Benjamin Buchholz served in southern Iraq with the Wisconsin National Guard. His debut novel, One Hundred And One Nights ($13.99, Back Bay), is told from the perspective of an Iraqi.
The impulse to write - both in general and in specific about the Middle East - catalyzed for me on the second day of my military service in Iraq when I responded to the death of a six-year-old Iraqi girl, crushed on the road by one of our military convoys a few hundred meters from the Kuwaiti border.
Around this girl's blanketed body a crowd of perhaps two hundred people had gathered, not only Iraqis but also our young American troops, contracted drivers for the military convoy from various other countries like India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, members of the local police and town council, and my very busy Kuwaiti interpreter. As the Civil Affairs Officer for the unit responsible for the girl's death, I was sent to clear up the situation, to move the crowd away from the convoy and, ultimately, to reopen the road as quickly and safely as possible so that war supplies could once more move north toward Baghdad. While I had studied Arabic for two semesters at West Point, visited Egypt as part of an exchange program and hosted several visiting officers from Lebanon, Saudi Arabia and Jordan during American officer training programs, nothing in my experience prepared me for the chaos of that scene: women wailing and pulling their hair, the father of the girl haggling over the price of his daughter's life, the local police unwilling to intervene, and the town council members in their western suits providing a constant stream of contradictory commentary and advice.
Before this moment I had always considered myself a "writer" in addition to being a full-time army officer. However, like many would-be authors I possessed neither the focus nor the motive force of a subject that meant something to me. The experience of this girl's death haunted me, both because of the sudden shock of the situation and because the girl had been roughly the same age as my own sons. Her image, seared onto the film of my mind's eye, stayed with me not only as a soldier but also, more importantly, as a father. I wrote about her, at first, as catharsis. And from that kindred father-feeling I birthed the idea of Abu Saheeh's situation in "One Hundred and One Nights." I appropriated my own feelings about the death of the six-year-old girl and I projected them onto Abu Saheeh as the young girl Layla latched onto him in the market place, infecting his loose grip on the world and threatening to unravel all the work he had done to overcome his sense of dislocation and his hidden, insurmountable grief.
After this girl's death the following 12 months of close interaction with the Iraqis in Safwan were largely a failure for me. The first half of the year I spent in frustration at my inability to understand the shifting alliances and Byzantine distribution of power in the province of Basra and, particularly, the town of Safwan. The second half of the year, as I finally began to apply some finesse in developing culturally and locally acceptable plans for our mission, I met with resistance from my own leadership whose focus had shifted from long-term planning to short-term measures intended to ensure our unit's safe withdrawal. For example, we began a major project to evaluate Safwan's civil infrastructure -- everything from its schools to its drinking water to its industry -- in order to set the stage for a long-term economic and social recovery after the damages inflicted not only by the current situation of our American and coalition involvement in the area but also from the long-term effects of the other wars the village had witnessed: the Iran-Iraq conflict, the first Gulf War, Saddam's oppressive measures after some of the local Shi'a population aided the United States. My project evaluating the town's infrastructure occurred without a hitch. I briefed the results to my chain of command and the British chain of command in Basra Province. And then nothing further happened. Our unit rotated out of country and to be replaced by another unit.
The window of opportunity for me to make a difference in Safwan had passed while I was still learning to navigate the culture. This failure made me realize that our armed forces in general, and myself in particular, must develop greater cultural acuity and must be willing to commit to more than a single year of service in order to truly make a difference. As such, I resolved to obtain this sort of further preparation through the Army's Foreign Affairs Officer (FAO) program.
The FAO training curriculum has three phases: language study at the Defense Language Institute, a year of cultural immersion and regional travel and the taking of a Master's Degree, funded through Army Civil Schooling. I completed the first phase of this training in June of 2010, graduating from the Defense Language Institute. I then attended the Royal Air Force Staff College in Muscat, Oman, a four-month course delivered completely in Gulf-dialect Arabic. During and after this course I traveled the Middle East and North Africa with my family, meeting with embassy officials, international aid organizations and local people in order to accumulate a body of first-hand knowledge that will now color my studies at Princeton University.
Sharing with my family the experience of the Middle East, living abroad as expatriates, gave us a chance to stay together as a family rather than going back to the region on a deployment. Perhaps more importantly, the time we spent in Oman also opened my children's eyes to a sometimes jarringly different culture: Islam, desert life, autocratic societies, and - best of all for them - the experience of going to school in a setting where only a few other American children were present. I'm still processing in a cathartic way these new experiences with my family.
I hope that my writing about these very personal experiences and frustrations captures a sense of farther-reaching dislocation and wonder, as well as a convincing and unbiased amount of cultural nuance. I also hope that my time studying at Princeton will allow my stories to rest on foundations that present a synthesis, or an alternate way of looking at issues otherwise receiving only cursory, or exploitative coverage in the news. One of the great strengths of our nation is its media saturation across the world: movies, TV, culture. I want to use that saturation to present a different spin, a personal and sometimes haunting angle. Hopefully, if my work has impact, such an alternative viewpoint will soften the place where two great civilizations now grind against each other.
Benjamin chronicles his experiences of Middle East immersion in his blog "Not Quite Right".
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