Chew on This

When we asked Christopher Merrill—a portion of whose prose collaboration with Marvin Bell appears in our Winter 2013 issue—to tell us what he had been reading as of late, he gladly agreed, and then surprised us over the holidays when he sent along this single photograph from his cell phone, documenting the bed, desk, and empty bookshelf in his current location in Basra, Iraq. When he returned to the U.S. he sent us a written account—published below—of how his travels inform his writing.

I took this photograph in the Containerized Housing Unit (CHU) to which I had been assigned for the Basra leg of a cultural diplomacy mission to Sudan, South Sudan, and Iraq. As director of the University of Iowa’s International Writing Program I have undertaken over forty missions for the State Department to places of “strategic interest,” including Afghanistan, Bahrain, Bolivia, China, Congo, Kenya, Russia, Syria, Turkmenistan, and the West Bank; these travels inform my contributions to After the Fact: Scripts & Postscripts, the book of prose pieces that Marvin Bell and I are writing together; at the same time, our aesthetic, philosophical, and political dialogue, three years in the making, shapes my experiences abroad. I am always looking for material.

Unpacking my suitcase in Basra, I had on my mind matters both mundane (laundry, e-mail) and existential: the security situation was deteriorating in Iraq, with more than 8,000 people killed in 2013—a figure rivaling that of the last year of the civil war; car bombings, improvised explosive devices, political assassinations—these daily facts of life would govern our movements. The poet Tom Sleigh had joined me for the mission to Iraq, and his adventurous spirit did not flag when we learned that threats made against American diplomatic interests, by Al Qaeda or its regional affiliate, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, might cancel our events in Basra, and then in Baghdad, and perhaps even in the relatively peaceful Kurdish cities of Erbil and Sulaimaniyah.

Our control officer (the diplomat hosting us) took the threats in stride. He was a lanky man with long hair and a goatee, and I might have pegged him for a stoner if not for the fact that he was a devout Mormon with a wicked sense of humor. He regaled us with tales of his absentmindedness—once he had mistakenly taken his dog’s pain medication and slept for twenty-four hours—and he professed to like the compound, which had served as the British base of operations during the 2003 invasion and subsequent occupation. The monotony of the dining facilities, the twelve-foot-high T-walls surrounding the CHUs, the endless gravel—nothing seemed to faze him. This night he was rehearsing with his band, Chu on This, which was about to play a gig for the diplomats and contractors, most of whom were not allowed to leave the compound.

What I was chewing on was my tour of Juba, which had coincided with an international conference on investment. The president of the world’s newest country, Salva Kiir, insisted that South Sudan was open for business. I was not so sure. The police and military had not been paid for months, and long-simmering tensions between the Dinka and Nuer tribes had hardly abated. Crime was one theme of our embassy briefing; another was the lack of medical services. The regional security officer advised us to figure out if we were sick enough to be evacuated early in the day—there were no night flights. He also advised us to avoid poisonous snakes, which are plentiful in South Sudan; there was no anti-venom in the country.

Nor was the supply of electricity reliable, despite vast reserves of oil in the north. Most of our events took place at the University of Juba, where power was cut off each day at one o’clock. A herd of goats grazed outside our classroom, and I found it difficult not only to think in the heat but also to make out what our soft-spoken students were saying. Thus I was surprised one day to hear loud voices under the large tree by the library: a crowd had gathered to hear a series of fiery political speeches, the contents of which I could not understand.

What I did understand at our last stop, a youth training center guarded by men armed with Kalashnikovs, was the juxtaposition of two different forms of beauty: the first was a dance performance, with drummers and young men and women in a narrow thatch hall leaping high in the air; the second was a lesson in the martial art of kickboxing, with a teenager practicing circle kicks, striking the red pad held up by the old man coaching him. There was something terrifying in the ferocity of his kicking, and I felt a strange mixture of exhilaration and horror upon leaving the center. As it happened, I had brought Edward Hoagland’s powerful new novel, Children Are Diamonds: An African Apocalypse, which is set in the 1990s during the civil war between what would become Sudan and South Sudan. I did not begin to read it until my plane took off the next day from the airport in Juba—which, unbeknownst to me and perhaps to everyone I met during my visit, would be closed within the week, when civil war broke out again. Hoagland’s vivid descriptions of unimaginable atrocities, committed largely by the Lord’s Resistance Army but by no means confined to one side in the conflict, filled me with dread: some wounds never heal. In Basra, when I had unpacked my suitcase, I took out my notebook and began to write.

 

Christopher Merrill has six poetry collections; many works of translation and edited volumes, among them The Forgotten Language: Contemporary Poets and Nature (1991) and From the Faraway Nearby: Georgia O’Keeffe as Icon (1993, reissued 1998); and six books of nonfiction, most recently Self-Portrait with Dogwood (Trinity University Press, 2017). His work has been translated into nearly forty languages and his honors include a knighthood in arts and letters from the French government. As director of the University of Iowa’s International Writing Program, he has undertaken cultural diplomacy missions to more than fifty countries.