One Hundred and One Nights by Benjamin Buchholz
War Up Close and Personal
When I opened my mail in January of 2011 and found the galley of One Hundred and One Nights and accompanying blurb request from Benjamin Buchholz’s editor at Little, Brown, I was almost comically surprised. I’d gotten maybe a dozen such appeals since publishing my first novel, Mudbound, every last one of them for books about farming and/or race relations in the Jim Crow South. This book was about the war in Iraq, and there wasn’t a dead mule in sight. The author, according to the jacket copy, was an American soldier who’d served in the war.
That was enough for me, and I set it aside. I just didn’t want to go there: either to war or to Iraq, which I’d been hearing about nonstop since March 19, 2003, the day Bush started bombing Baghdad, and which I was greatly looking forward to forgetting about once our troops pulled out later in the year. But all that day my eyes kept returning to the arresting cover photo of the beautiful blue-eyed girl in a hijab, and my mind to the puzzle of why in the world they’d sent this particular book to me, and somehow I found myself cracking it that same night. “Layla first visits today, in the evening, like most evenings hereafter,” it begins. Five hours later I looked up, bleary-eyed, to find it was 2:30 a.m. Buchholz had sunk his hook deep in my innards. I hadn’t even felt it going down.
One Hundred and One Nights surprised me in all sorts of ways, starting with the fact that it’s written from the first-person POV, not of an American soldier like Buchholz, but of a middle-aged Iraqi named Abu Saheeh (“Father Truth” in Arabic, a pseudonym whose irony plays out over the course of the novel). Abu Saheeh is a shopkeeper and haunted veteran of the Iraq-Iran War who is also a Chicago-trained physician. He has come to the small, traditional southern Iraqi town of Safweh to start a new life—from the still-smoldering ashes of what traumatic past, he tells us gradually, day by day, in stylistic homage to the great Arab literary classic One Thousand and One Nights. From his ramshackle store on the outskirts of town, he sells electronics and closely observes the American military convoys that come and go daily on the highway connecting Basra and Kuwait.
Abu Saheeh’s fresh start is upheaved by the sudden appearance one day at his shop of a quirky, teenaged street urchin named Layla, who has a fascination for all things American. Enchanted by her vivacity and her wistful, imaginative ramblings about baseball and snow, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Abu Saheeh begins to look forward to her daily visits, eagerly anticipating the moment when she will materialize as if from thin air and share her outlandish ideas, which are as haraam (forbidden) as her presence in his life, a girl of almost-marriagable age speaking privately with an older, unmarried man.
Each night Abu Saheeh returns home to his unfurnished house, gets drunk on haraam liquor smuggled in by his influential friend and de facto ruler of the town, Sheikh Sayyed Abdullah, and dreams of his old life: of his privileged childhood in Damascus as the son of a prominent Baathist colleague of Saddam Hussein; of his beautiful fiancée Nadia, to whom he was engaged at birth, and his sadistic older brother, who joined Saddam’s army and went off to fight in the war against Iran; of his own harrowing stint as a medic in the war and his subsequent medical training in Chicago. Abu Saheeh is a sneaky and beguiling narrator who unspools the secrets of his past for us slowly and unflinchingly, and with each revelation we sense an even darker one to come.
Meanwhile, in the present, he becomes more and more obsessed with Layla, even as he agrees to an engagement with Ulayya, the widowed daughter of a prominent man in town. His business prospers, even as his association with Sheikh Sayyed Abdullah takes on a sinister, clandestine quality. And his nightly drinking intensifies, even as he monitors the American convoys with increasing intensity and expertly dis- and reassembles a jack-in-the-box toy as if it were a bomb.
Much of the power of this book lies in its ambiguity. Does Abu Saheeh see Layla as a daughter or as a love interest (which we are made to understand would be perfectly acceptable in southern Iraq, for a 14-year-old girl to marry a 40-something man). Is she real or a figment of his imagination? Is he a mobile phone salesman or a jihadist? Sane or mad? Buchholz keeps us guessing right up until the devastating dénouement.
This is a fearless and seductive piece of ventriloquism by a storyteller in full command of his craft. The prose is spare and lyrical, though sometimes meandering (which is my one criticism of the book, especially toward the end, when Abu Saheeh’s thoughts become increasingly scattered and hard to follow). But then, just when you’re getting impatient, you’ll arrive at a place of piercing beauty and poignancy.The ray enters the market. It flows around hastily strung electric wires, antennas for the shops, it aches and yearns and tunnels and breathes and darts this way and that until at last it pierces through my open shop door to perform its final and glorious mission: outlining Layla in gold.
She’s beautiful, more beautiful than anything I’ve seen for months. Not a warm beauty. Not a beauty that makes the heart melt. Hers is, instead, a cold calamitous tragedy of beauty.
Buchholz inhabits his protagonist so convincingly that if you didn’t know better, you’d think the book had been written by an Iraqi who’d spent time in the States. And he reveals, through the mind of this damaged and utterly compelling character, the insanity at the heart of war.
And those are the two reasons you must read it—especially if you feel, as I did, that you don’t want to go there. We need stories like One Hundred and One Nights. We need to be forced out of our tidy assumptions, which are shaped and packaged by the American media and reinforced by our ignorance and fear of other cultures. We need to walk in the shoes of people unlike ourselves in order to see our common humanity. We need to ask questions of ourselves and our leaders, about why we send men and women to kill other men and women half a world away.
If you’re thinking, this sounds like medicine, think again. This novel is not only a feast for those who love beautiful sentences and living, breathing characters, it’s a page-turner that will have you skimming those beautiful sentences at the end so you can find out what happens to those characters you care so much about.
When I was about halfway through One Hundred and One Nights, I was pretty sure I’d solved the mystery of why Buchholz’s agent had sent it to me. Like Mudbound, this was a reach for the author, a character-driven, first-person novel told in the voice of someone completely unlike himself. And like Mudbound, it was about Important Stuff that’s unsettling to think about.
But when I finished the book, I found myself thinking not “Why me?” but “Why not all of us?” This was our war; our men and women dying alongside theirs. This is a story that belongs to us all, and Benjamin Buchholz has told it in a way we will never forget.
Hillary Jordan is the author of two novels, Mudbound and When She Woke, published in 2008 and 2011 by Algonquin Books. Mudbound won the 2006 Bellwether Prize for fiction and was named one of Paste’s Top Ten Debut Novels of the Decade.