May 21, 2005

Dancing like wolves

Some posts ago, I mentioned Michael Kelly's book about the first Gulf War, Martyr's Day, and quoted a passage from it. Kelly was later editor of The Atlantic Monthly, and as an "embedded" journalist, died in Iraq in April 2003. I didn't agree with some of what he wrote in the Atlantic, but he was a sharp, incisive and perceptive man, and therefore always a pleasure to read. (I'm not sure "pleasure" is the right word to apply to this book, but anyway).

In April 1991, Kelly, suffering from acute diarrhoea, is making his way laboriously through Kurd-held territory in Iraq to Turkey, from where he hopes to catch a flight home to the States. With much difficulty, he and his two guides (Obeyed and Zahir) arrive at a "beautiful, young river" that is the border with Turkey. They can't cross right there, so they make their way through some tough country upstream to a point where they can cross. This point is a smuggler's outpost, where a few smugglers are ferrying sheepskins across the river into Turkey using an elaborate rope mechanism. They agree to help Kelly across, and this is what he writes:

    I watched the smugglers make a couple of crossings. They didn't bother with the rope contraption, but made it over on their own strength, by a combination of footwork and cleverness, as graceful a thing as I had ever seen, more like dancing than wading and swimming. The trick was to half-surrender to the water's force. They let the great rush of water sweep them off their feet and downstream, but balanced themselves in it like corks, so that their upper torsos were always above the water and their feet always pointed to the bottom. The water was shallow enough, and the bottom varied enough, that they often touched up against a rock of bit of sandbar, and when they did, they reacted instantly, pushing off against it to move laterally. Thus, they made it across skipping from touchstone to touchstone, to alight in the end, panting but still upright, about a hundred yards downstream from where they had started. They were young and lean and brown and as hard-muscled as wolves.


    "You had better get ready," Obeyed said. I shivered, undressing. ... I took everything off except for my glasses, and after a moment's thought I took those off too and put them in the bag. I figured that otherwise I would probably lose them as soon as I lost my footing for the first time. Without my glasses, I couldn't see much, but I could sense that the other men were looking at me strangely, with evident embarrassment. Finally, Obeyed spoke. "You should wear something." He made a vague gesture at my groin.

    I cursed myself to myself. I was standing naked in the rain, by my own choice. I felt too old and weak for this, and my pinkness was suddenly overwhelming. I was the pinkest thing around for hundreds of miles.

    It was mercifully and abruptly time to go. Two of the boys took my bags on their heads and ran off dancing in the water. Two more came up to me. [They] led me to the water and I took a baby step in -- my God, it was cold, and the rocks were sharp -- and then we were off, them dancing and me slipping, stumbling, flailing with my pink arms and legs against the astonishing weight of the water. I thought twice I was being swept away, but the dancers held on to me, and never lost their footing, and never quit moving, and then we were in shallow waters, and then I was in no water at all, standing on the grass of Turkey, panting and laughing and pinker than ever, with the men on the far bank cheering.

I quote this passage here for two reasons. One, it reminded me of the time I tried to cross the Rio Grande river into Mexico from the US (remote West Texas). It flowed swift and strong, and stripped to my undies as I was, I both felt ungainly and must have looked it as I tottered my way against that "astonishing weight of the water" to the middle, where I was just able to keep my balance. I stopped and knew something like I could see the sun above me: another step forward and I'd be swept away. Should I risk it just to say I set foot on Mexican soil? Or turn around and accept defeat?

I turned around. To this day I wonder what would have happened had I not.

Two, that Kelly can write in this delightful vein in a book about war only underlines, for me, the craziness of war. Read him if you get a chance.

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