How to Create a Terrorist, Part III

Alaa Al Aswany’s The Yacoubian Building.

First published in Arabic in 2002.  U.S. edition, translated by Humphrey Davies, published in 2004, Harper Perennial

This post is part of the African Reading Challenge hosted by Kinna Reads.  .

Alaa al Aswany
Alaa al Aswany

Taha el Shazli has dreamed since childhood of becoming a police officer in his home city of Cairo, Egypt, and he has done everything in his power to make that happen.  He achieved high scores on all his school tests, he trained his body to become physically fit, he cozied up to all of the policemen in his area, and he passed the qualifying examination for the police academy with flying colors.

Taha is one of the main characters in Egyptian writer Alaa Al Aswany’s best-selling 2002 novel The Yacoubian Building.  This novel focuses on a group of characters who all live in (or on the roof of) the once-elegant apartment complex called The Yacoubian Building.  This building is meant to represent a microcosm of Egyptian society, with the rich, poor and middle class all living intersecting lives within close proximity.

Yacoubian

Taha is one of the poor members of this microcosm, so poor that he and his father live on the roof of the building.  Taha tries his whole life to rise above his humble origins.  Despite all his efforts, however, Taha is rejected from the police academy, not because of his qualifications, but because his father is a lowly door keeper.  Class barriers are strong in Egypt.  As Taha’s girlfriend Busayna points out,

“This country doesn’t belong to us, Taha. It belongs to the people who have money.  If you’d had twenty thousand pounds and used them to bribe someone, do you think anyone would have asked about your father’s job?  Make money, Taha, and you’ll get everything, but if you stay poor they’ll walk all over you.”  (59)

After being rejected from the academy because of his father’s job, Taha starts to dream of revenge.  He moves on with his life, however, by attending university.  He finds himself unable to shake off his class though.  The university students replicate the rest of their society; his fellow students are divided into cliques of the rich vs. the poor, just as the Yacoubian Building is.

One place where Taha DOES finds a place where he feels accepted is at the Faculty’s mosque.  Most of the other young men who frequented the mosque are poor like himself, and he soon became part of a close group of friends. One of these friends eventually introduces him to Sheikh Shakir.

Shakir convinces these discontented young man to join his group in jihad.   He exhorts his listeners to rebel against the corrupt rulers of Egypt, claiming that Egypt is ruled by “French secular law, which permits drunkenness, fornication, and perversion, so long as it is by mutual consent.”  Shakir then reminds the men that their “supposedly democratic state is based on the rigging of elections and the detention and torture of innocent people so that the ruling clique can remain on their thrones forever.  They lie and lie and lie, and they want us to believe their revolting lies.”  After railing against the corrupt Egyptian government, Shakir then urges his lsteners to “reclaim the concept of gihad and bring it back to the minds and hearts of the Muslims,” noting that “Millions of Muslims humiliated and subjected to dishonor by the Zionist occupation appeal to you to restore for them t heir ruined self-respect.”  (95-97.)

Taha, like many other young men, is drawn to the words of the sheikh.  He is all too familiar with feeling humiliated and rejected and finds succor in the idea of organized resistance against all the corrupt forces that are holding him down.  Becoming an Islamist gives him “a new, powerful, bounding spirit.  He has taken to walking, sitting, and speaking to people in the building in a new way.  Gone forever are the old cringing timidity and meekness before the residents.  Now he faces them with self-confidence.”  (115)

Once Sheikh Shakir is confident of  Taha’s strengthened religious faith and his feeling of belonging, he next persuades him to join their jihadist struggle, the Islamic Action Charter.  He give Taha a copy of their brochure to read, which Taha stores in his pocket.  Not long afterwards, Taha participates in a mass protest against the Western alliance in the Gulf War.  The police are not happy with his participation in the protest, so they take him in to jail.

The police find the brochure for the Islamic Action Charter in Taha’s pocket and assume he is part of the organization.  The beat him to a pulp trying to get him to talk about it, but Taha knows nothing.  At that point, the police escalate their torture.

“Then they threw him facedown on the ground and several hands started to remove his gallabiya and pull of his underclothes.  He resisted with all his might, but they set upon him and held his body down with their hands and feet.  Two thick hands reached down, grabbed his buttocks, and pulled them apart.  He felt a solid object being stuck into his rear and breaking the tendons inside and he started screaming.  He screamed at the top of his voice.  He screamed until he felt that his larynx was being ripped open.”  (153)

It is this experience of torture and humiliation at the hands of the police that complete Taha’s transformation from an earnest, hopeful young man to a scarred soul bent on revenge.  He is now ready and willing to do anything for revenge.  He is now primed to become a member of Shakir’s jihadist organization and to volunteer for a suicide mission.

Alaa al Aswany’s portrayal of Taha has some intriguing similarities with Yasmina Khadra’s portrayal of his nameless narrator. Both of them start out as poor yet peaceful young men with high hopes for the future.  Both are brought down by a series of shocks and assaults on things and people they love.  What finally turns both of these characters towards terrorism, though, are actions of others that humiliate them and remove their sense of honor and dignity.  Once those are gone, they feel compelled to seek vengeance.  They believe this vengeance is necessary to restore themselves to life as they know it, life with dignity and honor.

Khadra’s narrator claimed that he was, for all intents and purposes, dead after seeing the humiliation  his father suffered at the hands of the American soldiers.  Similarly, Taha felt dead after his torture by the police.  He said to the sheikh,

“I’m dead now.  They killed me in detention.  When they trespass on your honor laughing, when they give you a woman’s name and make you answer with your new name and you have to because of the savagery of the torture. . . You want me to forget all that and go on living?’

Whether this loss of honor and dignity come from Western military forces or from the brutal Egyptian police, these characters believe they must take action to restore their sense of selves.

*******

This post is the third in my series “How to Create a Terrorist.”  The first two posts were on Yasmina Khadra’s novel The Sirens of Baghdad:

 https://debrabooks.wordpress.com/2014/11/01/how-to-create-a-terrorist-part-i/

https://debrabooks.wordpress.com/2014/11/02/how-to-create-a-terrorist-part-ii/

 

How to Create a Terrorist, Part II

Yasmina Khadra, The Sirens of Baghdad, Part II.

Yasmina Khadra, pen name of Mohammed Moulessehoul
Yasmina Khadra, pen name of Mohammed Moulessehoul

 

Sirens of Baghdad
Sirens of Baghdad

Spoiler Alert!  I discuss the ending of the novel in this post.

This post is a continuation of yesterday’s discussion of Yasmina Khadra’s book The Sirens of Baghdad. This novel traces the journey of a young Iraqi Bedouin man from a sensitive, peaceful person to someone determined to destroy as much of the world as possible through violent means.

As I mentioned earlier, the narrator turns to violence after the Americans and their allies inflict a series of outrages on people close to him.  After the third outrage, the protagonist believes he has no choice but to seek revenge.  This need for vengeance comes not from his religion, but from his Bedouin heritage’s emphasis on honor. The unnamed narrator points out that, “For Bedouin, no matter how impoverished they may be, honor is no joking matter.  An offense must be washed away in blood, which is the sole authorized detergent when it’s a question of keeping one’s self-respect. . . Dignity can’t be negotiated.  Should we lose it, all the shrouds in the world won’t suffice to veil our faces, and no tomb will receive our carcasses without cracking.” (133)

Most of the characters in Khadra’s novel who voice disgust over their treatment by the West are outraged by the indignities they believe they have suffered from the West.  Some of these abuses are specific instances of violence and mal-treatment like those suffered by the narrator (discussed previously.)

Other examples are less physical, but are nonetheless stinging.  One taxi-driver in Sirens says, for example, that “I was an interpreter with the American troops. . . ‘Sand niggers’—that’s the name they give their Iraqi collaborators” (126)  Iraqi characters in the novel also voice disbelief at the way Americans treat their parents and the elderly:  “But the GI has no clue.  He can’t measure the extent of the sacrilege.  He doesn’t even know what a sacrilege is.  In his world, a man sticks his parents in an old folks’ home and forgets them.  They’re the least of his worries.  He calls his mother an “old bag” and his father “an asshole.”  What can you expect of such a person?”  (173)

Still others are appalled at the general disdain they think Westerners have towards Arab culture, which has a much longer and more distinguished history than does Western culture.  As one character observes, “They think all Arabs are retarded,” he muttered.  “Imagine:  Arabs, the most fabulous creatures on earth.  We taught the world table manners; we taught the world hygiene and cooking and mathematics and medicine.  Ad what do these degenerates of modernity remember of all that?  A camel caravan crossing the dunes at sunset?  Some fat guy in a white robe and a keffiyeh flashing his millions in a gambling casino on the Cote d’Azur?  Cliches, caricatures..,” (128).

In this novel, Khadra is emphasizing that the reason some Arabs and Muslims hate the West is not because of their religion (which is what right wing media pundits would have us believe) but because they are not treated with respect and dignity.  Another reason, Khadra suggests, is that Westerners seem to value money and material progress above else.  We see an example of this sort of thinking when the American military offers money to the father of Sulayman just a few days after they shot him to death.  The father is appalled that Americans would stoop so low as to try to “buy him off” in the midst of his grief.

I need to emphasize, however, that despite the many critiques of the West contained in The Sirens of Baghdad, Khadra is by no means promoting terrorism.  On the contrary.  He portrays the resistance fighters with whom the narrator gets involved as wrong-headed at best.   Just as he gives voice to characters who hate the West, he also gives voice to characters who are horrified at the Fedayeen (resistance fighters.)  One character says,  “The actions of the Fedayeen are lowering us in the eyes of the world.  We’re Iraqis, cousin.  We have eleven thousand years of history behind us.  We’re the ones who taught men to dream.”  (161)

Another tells the narrator, “If you insist on fighting, do it properly.  Fight for your country, not against the whole world. Keep things in perspective; don’t mistake wrong for right.  Don’t kill just for killing’s sake.  Don’t fire blindly—we’re losing more innocent people than bastards who deserve to die.”

Others try to dissuade the narrator from his terrorist mission by telling him this:

“You’re already on the wrong track.  The world isn’t our enemy.  Remember all the people who protested the invasion all over the world, millions of them marching in Madrid, Rome, Paris, Tokyo, South America, Asia.  All of them were on our side, and they still are.  We got more support from them than we got from the other Arab countries.  Don’t forget that.  All nations are victims of the avarice of a handful of multinational companies.  It would be terrible to lump them all together. Kidnapping NGO workers who are here only to help us—those kinds of things are alien to our customs.  If you want to avenge an offense, don’t commit one.  If you think your honor must be saved, don’t dishonor your people.  Don’t give way to madness.”  (183)

In the end, the narrator almost gives way to madness.  He is about to embark on a mission to infect millions of people with a deadly virus that spreads easily and rapidly.  As he is about to get on the plane to start his mission, however, he falters.

Looking around the airport at all of the people doing ordinary things, like kissing each other, waiting hopefully to be reunited with their families, etc., he realizes how wrong he has been.  He realized “they deserved to live for a thousand years.  I have no right to challenge their kisses, scuttle their dreams, dash their hopes.  What have I done with my own destiny?  I’m only twenty-one years old, and all I have is the certainty that I’ve wrecked my life twenty-one times over.”  (306)

It seems to me that the narrator realizes there is a big difference between hating The West (an abstract concept) and hating all of the individual people that make up the West, most of whom have little to do with the outrages that have been inflicted upon him.  By the time he comes to this realization, unfortunately, he has already shot himself up with the deadly virus and can do nothing more but wait to die.

As he waits, he “concentrates on  the light of the city, which [he] was never able to perceive through the anger of men.”  (307)

Quotations used are from the 2007  Anchor Books publication, translated by John Cullen.

***Stay tuned for future installments of “How to Create a Terrorist,” in which I discuss The Yacoubian Building and The Reluctant Fundamentalist.**

How to Create a Terrorist, Part I

The Sirens of Baghdad, by Yasmina Khadra

Yasmina Khadra, pen name of Mohammed Moulessehoul
Yasmina Khadra, pen name of Mohammed Moulessehoul

 

Note:  Yasmina Khadra is the pen name of Mohammed Moulessehoul, an Algerian writer  

Sirens of Baghdad
Sirens of Baghdad

Yasmina Khadra, Sirens of Baghdad.  Published in French in 2006.

The unnamed narrator of Yasmina Khadra’s Sirens of Baghdad lives most of his life as a peaceful, shy, naïve soul.  He is a Bedouin from the small, backwater Iraqi village of Kafr Karam, which lay mostly isolated from the tumult of the modern world.  The narrator notes that

“For generations beyond memory, we had lived shut up inside our walls of clay and straw, far from the world and its foul beasts, contenting ourselves with whatever God put on our plates and praising Him as devoutly for the newborn He confided to us as for the relative He called back to Himself.  We were poor, common people, but we were at peace” (12).

This peaceful, if lethargic, existence careens to an abrupt halt, however, with the American invasion of Iraq.  At first, the Kafr Karam inhabitants try to ignore the violence occurring in Baghdad, Fallujah, Mosul, and other Iraqi cities.  Soon, though, the ravages of war come to them.

At this point, Khadra’s narrator begins his transformation from a peaceful village boy to a resistance fighter who is about to embark on a mission that, if successful, will destroy millions of people.  How can such a dramatic change occur?  Three key events catapult our protagonist into his short career as a terrorist.

The first event concerns a developmentally disabled young man named Sulayman who lives in Kafr Karam.  One of the symptoms of his disability was his habit of taking off running frantically until he passed out:  “Sulayman didn’t talk, didn’t complain, was never aggressive; he lived entrenched in his world and ignored ours totally.  Then, all at once, he’d give a cry—always the same cry—and take off across the desert without looking back”  (29).

One day, Sulayman accidentally cut off two of his fingers, and he needed to be rushed to a clinic.  The narrator accompanies Sulayman’s father on their trip to the next town, where the nearest clinic is found.  Unfortunately, their trip is interrupted by a checkpoint that blocked their route.  Two soldiers with automatic weapons stopped their car and started barking orders at them.  The American GI, in particular, intimidated the passengers in the car with his gigantic body, his rage, and his shouts.  Sulayman’s father pleaded with him, “I beg you, please don’t shout.  My son is mentally ill, and you’re scaring him.”  (55)

The black GI responded with even more rage, “Shut the fuck up or I’ll blow your brains out!  Hands behind your head!”  (56)  The tensions of the exchange escalated, and eventually Sulayman became so scared that he bolted out of the car and started running away.  The soldiers assumed the worst and immediately started shooting.  They shot Sulayman so many times that his head “exploded like a melon; his unbridled run stopped all at once.”

Sulayman’s death left his family inconsolable and the narrator reeling with shock.  The Americans eventually realized they had made a mistake, “but they weren’t going to make a big deal of it.  Incidents of this kind were commonplace in Iraq.  Amid the general confusion, everyone sought his own advantage.  To err is human, and fate has broad shoulders”  (59).

The killing of Sulayman was just the first event that shattered the protagonist’s outlook on the world.  The second event involved the destruction of a Kafr Karam wedding party by American missiles.  The Americans had mistaken the wedding party for a gathering of terrorists. The results were devastating:

“The force of the explosion had flung chairs and wedding guests thirty meters in all directions.  Survivors staggered about, their clothes in rags, holding their hands out in front of them like blind people.  Some mutilated, charred bodies were lined up along the edge of a path.  Cars illuminated the slaughter with their headlights, while specters thrashed about in the midst of the rubble.  Then there was the howling, drawn out, interminable; the air was full of pleas and cries and wails” (93).

This slaughter, not surprisingly, appalled the narrator:  “I didn’t remember ever having borne a grudge against anybody, anybody at all, and yet there I was, ready to bite something, including the hand that tried to soothe me—except that I held myself back.  I was outraged, sick, tormented by a thousand thorns…” (97). And yet, he still remained peaceful, reasoning that “I held a better grudge against the coalition forces, but I couldn’t see myself indiscriminately attacking everyone and everything in sight.  War wasn’t my line. I wasn’t born to commit violence—I considered myself a thousand times likelier to suffer it than to practice it one day.”

This philosophy changes irrevocably one night when the narrator’s home was forcibly invaded by a squad of American soldiers looking for weapons.  As usual, they used excessive force, shouting obscenities and destroying the few valuables owned by the family.  Much more outrageous, though, was the way the GIs treated the family members, dragging everyone around and striking women into submission.

The way the Americans soldiers treated his father, however, was truly unimaginable to the narrator.  His father was frail and elderly and was not dressed when the soldiers knocked down his bedroom door.  He requested that the soldiers let him get properly dressed, but they would not allow it.  The father could not permit himself to appear in front of his family members with nothing but underwear, so he turned back to the bedroom to get his clothes.

The soldiers responded by knocking the elderly man to the floor with a gun.  When they did that, his abdomen and genitals were revealed to the entire family.  This sight was an unspeakable sacrilege to the narrator.

“That sight was the edge of the abyss, and beyond it, there was nothing but the infinite void, an interminable fall, nothingness. . . A Westerner can’t understand, can’t suspect the dimensions of the disaster.  For me, to see my father’s sex was to reduce my entire existence, my values and my scruples, my pride and my singularity, to a coarse, pornographic flash.  The gates of hell would have seemed less catastrophic!” (102).

This outrage on the honor of his family was the final straw for our narrator.  As a Bedouin, he had no choice but to “wash away this insult in blood, until the rivers and the oceans turned as read as the cut on Bahia’s neck, as my mother’s eyes, as the fire in my guts, which was already preparing me for the hell I knew was waiting….”  (102)

From this point on, the narrator is bent on revenge.  He travels to Baghdad, where he joins resistance forces and agrees to participate in whatever mission they assign him, including a suicide mission.  He reasons that he is already dead, at least he can go down fighting.

Clearly, Khadra is suggesting in Sirens of Baghdad that the American invasion of Iraq contributed to the rise of terrorism in the region.  Moreover, while our presence was inherently disruptive, many of the events that traumatized the narrator could have been avoided if soldiers had been more respectful of ordinary Iraqis and cracked down on the “shoot first, ask questions later” policy of so many soldiers.

Also noteworthy in this novel is that the reasons for the narrator’s turn to terrorism had nothing to do with the religious tenets of Islam, although it did have much to do with Eastern vs. Western values. I will discuss these values as they are portrayed in The Sirens of Baghdad in my next blog post.

Stay tuned!

(The quotations come from the Anchor Books version published in 2007, translated from the French by John Cullen.)

 

National Blog Posting Month
National Blog Posting Month

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