Over the last decade, hundreds of war memoirs have been written by soldiers and journalists who have experienced the war in the Middle East from the front lines. However, in “Friday Was the Bomb: Five Years in the Middle East” (Dzanc, $14.95 paper), Nathan Deuel recounts his time in the Middle East between 2008 and 2013 from a different angle: the sidelines.
In this essay collection, Deuel, who is married to NPR journalist Kelly McEvers, recalls his experiences living in Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Beirut while his wife worked as a war correspondent in Baghdad. A former editor at Rolling Stone, he sheds a light on what life was like raising their young daughter, Loretta, in the Middle East and what it meant to be married to a woman who put her life in danger on a daily basis.
Deuel and family now live here in Venice, minutes from the beach -- a life starkly different from their Middle East existence. He chatted over a cup of coffee about how his life in the Middle East changed with the birth of their daughter and what it has been like adjusting to life in Los Angeles.
Deuel will be reading at Skylight Books on May 13 at 7:30 p.m.
Were you writing about these experiences as they were happening or did you recount them in retrospect?
Most of the essays in the book were written as [the experiences] were happening to me ... such as “Homeland in My Homeland.” I pitched GQ a story about how the television show “Homeland” is misleading and that I would write a story about what Beirut is really like ... fun and safe! The day I set out to write my story, a bomb went off.
“Friday Was the Bomb,” the title piece, I wrote in tears right in the middle of it all. It was a visceral portrayal of the weekend after the bomb and how rocked our world felt.
There are many war memoirs out there, but yours is a sideline perspective.
I was fairly tortured by the way in which I was on the sidelines of some of the great convulsions of Middle Eastern history. What happened between 2008 and 2013 in the Middle East when we were living there — the pullout of U.S. troops, Tahrir Square, Yemen, Syria — were some of the biggest things to happen to the Middle East in 50 years. I was there for it and I knew the great American scribes writing the first drafts of this history, but I was always the one at home, making sure Loretta was sleeping well.
How did the birth of your daughter in Saudi Arabia affect your experience in the Middle East?
For many years, when it was just me and Kelly, we were flying by the seat of our pants. We had very little money, we were sleeping in buses, we hitchhiked everywhere. Moving to Saudi Arabia was another chapter of that. All of our friends were like, “Of course, Nathan quit his job at Rolling Stone. Of course, he walked from New York to New Orleans. Of course, he and Kelly are going to move to Saudi Arabia and just figure it out.”
But then we had Loretta. Her birth coincided with my dad’s death. ... With my dad gone, I wanted to take care of my sister and my mother — and I had this baby girl who was suddenly in my charge. I became much less adventurous.
With Kelly covering the war in Baghdad, your father's death and with the birth of your daughter, did you ever think, “It's time to go home”?
At no point in those early years did I feel like we should leave. But then my dad dies, Loretta is born, Kelly gets the job in Baghdad and I move to Istanbul. At that point, my life and Kelly’s life become completely different. In a younger, less encumbered life I would have walked the length of the city everyday; I would have been producing reams of material. But instead, I’m trying to figure out playdates. There was no glory in any of that. In a way, I couldn’t find the beauty in just being a dad.
In the acknowledgements, you tell your readers: “I encourage you to judge me harshly if you wish.” Why?
Someone recently told me that they thought that was me anticipating the critiques of fellow parents who would say, “How could you have let your daughter be so close to such darkness?" Perhaps this speaks to my gender, but almost never did anyone say anything like that to me. ... Since coming back to America, a lot of people have given Kelly a hard time, telling her, “You are a monster. You put yourself and your career ahead of your daughter.” But when I wrote those words, I was thinking about fellow Middle Eastern expats and writers who would judge me harshly for spending so much time on my discomfort, when I could have been writing about Syrian refugees or the plight of women in the Middle East.
How has it been adjusting to life in Los Angeles for you and your wife?
When I came back to the States after living in Cambodia for five months, that was really hard. I was appalled by the waste, extravagance and the opulence that we so take for granted. But coming back from the Middle East made me feel, to a large degree, wonder and happiness. Beirut was basically in a failed and broken state. But to be in a place with an esprit de corps and a sense that fairness and rules preside is beautiful. As unfair and as unequal as American society can be, it’s still good to be home.