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Writing Osama bin Laden

Why have American novelists failed to tell convincing stories about terrorists?

In the days after September 11, then-Illinois state senator Barack Obama published an article in the Hyde Park Herald, his local newspaper, emphasizing the “difficult task of understanding the sources of such madness.” (The reference comes via David Remnick, who quoted the piece in The Bridge, his biography of Obama, and again on Monday in his reaction to the killing of Osama bin Laden.) “The essence of this tragedy,” Obama wrote, “derives from a fundamental absence of empathy on the part of the attackers: an inability to imagine, or connect with, the humanity and suffering of others. Such a failure of empathy,” he continued, “such numbness to the pain of a child or the desperation of a parent, is not innate; nor, history tells us, is it unique to a particular culture, religion, or ethnicity.”

These lines, it could be said, are not particularly insightful. The jihadist’s lack of empathy for the victims of a terrorist attack is not necessarily a failure of imagination; rather, the jihadist’s choice to disregard empathy—to fixate on cosmic reward rather than the short-term sufferings of individuals—is part of what it means to be a jihadist. But Obama’s words resonate in the wake of bin Laden’s death for another reason. Empathy is not what we expect from jihadists, but it is what we look for in our novelists. Unfortunately, only a handful of American novelists have even made an attempt to write about terrorists close-up. And their efforts have largely suffered from precisely the sort of failure of imagination for which Obama criticized jihadists, offering remarkably little insight into the sources of the madness. A list of suggested reading about bin Laden published by The New York Times on Monday did not include a single work of fiction.

Part of the problem is lack of knowledge. The conventional wisdom about Osama bin Laden, we now know, was all wrong. He wasn’t secreted off in some remote cave deep within the hills of the Pakistan-Afghanistan borderlands, far from civilization. Instead he was in a Pakistani McMansion, a generously proportioned compound surrounded by concrete and barbed wire, situated a stone’s throw from a prestigious military academy in a a midsize city. To be sure, the digitally rendered immediacy of bin Laden’s killing—from the nearly instantaneous reports of the raid in electronic media to the much-circulated Google Earth screen shots of his hideout—make it all seem bizarrely proximate. But our collective imagination of the inner workings of Al Qaeda proved deeply at odds with the reality. And, as the efforts of novelists have shown, the place we still cannot travel is the mind of a jihadist.

The most egregious demonstration of this was John Updike’s Terrorist, from 2006, in which the main character—an Arab-American teenager in the thrall of a storefront imam—is patched together so incompletely that, as James Wood wrote in his review of the novel for TNR, Updike’s attempts to give him depth are like “icing a hollow cake.” In contrast, the protagonist of Pearl Abraham’s American Taliban, which came out last year, is boldly imagined and certainly no stereotype: John Jude Parish is a blond surfer and skateboarder who is vaguely drawn to mysticism in a typical teenage-slacker manner. When a broken leg keeps him away from his sports, he finds in studying Arabic the discipline his life is lacking; his meandering path leads him from the Arabic-language school in Brooklyn to an Islamic academy in Peshawar and, from there, to an Al Qaeda training camp. But Parish is so far from a typical terrorist, his journey so wild and fantastic, that he sheds little light on the phenomenon more generally.

One could argue that Western novelists have a strike against them from the start. Are we likely to trust that a writer named Updike or Abraham can have insight into the mind of a jihadist? While they both have things of value to say, their uncertainty about their subject matter shows through on the page in the lack of precision that each brings to the Islamic trappings surrounding their character. A certain shorthand is being called upon, gesturing at things we think we know about—things we have heard about—but do not really know. What is a storefront imam, anyway? What does his mosque feel like inside? We get a description—up a flight of stairs, through a double door, carpets that need to be vacuumed, and so on—but it is so unvisceral that one can almost see the novelist standing behind the curtain with his pen and paper, taking care to make note of the adjacent nail salon and check-cashing establishment. Updike admitted that his research for the novel was superficial—he even consulted a book called The Koran for Dummies.

Lorraine Adams, whose 2004 novel Harbor is both the most realistic and most successful book in this small group of novels about terrorism, builds the reader’s trust by establishing her protagonist’s identity as a distinctive character—he is an Algerian refugee who ends up in Boston after stowing away on a ship—before altering his trajectory into jihad. When a writer thinks through her character’s predicament deeply enough—from the physical damage he sustains from the conditions on the ship to the constant confusion of his adjustment to America—we don’t get bogged down in wondering whether she has done her homework. (Perhaps not coincidentally, Adams is also a Pulitzer Prize-winning former reporter who covered counterterrorism and had access to material collected by the FBI.) But her book, like Abraham’s, treats an accidental terrorist, a man who is mainly carried along by others. Perhaps an intentional jihadist presents an imaginative barrier too difficult to cross.

Updike said in an interview that he could only feel comfortable writing about an American character. “With so many journalists and other novelists on the job, there was no need to try to understand the Saudi or Syrian or Palestinian terrorist,” he said. “Others can do that better.” But the trouble is that the American market is not exactly overflowing with novels by Saudi Arabians or Syrians or Palestinians exploring the motivations of homegrown terrorists. A few anthologies have appeared over the last year, including Beirut 39, a collection of work by young writers around the Arab world, and Reza Aslan’s Tablet and Pen, a hefty volume that includes sentimental favorites like Khalil Gibran and Naguib Mahfouz as well as more cutting-edge writers. But anthologies are panoramas, not stereoscopes: The picture they present is wide, not deep. Beirut 39 provides a tantalizing excerpt of a novel called The Twentieth Terrorist by the Saudi writer Abdullah Thabit, a former extremist who received hate mail and death threats for revealing details of ideological indoctrination. But the book has yet to be published in English translation; only a few pages are available. 

Granted, literature shouldn’t be a game of identity politics. The best writers—David Mitchell, who brilliantly pulled off his recent epic about eighteenth-century Japan, comes to mind—are true ventriloquists, able to speak in the name of characters with whom they share little superficially. But logic tells us that it might well be impossible to write a truly great realist novel about a culture of which one knows little, because realist fiction requires an amount of precision that can be gained only through comprehensive contact. Could Dostoevsky have written Crime and Punishment about a student in Helsinki rather than St. Petersburg? What if Flaubert had made Madame Bovary a country wife in Appalachia? No amount of research and preparation can equal total immersion in a world.

But even immersion can go only so far. In a moment of cosmically serendipitous timing, the latest edition of Words Without Borders, the Internet magazine devoted to literature in translation, is now featuring writing from Afghanistan. The issue includes some excellent work, including a story by a very young writer named Mahmud Marhun depicting the inner monologue of a jihadist who discovers himself excluded from paradise and another remarkable story by Zalmay Babakohi, an émigré who now lives in Canada. Yet even these works shrink from an up-close view of bin Laden. Babakohi’s story, “The Idol’s Dust,” describes the destruction by the Taliban of the Bamyan Buddhas, the giant sculptures that once stood in central Afghanistan. In Babakohi’s vision, the dust from the Buddhas settles on the Talibs and covers them; when they try to scrub themselves clean, they discover they have been transformed into idols. Finally, word reaches “the Commander of the Faithful” about the situation, and the mullah in charge of the operation is ordered to present himself. When he appears, quaking with fear, before his leader, seeing him up close for the first time, he is so shocked he cannot speak. All he sees of the Commander—and all that we see, through the mullah’s eyes—is the same idol’s dust on the Commander’s forehead.

Ruth Franklin is a senior editor at The New Republic.

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