US Army veteran Benjamin Buchholz’s 2011 novel One Hundred and One Nights’ first-person narrator is an unlikely Iraqi participant in the war against America in the early years of Operation Iraqi Freedom. Abu Saheeh (his name a pseudonym meaning “Father Truth” in Arabic) is a middle-aged doctor from a prominent Baghdad family who, after studying and practicing medicine in Chicago for thirteen years, returns to Iraq to assist the transition to post-Ba’athist rule. An unwelcome reunion with a hated older brother, however, leads to the death of Abu Saheeh’s daughter and sends him on a downward spiral fueled by remorse, anger, and alcohol that eventually result in psychosis and extreme narrator unreliability. The narrative proper of One Hundred and One Nights takes place in a small town on the Iraq-Kuwait border named Sufwan, where at the novel’s opening we find Abu Saheeh running a small shop selling mobile phones by the side of the main road from Kuwait to Baghdad. The business, however, is only a cover: Abu Saheeh’s real purpose in Sufwan is to monitor American military convoys in preparation for emplacing a roadside bomb that, as events transpire, will not only kill American soldiers but allow him to enact revenge on his brother. Abu Saheeh’s sense-of-mission in Sufwan, however, is troubled mightily by the intrusion into his life of an apparently homeless and orphaned preadolescent girl named Layla, a “market urchin” who uncannily complicates Abu Saheeh’s plans and thoughts.
That’s an intriguing set-up, and as One Hundred and One Nights is fairly unknown, I’ve already given away too much, for Buchholz skillfully hides much of Abu Saheeh’s backstory until the novel’s closing pages, even as his reliability as a narrator becomes increasingly shaky. The author’s handling of chronologically complicated narrative threads is not the only accomplished aspect of One Hundred and One Nights, for the novel excels in many other ways, too. Buchholz has done very well to create complex, memorable characters—not only Abu Saheeh, but a host of other central and minor figures–devise a plot that captivates and surprises, and situate his story in a densely-rendered culture milieu that seems not just accurate but knowing. The prose is neither gutbucket simplistic nor highly stylized, but serves nicely for explorations of mental landscapes and invocations of a ghost-land spaces where reality, image, and fantasy blur:
In my home I sit completely naked at my kitchen table for a long while. In front of me I have placed my whiskey bottle. It is empty. Behind the whiskey bottle, I have placed the bomb, the next bomb, the second and, I hope, last of those bombs bought with Sheikh Seyed Abdullah’s money, smuggled across the border in pieces behind the disguise of the whiskey bottles. The thick and rounded bottle distorts the shape of the bomb. The facets of the bottle reflect the image of my haggard face, superimposed on the curving shape of the detonation charge, so that the bomb seems to have my rough whiskers, my black tumble of hair, my untrimmed mustache, my depthless, reddened eyes.
Before writing One Hundred and One Nights, Buchholz published a memoir titled Private Soldiers (2007) about his National Guard unit deployment to southern Iraq. In Iraq, Buchholz served as a civil affairs officer in and around Sufwan. Apparently the genesis of One Hundred and One Nights were the death of a local girl and the bombing of one of his unit’s vehicles, but rather than focusing on the victims of war, especially the American victims, or on the experience of American fighting men, Buchholz has used his first novel to dramatize the events through the eyes of their killer. Buchholz’s tour in Iraq, he explains in an addendum to One Hundred and One Nights, instilled in him a desire “to understand and empathize with the types of personalized hatred and personalized loss and personalized dementia that I believe to be at the core of the mind-set required to perpetrate a bombing or kill another human being.” When asked why he chose to write from an Iraqi perspective, Buchholz writes, “I think it is an issue of empathy, of trying to understand other people,” but also, “Writing from my own point of view of someone culturally similar to me would have been boring.” Fiction rather than non-fiction, according to Buchholz, offers an “outlet for hypothesizing, a place that allows me to give structure to ideas and concepts that seem in the real world important but also ephemeral, shifty, unquantifiable, nonlinear.”
Those explanations are insightful, if more turgidly expressed than the more fluid and supple prose of One Hundred and One Nights would suggest. One Hundred and One Nights probes the limits of empathy through sympathetic character creation, at a time when issues of cultural appropriation and Orientalism are real concerns. Buchholz appears to have damned the critical torpedoes by creating a story around one of the mysterious, anonymous residents of Iraq he must have observed by the thousands during his tour. Given its subject, One Hundred and One Nights was probably not destined to ever be popular among American readers more interested in the experience of American soldiers than those whom they fought. The book’s title, which plays a little too obviously on the ur-text of Arabian literature, One Thousand and One Nights, and the book’s jacket, which features a fetching young Arab woman peaking out from under a hijab, also bespeak an uneasiness which someone, either Buchholz himself or his publishers, must have felt about bringing a book told by a radicalized middle-aged male Iraqi insurgent before American reading audiences. That the novel succeeds as well as it does is a testament not so much to Buchholz’s cultural acuity but his literary skill. Its interrogation of the limits of empathy is excellent, but its exploration of the possibilities of artful tale-telling even better.
As far as I can tell, One Hundred and One Nights is the first novel about war in Iraq written by a US military veteran and one of the first novels about the war written by any American. As such, it’s a fantastic first effort right out of the chute at the head of the tradition it helps inaugurate. As of 2019, One Hundred and One Nights and Private Soldiers remain Buchholz’s only published books, but just this year he snagged a spot as a featured columnist for the online journal The Writer, and there he announces that he has contracts for two more books forthcoming in 2020. I’m glad to hear it and I look forward to learning what they are all about.
Thanks to David Eisler for the tip on One Hundred and One Nights and another early-on novel set at least partially in Iraq, Nicholas Kulish’s 2007 Last One In, which I’m reading now and will be writing about soon.
Benjamin Buchholz, One Hundred and One Nights. Back Bay-Little Brown, 2011