I remember, overconfident, drunk, telling a friend at a bar eight years ago that I wanted, “… my new novel to change my life.” He all but rolled his eyes. I hadn’t published any fiction anywhere. No short stories or even flash fiction. All the prose I’d ever written never made it off my laptop. I was a twenty-eight-year-old poet who went to art school. No MFA. No agent. My friend went on to talk about well-known writer friends who still have day jobs and hustle from speaking gig to guest lecture. Others who edit and teach to pay rent, finding little time for their own work.
I think I was too drunk to explain it wasn’t about money. This book was about getting as close to the people affected by the violence as I could without actually going there—seeing it—in Fallujah, because going there would have been suicide. I couldn’t afford travel, lodging, and a fixer on my own. And I wasn’t about to join a corporate military under George W. Bush knowing I’d be trained to kill the very people I wanted to write about. A project like this felt impossible to complete. So I got to work anyway.
It started in 2003. Like many of us, I was horrified by the brutality of the Iraq war. After reading more detailed reports about the war crimes in Fallujah and Ramadi, I was enraged. It kept me up at night. The poetry I was writing about the war only reached a few dozen people. And it wasn’t very good. Even the interactive work I did, Tickle Torture, in response to the Abu Ghraib human rights violations, might have only been seen by a few hundred readers. I can see why. It’s a fucking purposefully tedious and esoteric read. Don’t bother with it.
Stepping away from my poetry community and experimental training, I wanted to write a book about the people of Fallujah in the wake of one of the worst sieges of the century. One that I believed was the Coalition’s worst mistake that would create far more resistance fighters than it suppressed. One that terrorists would rally behind as one of the most egregious injustices of their lifetime. It couldn’t have the trappings of my esoteric work. That would be disrespectful to the people I was trying to honor.
Day after day, news of Fallujah’s sieges worsened. It took a long time for the truth to surface because nearly all the correspondents were embedded with the Coalition, hence biased by corporate interests. Independent reports of white phosphorus bombs and depleted uranium made the tragedy even more heinous. I wanted to talk about Blackwater without overtly talking about Blackwater. I wanted the book to be unbiased while telling the story of real people—people I’ve never met who were killed by people I’ve never met. This should have been an impossible task. I know. I was really stupid.
To prep for writing a novel about the sieges of Fallujah, I read as much as I could. Dahr Jamail’s Beyond the Green Zone was an enormous help. He later generously blurbed Falcons on the Floor. Bing West’s No True Glory gave me some strategic knowledge. Countless Defense Department reports, some actually admitting to using fleshette rockets. I watched everything out there: Iraq in Fragments being the most resonating and beautiful. I even posted an “Iraq Photo of the Day” on my blog to keep my head in the story. Still, I wasn’t nearly close enough.
I knew I had to interview Iraqis dealing with the war and occupation. With as much nervousness as emailing a crush for the first time, I logged into a very beta looking website called My Language Exchange. It’s basically a pen pal service for bilingual people who want to practice their least mastered language. I, admittedly, only know a few words of Arabic. I can “thank you” and I can “God Willing” and that’s about the extent of it. So, I emailed people. About sixty of them. All of them in Iraq. All of them strangers. Within a week, three got back to me.
One man was in a remote part of the country working in the oil industry. He only had access to a computer at work, about once every two weeks. We lost touch. Another man could barely speak English and I gave up after a few exchanges. Then came Haneen Alshujairy. She was excited to chat. Quick to respond. I found out she was only 17 and living in Amman after fleeing Baghdad at the beginning of the war. To my luck, her father was from Fallujah and Haneen and her family had fled there when the initial attacks on Baghdad happened. That was alarming and weird. I think I might have asked, “You fled Baghdad for… Fallujah?” But at the time, in 2003, Fallujah was a thriving city.
Haneen was also very Western. She read Dan Brown and watched American sitcoms. Her favorite restaurant was T.G.I. Friday’s. Her influence seeped into the narrative I was crafting. Two young men leaving Fallujah on the eve of the first siege—Salim and Khalil—both of them slowly taking on the characteristics of my young pen pal and confidant.
After a few months of trying to write that first book, titled Falcons on the Floor, I revealed to Haneen that I was working on a novel. Before that point, she thought I was just doing research. I asked her to help edit and consult on the manuscript and she happily agreed. From there, my confidence surged and I was able to toil through the first draft. With me in Baltimore and Haneen in Amman, I’d send her 30 pages at a time in a password protected PDF. Password: browniesundae. A nod to T.G.I. Friday’s. She’d email me back edits and suggestions. We were getting closer.
I cried that afternoon I finished the first draft. I cried for the characters and for everyone who had died or lost legs or love ones. Above my desk, nailed to the wall, was a wrist watch showing the time in Amman.
Publishing Genius ended up putting out MLKNG SCKLS (Milking Sickles) in 2009, a “deleted scenes” of Falcons on the Floor, and then the novel itself in 2012. It did okay. Great reviews from some indie venues and even Cake Train and The L Magazine. Nothing groundbreaking, but I was happier than I’d ever been.
Haneen and I kept in touch. She and her family moved to Cairo where there was more opportunity. She went to dentistry school and graduated. Then the Arab Spring happened and Cairo’s internet, their whole fucking internet, shut down for two weeks. Panicked, I tried to contact Haneen, but I was certain she was okay. Weeks later, I got an email. She was fine, but inspired to move on. In the next few years, she applied to asylum in the U.S. She somehow made it to California and lived there for almost two years. She was safe and with friends, but her entire family was back in Cairo.
In the meantime, I had written a second novel that isn’t good enough to publish. After shelving that, I dove back into Iraq, this time in Baghdad. This manuscript centered around the historic bombing of al-Mutanabbi Street, the centuries-old book market and cultural hub of Baghdad. And it showed a fractured family—Nisreen, the mother from Falcons on the Floor, distanced from her son and desperately trying to find her husband. And, subconsciously, Haneen inspired this narrative, though the story began before she left her family in Cairo.
It took four years to finish the manuscript, The Last Book of Baghdad, mainly because another large project got in the way. Now a series of novels, these books leap from Iraqi perspective to Iraqi perspective, tracing a shattered family in the ashes of one of the greatest U.S.-led tragedies in history.
I wish I could go back to that bar and explain to my friend that it was the closeness I wanted, not the book deal or payout. It was the bond of real collaboration, with someone I truly empathized with, that would make this novel—and now this series—important. But even back then, I never could have anticipated Hannen’s influence over my life and work.
Ending Islamophobia in the West will take decades, if not longer. The current presidential election makes is clear that hatred is rampant and millions of people prefer walls in place of understanding. Pitting people against each other for petty differences such as their geographic origin or belief system can’t work forever. People, once they get to know each other, can’t help but love one another. I see that in the proof of the racist who lives next to the one black family in town. This racist likes and respects that family because “…they’re not black like other blacks.” This is the same bent perspective that allows us to kill each other. It’s the same justification when we send our sons and daughters to murder brown people half a world away. “They’re not people. They’re the bad guys.”
Bad guys. A term that George W. Bush literally used in speeches, in public, to justify a war that created more terrorists than it was trying to prevent.
Empathy isn’t easy. There’s pain involved. Sometimes lots of it. The absolute closeness I was striving for only happened with thousands of hours of work, but I’m hoping that what we created, with these novels, can transform a reader in far less time.
Eight years have passed since I started on the Fallujah Burning Series. Now Haneen lives a few miles from me. She works at Johns Hopkins as a translator thanks to a few pulled strings and some hard work. She’s newly married to a handsome, intelligent man. She’s safe. No bombs or nighttime raids on her home. Electricity and internet is reliable. There’s a T.G.I. Friday’s not far away.
I like to imagine, maybe foolheartedly, that I had as much influence over her as she did over me. I’d like to think that our novels do what they were intended to do: bring a Western audience closer to the violence to truly empathize with a people we have disrespected and destroyed. If we’ve done our jobs, as writers and editors, we might have changed a few lives. For now, I’m happy with the closeness I’ve achieved. The two Iraqi and American lives that have been changed forever.
Justin Sirois is a novelist and poet living in Baltimore, Maryland. His books include MLKNG SCKLS (Publishing Genius, 2009), and Falcons on the Floor (Publishing Genius, 2012) written with Iraqi refugee Haneen Alshujairy, The Heads (Newlights Press 2013), as well as So Say the Waiters books 1, 2, and 3 (2012, 2013, 2014) and the forthcoming novel The Last Book of Baghdad (Civil Coping Mechanisms 2016). He founded Narrow House, an indie publishing company, that ran for ten years.