Elliot Ackerman’s “Dark at the Crossing” chronicles an Arab American’s journey to cross the Turkish border to fight the regime in Syria. Ackerman’s first novel, “Green on Blue,” was a widely celebrated and empathetic story set in Afghanistan, and he wrestles with some of the same concerns in this new book. But “Dark at the Crossing” isn’t a remix of his debut with Turkish and Syrian notes, nor does it read like a sophomore effort. As a journalist reporting on the war in Syria since 2013, Ackerman’s eye for detail grounds this novel in a space that quickly transports readers into a world few Americans know.
“The morning he went off to his second war, Haris Abadi spent twenty minutes in the sauna of the Tuğcan Hotel.” The story’s first sentence mirrors Haris’s journey throughout the novel, as his progress toward the front lines and the broken landscape of Aleppo is challenged. These delays force Haris, and the reader, to deliberate and weigh some of the reasons that might drive someone to fight in Syria. As Haris notes: “To cross into a war should be difficult . . . To fight in a war should be even more difficult.”
The story dips in and out of time, offering glimpses into Haris’s past in America and as an interpreter working alongside U.S. Special Operations teams in Iraq. Early in the story, Haris ponders a note he had left for his sister, in which he had written: “The key to undoing might be in doing.” This abstract point is refined and developed as we witness Haris oscillating between fighting for whatever family he can assemble around him and living up to a moral code that punishes cheating.
This search for something worth fighting for occurs in a world of competing ideals that cancel each other out. At a restaurant near the border in Gaziantep, Turkey, he notes, “Conversations about humanitarian missions, about politics, about the revolution, rose up from the tables, blending into the single noise of a half-dozen languages that when heard as a whole made one undecipherable clamor, like an apathetic groan, a sound conveying nothing.” This Shakespearean echo haunts Haris and presses him forward, but by the novel’s end, he discovers that profundity lies within the choices one makes.
Haris is befriended by Amir and Daphne, a Syrian couple whose marriage is a shambles after losing a daughter in Aleppo. Haris and Daphne quickly develop a bond, which leads them to attempt the border crossing together. For these two souls in search of meaning, Syria is not a war or a cause. It is simply a space where they might discover some measure of solace for the losses they carry.
The novel starts slowly over the first few mini-chapters, as if the author’s pen needed to knock off a bit of rust from its undercarriage. And there are a couple of instances when Ackerman doesn’t trust the reader enough, but overall, the writing is multivalent and propels us forward, as in this passage describing refugees in a park: “The sound of their bodies rustling alert beneath the newspapers blended with the sound of leaves rustling in the branches. ”
Because Ackerman is a military veteran with several deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan, and because he has worked as a journalist in the region that “Dark at the Crossing” explores, it’s tempting to see the watermark of his biography on these pages. And yet, while Ackerman’s experiences surely filter the narrative of Haris Abadi’s story, the author’s hand fades as we’re transported beyond the horizon of our own lives. It’s impossible not to consider the millions of people involved in years of conflict in Syria. “Dark at the Crossing” is not only a fictional meditation on remorse, betrayal, love and loss, but also a journey that returns us to the beautiful and broken world we live in.
Brian Turner is the author of the memoir “My Life as a Foreign Country,” and he directs the MFA program at Sierra Nevada College.
By Elliot Ackerman
Knopf. 256 pp. $25.95