Angelus Novus: A Letter from Hilary Plum


Paul Klee, Angelus Novus, 1920. Source:

Dear Youssef,

A few days after you proposed that I write you this letter, a man was killed, his execution public enough that despite the five thousand miles between us we both could look on. This man, a journalist, had once been captured in Libya, then released, then was captured anew in Syria in 2012, this captivity ending in death. He was American, from New England as I am, he and I earned the same degree from the same university, enough years between us that I did not know him, though we each or both passed years among the low mountains and rising rents of Western Massachusetts, the grave of Emily Dickinson (called back, May 15, 1886) that even if one never bothers to walk behind the hair salon and the Nigerian restaurant to visit it serves as heart, destination of a pilgrimage one imagines.

The video his killers posted online may or may not in fact include the moment of his beheading, but confirms beyond doubt its occurrence. Here, we call the group who killed James Foley ISIS: the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria; or Iraq and al-Sham; or simply—months pass and the name grows more ambitious—the Islamic State. We’re told that the caliphate they envision stretches from the coast of Syria to Iraq’s eastern border. I had thought that Foley was taken from an internet café, but an article I just glanced at says something about a car being stopped, how men with Kalashnikovs forced him out of the car. If I were to tell the story in a novel, he would be in an internet café, sending as though it were nothing the story of one land and its wars to another, to a land whose replies are silent until the missile drops out of the sky.

This summer more than a million civilians have already fled before the forces of ISIS. How shall we add their numbers to the over four million Iraqis displaced since the US invaded in 2003? How do we describe a nation in exile from itself; or a nation whose forces—manned, unmanned?—appear or are threatened daily all over the world.

The man in the video who, masked, holds the knife, the man who appears to kill James Foley (I have not watched and will not), this man speaks with a British accent. Newspapers say that the prisoners of ISIS called their British captors by the names of the Beatles: this is John. Young men from the UK have been joining ISIS; the video of this murder is meant to recruit, and it will. If I could reply to those young men, leaving their homes in London or Tripoli or West Palm Beach or Paris or Cairo or Sana’a or New York to join this war, I might insist, I might at least insist, that they name this my war, because I failed to prevent it. These are the terms upon which I would like a conversation with these men to begin. Not in the moment when they seize a man who may as well have been my brother, who worked courageously to report from Iraq, Libya, and Syria, dress him in an orange jumpsuit that echoes the long official crime of Guantanamo, order him to his knees and consider the fact of the camera: how ideally to represent themselves, their cause, their warriorhood before what is without exaggeration the eyes of the world.

Youssef, it has taken me some time to write this letter, and as you know this video now has a sequel.

I don’t know what it is to speak of this to you. In what I imagine feels to you like the past (before the Arab Spring, are we still calling it that, before the overthrow of Mubarak and all that comes after), but which to me is the present, you wrote your searing novel, Kitab al-tughra, The Book of the Sultan’s Seal, the English translation of which I have spent much of the past year rereading, editing, discussing. In the novel, our protagonist Mustafa Çorbacı, a young man in Cairo who has recently separated from his wife, embarks on a mission entrusted to him during a visitation from the last Ottoman sultan, a mission that will prove (in Paul Starkey’s translation) the first step toward frustrating the universal conspiracy that is being carried out against the Muslims. Here the word conspiracy encompasses the corruption of Mubarak, the fundamentalism of the Salafis, the neoliberal materialist ideology of the West, the nationalism of Atatürk. Corruption, fundamentalism, neoliberalism, nationalism—without these, what are we, and where? It is absurd to describe to you your own novel, but this is one passage I return to:

The problem… and my feeling that the collapse of my marriage was the collapse of the whole world, was that my experience actually made me doubt all the values by which I lived: individual choice and personal freedom, secularism and rationality in managing one’s affairs, respect for the social environment—the attempt to reconcile things by turning cohabitation into marriage, for example—imagining that people can live with each other, physically and mentally, on a non-commercial basis, or express themselves with a degree of detachment from tendencies to hatred or profiteering. A belief that this detachment is what makes people people, or that the mingling of cultures yields knowledge and conscience rather than mad despair.

… In my mind I had only been trying to live with a person like myself who was an Arab and a Muslim but also civilized and contemporary and with a conscience. And now it seemed to me that the picture she presented of herself was just a boastful pretense. Like the female conquests of my Sunni friend Amgad Salah ‘Abd al-Galil in Canada… or (and this is really more to be expected) like the streetwise way that Michel Fustuq speaks: she’s not a woman, and not cool, and we’re not an inch removed from the disasters of this culture and this age.

This son of a madwoman—when everything went wrong, when he found his life reflecting the worst things in the East (treating a woman as if she were a chattel, and observing the outward forms of religion while not working in their spirit; thinking about good works as though they were an account in the bank of the afterlife, for example), and by the same token, the worst things about the West (namely, personal isolation and the inability to achieve a mutual understanding or solve problems in a relationship)—this son of a madwoman imagined that his marriage was a model of the most a Muslim Arab could do to live a modern life, and that his failure was an indicator of the bounds of the possible.

My heart is sick of this world, and will only be cured by journeying to another. Or else, no one in this world should be an Arab Muslim.

All summer the news and your novel lived side by side on my screen. Nightmare and—what? Shall I supply some tired metaphor for the vital work you’ve done? We might turn to Feyerabend: We need a dream-world in order to discover the features of the real world we think we inhabit. I might at last try to speak to the subjects you gave me when you suggested this letter: What a writer can do in the middle of such horror, whether a writer can do anything at all. An easy and false answer is that if a writer like Foley, present on the ground of lands I only imagine, reporting the facts upon which I feed, which I try to honor, which in whatever desperate register I may say make the work of writing seem necessary, at least to me, if Foley is to be seized from the café while typing and slaughtered then I, I can do or am nothing. Today in Philadelphia it is autumn in the backyard and summer on the street; the black walnuts, whose scent is pungent as rotting lemons, rain down through the morning into the grass.

Lately I have not known what to say. A well has dried, etc. For so long I wrote in response to, struggling to answer to, the news. Now the news insists that I am mere viewer. I recently, in some attempt to be useful, tried to teach a room of college freshmen the meaning of the term agency, since I thought this might be the sort of knowledge they could use. They explained the word back to me in terms of literature, a character in a novel acting, and I failed to clarify that I had been talking about all of life. Does this matter? etc. When I want to say one thing about James Foley, I must confront everything. This is no time to be, say, a monk preserving language while outside once again the city burns. Etc. Some St. Patrick’s Day in my childhood I asked my father if our ancestors were Irish, should I wear green, and he chuckled as he informed me, No, I’m afraid you’re one-hundred percent oppressor.

This past winter I wrote a series of fictions documenting my conversations with Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. Of the two brothers (allegedly, as we say) responsible for the bombing of the Boston marathon in 2013, he is the one who survived and who now awaits trial. I have never met him; there are no means by which we may converse. Access to him is highly restricted; beyond the facts he established in blood and horror across Copley Square, our encounters are merely imaginary. It is true that he is Muslim. But what is this to mean? It’s said he and his brother opposed the war in Iraq—but this makes them like, not unlike, most Americans. In the year I spent in dialogue with Tsarnaev, who never spoke and who I am sure would say little worth hearing, I held onto a few lines of Dickinson’s, from a letter she wrote Thomas Wentworth Higginson in 1862, the midst of the American Civil War, a letter that reached him in camp: I should have liked to see you before you became improbable. War feels to me an oblique place.

May we borrow the first sentence to serve as elegy for Dzhokhar, now for John—these young men improbably transformed?

War feels to me an oblique place. You asked me to speak of Iraq. I try to hear the word as it is said there, where I’ve never been, in what to my ears is an accent. For a year I tried to write a book that might reply to the scrawl of white phosphorus over the city of Fallujah, the craters that open, silver-tinted, in the skin, brim with blood or bare clean new flesh. A decade after the siege, in the hospitals of Fallujah newborn children keep dying; it’s said the birth defects there are ten times worse than in Japan after the bombs. A child is born cyclops; bowels emerge in tangles outside the belly; a child born with two heads is born dead. In the bodies of the people of Iraq a new war is slowly occurring: between 1991 and 2005 the rate of cancer increased forty-fold, and the doctors quoted in any article note—as almost an aside—that since many cases go unreported or untreated, statistics inevitably underestimate. Is Basra the new childhood-leukemia capital of the world?

I do not think of all this when I hear the word Iraq; or I do. I must teach myself, I must commit a deliberate act of imagination. I must look and abstain from looking at the photographs of newborns whose limbs I cannot describe. Daily in any kitchen a mother feeds by hand the child who will never feed himself. A mother changes diapers on a girl of ten, a woman of thirty. Families cannot afford most healthcare. No one expected the child to live.

Everywhere—in the news, on the ground—people are fleeing ISIS. The Yazidis are trapped upon a mountain. The level of humanitarian crisis is assessed, the appropriateness of the words ethnic cleansing or genocide. For hours or days or weeks the newspaper that is my home page places front and center a photograph of Obama in which he looks worried, yet responsible; hair graying, mouth downturned. The camera angle hides the endearing protrusion of the president’s ears.

The peshmerga who helped to rescue those trapped on the mountain could not quite be thanked by the US government, since officially they too are terrorists.

I have spent hours with a photograph of American men at leisure in a pool behind Saddam’s palace, the blue of the water as rich as you’d imagine, the men’s bodies refusing perfectly the light by which they are captured.

I failed to write the book. I failed again.

A friend who served in the Iraq War in 2004 went back a decade later, during this past spring’s elections. On this second return home, he wrote:

I realized it didn’t matter what we’d intended. What mattered was what we’d done. We’d invaded a sovereign nation on a pretense, fucked up the lives of 30 million people, started a bitter, bloody civil war by pitting one religious sect against another, then left and pretended it had nothing to do with us. We’d helped strengthen fundamentalist religious extremists in the Middle East and put intellectuals, journalists and activists at risk. A few people made a whole bunch of money, and a whole nation was left in shambles. Whether or not breaking Iraq into pieces had been the plan from the beginning, as some evidence suggests, the war had been nothing but a murderous hustle. The politicians who ran the war had shown no higher ideals than robbery and plunder, and I’d been nothing but their thug.

As an historical agent in the vast, crooked enterprise that was the Iraq War, I had helped cause immense suffering and I had profited by it. I had let it happen, and I had made it happen. And when I thought of the pride I’d taken in my service, the combat pay I’d spent vacationing in Paris, London and Berlin, and the blood money that had bought my college education, holding them up against the lives I’d seen shattered by violence, the hopes I’d seen trampled and the dreams for a better future I’d seen starved by neglect and choked by frustration, I could feel nothing but disgust and shame for having been an American soldier.

Before he left for Baghdad, I wrote you to see if you knew writers there whom he might meet. You replied: I wish I could help, but all the Iraqis I know are in America.

In John Edgar Wideman’s 2008 novel Fanon, a figure much like the author—whose brother and son are in prison; who has had long occasion to consider what means the American nation-state employs to contain and control nonwhite men—considers the years he’s spent trying to write a novel about Frantz Fanon. He creates a character, Thomas, who is in turn also writing a novel about Fanon; the novel moves fluidly between Fanon, Thomas, and Wideman, perspective steadying and unsteadying, Wideman’s long elegant sentences pulling us forward, a periplum, the figure on the horizon always Fanon. In the beginning of the novel, Thomas receives a severed head, delivered to his door in a box, sender unknown. The novel only half-returns to this conceit, this seeming event. But it doesn’t need to: daily the world will finish this story. Open the door and sign here.

You will find that your world is better without me, Daniel Somers wrote in a letter to his family in 2013, before he took his own life. Somers was a veteran of the Iraq War, diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury. He wrote:

The simple truth is this: During my first deployment, I was made to participate in things, the enormity of which is hard to describe. War crimes, crimes against humanity. Though I did not participate willingly, and made what I thought was my best effort to stop these events, there are some things that a person simply can not come back from. I take some pride in that, actually, as to move on in life after being part of such a thing would be the mark of a sociopath in my mind. These things go far beyond what most are even aware of.

To force me to do these things and then participate in the ensuing coverup is more than any government has the right to demand. Then, the same government has turned around and abandoned me.

Of his life after the war he says:

… I pursued replacing destruction with creation. For a time this provided a distraction, but it could not last. The fact is that any kind of ordinary life is an insult to those who died at my hand. How can I possibly go around like everyone else while the widows and orphans I created continue to struggle? If they could see me sitting here in suburbia, in my comfortable home working on some music project they would be outraged, and rightfully so.

Of his death he says: Now I am free.

In 2013 one article noted that last year more active-duty soldiers killed themselves than died in combat. In America, veterans and active-duty forces have been committing suicide at a rate often described as epidemic. The figure one hears is 22 each day. Each death is singular; to speak of their meaning collectively would be a crime.

This morning I reread a story of Etel Adnan’s, “Master of the Eclipse,” from a book it seems I edited in 2008, though that feels like a long time ago. Adnan is usually described as Lebanese-American; a poet, novelist, and painter, she was born in Beirut in 1925. In Adnan’s prose the border between fiction and nonfiction is hard to map; this story moves from the seventies to the early 2000s, as the protagonist—a writer who resembles Adnan, who like her lives between Paris and California—remembers an Iraqi poet she met several times through the decades. We are in the summer of ’91, the first page tells us, Bombs are falling mercilessly on Iraq; the country is being destroyed; from the start the process looked irreversible and the outcome bound to be annihilation. Years later, an American professor who has taken an interest in the poet, now dead, tries to interview her, just as war has commenced anew:

Now… I am again hearing bombs falling on Baghdad. They are shattering my windows all the way here in California. Thousands of dead already and the war is at its beginning, and the National Library, with its medieval manuscripts, has been set on fire and a big chunk of humanity’s memory has been destroyed; all this before large-scale killing has even started. Who is trying to eradicate the past and present of the Arabs?

The narrator feels the presence of the angel of history, Klee’s Angelus Novus, of whom Benjamin wrote: Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet.

In her 2012 book Sea and Fog, Adnan writes, I have not seen war, by being in it. Perhaps, if obliquely, I may close with this. This morning the news tells us that the US and UK will aim for a broad-based assault on ISIS. The storm behind the angel is what we call progress; already it’s morning again.