 3 a.m. flight to Baghdad. Among the Iraqis, there was a preponderance of plastic and/or leopard-print overnight bags. The men had big mustaches and weary eyes. The women were generally in their 30s, wearing colored headscarves, some of them no doubt coming back to Iraq for the first time in years. The plane smelled of sweat and perfume.

I felt weak in the knees. An Iraqi girl sized me up with a hardened glare. What did you expect? her eyes seemed to inquire, and I let my head fall.

In the beginning, Iraq had seemed like the center of the universe. On a bitterly cold New York day in 2003, I had marched with several hundred thousand others, as much out of a conviction that the war was wrong as that it was inevitable and deserved respect. Things got heavy fast. In the first weeks of battle, an old boss of mine lost his life when a Humvee flipped. Reeling from all the mixed signals, I found myself editing what felt like Very Important Pieces about the 1,000th death of a U.S. soldier, then the 2,000th. What the hell was going on over there? Over the years, good friends went in and out as correspondents; a few even served as soldiers. But with time, the conversation veered to other wars.

By 2006 and 2007, I admit I had stopped reading: So many dead dumped in ditches, countless American fuckups, too many tragedies to fathom. In the ensuing years, the endless grinding of Iraqi parliamentary democracy—failed coalitions, muddy alliances—faded into the hum of a world gone wrong. Much of what had happened was our fault, but what could be done? The once- inescapable Iraq—subject of so many urgent conversations—had at last, again, become a ghost.

Then my wife accepted a job in Baghdad, and it became inevitable—like it or not— that Iraq would come roaring back to life.

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Into the steam

Mihir and I — old friends reunited in Istanbul — paused in front of the Cemberlitas Hammam, which had been built in 1584 by Sinan, one of Turkey’s most celebrated architects. For nearly 500 years, the men of Istanbul had taken their ritual cleansings here, and it was our turn to join the long drip of history.

We descended the stairs, where we found a warm sitting room — a kind of lodge, really — peopled by men in various states of undress. Directed by an attendant, we took a pair of striped towels and repaired to a small changing room. Naked but for a towel, this old friend and I headed for the baths, led by a stooped old man who showed us into the main, domed room. Read the rest of this entry »

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My favorite American painter

<i>Frenching</i> (2007)

Frenching (2007)

Jeremy Willis’s paintings are a meditation on longing. And much of his work — a collection of oil-on-canvas paintings you can see at his New York studio, by appointment — actually depicts figures who reach out, who provoke the viewer. As a result, his subjects feel as if they long to be more than the sum of their parts — quite actually more than the body they inhabit. And like each of us, the figures Willis paints seem to be locked in a dim but growing awareness that having such hope is as foolish and endless an endeavor as it must and always will be.

<i>I Love You</i> (2008)

I Love You (2008)

But where is human history without longing? And where are any of us without someone to tell us what we want? Popular culture often imagines the best we can be, just as it creates new and limiting borders to the notion of what is civilized, to what is and should be desired. Willis’s paintings lull viewers into thinking that such idealization — in film, TV, magazines, and others — might even be something like a hopeful projection. But the paintings ultimately seem to flip that idea, arguing instead that such projections rarely stray from acts of vanity and/or cruelty. Nowhere is the tension between these two poles (adoration, hatred) seen more astonishingly and horrifyingly than in Willis’s depictions (of depictions) of sexualized men and women — sex being what humans are programmed to desire most, and what we connive most bizarrely  both to get and to prevent. Read the rest of this entry »

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Night of the sandstorm: Seeing Saudi through American eyes

riyadh_flag

The calamitous scene at the US embassy in Riyadh. (Courtesy of the Pine Leaf Boys/pineleafboys.com)

I’m back in Riyadh for the first time in 45 days. Along the highways, Saudi flags – that fearsome green banner with the ornate script and the crossed swords – flap in the hot desert air. Ramadan is over; Islam’s annual, month-long ritual of day-time fasting and night-time feasting has at last come to a close. The capitol hasn’t recovered yet.

For the first time – taking a familiar drive into the heart of town, cresting the western ridge of the city’s wide river plateau – I see how beautifully Riyadh sparkles at night.

Time away is good. It gives you perspective, letting you appreciate things anew. But it also helps you sharpen your instincts, re-remember what once made you pause. (As I’m thinking this, the flashing lights of a police checkpoint come into view.)

I tap the steering wheel and realize this: In the coming weeks and months, I’ll let this column be a kind of record of that tension between fear and awe.

For now, as awe takes the lion’s share, I’ll share another piece originally published in The Review, a weekly supplement to The National.

In the piece, we encounter a band of American musicians – most of whom had never left America, let alone North America. Because of their wide-eyed enthusiasm, what could have been a disaster becomes a kind of catharsis.

Assembled in a plush anteroom at Quincy House, the US Ambassador’s formal residence here in Riyadh, the Pine Leaf Boys were a crew of guileless, fresh-faced Louisianans in their mid-20s. The bassist, a handsome bearded man named Thomas David, had never left the US before. The drummer, Drew Simon, compact and slouching, said he postponed his wedding to attend. The wispy-thin fiddler, Courtney Granger, said he was so nervous about coming to the Middle East that he’d spent the previous two days vomiting. Read the rest of this entry »

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Saudi Arabia: Everything you think you know is probably wrong

US leaflet used in Afghanistan.

Image via Wikipedia

Saudi Arabia: You think of 9-11, Osama bin Laden, women shrouded in black, beheadings, desert wasteland. The thing is, not only are these images unpleasant shorthand, they’re also just that: shorthand.

It’s true: Things in Saudi — still struggling to balance religious traditions and political isolation against new money and modernity — can definitely be very un-pretty. (This summer, a man convicted of raping and killing a boy was beheaded, then left crucified for several hours in a square in downtown Riyadh.) But even when certain things are depressing and humiliating, they’re almost always countered by looking deeper or beyond. (At the same time that man was crucified, work was being completed on a new university in western Saudi Arabia that will have an endowment among the world’s 10 largest.)

I risk sounding simpleminded, or even like an apologist, but I believe very much in and intend to act on what I think is a powerful concept: The more we know about each other the better.

As such, Not From Here will be a place — one of the only, anywhere — where you’ll find first-hand reporting from one of the most closed-off and misunderstood countries in the world. From my perch in Riyadh, I’ll share my take on breaking news alongside the more difficult and time-consuming work of narrative reporting. It’ll be up to you to visit, read, and comment. Ask me questions! Tell me if you think I’m wrong!

To start off, I’m returning to Christmas 2008, when my wife and I flew to the U.S. after a season living in Saudi. (A version of this story was first published in the Review, an excellent weekly supplement to the Abu Dhabi-based newspaper The National.)

A snowy New York was a strange place to bring what felt like fresh perspective from a hot and hectic land. Expecting to share my shock and surprise after two months in Riyadh, I instead ended up being blown away by something else entirely.

Enjoy the piece, and stay tuned for much more.

It’s late December, 2008, and my wife and I are on furlough from Islamic lands. Snow falls on New York as we roll up to a friend’s building. Buzzers list dozens of names, from dozens of countries. The door snaps open and we hear the Christmas classic Jingle Bell Rock emanating from the belly of an animatronic Santa Claus. Read the rest of this entry »

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The Arab world's second-ever public transit system

This is a photo of a Dubai Metro Red Line viad...

Temperatures in Dubai often exceed 110 degrees, making public transport an attractive option for those without private vehicles. (Image via Wikipedia)

The Associated Press has a nice report on the debut of Dubai’s elevated train system, the first in the region after Cairo’s metro. Eighty percent over budget and incomplete, the tiny city-state’s new cross-city train will nonetheless be especially nice for all the Bengalis, Pakistanis, and Filipinos who can’t afford BMW 700 series sedans with which to navigate Dubai’s grim gridlock:

For many of Dubai’s foreign guest workers, the rail project could mean far quicker commutes in a sprawling city-state where shared taxis, packed vans and creaky wooden boats are among the most visible forms of public transportation. Read the rest of this entry »

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