“Asian Vespers,” by Agnes Bushell; self-published, Portland, Maine, 2005; 378 pages, hardcover, $15.97 (Amazon price).

In case you’ve been wondering what the uproar over the U.S. throwing the Kurds under the bus in Syria has to do with us here, I’ve got a really beautiful book for you to read that will provide some answers. They are literary answers, which means they go way beyond the historical facts you can find on Wikipedia. “Asian Vespers,” by Agnes Bushell, gives you the humanity of the life-and-death historical friction playing out now in northern Syria.

Most of “Asian Vespers” takes place in Istanbul, where the protagonist, Aris Buckley, has traveled from Massachusetts with half a million dollars concealed within the covers of several hollowed-out books. He is smuggling the money to Turkey for his old friend Reza, who is involved with underground efforts to provide relief to his people, the Kurds.

The backstory of the Kurds — which is the backstory of the chaos of the past month — is that they are an ethnic group without a country, and no country wants them. They’ve lived in the vicinity of northern Iraq, Iran, Syria and southern Turkey for centuries, basically with a bull’s-eye for genocide on their backs. In 1995, the time of “Asian Vespers,” Assad’s Syria had been manhandling them along the Turkish border for years. They were defending themselves in the mountains of northern Iraq against the brutality of Saddam Hussein. In Turkey, Kurds had mounted an insurgency in the late 1970s, prompting the label “terrorist organization” there. Their determination to create a self-governing state for themselves in Kurdistan, the name of the region, basically made the whole group political outlaws in the four countries where they mainly lived. Most Kurds are Muslims, but other religions too, including Christian.

As an inevitable part of the resistance — which has been basically a chronic war for survival — factions developed, complicating every Kurdish life even further. Into this complex sociopolitical mix comes Aris, who has been a humanitarian aid worker in Africa for decades and knows his way around foreign fundraising and corruption. Although he is close friends with Reza stateside, he is only superficially familiar with the complexities of Kurdish politics. The plan is for Aris, bearing a well-traveled American passport, to carry the money to Turkey for Reza, who because of his ethnicity has little chance of successfully smuggling anything across international borders. Aris is to meet Reza in Istanbul and hand over to him the half million dollars. Simple enough.

Reza, however, does not turn up in Istanbul as scheduled. Aris spends several days seeing the sights of the ancient city. (Bushell’s depictions of the Blue Mosque, the Aya Sofya, the streets and bazaars are so spectacularly vivid and accurate to the Istanbul I visited myself in 1995 that I noticed myself wondering if I might unknowingly have seen Aris Buckley in Taksim Square …) One afternoon, he finds himself in the middle of a brief riot outside the Egyptian market, gets knocked to the ground and his wallet stolen, and from there the simple plan to meet Reza becomes exponentially complicated. Including the eventual revelation that Reza’s son Jalil, unbeknownst to anyone stateside, has been abducted by a faction of the Kurdish peshmerga, or military forces, while attempting to go mountain-climbing on the Turkish-Iranian frontier.

“He had done the right thing,” Aris thinks, of himself, late in the story, as the outcome still hangs in the balance, “ostensibly the right thing. But the circumstances had changed. A little cosmic sleight of hand. The old bait and switch. But what if there had been no mixup, what if he had been given the choice, what if he still had the money when he learned about Jalil, what if he had to choose between giving the money to the KRG (Kurdistan Regional Government) or to the PKK (the Kurdistan Workers Party). On one side, hundreds of people eat for a winter; on the other side — Jalil.”

In just this brief passage, you can kind of read the entire moral dilemma of the United States’ relationship to the Kurds — who were betrayed last month with no apparent regard for even the superficial moral problems implied here, let alone the cosmic links and complications inherent within them.

This is an absorbing, timely, really beautiful novel, with vividly wrought characters placed deftly in their cultural, social and political milieus within a tense story. Agnes Bushell,  of Portland, is one of Maine’s largely unsung master fiction writers. Some of her other novels include “Local Deities,” based on her friendship with Raymond Luc Levasseur, a 1970s political activist who ran afoul of the federal government; “Days of the Dead,” about a gay American man fighting alongside Guatemalan indigenous forces in the 1980s; and last year’s “The House on Perry Street.”

“Asian Vespers” is available through online book sellers or by contacting Littoral Books in Portland.

 

 

Off Radar takes note of poetry and books with Maine connections. Dana Wilde is a member of the National Book Critics Circle. Contact him at [email protected].

 

 

 

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