Tom Sleigh has devoted the best part of his career to poetry, both writing it and writing about it. However, after Interview with a Ghost (2006), a collection of essays which blended poetry and autobiography, the New York-based writer veered off and branched out, swapping distillations and examinations of poetic thought for long-form journalism centring on refugee issues.
The Land Between Two Rivers: Writing in an Age of Refugees gathers together a selection of his essays from on-the-ground experiences in war-ravaged hotspots and his accounts of refugee crises. Every tale of courage under fire is offset with horror stories of suffering, desperation and upheaval. But his ruthless pursuit of the truth at what Graham Greene called "the dangerous edge of things", results in an urgent, compelling and above all necessary work.
In the first essay, The Deeds, Sleigh travels to the village of Qana, Lebanon, in 2007 to assess the damage from Israeli air strikes the previous year. Resisting an intelligence officer's advice to go shopping in Beirut, Sleigh heads south with Joseph, a Red Cross worker who witnessed the carnage in Qana. He describes the screams, roar of flames and jets, and the ringing of mobile phones. "The relatives of people were calling to see if they were OK."
Sleigh visits the Shatila refugee camp, then largely for Palestinians, and tries to make sense of Lebanon's laws and religious sects, politics and internecine warfare. His essay is an absorbing study of grief and grievance. Joseph says there is too much blame among his countrymen and not enough responsibility. "We must look at ourselves," he says, "but we are bad mirrors." The second piece takes us into Africa, specifically Kenya and the so-called "Little Mogadishu" camp, home to thousands of Somali refugees. Sleigh learns the reasons for their exodus, their cross-desert treks (with the threat of bandits, kidnappers, rapists, lions and hyenas) and the uncertainty at their journey's end. This essay provides a textbook example of what it is to go the extra mile.
Sleigh boards a UN plane for Somalia to discover for himself why people risk life and limb to flee. Mogadishu, once termed the most lawless town on Earth (“a place where the average lifespan of a person was reputed to be 17 minutes from the airport to the city centre if you lacked an armed escort”) proves to be terrifying and sobering, eye-opening and mind-altering.
Two other essays complete a perfect quartet. In the book’s eponymous piece – its title the translation of “Mesopotamia” – Sleigh describes teaching writing workshops in Baghdad and Basra in 2014 and the way the experience changed how he viewed Iraq and literature.
In the fourth essay, Sleigh ingeniously intercuts mocked-up medieval Arab tales with real-life stories from the Syrian refugees he met with in Jordan. So ends the book’s first section which is worth the cover price alone. The second part contains essays which look at poetry as an adequate artistic response to violence, state-sanctioned or otherwise.
The third and final part consists of personal work – replayed childhood episodes, early-career Mexican adventures, highlights from a 30-year-friendship with Seamus Heaney – and analysis of what makes Texas-born Sleigh tick.
As a journalist he says he is driven by a need to see things for himself – to cut through "the haze of media-spawned fantasies", and escape "a hell of abstractions, of canned images, of jabbering, competing ideologies." This motivation is commendable and it pays dividends, for the best essays here those that relay what he saw and heard on his travels. His many unfiltered observations expertly evoke hardship and chaos. His candid testimonies from aid workers and translators, victims and witnesses, painfully convey the human cost of war.
A UN rep reveals that in refugee camps no one reports a death as that means one less mouth to feed and reduced rations. One woman says she will starve to save her children. Another woman grew so tired carrying both her children that she was forced to leave the heavier one behind.
There is tragedy within these pages but also flashes of humanity, sly comedy and a good deal of poetry. Every essay quotes several poets' work or wisdom. In one piece Sleigh reads Heaney in the Libyan desert; in another he compares the way Anna Akhmatova aimed blows at Stalin in her verse with how the Libyan poet Ashur Etwebi targeted Gaddafi.
Sleigh says he is only afraid before visiting a conflict zone. In a refugee camp, talking to people, that dread subsides: “I’m so focused on listening that there’s no room for fear.” That fearlessness and focused listening have created some powerful essays which enlarge our understanding of both the role of the writer and the extent of a humanitarian crisis.