Jinwar and Other Stories
By Alex Poppe
Cune Press: March 8, 2022
$16.00, 123 pages
Alex Poppe’s Jinwar and Other Stories is an unsparing look into the world of war in the Middle East, focusing on Syria and Kurdistan (Northern Iraq). The title novella and five accompanying stories take readers behind the scenes of the news reporting that has created the images we have about the people, places, and politics that have dominated foreign affairs for two decades.
These are gritty, closely observed depictions of women in the midst of the chaotic world of war and post-war situations, with countries working at cross-purposes both military and diplomatic, and NGOs attempting to alleviate the suffering and facing obstacles from every direction. In short, it is hellish.
“Jinwar” is a four-part story that follows the protagonist during her stint as a nurse’s aide stealing Xanax in a VA hospital before moving first to a riverside hot dog truck somewhere in America during Wiener Week and then to a group of women from an NGO navigating complicated and often dangerous relationships with each other and the men of Northern Iraq. It finishes when she arrives at Jinwar, “a women-only, ecological self-sustaining village … built from scratch by Syrian Kurdish women … a place for women who wanted to live independently and break free from violence.” If you read only one story about the Iraq War, it should be “Jinwar,” which presents a multifaceted view of the impacts it has on the various participants.
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“Road Trip in War Time” is set during a suspenseful three-hour drive over the mountains in a smugglers’ car.
In “V,” a lonely Kurdish-American teenager in Oakland becomes enamored with a young female rebel leader in Kurdistan before being confronted with the reality of shifting alliances and conflicting loyalties in Kurdistan.
“Kurdistan” introduces another teenage girl, this time from Nashville, who is moving to Kurdistan to live with her aunt after her mother dies (her father died eight years earlier while working as an interpreter for the U.S. Army in Iraq). “Mom and Dad were the only ones in their families to emigrate to the US when Saddam was killing Kurds. Now they are gone and Saddam is gone, so the lawyers thought I should go there, here, to be with family. All my relatives are here.” Coping with grief and dislocation, she slowly develops relationships with her wealthy and privileged Aunt Maya and her housekeeper, Trahzia, eventually learning about her family’s experiences during the war and gaining insight into her mother’s life before she emigrated.
Poppe balances the struggles of her characters with lots of gallows humor to leaven the brutality and senseless actions of a long list of military, rebel, and jihadist groups (primarily ISIS), all of which are oppressively patriarchal.
Poppe’s impressive collection can comfortably share shelf space with other stellar works of fiction by women about the wars in the Middle East like Roxana Robinson’s Sparta, Helen Benedict’s Sand Queen, Siobhan Fallon’s You Know When the Men Are Gone, and Lea Carpenter’s Eleven Days.
Writer and critic Mark Edward Hoffman sums up Jinwar and Other Stories best: “Poppe’s finely-observed, well-turned stories of soldiers, expatriates, and immigrants cast light on an aspect of the American experience that oft eludes literary notice: namely, the toll and echo of its recent imperial misadventures.”