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Issue Date:  October 6, 2006
  Novelists train their sights on Islamic terrorism


Because of the wide reach of global mass media, modern terrorism can seem like a new phenomenon peculiar to our times. But terrorism is nothing new. The dictionary indicates that the word was first coined in 1795. A quick glance at history reveals many periods marked by terrorism: surprise Viking attacks along the English coasts; 19th-century anarchists assassinating Russian Tsar Alexander II in 1866 and an Austrian empress on Sept. 10, 1898; Zionist attacks against the British in Palestine; IRA bombings in London and elsewhere.

Writing fiction about terrorism is nothing new either. Joseph Conrad, in The Secret Agent, published in 1905, and Under Western Eyes, published in 1911, explored the actions and intentions of radical groups in early 20th-century London and Russia. Doris Lessing, in her The Good Terrorist, published in 1985, probed the psyches of radical lower middle-class English youth.

What can novelists say to us today that journalists cannot? Both attempt to explain terrorism. Both examine what suicide bombings and Islamic fundamentalism bring to the table of terrorism. But novels provide a depth of understanding that straightforward journalism misses.

John Updike’s latest novel, Terrorist, is one of the first English-language attempts to dissect the mind of an Islamic terrorist. But Terrorist is only one among a spate of novels emerging after Sept. 11, 2001. In 2004, journalist Lorraine Adams published Harbor, in which she examined the sad, poverty-ridden lives of desperate Arab immigrants in Boston and the ways in which their lives spiral out of control as the police suspect an emerging terrorist cell. Frederick Forsyth’s The Afghan came out in mid-August 2006, delving into the life of an Afghan suspected of being a terrorist and imprisoned at Guantánamo. And readers anticipate Martin Amis’ upcoming imaginary treatise on 9/11 bomber Mohammed Atta, appearing in a short story in Amis’ House of Meetings to be published in January 2007.

By John Updike
Alfred A. Knopf, 310 pages, $24.95
By Yasmina Khadra, translated by Linda Black
Toby Press, 212 pages, $12.95
By Yasmina Khadra, translated by Linda Black
Toby Press, 260 pages, $14.95
By Yasmina Khadra, translated by John Cullen
Doubleday, 257 pages, $18.95
By Viken Berberian
Simon & Schuster, 187 pages, $22
By Slimane Benaïssa, translated by Janice and Daniel Gross
Grove Press, 258 pages, $24
By Myriam Antaki, translated by Marjolijn de Jager
Other Press, 176 pages, $22

Like Mr. Updike, Mr. Forsyth, Ms. Adams and Mr. Amis, several Middle Eastern authors -- Yasmina Khadra, Viken Berberian, Slimane Benaïssa and Myriam Antaki -- also scrutinize the minds of suicide bombers and other Islamic terrorists. Ms. Khadra was one of the first to begin examining the origins of Islamic terrorism in the late 1990s.

John Updike’s Terrorist receives more press than most of these books because of his literary celebrity and Pulitzer Prizes and the astuteness with which he examines the details of American life.

In Terrorist, Mr. Updike presents the life of Egyptian-American teenager Ahmad Ashmawy Mulloy. The son of an Egyptian father who leaves early in the game and a lapsed Irish-Catholic mother, Ahmad (another version of the name Muhammad) lives in New Prospect, N.J., but has few prospects. His mother, Teresa, is a nurse’s aide in her 40s. She still dreams of being an artist and her strange abstract canvases line the walls of her bedroom in their tiny apartment. Money is in short supply in the family, and so when he is 11 years old, Ahmad falls under the tutelage of Sheikh Rashid, a Yemeni imam who ominously advises Ahmad to become a truck driver and forgo college. Mr. Updike’s Ahmad parrots many Quranic sayings, but still comes across as the kid he really is. He has no friends except for an African-American girl named Joryleen, whom he judges constantly for what he perceives as her sluttish way of dressing. His attitude toward his mother is not much better, but Teresa admires her son’s faith, calling it “beautiful.” She left the Catholic church at age 16.

Hoping to help Ahmad, Jack Levy, Ahmad’s 60-plus guidance counselor, a Jew married to an obese librarian named Beth, befriends Ahmad’s mother. An adulterous affair ensues between Jack and Teresa. It is this trio -- Ahmad the devout Muslim, Jack the secular Jew, and Teresa the errant Catholic -- that is central to the novel. Other characters come and go, including Charlie Chehab, a shadowy figure possibly with the CIA, Jack’s sister-in-law Hermione who just happens to work for the head of Homeland Security, and the furniture company owners for whom Ahmad hauls furniture after graduating from high school. In Jack, Updike essentially constructs a mirror of Ahmad and his dislike of the modern West, for Jack too spouts off in the same way against American culture and society. “All I’m saying is that kids like Ahmad need to have something they don’t get from society any more. Society doesn’t let them be innocent anymore. The crazy Arabs are right --hedonism, nihilism, that’s all we offer.”

Terrorist moves rapidly, the plot interspersed with the philosophical musings of Jack and Ahmad, until the climactic moment when the red button sits between Ahmad and Jack, and they both make a decision about life and death.

Mr. Updike hammers home the idea that for many young people, Islam offers a sense of meaning in a meaningless world and a sense of community and belonging. This, coupled with the ideas of dignity and honor that run through so much Islamic discourse, make it easy to comprehend how radical Islam draws young people in. Because of Islam, Ahmad’s sense of identity gels, whereas before he was the kid everyone called “Arab” and shunned.

A weak point perhaps is that the author does not examine closely the Quranic concept of jihad versus the distortion of it disseminated in radical fundamentalist Islam. Jihad means an inner struggle against sinful behavior. Jihad also means armed struggle, as in qital, but the Quran proposes very specific circumstances for qital. In addition, there’s no mention in Terrorist of Sayyid Qutb, the radical Islamist executed by Gamal Abdel Nasser in 1956, whose works (Milestones and In the Shadow of the Quran) still influence radical Islamists. Shahid, or martyrdom as viewed by Muslims, remains essentially undefined as well. But even so, Mr. Updike’s Terrorist reflects much of what Arab authors reveal about Islamic fundamentalist terrorism.

Among Mr. Updike’s Arab counterparts, perhaps the best-known Arab author is Yasmina Khadra, a feminine pseudonym for Mohammed Moulessehoul, a former high-ranking Algerian army officer who spent years trying to contain Islamic fundamentalists. Pertinent works by Ms. Khadra include In the Name of God, Wolf Dreams and The Attack. In all three novels, Ms. Khadra traces the development and formation of suicide bombers. In the Name of God and Wolf Dreams both trace the evolution of poor, ordinary young men into affiliates of radical Islamists, willing to die under the banner of shahid. The subtext in both novels suggests that poverty and simply falling in with a certain community or group is enough for people to merge with the radicals. Mr. Updike also suggests this is the case, for Ahmad is surprised in a conversation with his sheikh to find out that he, Ahmad, had agreed to “die for jihad.” His response is, “I did?”

Ms. Khadra’s most recent novel, The Attack, follows the story of Dr. Amin Jafaari, a physician whose wife, Sihem, becomes a suicide bomber and his search for the reason why.

Ms. Khadra stated emphatically in an e-mail to this reviewer that the West “holds itself hostage to misconceptions and misinformation about Arabs. ... In your panic, you are missing the point.” Islam is not the defining reason for terrorism; indeed, according to Ms. Khadra, “Islam has nothing to do with the violence.” Poverty, political corruption and hopelessness are more important, as well as the Palestinian question. “And everyone fights with the methods they have,” she added. “Otherwise, the young people would not blow themselves up in a restaurant. They’d use drones, tanks or airplanes.” Ms. Khadra believes that ceasing to use the label “terrorism”-- which she calls a Manichaean concept because it deals with the “good” West and the “bad” Middle East -- would do much to open up dialog between opposing sides.

In The Cyclist, Lebanese-American author Viken Berberian portrays a nameless bicyclist involved with plotting to blow up an important building at the behest of an obscure group called The Academy. Interestingly, food emerges as an important motif in the book. A Druze, the cyclist relates his story in the first person, using a rich stew of food-related metaphors. The book celebrates Middle Eastern food as it chronicles the horrors of the upcoming bombing. The strong impact of the book stems in part from the fact that the plotters call the bomb “the baby.” Like Ms. Khadra, Mr. Berberian suggests that poverty and oppression give rise to suicide bombers. The impact of traditional Middle Eastern hospitality plays a decisive role when the cyclist stays overnight and eats a highly symbolic meal with a Bedouin family before he participates in a bicycle race just before the bombing. Along with Mr. Updike, Mr. Berberian stresses the importance of relationships with other people in the lives of the bombers.

Like Ms. Khadra, Mr. Berberian emphasized in an e-mail that religion is not the chief reason for terrorism. He wrote, “There are many conditions in the Middle East besides Islam that we need to understand and these other conditions have an economic, historical and political basis.” The U.N. Working Group on Terrorism in 2002 came to the same conclusion.

In her luminous book, Verses of Forgiveness, about the 1948 founding of Israel, Syrian novelist and Melkite Catholic Myriam Antaki uses religion to focus on relationships and family. Like Mr. Updike, she depicts three characters: a Catholic mother, a Jewish father, and a Muslim son. Through their woundedness, and years apart, the father and son both become terrorists, one for the new Jewish state and the other for radical Islam. At the beginning of the novel, the son lies tortured in a jail cell, close to death. As he envisions his family, whom he has really never known, having been taken in by the moderate Sheik Ahmed al-Tahi after his father and mother died, he begins to discern his unseen connections with them and others. The novel flows back and forth between past and present, and at times reads almost like a breviary so prayerful it is in spite of the narrative thread revolving around torture and death.

Through these three characters, Verses of Forgiveness shows the divisions in Middle Eastern society caused by hatred. Ms. Antaki advances the idea that it is woundedness, distortion of the Quran, and hate that produce “human bombs.”

In a recent e-mail to this reviewer, Ms. Antaki discussed jihad in light of verse 190 of the chapter in the Quran called “The Cow.” It reads: “Fight in the cause of Allah those who fight you, but do not surpass limits; for Allah loves not transgressors.” Transgressors include those “mutilating the dead, theft [from the captured goods], killing women, children and old people who do not participate in warfare, killing priests and residents of houses of worship, burning down trees and killing animals without real benefit.”

Verses of Forgiveness reflects Ms. Antaki’s belief that “to understand the Middle East is to understand its desire for peace. I believe the most effective measure against terrorism is not to analyze Islam but to try to resolve the Palestinian question.”

Algerian novelist and playwright Slimane Benaïssa, like his fellow Algerian Yasmina Khadra, experienced Islamic fundamentalism firsthand. His novel, The Last Night of a Damned Soul, grew out of his despair over Sept. 11 and the question “How is it possible?” Mr. Benaïssa illuminates clearly how terrorists politicize Islam, making it into their own creation.

In a speech at Grinnell College on Sept. 20, 2004, translated by Janice Gross, Mr. Benaïssa said, “Since the majority of my readers are non-Muslims, I had to give them ways of understanding Islam throughout the story so that they could see where the terrorists went astray with respect to the Muslim religion. The point was not to put Islam on trial, but to show how and where the terrorists politicized religion for their own purposes.”

Throughout The Last Night of a Damned Soul, the author includes sermons and other material related to Islam to illustrate this politicization. These sermons and asides tend to fragment and almost fracture the story line, but in the end prove necessary to understanding Islam, the story, and, hence, the events of today’s world. Interestingly, in his speech at Grinnell, Mr. Benaïssa said that he sees the solution to most of the problems in the world as outside the realm of religion.

Like Mr. Updike, Mr. Benaïssa folds his story around Arab immigrants and, like Mr. Berberian, he uses the first person to tell the story of the narrator, Raouf, an immigrant and a software engineer in California’s Silicon Valley. Through Raouf’s meditations and musings, Mr. Benaïssa dredges up the issues of poverty and Muslim humiliation, making it clear that Islam as preached by the radical Islamists is not the Islam he knows.

As Mr. Benaïssa weaves his story, a reader familiar with the gangs in America’s inner cities experiences déjà vu: There’s the same lack of educational and economic opportunity, unstable or restrictive family lives and weakened community.

In nearly every case, the suicide bombers in these novels form deep, intense relationships with imams, suggesting that perhaps these authority figures stand in for absent fathers or provide escape from unstable family lives. Ms. Antaki, in an e-mail written in French, stated emphatically that many young people involved in radical Islam are “fragile.” In spite of cultural, religious and gender differences among these authors, their conclusions emphasize one basic theme: Radical Islamists distort the tenets of Islam and feed the resulting hash to young people with impressionable minds and few prospects.

In effect, radical Islam resembles a huge gauze bandage covering a deep oozing wound, masking the reality.

All of the novels mentioned in this review merit reading, but The Attack by Yasmina Khadra stands out as visceral and unforgettable. When Dr. Amin Jaafari mourns his wife and at first refuses to believe that she carried out a suicide bombing, the reader looks out the window at the sunlight and wonders, “Do I know this person I live with? Do I?”

That sense of unknowing doesn’t surface when reading Mr. Updike’s novel. And yet Mr. Updike captures a certain truth in Terrorist. Ms. Khadra’s and Mr. Benaïssa’s characters could exchange places with Updike’s Ahmad and a reader would note only a change of name. The American author gets it right: It’s poverty, oppression, lack of opportunity and hopelessness that propel many young people into the arms of radical Islam, just as gangs provide a missing ingredient for many inner-city youths in the United States experiencing similar social and economic conditions. Contrary to what some critics are saying about Terrorist, Mr. Updike delves into the mind of a potential suicide bomber and produces a character who resembles those portrayed by Khadra and Benaïssa, novelists from Arab cultures who know firsthand what creates suicide bombers.

Cynthia D. Bertelsen is a freelance writer in Blacksburg, Va. She lived in Morocco for two years.

National Catholic Reporter, October 6, 2006

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