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Book review: graphic novelist Sarah Glidden’s war dispatches from Turkey, Syria and Iraq

Rolling Blackouts: Dispatches from Turkey, Syria and Iraq is a self-conscious portrayal of reportage in those countries which walks the tightrope between observation and subjectivity.
Rolling Blackouts: Dispatches from Turkey, Syria and Iraq by Sarah Glidden is published by Drawn and Quarterly.
Rolling Blackouts: Dispatches from Turkey, Syria and Iraq by Sarah Glidden is published by Drawn and Quarterly.

‘So we just need to record the sound of the room when no one is talking for about 30 seconds,” journalist Sarah Stuteville tells one of her subjects on concluding an interview. “It’s so we can splice audio together later on.” Her colleague Alex Stonehill stares up at the ceiling, their subject glances around nervously and Stuteville plays with her phone as the time slowly elapses.

Graphic novelist Sarah Glidden decided to tag along with her friends Stonehill and Stuteville, co-founders of the Seattle-based journalism collective the Globalist, as they took a two-month reporting trip to the Middle East in late 2010.

Glidden was interested in simultaneously telling two sets of stories: those of the people they encountered, many of whom had been adversely affected by the United States war in Iraq, and those of the journalists who covered them. Glidden is attuned to the heartbreak and frustration of the Middle East in the interlude between the capture of Saddam Hussein and the uprising in Tahrir Square in Egypt, but she is also fascinated by the moments where no one says a word.

Glidden is not a reporter, per se, so much as a reporter’s amanuensis. She tags along on Stuteville and Stonehill’s reporting trips, documenting not only their interviews but the planning conversations regarding how to pitch and promote the stories. Rolling Blackouts: Dispatches from Turkey, Syria and Iraq is meta-reportage, a story about Iraq and Syria that is also about the challenges of being a western reporter covering Iraq and Syria.

The tone is simultaneously romantic and realistic, an effort to document how the sausage gets made without turning our stomachs for a heaping helping of sausage.

“Please understand me,” one woman pleads, and the stories these journalists collect – of killings, deportations and torture – all silently ask for our attention, interest and compassion.

The twin frames occasionally lie jaggedly atop each other, with the journalism shoptalk sometimes less interesting than the subjects they cover, but this “comic book about how journalism works” mostly works.

They are also accompanied by Stuteville’s childhood friend Dan O’Brien, a US veteran returning to Iraq for the first time since his military service. Stuteville is expecting O’Brien to reflect on his role in the war and the plight of the Iraqi refugees they encounter in Turkey and Syria. At first, O’Brien is adamant he has done no harm and is taken aback by the journalistic barrage. “Uh,” he tells Stuteville, “I feel a lot of pressure to give you good sound bites right now.”

Stuteville, too, envisioned O’Brien as a convenient stand-in for the US war effort and its disastrous consequences, only belatedly taking into account the actual person she invited along.

“So the idea of painting him in a bad light or doing anything disloyal toward him?” she asks Glidden. “I can’t believe that I didn’t even consider how much I couldn’t do that.”

O’Brien is balanced out with Sam, an Iraqi Kurd with a tragic past, separated from his family in the US after being deported.

Glidden’s style is intimate, restrained and discursive. She likes to end sections by retreating from a close-up to a wide shot, returning her characters to a larger context from which she had briefly, gently plucked them.

On a train travelling through the Turkish countryside, O’Brien talks about his pride in being part of the “surge” intended to stabilize Iraq in 2007, and his now-wilted sense of belief in the rightness of war. Glidden closes out with an image of the train wending its way through rolling hills. Her characters are, then and now, travellers in a landscape, carried along by forces beyond their control. She reserves her most emotional moments for these more distant images, as with Sam watching the house in which his first wife has set herself on fire, ablaze, or the empty house in which the couple once lived, where he now sits, alone, being interviewed.

With gruesome irony, Syria is depicted here, by refugees, aid workers and journalists alike, as a blessed refuge from the horrors of the carnage in Iraq. Syria is a place where formerly middle-class Iraqis can go to preserve their lives, if not their dreams.

Glidden is agonisingly conscious of the passage of time for herself, not just her characters, and at the end of the book she hovers over an empty page, her pen poised, but still: “My original question seems far less important than all of this.”

This act of reportage is already a document of a historical moment that has passed, and as Glidden and Stuteville walk together through a safe American landscape, protected from the chaos that their country played a part in fomenting elsewhere, they stubbornly, admirably retain their belief in journalism as the chief protector of humanism against the forces of barbarism: “The best we can hope for is that the story gets passed along.”

Saul Austerlitz is a regular contributor to The Review.

Updated: October 13, 2016 04:00 AM

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