Tom Sleigh, The Land Between Two Rivers: Writing In an Age  of Refugees. Graywolf Press, 2018. 272 pp. 

In his collection of essays, The Land Between Two Rivers: Writing in an Age of Refugees, Tom Sleigh recalls looking down with astonishment from an airplane window, flying from Baghdad to Basra to hold a writing workshop for Iraqi students in 2014. He was seeing, for the first time, the “cradle of civilization” that he had always head about.

“Now, after two US-Iraq wars, and a decade of trade sanctions between them, I found myself looking down on the brown-and-green alluvial plain of southern Iraq, which had figured in my mind for over forty years as a kind of shadow world that had haunted me as not only civilization’s cradle but also the crucible that gave shape to the bogeyman of the ‘Islamo-fascist.’”

Those two images seem incongruous, impossible. Yet the fact that Sleigh is able to hold those two ideas in his mind simultaneously is what makes The Land Between Two Rivers an essential volume for our dark, confusing times. It is a book of contrasts that begins in the Palestinian refugee camps of Qana and Sabra, where he is an observer struggling to maintain his objectivity, and concludes with an intimate drink with the Irish poet Seamus Heaney. These are not contradictions, so much as they are aporia that cannot be reconciled but only bridged.

Indeed, the rivers are an organizing metaphor for an investigation of life as observed and lived. They are sources of nourishment in the arid camps, like the sprawling metropolis of refugee suffering in Dadaab in northern Kenya, and they are obstacles that define and limit lives displaced by war and history. The Jordan river, Sleigh notes in “Tales of the Marvelous, News of the Strange,” drives through the heart of Palestinian life, defining Palestinians on the East and West Banks as either second-class citizens or citizens of nothing at all. In 1988, when Jordan’s King Hussein abandoned his country’s claim to and responsibility for the West Bank, Palestinians in the Occupied Territories “went to bed on July 31, 1988 as Jordanian citizens, but woke up on August 1 as ‘Palestinian citizens’ – but because there is no Palestinian homeland, they became stateless persons…”

In the first half of The Land Between Two Rivers, Sleigh observes the enormity of the refugee crisis produced by the calamitous wars of the late-20th, and early-21st centuries. In the first essay, “The Deeds,” he discusses literature in Damascus with a Syrian government official with “a penchant for Graham Greene.” And indeed, Sleigh is himself very much a Greene character, trying to maintain neutral detachment, but drawn-in all the same. Near Qana, as an ambulance worker describes pulling a child’s body from the rubble, only to discover that it has been cut in half by an Israeli bomb, he sees “the gleaming, flesh-colored, plastic thigh and leg of a baby doll. I nudged it with my shoe, wanting to pick it up as a souvenir, but restrained myself.”

Yet, this kind of cynical detachment has it limits – a lesson hard-learned by Fowler in The Quiet American, and Mr. Brown in The Comedians. Sleigh finds that he likes the Syrian official in Damascus who is, after all, a functionary in Bashar Al-Assad’s regime. “Like him, I was was shoving feeling out of sight, avoiding either grief or grievance in order to maintain a sense of cordial decorum,” he writes. “I was as guilty as anyone of speaking the language of policy.”

Things are complicated. Aid workers live a daily tragedy, patiently repeating the same formulas in the language of policy as families starve, their best intentions inevitably frustrated by the realities of aid logistics, geopolitics, and history. They trapped between two rivers just like everyone else. A conversation with a Muslim jeweler in Amman about Nahed Hattar, a Jordanian Christian activist assassinated by a Muslim extremist in 2016, over tea reveals the twisted complexities of life in an age of refugees.

Sleigh expects complications, yet the contradictions, and how they can coexist so easily, are always surprising. Mariam, one of his students in Basrah recites a story in class of the last time she saw her brother before he died in a “car accident.” It is a tender story of fraternal love, and a life cut short. Sleigh does not realize, at first, that Mariam’s brother was a suicide bomber.

It is in that contradiction where Sleigh finds that his certainty in western political categories, and his anger at “zealotry” fades. “… Since Mariam’s story, written and read with such understated feeling, my rage, and the comfort it gave me because of my certainty that it was justified, could never take hold of me without my also seeing the image of her brother, gently, very gently, bending down to kiss his sister, to ask if she needed anything at the market, and whispering, again with utmost gentleness, that this would be the last time he would ever see her.”

The greatest of all complications for Sleigh, is our shared and irreducible humanity, even if it might be ignored, denied, or obscured. The starving Somali woman fleeing Al-Shabaab who left one child to die in the desert in order to save another made an impossible, but human choice. The refugees, aid workers, military contractors, terrorists, and promising young students are ultimately human. Many are deeply flawed, complicit, and sometimes even mean, but their humanity is no abstraction.

This is what makes the latter half The Land Between Two Rivers such a necessary part of the whole. His dinner with the journalist “afflicted with The Danger I’ve Been Through Is Bigger than The Danger You’ve Been Through disease” in the essay “Disappearing Act” sets up a long, but vitally important, denouement in which the author becomes an observer of the self. The last few essays are mostly autobiographical, a kind of occasionally picaresque bildungsroman encompassing youthful adventures and first jobs.

But here, Sleigh deconstructs the perspectivity explicit in the first essays. He is a writer, a poet, a privileged intellectual but, like the Somali refugees in Kenya, and the Palestinians in Amman, he came from somewhere, and he wants his reader to know this. There is a candor, a brutal honestly in this that one rarely sees in an observer of the other, across the river. In “A Man of Care,” the essay on Heaney, Sleight writes about how the Irish Nobel laureate “understood language as a form of care,” an idea I recognize as Tikkun Olam, the Jewish injunction to “heal the world.”

“And one of the ways of caring about the world was how he submitted himself to the discipline of observation.” For Sleigh, the observer in the first essays, and the observed in the last, are inextricably linked.

Sleigh is a perceptive witness and a commentator of profound understanding. He is also a poet who periodically slips into reverie about the nature of his own relationship to his craft. Such moments of reversal, where he turns his gaze inward rather than outward, are often jarring reminders of how his privilege mediates the suffering and horror he describes. It could seem incongruously self-indulgent, even selfish, yet at the same time it accusingly points to the reader who, after all, consumes the suffering of Sabra and the streets of Baghdad second- or third-hand in the comfort of an armchair.