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Beyond the Front

Baltimore writer Justin Sirois collaborates with Iraqi refugee Haneen Alshujairy to tell a different story from Iraq

Deanna Staffo

By Bret McCabe | Posted 12/16/2009

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Blunt facts can only tell part of any story. Fact: Fallujah is a modest-sized city located in central Iraq on the banks of the Euphrates River, roughly 69 kilometers west of Baghdad. In 2003, its population was estimated by the United Nations at around 425,000, a size that doesn't even make it one of Iraq's 10 biggest cities. (At that population, it's about the size of Omaha, Neb.) It is located in the Al Anbar province, whose capital is Ramadi, located roughly 49 kilometers to the northwest along the river. Fallujah's population was, at one time, primarily Sunni, and the United States military positioned it well inside the "Sunni Triangle," an area loyal to Saddam Hussein. In April 2003, U.S. troops tried to take the town in one of the most hard-fought campaigns in the beginning stages of the Iraq invasion.

Fallujah eventually became the site of some of the most polarizing events to come out of the occupation of Iraq, covered by embedded journalists such as Bing West in No True Glory: A Frontline Account of the Battle for Fallujah and independent journalist Dahr Jamail's Beyond the Green Zone: Dispatches from an Unembedded Journalist in Occupied Iraq. At least, the events were polarizing for local poet/writer Justin Sirois.

"The more I read the more frustrated I got about Fallujah," Sirois says over dinner back in September. "And Bing West's book is OK if you want to know what battalions knocked down what doors and the firefights and stuff. But then Dahr Jamail's Beyond the Green Zone came out and that book was just completely pivotal, completely opposite Bing's book. Unembedded. I don't think he was actually in Fallujah during the sieges, but he was in the periphery just watching the ambulances full of people getting shot up by coalition forces--just, like, sick stuff."

The 30-year-old Sirois isn't alone in his outrage. Throw a rock and you're going to hit an American--young or old, black or white, male or female--who has strong anti-war feelings. And like many of those people, Sirois isn't shy about expressing his opinions. Since September 2008, Sirois has regularly posted an "Iraq Photo of the Day" on his blog (secondarysound.blogspot.com), many of which aren't exactly flattering to the U.S. endeavor. The image of Sept. 30, 2008, features what looks like the remnants of a hastily abandoned medic's kit--a roll of gauze, surgical scissors, a lone black glove--scattered around a blood spatter on a floor. But Sirois--a 2001 graduate of the Maryland Institute College of Art, graphic designer in the U.S. Government Printing Office, and co-founder of the Narrow House poetry imprint--didn't stop there. His 2008 poetry collection Secondary Sound is an attempt to straddle forms of communication via media mashups, and in September 2005, he designed "Tickle Torture," an interactive Iraq map "where you click on the provinces and a window pops up and there's a flash fiction piece where the province spells out an acrostic description of what's going on" in the region, he says. It was one of his attempts to put what he was feeling into some creative outlet.

"I was writing a lot of war poetry, which I knew nobody was reading and wasn't doing a whole lot," he says. "So stuff like that--which people really liked, but wasn't doing what I wanted it to do."

What he wanted to do was offer a different perspective of the war that wasn't being as accessibly covered in conventional war journalism. What he wanted to do was to argue that there might be more going on than journalism can offer. What he wanted to do was something rather old-fashioned: He wanted to tell a different story.

That story became Falcons on the Floor, Sirois' debut novel, which is currently being considered for publication. In it, a young man from Fallujah named Salim walks to Ramadi with his lifelong friend Khalil shortly after a 2004 siege. Falcons catches these two young Iraqis as they're navigating the unstable ground of transitioning from the teens they once were into the men they may become. Salim is ostensibly trying to find internet access again so that he can send a missive to Rana, a woman he cares for but knows only online (though his journey often feels as much a flight from home and his memories). Wild-card Khalil happened to be included in a widely circulated photograph that shows him taking part in insurgent activity, though only he knows the extent of his participation--in fact, he's not entirely sure what he believes in himself. Together, they have to get out of Fallujah without being detected, avoid roadblocks and bridges, cross the river, and make their way along its banks to Ramadi, where Khalil's cousin might be able to take them in. (The same two characters appear in his novella-length MLKNG SCKLS, which was issued by local Publishing Genius press this past June, as a DVD-like "deleted scene" that he left out of the novel.)

It's the basic story that came to Sirois as he started reading and researching for the novel in 2006. "It was always at least one person walking from one point to another," he says. "That's the shell of it. I knew it would be Fallujah to somewhere. It would be a human story not a war story. It would be a young man, a savvy Fallujahian, if that's the right word. Salim isn't the average Fallujahian. He's learned a lot from his mom. He knows a lot about technology. He's being taken advantage of by the Fedayeen because of those skills. So, like, I knew that was definitely the story. And I had just read The Road, and there's a lot of Road references or Cormac McCarthy influences in there. So I knew that I could structure it in a kind of road story and make it work."

Falcons on the Floor is a solid first novel, prone here and there to over lyricism, but overall a engrossing and compassionate read. What makes it rather remarkable is not only the story it chronicles, but how it came to be. After all, just because Sirois wants to tell this story, so what? He's just, well, an art-school graduate working for the federal government who runs a poetry label. Why does what he has to say about Iraq have any merit?

"So about three months after I drafted it I started writing a little bit, but didn't have any, you know, I didn't have a whole lot of. . . . " Sirois drifts off. "I can't think of the word. I just felt like, Who's this white guy writing about Fallujah?"

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