It wasn’t the sensational headline — “The Real-Life Mad Max Who Battled ISIS in a Bulletproof BMW” — that grabbed my attention. It was the next bit.
“Here is a person I came to really like and admire – Ako. He’s saved a lot of lives, but he’s also a killer. He embodies a lot of opposites.”
“When Ako Abdulrahman bought a used, bulletproof BMW in 2014, it was the Kurdish soldier’s way of standing out from the crowd, not to mention protecting himself. Two years later — when ISIS invaded Kirkuk and began slaughtering civilians — Abdulrahman and his car made all the difference.”
Jeffrey E. Stern’s Vanity Fair story about a peshmerga fighter who decides to use his impermeable vehicle not as a weapon, but an ambulance, invokes some of the same drama and spirit of “Schindler’s List.” Furthermore, it begs the question: What causes a warrior to become a savoir?
Those questions struck Stern, a freelance journalist and author, when he saw a short television segment in 2016 about Abdulrahman. But Stern’s proposal to capture the fuller story failed to land with any of the five editors Stern pitched.
No stranger to documenting pulse-quickening narratives from hazardous settings, Stern traveled to Meliandou, Guinea, at the height of Ebola panic four years ago to track the virus from source to scourge. More recently Stern’s work has appeared in The New York Times Magazine and The Atlantic on diverse subjects such as the rapport between a lawyer and her client — a Guantanamo Bay detainee — and the unexplained death of a Russian émigré in London.
Perhaps what kept editors from green-lighting the tale of a Kirkuk fighter’s about-face was that Stern had no contacts for it whatsoever.
But a glance at Stern’s publishing history reveals that he thrives on vaulting formidable obstacles such as access.
“I am always the most ignorant person in the room; I never have any contacts or familiarity; I am always starting from nothing on my stories,” he told me by telephone recently.
In fact, Stern launched his freelance career from this combination of lack and chutzpah. A few months before graduating from Duke University, Stern had homed in on a Vanity Fair article that he “ripped out and inked up” with a parenthetical line about a young Afghan, Attique Sharifi, who had been killed in the 2005 London subway attacks.
Stern learned that Sharifi had a younger sister, Farishta, back in Afghanistan whom he’d sent all his spare money to, and for whom he’d made the journey to London in the first place. Fueled by that curiosity, Stern set off to “find the story of the boy in the parentheses,” as he wrote in “The Ghosts of Kabul” for Duke Magazine. Along the way Stern, placed his dispatches from Afghanistan in Esquire UK, Newsweek and the Philadelphia Inquirer.
While the premise of Stern’s most recent story from the Middle East certainly piqued my attention, what really shanghaied me was Stern’s prose. Here’s how he describes the fighter-turned-savior:
“Nothing Ako does is safe or discreet. If he offers you one of his French cigarettes, he lunges forward with it. He drinks a cappuccino in three gulps. He listens to Kurdish rap music and likes it loud. His presence is one of urgent motion.”
Stern coveys a palpable sense of his protagonist without any physical descriptors. And the single attribute he mentions — Ako’s facial hair –continues to flesh out not just the appearance but the soul of his character: “Even his beard is shaped into an angular prominence that suggests direction.”
So how did Stern come to sell the story no one would buy? Furthermore, how did he wind up drinking cappuccino with the owner of the bulletproof Beemer?
I spoke to Stern, also the author of two nonfiction narratives, “The Last Thousand: One School’s Promise in a Nation at War,” and most recently “The 15:17 to Paris: The True Story of a Terrorist, a Train, and Three American Soldiers” (now a newly released Clint Eastwood movie) about how he landed his interview with the “Real-Life Mad Max,” and about what Stern calls the plight (and the privileges) of freelance writers.
The interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
Would you agree — as a freelancer you seem to be searching for good news where it seems least likely: in chaos, terror, rage. (I’m thinking of The New York Times Magazine story about the Gitmo lawyer, the book/movie “15:12 to Paris,” this story about Ako.)
I’m chuffed that you would say that; I’m not sure I want to be so precious as to say that I accomplish it, but I am often thinking that way … and certainly an animating factor for me is people in situations that I feel ambivalent about, where I have two or three strong feelings, some of which contradict each other…. You know that Walt Whitman line, about being large and containing multitudes — “Do I contradict myself, very well I contradict myself…”?
An example would be my first book, which examines what happens to the Marefat School in Kabul, Afghanistan, when President Obama follows through on his promise to withdraw American forces. (As Jennifer Senior wrote in The New York Times, “What becomes depressingly clear is that every ideal the institution stands for — free inquiry, equal rights for women and ethnic minorities — will be in jeopardy once American troops are reduced.”) I feel strongly about women’s rights and minority rights, but I would not say I am a martial person. I don’t like the idea of sending hundreds of thousands of troops to war. Here, I didn’t get to have it both ways. Troops coming home meant women’s rights and minority rights moving backwards. The book is me trying to sort through these two irreconcilable beliefs on the page.
In the case of the Vanity Fair article: Here is a person I came to really like and admire – Ako. He’s saved a lot of lives, but he’s also a killer. He embodies a lot of opposites. On the one hand he smokes these thin French cigarettes and drinks cappuccino and it actually struck me as almost effeminate, and then, on the other hand, he’s an uber-masculine martial soldier.
“I’m not a strong reader; I get lost and confused easily, especially with things that are exotic or foreign, so I’m always really neurotic about losing you, even though, at the same time, I want to bring you to a foreign place. So I’m trying to find points of connection, totems, familiar terms.”
You learned of Ako’s story via TV/international news—and then you traveled to Kirkuk to hear first-hand the details of the story. Why?
As soon as I heard this story, I started pitching it, and everyone I pitched it to eventually passed on it. But I’d get together for drinks with a fellow journalist and we’d get to commiserating, and I’d inevitably start whining about how I couldn’t get anyone to take the story, and she kept saying, “It’s just such an amazing story.” So eventually I kind of embraced the courage of my friend’s convictions and started doing some of the reporting remotely, without an assignment, and then went back out and started re-pitching the story.
This piece required a fair amount of logistics, so that was one thing I began working on when I got tired of sitting on my hands with this.
How were you able to track down Ako and convince him to speak with you?
Two ways: I found a local Kirkuk, Iraq, news channel that had done a short TV segment on Ako and posted it to YouTube. I couldn’t understand the words, but the correspondent’s name was included, so I connected with him on Facebook. His English was not great and I speak no Kurdish, but eventually he shared a cell number for Ako. I knew Ako wouldn’t speak English, and it was possible he wouldn’t speak Arabic, so I knew I’d have to find someone near me who spoke Kurdish. I thought that there might be some advocacy/think tanks in the DC area advocating for Kurdish issues, and I ended up connecting with a guy named Yousif Ismael at the Washington Kurdistan Institute who was willing to have me sit in his office while he cold-called this cellphone number I had. It took a few tries, but eventually we were able to connect with Ako and establish that he’d be willing to cooperate. If I could get an assignment and get myself there. And then Yousif turned out to be just a wonderful guy who was invaluable with the story and the logistics of getting to and around Kirkuk. It was tricky though, because as I was re-pitching … Ako’s a fighter, and every day that goes by adds uncertainty — will he still be willing to cooperate, will he be able to get the time off to meet with me, is he even OK, is he still alive?
And going all the way across the world, actually or metaphorically — you wonder, is it a story at all? What have I gotten myself into? Sometimes you ask [the subject] a question and you listen to the answer and you can hear the story writing itself…. I never really had that moment with this story. Part of that was because I was restricting myself in my brain more than usual because I had a relatively short word count, also I was of course interviewing him through an interpreter, which obviously takes longer — but also, he’s just off the front lines when we’re speaking, which means I’ve got to get everything I need right now because I’m not going to be able to call him up later for fact-checking purposes [because the fact checkers aren’t going to be able to contact him for confirmations…] So when I would ask him, “OK, you turned right. Why did you turn right?” His answer would be something like, “We turned right and the Kurdish people have been oppressed for generations and we will fight for the land that’s rightfully ours,” so it was a constant struggle for me, and really more than me, my friend who was serving as fixer and translator, to keep bringing it back to the story.
You write at one point, “For Ako, revenge was a cause, a calling.” He was born into conflict, and also drawn to it — he has a tattoo, “Life is torture.” What do you think led to Ako’s profound U-turn?
Ako’s U-turn was a moment of very clear logic, the way I saw it. I actually dwelled on that moment a little longer in earlier drafts, in which I blew way past my word count and ended up needing a lot of help reining it in. But I’d spent probably an hour with the translator and Ako just trying to get in his head during that decision. And what it came down to for Ako was: He sees this women in black, it unfreezes something in him, and then he has this moment of very clear logic: The ISIS fighters are suicidal. They’re going to die anyway, eventually; whether or not he kills them right now, they are still going to die, versus these civilians, who didn’t have to die.
A lot of Ako’s identity, his worth, is based on revenge, and on being a fighter. Ako really wanted to be killing people, and in this situation, he was making a personal sacrifice in that moment to not kill.
Often we hear of battles in an abstract sense — where they happened, fatalities, who had control at the end of the day. This story zooms right down to street level, a personal level, an emotional level.
I’m not a strong reader; I get lost and confused easily, especially with things that are exotic or foreign, so I’m always really neurotic about losing you, even though, at the same time, I want to bring you to a foreign place. So I’m trying to find points of connection, totems, familiar terms. I pitched this as “The Beemer,” because it’s wonderfully materialistic — it’s the conveyance to a foreign place, that revolves around a luxury car … in Vanity Fair. The idea was to build up a lot of familiar things to bring you to a very foreign place, without losing you. And the fear of losing you is, I think, also part of why it’s almost less important to me that you know what happened, and more important that you feel what it was like. I think they’re a little different. I’m not sure I ever I totally succeed, but it’s almost always what I want to do.
What does writing an article teach you about writing a book?
Your question feels rhetorical… I feel like I should think about it for a while, but in the meantime, I could say that in an article, if I don’t feel like anything good is coming — no beautiful prose — one of the things I do is approach it architecturally, by trotting out the facts, using them to help create the superstructure that will hold the article together.
The hardest thing about the book is the blank page, and one way to deal with that is to just put one foot in front of the other. With “The Last Thousand,” I really wanted it to be a narrative that read like a novel, but I was there reporting it in real time, and so I treated it like a documentary, like a filmmaker who goes in and records 100,000 hours of raw video, then goes into the edit bay and carves the story out.… I had to write about 800 pages just to see what the book could look like, and then I carved it out of that.
What I learned then is that even when you have the length, it can feel really far away from a book.