Stories and the Storyteller

My friend Stephanie asked me a question this morning. “So,” she began, stretching that short word as she revved her inquiring engine, “did your visit to the Middle East open your eyes?” I’ve had a hard time answering questions similar to this one, but she phrased it just right.

“I guess so,” I replied, warming up to return her volley. “I feel my eyes opening more widely now for everything.”

Since returning from half a month in and around Iraq, the questions people ask me are not usually the ones I want to answer. It’s become a bit of a problem. Some of you have begun to lose patience. I’d like to apologize, if only I knew for what.

During my first week home, the question I was asked most concerned jet lag. Jet lag strikes people who have never been bone-tired. It’s a social convention to ask about it, but it struck me as especially silly this time. Jet lag doesn’t rise to the level of suffering that I had become familiar with in Iraq. I couldn’t help wondering whether genuine connections can be sustained when our shared suffering is jet lag.

After that phase and the related “re-entry” questions, I found myself fielding “what was it like” queries. In short: stable, sad, confusing. But I haven’t come up with longer answers that aren’t repeating what I’ve written. Robert Frost once was asked to explain one of his poems. He tartly replied, “What? You want me to say what I already said in words not as good?” I’ve felt like that.

Now come the “what should we do?” questions. They’re good questions. I have them myself. But those answers will swirl out of the geo-political arena, and that’s a realm I purposely avoided. I had no access to the people with power. Rather, I was with those people whose lives are affected by that power. Asking for my insights into the political machinations is like asking a midwife for sex therapy. I’ve seen the effects, but that hasn’t given me access to the causes.

I went to Iraq to gather stories and I want people to hear them, but I’m faced with an unexpected problem. I can’t easily give audiences what they want — solutions — and I also can’t give them what they think should be easy. Let me explain.

Stories about people I met should be easy to tell. They were generous with me and I was careful with them. The stories must be told, but it gets more complicated than that. On our last day in Suleimaniya, I asked a colleague how he handles anecdotes. Joe Mueller has been back and forth between Louisiana and Iraq for five years. His answer was unexpectedly flat: “I don’t tell anecdotes. People will require it. So I tell one, but then I tell it over and over. That way I do as little damage as possible.”

“Damage?” I asked.

“These are real people, living real lives, sharing themselves with me. I consider each to be a profound gift,” Mueller spoke with some sadness that betrayed where he was going. “When I reduce a person’s life to an anecdote, I’m draining the life out of that gift. It feels like a betrayal to me.”

I took Mueller’s concern to heart. I worked to present the stories I gathered with all the context I could collect around them, allowing them to move in their own imagined space. I tried to recreate each story’s natural setting, the way an enlightened zookeeper designs a custom habitat for each animal.

But ask me to string the stories together into a narrative about me and my experiences, and it feels like each animal is stuck in a rolling cage, announcing the circus has come to town. How can the stories be presented and preserved, but not fully tamed and caged? They remain not remain completely wild, but I know they don’t want to be lined up into a parade.

How to tell the stories without diminishing the people who shared them, or the people wanting to hear them — that’s what I’m still trying to figure out.

If the storyteller wrestles with the story and the fight is fair, the story must win.

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) has gathered 20 stories from Iraqi Kurdistan on his blog at www.dksez.com/iraq, along with a link to his recent talk to the City Club of Eugene. He tells stories in this space each Friday.