Two Books of Reportage Around ISIS

All Lara’s Wars, by Wojciech Jagielski, translated from Polish by Antonia Lloyd-Jones (Bookshop.org)

I sent them to Omar myself… But my thinking was that it might finally put them off war — they’d see what it can do to a man, how badly it can destroy him. Then they wouldn’t imagine it was just heroism, martyrdom, and justice. Everything I did was designed to put them off war, but everything I did just pushed them toward it. It must have been their destiny, but why did I have to engineer it?

All Lara’s Wars is a work of Polish reportage by Wojciech Jagielski, an experienced war correspondent. It covers the story of a Chechen-Georgian woman pseudonymized as Lara, who lost her two sons in Syria after radicalization by the Islamic State. Having already lived through the twentieth century’s major upheavals in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, Lara has a certain kind of fearlessness, and traveled to Syria herself, alone, to try and bring them home.

The Kists escaped not just wartime exile to the snows of Siberia, but all the other historic upheavals that rolled across the world, changing its shape and order. Indeed, the news that came from afar was so unusual that they found it hard to believe. Enclosed by the Caucasus Mountains, they heard about regicides, revolutions, and great wars, none of which had access to their godforsaken valley, but simply passed it by.

Lara and her family are Kists, an ethnic Muslim minority that crossed the Caucasus Mountains and settled in the Pankisi Gorge of northern Georgia. Her husband is Chechen and they eventually made their life and raised their family in Grozny, the Chechen capital.

It’s established that the boys’ upbringing wasn’t religiously strict; in fact, it could even be seen as comparatively lax based on how the Kists traditionally operated: “The Kists knew they were Muslims, but if any of them prayed at a Christian church rather than a mosque, it wasn’t the end of the world. They were aware that life sometimes makes you do things in spite of yourself and that you need to be flexible in order to survive.”

She tells her story to Jagielski, of life before her sons left, while they lived in Europe, and then the chaotic time after she learned they were in IS-occupied Syria. Jagielski fills in with sections of history around the Kists, their region of Georgia, and the conflicts between Georgia and Russia, as well as the rapid rise of ISIS in the Middle East.

This had parts that were completely captivating and others that I found less so. I found the dual histories of conflicts in the region and local history more difficult to follow than Lara’s present-day narrative, but it might be because I have little background in it. That seems like it might’ve helped here, although I think the author presented it clearly and with the right amount of data to inform but not bog the narrative down. Maybe it was my own concentration or distraction.

I also occasionally felt some gaps in the narrative, and I’m not sure if they were from Lara’s reticence, confusion in general, or the author omitting something. Perhaps it’s just the nature of a story of war and loss like this, that some things are left unspoken, too painful for dwelling upon or expounding in detail. And details themselves are easy to lose; even Lara was confused and misled by her son’s deviations.

Maybe it’s that sometimes the story hit so emotionally hard — when Jagielski relates the surroundings, Lara’s behavior, and prompts her gently to get at the heart of this story and all she’s been through, it’s so moving and gorgeously written that more straightforward history seems lackluster in comparison, although obviously necessary. I still think it’s an excellent, important work of journalism, even with its unsatisfying moments.

As in the quote I shared at the beginning, Lara feels a heavy sense of responsibility for her own involvement in directing her boys towards radicalization. But it’s clear that she only wanted something better for them, and was thrilled when both emigrated to Europe.

It’s heartbreaking, that goes without saying, but like another book that followed a parent’s attempts to extract their children from IS, it feels like an important story to know. This focuses more on Lara herself and the tumultuous times she’s lived through in a tumultuous region than it does on the younger generation’s radicalization, as Two Sisters does. It felt more like a testament to all that we can survive, still with some hope left despite it all. It’s laden with nostalgia and memory and regret, but it feels meaningful to single out Lara from among the many parents who lost their children to IS and tell this one story in its context.

Years later, she’d have agreed that those days in Grozny, at the start of her adult life, were in fact the happiest. If only she had known that, perhaps she’d have been able to enjoy them more, without impatiently looking out for what was yet to come.

published October 13, 2020 by Seven Stories Press. I received an advance copy courtesy of the publisher for unbiased review.

James Verini, war reporter and contributing writer for the New York Times magazine and National Geographic, takes a different tack in reporting They Will Have to Die Now: Mosul and the Fall of the Caliphate. He was on the ground during the battle for Mosul begun in 2016, in what would become an historic one-year fight to reclaim IS’s last stronghold in their proclaimed caliphate.

Verini bravely — somewhat terrifyingly — embeds with the active units and acts like a camera sweeping across the scarred cityscape, reporting the street-by-street fight that occurred to win back the city from its occupiers. He also fills in Mosul’s history, and its long-standing significance in Iraq.

I didn’t like this as much as I wanted to, and I struggle to put a finger on why. Maybe it’s just the way it feels to be inside this setting, even from the safe remove of someone else’s words and a battle already long over. The brutality and viciousness are intense, but, to be fair, the glimpses Verini shares of humanity are intense as well. Verini shows the impact on the ordinary citizens of Mosul as well as the fighters with the Iraqi Counter Terrorism Service and Kurdish peshmerga. He also shows something of Mosul’s residents’ mentality, like why many initially accepted IS’s takeover of the city.

I didn’t find the history as compellingly written as I’d hoped either, but as with All Lara’s Wars, I think the problem might be my lack of background in Iraq’s history. I think everything I’ve read is around current events there, so I could use some more thorough filling-in here.

And yet, it’s a book that I think I would read again. With all of the domestic news going on at the time the battle for Mosul was fought, during the 2016 election and then the first year of Orange Fuckface’s presidency (sorry, he just has me in an even worse and stressed-out mood towards him than usual lately), there was so much distracting from us from what was actually one of the most influential battles being fought in the 21st century. This book is like if a reporter had been embedded with Red Army units during the street fighting of the Battle of Berlin. It’s just monumental contemporary history of a period that will have major implications for the future, and the significance of which we haven’t even begun to unpack.

published September 17, 2019 by W.W. Norton, out this month in paperback (Bookshop.org)

4 thoughts on “Two Books of Reportage Around ISIS

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  1. As always your reviews are excellent. I’ve been off nonfiction for a while but am starting to get back some of my adult reading life and am alternating heavy and light reads. Finally got The Cooking Gene which we had discussed a bit and I do understand your review a lot better now after starting to read the book. It’s important but lacks focus, I’m going to have a hard time reviewing it!

    I’m sure you’ve heard of this one because he’s gotten so much buzz lately, but Ibram X Kendi’s Stamped from the Beginning was good, even if it is one of those soul-crushing 400+ page non-fiction reads.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh thank you!! That means a lot to hear 🙂 I know what you mean, certain heavier nonfiction needs left off or alternated quite often. Perhaps especially right now…

      I loved The Cooking Gene — especially the first half or so was just extraordinary. Like almost impossibly captivating writing and storytelling. But when he diverted into so many angles around the genetics and ethnographics I did get a little lost and it felt scattered and unfocused. I almost think he had too much information and could’ve benefited from some better editing to streamline it. It was a really tough one for me to review too. I’ll be looking forward to hearing your thoughts on it when you get to it!

      I’ve heard of Stamped from the Beginning! It does sound soul-crushing but one that I’d like to get to eventually…thanks for the recommendation!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Both sound interesting and I do have a bit of a general historical knowledge of both areas. I might need to fortify my spirit before diving into such depressing material — my tolerance for human suffering brought on by mass stupidity and the willingness to be lead down a self-destructive path is at an all-time low right now. Maybe after the election — assuming the nightmare isn’t prolonged another four years.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. They were both really solid reads, but also ones you need to be in the right mood / headspace for. And ugh, yes, right now I’m in the same boat as you re: no more tolerance for that in particular. (Very well put, by the way!) I’m having trouble focusing on much at all with how anxious I am at the moment over all this.

      Like

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