While the United States has a long history of military involvement in other countries, the humanitarian service of Americans abroad, especially that of young American men and women, constitutes a parallel history of international cooperation, goodwill, and hope. In this spirit, 26-year-old Rhodes scholar Ian Klaus arrived in Iraqi Kurdistan in early 2005 to teach American history and English at Salahaddin University. Now, more than two years later, with American forces still in Iraq and the war as hotly debated a topic as ever, we have Elvis Is Titanic: Classroom Tales from the Other Iraq, Klaus’s record of his experience as an American civilian trying to make a concrete, personal impact in a country most of us see only on the news.
Currently pursuing a doctorate in history at Harvard, Klaus has a keen sense of the past, of its ability to both explain the present and aid us in envisioning the future. He wisely begins his tale by interspersing a thumbnail history of the Kurdish region and the plight of its people, providing the reader with a solid context for understanding the far-flung and unfamiliar land where the story takes place.
Klaus is also strong when explaining the present-day predicament in Iraq vis-à-vis broader questions of the role of the United States, and of democracy building, in the Middle East. He writes: “That successful democratic Iraq would be a win-win situation for both Americans and Iraqis seemed a rather straightforward and simple truth. Not so simple, on the other hand, were the questions about how a nation historically ambivalent with regards to international entanglements might succeed in encouraging democracy, or, more immediately, how the violent tension between the West and parts of the Islamic world had arisen in the first place, and whether American intervention in these societies could possibly meliorate the situation.” With the backdrop of Iraq and Iraqi Kurdistan thus sketched, Klaus takes the reader inside his experiences, most of which occur in the classroom. Unfortunately, it’s here where Klaus’s weaknesses as a storyteller—or perhaps the weaknesses of the story he is telling—are revealed.
The challenge for a writer in transmitting the excitement, fascination, and intensity of past events in a classroom is much like the difficulty of recounting a funny occurrence to someone who wasn’t present: when the thrust of the story falls flat, the raconteur’s only recourse is to shrug, “Well, I guess you had to be there.” Much the same goes for Klaus’s narrative. With so much of the story taking place in the classroom, the problem isn’t that he’s a bad writer; rather, it’s that he’s not a great writer. Most of the classroom scenes consist of interesting but not enthralling discussions of cultural exchange, history, and politics. Only a truly great writer could make this material leap off the page and grip the reader. For the reader, then, the stimulating immediacy of actually sitting in class is missing.
Klaus has also chosen a difficult book to write structurally. In combining memoir with a history of the region, as well as journalistic accounts of the situation in Iraq while he was there, he dabbles in three forms of storytelling without achieving the unity or coherence of any one. His clumsy hopscotching through time, space, and subject matter is periodically disorienting, but it is in his role as memoirist, shedding light on his inner life, that he leaves the reader most wanting. For example, why did Klaus decide to go to Iraqi Kurdistan in the first place? What emotional calculus brought him there? How does he feel when he’s told that he should carry a gun? What was the psychic toll of living in a place where he needed two bodyguards with him in public at all times? And what did he feel when he had to cut his stay short because he had become too big a target? Relief? Anger? Both?
The reader is left guessing, a regrettable outcome, for the few keyhole peeks we get into Klaus reveal him to be an individual finely attuned to his emotions. In perhaps the most powerful scene in the book, he experiences a catharsis of sorts on hearing the Muslims in his class repudiate Osama Bin Laden and his tactics. He writes: “Until that moment, I had not heard ordinary Muslims in the Middle East speak out vehemently and sincerely to disown what had been done in the name of their faith. I also hadn’t realized how much I needed to hear it.”
Though Elvis Is Titanic is a flawed book, it nevertheless introduces the reader to an outstanding human being—the type of person this world needs more of.
Aaron Shulman is a first-year fiction student in the University of Montana’s master of fine arts program in creative writing. He recently spent five months volunteering at an orphanage in Guatemala.