Monument commemorating the victims of the chemical attack in Halabja, Iraq, on March 16, 1988. Photo by Bikem Ekberzade

Although an avid reader, I never before had heard of Arnon Grunberg. I like going to bookstores, and in fact love spending any casual Sunday browsing shelves packed with paperbacks, sitting on the floor in the aisles, and thumbing through books. Yet I cannot remember the last time I actually did just that. Life, world, has become too violently unpredictable to spend any casual day anywhere. It was different back a while ago. Wars still went  on, people still died and injustices, human rights violations still took place, but they were safely confined in the pages of newspapers and magazines. As a photojournalist, I covered them, came home and found myself a safe escape in bookstores.

Now, as the whole world expands into one big battlefield, in places with guns in others with diplomacy, with so much happening so fast, alliances shifting in a matter of minutes, I no longer have the luxury of “not taking my work home”. My home has become my work, playing central role in the blood and mayhem that is unfolding around us.

Not being able to spend time in bookstores translates into me ordering my books online and in bulk. So, coincidentally, if the online bookstore had not made a mammoth sale for New Year’s, I probably would still not have the chance to read anything by Grunberg, let alone know he even exists. But two worlds collided as we got ready to step from 2015 to 2016: the fact that I am fascinated by graphic novels and always on the lookout for new illustrators. And no, I had not heard of Hanco Kolk either, but me eventually finding him (albeit at a discount) had more likelihood than me ever crossing paths with Grunberg’s From Istanbul to Baghdad.

It being Sunday -although work is expected of me regardless- I decided to take a morning coffee break, and took up the book which seems to be an-essay-turned-into-graphic-novel thanks to Kolk. As I read the colophon -or more commonly referred to as the “copyright page”- I couldn’t help but cringe. Among the list of copyrights was one bearing the name of a Turkish photographer. The man had become famous with a photograph he took in Halabja following a chemical attack carried out by Saddam’s proconsul/commander in chief/minister of defense and later Minister of Interior, Ali Hassan Abd Al-Majid al-Tikriti a.k.a. Chemical Ali. The attack on Halabja was a high point in Saddam’s Anfal campaign to ethnically cleanse the area of Kurds and populate it with Arabs. His genocidal campaign was originally drawing little attention from the rest of the world, and mass killings/deportations were going on undisturbed. However the attack on Halabja had changed things. It was a massive chemical weapons attack on ordinary civilians. The photos, shot by photojournalists flooding the area in the aftermath showed corpses of civilians, babies, women, the elderly, all dead in their tracks. One photograph stood out from among thousands of others, and unnaturally for the time, a Turkish photojournalist’s name was adorning the front pages of international magazines, newspapers. In 1988, for a non-western photojournalist, that was an accomplishment. The photo of a mother and a child, of whom we knew little about, whose identities and names eluded us, had made one man famous.

As a rookie photojournalist I also had seen the photograph. It was a moving image. So, while working for Newsweek back in 1996, when the magazine wanted to run a piece on Halabja, I knew it would be a part of the layout. An editor I looked up to was in charge of the layout. And much to my suprise she chagrined as I handed her the selection freshly in from an international photo agency. There was the image of the mother and child, and several more from the small town, all from the same day or the day following the attack. The person who had put together the selection for us must have thought that we would, without a doubt, run this photograph as our primary image. For the agency, as far as Halabja was concerned, that one frame was a cash cow.

As for the Newsweek run, the editor selected a completely different portfolio for the issue, all images from the same day, taken by a different and more talented photojournalist. Also Turkish, he had not only taken photographs of the corpses, but of the people who barely survived the attack and who rushed, along with journalists into Halabja looking for survivors, family members. The issue was a hit.

Grunberg’s book starts with an award ceremony where he is being praised for his accomplishments as a writer. While still at page one, my flinch from seeing the photographer’s name not yet eased, I am now looking at a praise being delivered to the works of an author unbeknownst to me -and thus, one I care very little about. So, if it were an ordinary Sunday, and if I were thumbing this book in any old bookstore, I would, right around now, probably just place it back on the shelf and move on. But having bought it, and with no other alternative than my Twitter feed to accompany my morning coffee, I read on. On page 7, I was intrigued, by mid-book I was hooked.

Grunberg’s roadtrip portrays a caricature of western journalists, and how their expectations are perceived in Turkey. However, Grunberg comes to Istanbul, and seems to set out on his trip with less of the prejudices and pre-written stories of his compatriots and more with a nerdy curiosity. At least Kolk’s depiction of him is someone who is out here with a relative open mind, eager to immerse himself in the experience. His encounters guarantee a chuckle, and often more than that if you know the person he is meeting with: the afore mentioned photojournalist with a raised ego; a member of the “yes but not enough” crowd who despised the alternatives so much that they helped AKP come into power in Turkey in early 2000.

The route dips Grunberg & Co. into Aleppo, briefly, until they resurface on the Turkish side of the border to dip back in to Iraq en route to Mosul. An odd pack accompanies him in his travels: the driver, another Dutch artist and Gul, Grunberg’s scourge/translator (who also happens to be the translator of this very book.) And then there is the ghost of the little girl from the afore-mentioned Halabja photograph. She holds him by the hand, escorts him to his room when Grunberg is too drunk to find his way, sits by him all the way to Iraq. The little girl’s ghost is a detail that Kolk leaves us with, thanks to his illustrations. We do not hear of her in Grunberg’s original essay nor we feel he is haunted in anyway.

The other detail that we do not find ourselves wrapped up in the essay is Grunberg’s relationship with his mother. In the book, the relationship is ever dominant, it is as if Kolk is trying to give legitimacy to Grunberg’s experience in the Middle East by portraying him as a “home-boy” coming from a family with a familiar matriarchy. In his phone conversations with mundane everyday details with his mother, Grunberg may as well be born in Turkey, Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Palestine or Israel. Her mother, the dominant female voice on the other end of his cell phone, reminds me of my mother, calling me at odd times when I am out in the field, to make sure I am still alive, and often catching me in the middle of an VBIED attack targeted at our quarters in the Green Zone in Baghdad, or as I am running for cover from the gas canisters being fired by the riot police to the protesters, or having finally crawled into my hotel room after a long day at a refugee camp.

Kolk lifts Grunberg’s book. I do not know whether Grunberg wrote a separate text for the graphic novel, or whether Kolk adapted Grunberg’s work, or whether or not Gul the translator did a few tricks, but few sentences in the book resonate long after the sections they end are past. Assuming it is Grunberg who wrote them, the first part ends with him reflecting: “development means less pain, but to altogether eliminate pain can lead to unforeseen results.” So appropriate, just now, as we are buried with images of suffering, detailed depictions of atrocities either as propaganda or as evidence pouring in every single day via news or social media -coincidentally as I am typing these lines, I receive an email with a link to the results of an annual photojournalism contest. What Grunberg writes reminds me of Neil Postman’s introduction to his Amusing Ourselves to Death as he compares George Orwell’s 1984 to Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World:

“Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much information that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism”

In Alleppo Grunberg meets with a prominent photographer/gallery owner. He is synical of Grunberg’s attempt at crossing into Iraq and questions his motives. Grunberg himself admits he is not sure what he aims to do with this roadtrip. He keeps on saying he is “working” but we do not know who he is working for, or what he plans to be the outcome of this trip, other than an entry in his blog. Kolk helps us see Grunberg’s confusion, at times bafflement. Much of the details from the essay are left out, but with such a tight edit the book turns into something else, something compelling and sincere.

I will not further my take on the book. I figure I have given enough spoilers and should possibly leave my thoughts right on the Turkish-Iraqi border that Grunberg is about to cross.

Maybe an Iraqi blogger one day will pick up from here, or maybe you, the reader will pick up the book and see for yourself.

2 thoughts on “From Istanbul to Baghdad

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