- Modus Operandi
In an essay titled “The Cannibal Birds of Burgazada,” Nathan Deuel details a scenario that seems at once familiar and infinitely foreign, as his much-needed family vacation is nearly ruined by an infestation of wild birds that fight in the sky and screech nonstop. The cacophony of the birds keeps his in-laws, his wife, and his toddling daughter awake around the clock. The house’s pool is made nearly unusable by the feathers, droppings, and bird bones that the narrator must skim from its surface. Soon the narrator discovers the real intensity of the ecosystem into which the family has ventured:
In the pool, rolling in the current, two spines had already been pecked clean. The size and shape of the spines made it clear. The birds were eating each other.
These cannibalistic birds stand in, in this case, for the difficulties of everyday life abroad for Deuel and his wife, Kelly McEvers, as he chronicles the couple’s years living in the Middle East. As McEvers travels from Baghdad to the violence of Syria as an NPR war correspondent, her husband tries to maintain a sense of normalcy and sustainability for their small family. On Burguzada, the island of the killer birds, the family seems to demonstrate a deep propensity for coping: they begin to sleep through the screeching, they find uninhabited parts of the island and the narrator goes to work skimming the pool free of bones and gore so that the family can swim in it. And all of this is what Deuel and McEvers consider a vacation.
Living amidst violence—whether avian or political—becomes the modus operandi for the family in Deuel’s memoir, Friday was the Bomb: Five Years in the Middle East. Deuel populates his essays with plenty of the armored cars, assault rifles, and antagonistic stares to communicate the profound unease that plagues his life through five years living in Riyadh, Istanbul, and Beirut. When a local man refuses to celebrate his birthday because “birthdays are for children,” the war-weariness in Deuel’s memoir feels earned and real. To the book’s credit, the narrator seems to vacillate naturally between being psychologically bereft by constant potential violence and succumbing to an emotional exhaustion. Initially desperate to find an apartment behind the secure walls of Riyadh’s Diplomatic Quarter, the couple is overjoyed by acquiring a place that would otherwise seem shabby: “Each room had a few pieces of broken-down furniture. The TV didn’t work. In the kitchen, a giant 1980s refrigerator rumbled as if powered by a diesel generator. But it was ours.” But then the narrator discovers that the safety of the DQ comes from the fact that it’s basically deserted, and his isolation robs any sense of normalcy. The reader finds themselves confronted with question that dominates Deuel’s memoir, whether satisfying family life can ever persist amid the violence around it.
The question of where and how to live is complicated in Friday by two developments: the birth of a daughter, Loretta, and McEvers’ post in the Green Zone in Baghdad, where it is too dangerous for father and daughter to live with her. The memoir enters into a long tradition of American war correspondence, and while it effectively elaborates on the experience of Americans in the Middle East during the time period, it becomes clear that Deuel and McEvers are not Hemingway and Gellhorn. The confusion of the violence in the Middle East manifests in the chaos of the essay collection, which must work constantly to remind the reader when and where each essay takes place. Ostensibly, this memoir could elucidate human narratives behind the journalistic headlines that hover outside of its pages, but Deuel instead offers only a vague sense of embarrassment about American military involvement and that “being an American in Iraq felt like the punch line to a joke.” Similarly, the narrator resists any thorough examination of...