Dark at the Crossing by Elliot Ackerman

Dark at the Crossing tells a story of war, love, and second chances.The story begins with main character Haris landing in Turkey and traveling toward the Syrian border to join the Syrian rebels fighting against the Assad regime. From there the book recounts Haris’s movement forward toward joining the regime, and also flashes back to show how he came to this decision. Born in Iraq, he earned American citizenship by saving an American soldier, Jessica Lynch-style. He then worked with the U.S. Army in Iraq also to earn citizenship for his younger sister. When they move to the U.S., his sister flourished as an American college student and Haris, attempting to provide for her, worked as a janitor at the same college. Unsatisfied with this life, and his past role in the war in his own country, Haris waited for his sister to be provided for by way of a marriage engagement, and then left to join the rebels in Syria.

Haris has contacted a “fixer” to take him across the border and connect him with the rebels, but things don’t go as planned, and he meets Amir, a Syrian native living and working in Turkey for a think tank studying the Syrian conflict. Even more important than the connection with Amir, Haris also meets Amir’s wife, Daphne, who has a scarred back and sleeps with the light on. The relationships that develop between Haris, Amir, Daphne, and also the relationships which are explored through flashbacks with Daphne’s daughter, Haris’s sister, and an American soldier acquaintance of Haris from Iraq, explore different ways that people can love each other, and the lengths we’ll go to for a second chance.

This isn’t an own voices book- Ackerman is a white man from the U.S.- but although he isn’t from Iraq like his character Haris, he was a U.S. soldier and spent a significant amount of time in the Iraq and Afghanistan theaters and currently writes about Syria. This familiarity with conflict and soldiering is apparent in the book. The reader is left with the sense that Haris, and the other characters, are based on people known to Ackerman, rather than being pure inventions.

Haris isn’t endeavoring to fight in the war because of any particular convictions, religious or political, and in fact “he believed in the war but not as a cause. He believed in it as an impulse, the way a painter paints, or a musician plays, a necessary impulse.” The Syrian conflict is a second chance for him- he is unhappy with his role in the war in his own country, and thus Syria is an attempt for redemption. The book further claims that “[a] true cause, meaning an honest cause, must be personal, specific.” We see this in both Haris and Daphne’s desire to return to Syria.

This book felt true to the conflict, for me. Syria isn’t at all my area of specialty, but Haris’s experiences and feelings came across as complicated and messy, not  a neat and tidy black and white package. The book wasn’t much about Syria in specific, but rather more about conflict in general in this day and age, and the toll it takes on survivors. It really shows well that escaping the physical fighting is only one part of survival.

Full disclosure (and possible spoiler): I like reading about wars (both fiction and non, in fact one of my masters degrees is in Diplomacy and Military studies), but I truly dislike reading fiction that doesn’t have a happy ending or a redemption arc or some kind of tie-up at the end. That being said, this book had none of those things, and I really enjoyed it.


Questions for further discussion:

Part of the book is an examination of belonging through citizenship or sense of place. What is the role of being an American for Haris? An Iraqi?

Some of the auxiliary characters in this story are intriguing. What could we gain by looking more into Haris’s sister, Amir’s boss Marty, or the child Jamil who also journeys into Syria with Haris and Daphne to join the fighting?