• On the Syrian Border, 2015, After the Story’s “Gone Elsewhere”

    Elliot Ackerman Visits a Refugee Camp Near Tel Abyad

    Again the summer, and a fighting season: 2015. In the waning days of that winter, the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units, or YPG, dislodged the Islamic State from Kobane, denying them one of two key border crossings from northwestern Syria into Turkey. The other crossing, in the hardscrabble town of Tel Abyad, has just fallen to a coalition of YPG and Free Syrian Army (FSA) fighters.

    Tel Abyad is the name given to the Syrian side of the border. Akçakale is the name given to the Turkish side. This is where Abed and I had bak­lava with Abu Hassar a year and a half before, just as the Islamic State had begun to traffic fighters and equipment through this crossing to their capital 30 miles south in Ar-Raqqah. Despite their defeat in Kobane, recent victories over the Iraqi army in Ramadi and the Syrian army in Palmyra have lent the Islamic State an air of invincibility, or at least momentum, so news of its impending defeat sends a flock of me­dia to the border crossing abutting the town.

    Tuesday morning, I hitch a ride south with Matt, who after con­ducting a humanitarian needs assessment in Kobane plans to conduct a similar assessment in Tel Abyad, detailing the scope of the destruc­tion and how much of the town will require rebuilding. The road is empty, not a car or truck on it, its centerline stabbing dead straight toward the horizon. Traffic, commercial and otherwise, has evaporated. One would be forgiven for thinking this evaporation was the work of the oppressive heat, but the real culprit is the fighting at the border. Matt has asked me to drive so he can make some calls. He scrolls through the contacts in his phone as I travel up the gearshift, holding us in fifth along the autobahn while the eastern sun holds in our faces. Matt’s chatting away and has leaned back in his seat, his foot crossed onto his knee, as he speaks to friends, to loose acquaintances, to anyone with access to Tel Abyad. He hopes to be put in touch with displaced residents who have recently fled and who can give him a sense of the destruction’s scope inside town. A few local fixers who are assisting journalists with their stories offer to help, if they can.

    Time for lunch, but we stop only for gas. I top off our Peugeot and buy some cigarettes, a Coke, and a few chocolates, which quickly melt when I set them on the dash. We continue on the road that parallels the border for another 30 minutes. Guard towers picketing either side of no-man’s-land appear with greater frequency. Coils of razor wire loop their pilings, layering in single, then double, then triple strands. Then the horizon gathers into forms: some low­slung buildings, a cluster of trees all shivering in the hot wind, finally Tel Abyad and Akçakale’s outskirts. Entering the town, I anticipate the chaos of a battle’s aftermath—refugees, wounded fighters, prisoners—but instead chaos manifests as news trucks, dozens of them, both regional and inter­ national, all painted white, with rooftop satellite dishes posturing sky­ ward like a peacock’s plumage.

    We would find ourselves unintention­ally, often in the middle of combat, uttering ridiculous clichés, bags of cherries imported from an Oliver Stone or Francis Ford Coppola film script.

    Matt and I park the Peugeot on the shoulder, among the news vans. He swivels his head up and down the road, phone to ear, searching out a fixer he knows. I trail behind him and begin to mix among some of the correspondents, most of whom are packing up their things. News has been slow, they grumble. The day before, a handful of Islamic State fighters had crossed the border, surrendering to the Turkish authorities. Then, this morning, there had been some controversy as to whether the YPG, who, as Kurds, have long­standing grievances with Turkey, would be allowed to raise their flag over Tel Abyad. To the disappointment of the remaining correspondents, that controversy resolved itself anticli­mactically when the YPG and FSA commanders decided that it would be best to avoid a provocation, and so chose to fly Free Syria’s flag.

    Little has happened, or so it seems, yet the story emerging across the media remains the defeat of the indomitable Islamic State. This is despite the particulars—likely fewer than a hundred Islamic State fighters killed, no reinforcements sent from Ar-Raqqah—suggesting that what we’ve witnessed is a strategic withdrawal in Tel Abyad, not a defeat. When the overarching narrative takes primacy over the actual events, the result is an imitation loop, in which the story informs the reality and vice versa. Telling a story about the apparent defeat of an adversary has real effects. It can increase support for the war abroad. It can help with recruitment. And it can affect the way soldiers conduct themselves on the battlefield, blurring the lines between combatant and actor—sometimes quite literally so.

    Just across the border, I’ve been following the case of Michael En­right, an actor who held minor parts in Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest and Knight and Day. He is volunteering in the ranks of the YPG, and his situation reminds me of a saying we had in my platoon, during the Battle of Fallujah: “It’s your favorite war movie and you’re the star.” The joke arose because we would find ourselves unintention­ally, and often in the middle of combat, uttering ridiculous clichés, bags of cherries imported from an Oliver Stone or Francis Ford Coppola film script. One afternoon, pinned down by machine gun fire in a building, we’d used explosives to blow a breach into a wall so that we could es­cape. As the smoke cleared and we climbed into the street, I found my­self screaming “Everybody on me! Move out! Move out!” I remember feeling quite aware, as I said this, that it sounded absurd, like some ter­rible John Wayne trope, but in that moment, I really did need everyone to gather around me, and we really did need to move out.

    During that deployment to Iraq, many Marines I knew, guys in their late teens or early twenties, would behave as they thought Ma­rines at war were supposed to behave: you smoke Marlboro Reds, you crisscross bandoliers of machine gun ammunition over your chest, you tuck an ace of spades into your helmet band. These are learned poses, adopted mainly from the Vietnam war films we’d all grown up watch­ing: Full Metal Jacket, Platoon, Apocalypse Now. But our war was for real. Or was it? We were imitating a story. And when stories would be made from our war, first by the media and then by filmmakers, they would be stories rooted in the reality of our imitations.

    I wonder at the consequences of seeking to play to a larger story.

    Standing just outside of Tel Abyad, among the news vans, satellite dishes, and skittering journalists, the desire on display to fit the details into a Hollywood-worthy story is palpable. What do these events mean to the larger arc of the conflict? Are we watching a turning point? Could Tel Abyad be the Islamic State’s Gettysburg or Stalingrad, the moment when the narrative of this long, grizzly war shifts toward some brighter future? Who knows, and I wonder at the consequences of seeking to play to a larger story.

    It isn’t long before Matt circles back to find me. As we begin to talk, a pack of kids swarm our legs, hawking bottled water like vendors at a rock concert. I ask if he’s been able to get any information on the condi­tions inside Tel Abyad. What humanitarian aid do the residents need? How much of the town will require rebuilding?

    Matt shakes his head.

    “All of the fixers I know have left,” he says. “The story’s gone else­ where.”

    Our stomachs tell us it is well into the afternoon. Walking back to the Peugeot, Matt suggests we stop for a snack on the return to Gaziantep. I open the driver’s door and the baking car heaves out a hot breath. I push and pull the door in an attempt to fan out the heat. Then we drive west with the windows down. As we rushed to Tel Abyad there was a stop I hadn’t had time to make, but with the day’s events resolved, I tell Matt that I want to find Abu Ali’s shop, which is on this road. I am hoping he can tell me what’s become of his brother, Abu Hassar.

    We drive for less than 15 minutes and then slow to a crawl. A year and a half ago, when Abed and I had made this trip, the land was rain­-sodden. Now shimmers of heat desiccate the earth. Ahead of us dust stains the distant pavilions of Akçakale refugee camp, while an occasional cyclonic breeze scatters dirt skyward in tossed handfuls. We drive closer, coming to the road’s shoulder where I’d dropped Abu Hassar off before and to the ditch where I’d watched the old cou­ple draw water. The camp’s residents shelter themselves inside their tents, avoiding the midday sun. The road is empty, an unwelcome premonition.

    We park in front of Abu Ali’s shop, which has no sign or adornment, just bare cement walls. There are a few half­-empty inventory racks placed out front: potato chips, packaged cookies, dented boxes of candy bars whose brands I’ve never heard of. The shop’s door is shut. No one lingers outside. Then I tug the door handle and the room opens into a crowded cross-­section of mustachioed, stubbled, paunchy or underfed Syrians. Cigarette smoke wafts up toward dueling air-­conditioning units, which these men gather beneath like the chieftains of some lost tribal council. Their voices hum with a kind of throaty warble. Mixing with that noise, as well as with the stench of midday sweat, is the gentle tinkling of teacups on saucers.

    “Abu Ali?” I ask.

    My request is met with quiet consideration, as if I have just put a motion before this tribal council for review. Somebody lights a ciga­rette. Somebody else stubs one out. Matt gathers some bottled waters, some cakes, a few more chocolates. He sets them by a cash register on a chest­-high counter. From behind the counter Abu Ali stands. His mani­cured hands sort through the few items Matt has picked. He plucks the cigarette from his lips so that he can mouth out some basic arithmetic. Nicotine stains line his teeth like tidal markers. When Matt brings over two extra bottles of water, Abu Ali runs his fingers through his thinning hair as he does the last of the math.

    “All of the fixers I know have left,” he says. “The story’s gone else­where.”

    “Do you remember me?” I ask before he announces how much we owe.

    I’ve interrupted his calculation, and he flicks his eyes up.

    “Abu Hassar,” I say, pressing the two edges of my index fingers to­gether in a gesture that among Arabs means “friendship.” Something clicks, like Abu Ali has just found the equal sign he’s been searching for, and he begins to nod in rapid fire. He then ducks beneath the counter.

    Before I can explain that I am hoping to see his brother again, to reprise our conversation, to hear what’s become of him in this eventful year; before I can say any of that, he has shooed away two of the men who’d been sipping tea in his shop and he has installed both Matt and me in the center of the day’s gathering.

    At first Abu Ali speaks quickly, and in Arabic. Then I speak slowly, and in English. Then he speaks slowly and in Arabic. Then neither of us says anything. We can’t understand one another. Silently, we sip our tea.

    “Why don’t you call Abed?” Matt says.

    Thankfully, Abed picks up. I tell him that I’m with Abu Ali, that I’m hoping to track down Abu Hassar—will he explain this to Abu Ali? And would he be interested in sitting down with Abu Hassar again? I haven’t run any of this by Abed.

    “Okay,” he says. “Pass the phone to Abu Ali.”

    When Abu Ali hears Abed on the other end of the line, a smile tugs toward his ears and he reprises his rapid-fire nods. He says something to Abed, laughs, says something else, and then laughs again. Then his expression attunes toward listening. He leans forward, elbows on knees, pulls a cigarette from his shirt’s front pocket, lights it, and keeps listening. He exhales toward the ceiling, then answers Abed and hands me the phone.

    “He says no problem.”

    “So Abu Hassar is around to meet?” I ask Abed.

    “Not exactly.” Abed then explains that Abu Hassar had to leave his family in Akçakale to earn a living at a labor camp in Sakarya, an in­dustrial city two hours outside of Istanbul. “Let’s discuss it when you get back,” he adds, and then hangs up.

    I pocket my phone. Matt comes to the counter where he’s left the snacks and water he’d gathered up. He takes money from his pocket to pay, offering it to Abu Ali, who refuses and who has now taken out his own cell phone, distractedly dialing a number. Matt insists, pulling a few bills from his wallet and leaving them out. Abu Ali also insists, stuff­ing them back into Matt’s pocket. Then, as he’s pushing us out of his store with our free snacks and water, he stops me at the door and holds up the phone. He points to the receiver. “Abu Hassar,” he says, and hands it to me, so I might speak with him.

    He talks about Lake Neuchâtel, an abbey on its banks, the Alps, but he stumbles over the descriptions, conjuring places he’s heard of but never seen.

    But I wave the phone away, not wanting to stumble along in half languages. “Please tell him that I’m coming,” I say. Vacantly, Abu Ali stares back, piecing together whatever I’ve told him.

    Then he resumes his nods.

    Abed would’ve made the trip down to Tel Abyad that day, but he’s quit working with Matt. An opportunity has come his way, one he needs to take, at the expense of his job—though Matt is understanding—and possibly at the expense of his relationship with his Swiss fiancée, Laetitia.

    Soon after Abed first fled Syria for Beirut, he found his way from there to Egypt, where he and Laetitia had lived for nearly a year and where she had finally accepted his marriage proposal. Running short on money, Abed needed work; this is when Matt offered him a position at SREO in Gaziantep. Following a long separation from Abed, Laetitia has found a job at CARE International, a humanitarian aid organization with an office in Gaziantep. After having been forced apart for nearly a year while Laetitia remained in Egypt, this new job will allow them to again live with one another. At least that was the plan, until on a whim Abed applied for a scholarship to a prestigious master’s degree program at University of Saint Andrews in Scotland. He never thought he’d get in.

    Returning from Tel Abyad, I make dinner plans with Abed for the next night. He picks a Syrian restaurant in the posh Ibrahimli neighbor­ hood near Matt’s offices. The restaurant is vast, built to accommodate the elaborate spring weddings of the local industrialists who own the textile factories that skirt the city. The night is hot, so we sit inside in the air­-conditioning and sip soda while a teenage busboy in a kitsch sequined vest and skullcap lights paper lanterns outside in the garden. Abed stares at the base of his Coke bottle, turning it on the table be­ tween his index finger and thumb. A little ring of condensation eats away at the paper tablecloth. “You know I’d like to see Abu Hassar too,” Abed says. “It’s just, things are quite difficult right now.”

    A few weeks before, I’d foolishly asked Laetitia where she and Abed planned to honeymoon after their wedding, scheduled at the end of the summer in Switzerland. Laetitia, who is gentle and courteous, and who usually speaks just above a whisper, snapped, “There isn’t go­ing to be a honeymoon, because Abed has chosen to leave me here so he can go to Scotland.”

    Abed continues to twirl his Coke bottle, his eyes averted from mine. “I talked with Abu Hassar a bit today,” he says. “Abu Ali gave me his number.”

    “And?” I ask.

    He glances up. “He wants to see us.”

    “And you?”

    “I want to see him,” says Abed. “So come to Istanbul.”

    Abed looks back at me. “The wedding’s going to be beautiful.”

    He talks about Lake Neuchâtel, an abbey on its banks, the Alps, but he stumbles over the descriptions, conjuring places he’s heard of but never seen. Then he becomes quiet. A long passage of silence hovers between us. To break it up, Abed flags down our waiter, ordering for both of us. He and the waiter then enter an extended conversation in Arabic, one that seems to range beyond our order, and one in which Abed seems far more at ease than when he is recounting the particulars of his master’s program in Scotland or his wedding in Switzerland.

    The waiter heads to the kitchen and Abed goes back to fiddling with his Coke bottle on the paper tablecloth. Then he looks up at me. “How far did you say it was to Abu Hassar’s place in Sakarya?”

    “A two-­hour drive,” I say.

    Abed cups his chin with his hand. “Two hours. He’s so close.”


    From Places and Names: On War, Revolution and Returning by Elliot Ackerman, published by Penguin Press, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2019 by Elliot Ackerman.

    Elliot Ackerman
    Elliot Ackerman
    is a National Book Award finalist, author of the novels Waiting for Eden, Dark at the Crossing, and Green on Blue, and of the nonfiction book Places and Names. His work has appeared in Esquire, The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The New York Times Magazine,and The Best American Short Stories, among other publications. He is both a former White House Fellow and a Marine, and he served five tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan, where he received the Silver Star, the Bronze Star for Valor, and the Purple Heart. He divides his time between New York City and Washington, D.C.

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