Cross-Border (book review)

I was looking for a way to introduce J.’s latest aid worker novel Cross-Border without sounding like a middle-aged academic, but it is hard to avoid some tropes about his writing endeavors, e.g. ‘how I followed his career’, ‘how a new book was long overdue’ or how the world, development and aid worker writing have changed over time.

But as with most tropes, there is usually a grain of truth to them.
My reviews of J.’s first novel Disastrous Passion appeared on Aidnography in 2012. Missionary, Mercenary, Mystic, Misfit followed in 2013 and his first non-fiction reflections about the aid industry, Letters Left Unsent in 2014. His science fiction novel Human was published in 2016.

Now back with his latest novel, three broad themes quickly emerge that as always say a lot about the current state of affair of ‘our industry’: Borders have become a key part of the ‘infrastructure’ that governs humanitarian and development work. The novel (finally!) moves away from ‘the field’ to US headquarters and, well, the transient ‘field’ of Amman that often does neither seem to be ‘here’ nor ‘there’ in the complexities of the localization agenda. And doing humanitarian work in Syria quickly gets you entangled in (anti-)terrorism activities and the deep bureaucracy of the US state.

World Aid Corps (WAC) country director Aksel likes to get ‘things done’ in the organization
s Syria programs including referring to ‘one of my local buddies in downtown Amman (who) got me good deal’ (p.4.)-the kind of deal that gets HQ staff in Washington concerned about procurement rules.

Larry and Hannah to rescue WAC, Syria...and themselves?!?
Luckily, low-level sparks are developing between MENA desk officer Hannah and Larry from Ops right from the beginning so our romantic expectations are kept on their toes.
But then the US government demands full documentation of the cross-border South Syria Shelter and Winterization grant and the heat is on for WAC Middle East team as the whole organization is on the verge of disaster...

Aksel seemed to thrive in an environment of broad mandate, vague strategy, and little perceptible internal regulation. He seemed to be always working, always rushing out of the office to this or that important meeting, or frantically trying to finish one more email before barely making it to the airport to catch a flight to Erbil or Istanbul. Ray couldn’t remember the last time he’d had more than a 15-minute conversation of substance with his direct supervisor (p.16).
Later on Larry complains: ‘I’m a hindrance. I’m bureaucracy. I’m a waste of bandwidth better spent getting the shelter kits into Southern Syria’ (p. 61).

This has always been J.’s strength to bring out the bigger challenges and paradoxes of the industry through his characters and his fictitious settings: We are all in favor of localization and flexible implementation of projects, but God forbid, some person inside the donor administration gets on the case of the missing/too expensive/too cheap winter coats for Syrian refugees…

Amidst Larry
’s looming divorce and claims that WAC may have worked with a local implementation partner that is actually a ‘terrorist’ organization, he travels to Amman to turn around WAC’s sinking MENA operations.

I don’t want to spoiler too much at this point. Cross-Border is a worthy sequel to J.’s previous novels.
In a way his writing has matured in a way good TV shows matures from season to season. Lots of issues remain unsolved in the humanitarian industry despite many attempts to improve, coordinate, streamline or localize efforts.
Or as J. puts it slightly less abstract:
As Larry found himself pulled into the murky world of cross-border humanitarian operations, little did he know that the truth of what actually happened with grant US-008-58673-0062 would spiral through the cramped offices of the Ronald Reagan Building, smoky pubs in Sweifiah, and the dusty planes of As Sweidah.
Many parts of Cross-Border remind me of the line in DJ Quik’s Killer Dope: ‘The street never changes, only faces do-Every several years, it replaces you’. Going back to J’s first novel set after the Haiti earthquake it really feels that many parameters of the industry have remain unchanged.

Were almost there!’
But it is not just the office romances, staff intrigues and idiosyncrasies of the aid system that Cross-Border engages with. The last paragraph of the book is a timeless and important reminder of why aid workers do ‘this’:
Ahead in the light of a sinking afternoon sun Ranim could see the border fence, the guard towers, the light blue banner with “UNHCR” on it with big white letters. And beyond that, the clean open desert of Jordan. Ranim turned once more to look back at Noor. “Come on, hyati. We’re almost there!” (p.90).
In the end, I am basically repeating my previous praise for J’s writing. Cross-border is an entertaining read during your next ‘airport purgatory’, a thoughtful reflection on contemporary challenges in humanitarianism that students (and researchers!) should discuss and the continuation of friend’s literary journey that I have been fortunate to accompany from my academic sideline!
J.: Cross-Border. 141 pages, USD 3.99 (Kindle edition), Evil Genius Publishing, 2019.

Full disclosure: I was a beta reader of an earlier version of the book and provided feedback on the manuscript .

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