DECEMBER 11, 2018
MOST OF THE EARLY fictional works written in response to the 9/11 terror attack didn’t age well. In the early 2000s, literature might have seemed perfectly suited to the task of complicating brute patriotism and empathically imagining those behind the banner of jihad, who had violently earned their place in headlines. Yet fictional depictions of angry Muslim men only showed how unequipped most writers were. Martin Amis’s 2006 short story about Muhammad Atta is now commonly remembered for its failure to properly research its subject, or worse, for its hubris in assuming such research wasn’t necessary (his snarky remark on a possible misreading of Qur’anic verses about virgins and its mistranslation from the Aramaic word for “raisin” is a telling example). John Updike and Don DeLillo didn’t fare much better. A life of tutelage in the school of the Great American Novel didn’t quite prepare them to portray the intrusive force of Islamic fundamentalists as anything other than a nebulous, impenetrable, maniacal adversary in third-person plural.
One strategy that writers adopted to bypass the problem of specificity, resolving the need for intimate knowledge of the subject matter, was to take recourse to one of the oldest literary devices: allegory. Instead of writing about the wrathful believers, the story could tackle the terror and all its baggage without exposing the writer’s unfamiliarity with Islam or demanding a lot of historical knowledge from the reader. Allegory also gave plausible deniability to the author, had they been charged with cultural insensitivity. Thus, Ian McEwan’s Saturday both is and isn’t a novel about Muslim terrorists. It’s up to the reader to decide whether the case of a white neurosurgeon’s violent encounter with a mentally damaged hooligan, who intrudes into the doctor’s house and almost rapes his daughter, only to be calmed by her poetry reading and later saved in the OR by the surgeon’s own hands, is indeed a commentary on the rising menace of terrorism. Even works that turn the table in conversations of terrorism, like Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist, deployed allegory as their main diegetic weapon. Hamid’s protagonist, a Pakistani business analyst turned terrorist, is not preoccupied by actual matters of faith, and even his choice of growing a beard is presented not as a believer’s rebirth, but as a citizen’s quiet resistance.
But allegory is a one-trick pony. There is only so much a writer can do by winking rather than pointing. The years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan both eclipsed the literary attention to 9/11 and highlighted the further need to engage with Muslim histories, lives, and beliefs, as now it wasn’t anymore just their world that had ruptured ours. Beginning around 2011, novelists made a sincerer effort to imagine Muslims without trying to find a detour. Amy Waldman’s The Submission, about a Muslim architect whose design wins the contest for the Ground Zero memorial, and Elliot Ackerman’s Dark at the Crossing, about an Arab-American man trying to join the Syrian Civil War, are two representative examples. But none of the Anglophone post-9/11 novels have been as ingeniously involved with the question of conversion to Islam and with the determination to take one’s acquired belief into the realm of violence as John Wray’s new novel, Godsend.
The novel follows the odyssey of Aden Sawyer, the 18-year-old daughter of an alcoholic mother, whose short appearance in the first pages of the book vividly paints the filial malfunction that sets off the narrative, and a professor of Islamic Studies, whom she scathingly calls Teacher. She has more than enough reasons to leave her derelict parents and find her own way in the world. Her voyage, however, is not a simple flight from home, a teen’s rebellion, but a personal mission to join the Taliban in their fight to redeem Afghanistan as a true Muslim nation. She deceives her parents by claiming to go to UAE to study Arabic (which she already knows to a good degree), deceives her collaborator, a boy named Decker, who also wants to join the fight, changes her appearance in the airport to pass as a boy, and joins a local religious school, a madrasa, near the border of Pakistan and Afghanistan, hoping to crawl her way into the ranks of God-fearing fighters.
Wray has clearly done his homework and is not shy of showing it. It starts with the basics. Noting the meaning of Jihad is “struggle,” and not necessarily warfare, and that the word Taliban could simply mean “students,” is Wray’s nudge to his suspecting readers that his aim is not to expropriate. Quietly, amicably, and thoughtfully he takes one small step after another into the minutiae of Qur’anic lessons. He does an outstanding job in depicting a protagonist who has studied Islamic theology with a mix of avidity and simplicity, has taken the lessons of Qur’anic verses to heart without having matured enough to approach faith seriously. Aden, who uses the name Suleyman when disguised as a boy, is as deeply conflicted as any young adult can be. Her goal is ridiculously grand, at times seeming like an attempt to prove herself to her father (“Your father was like a god to you,” a friend tells her, to which she ponders in response, “there is no god but God”), other times like an impassioned desire to shed herself of her Americanness, and only a few times, like a response to a genuine divine calling.
Gradually, the story’s time frame becomes clear. It starts a few months before 9/11, when the long war of attrition in post-Soviet Afghanistan was still more or less a domestic matter. The choice of time period, as the book’s dust jacket’s note suggests, clarifies the real-life inspiration behind the story: John Walker Lindh, an American who converted to Islam in his late teens and joined the Taliban forces, and who also chose Suleyman as his Muslim name. Wray’s decision to shift his protagonist’s gender adds a level of suspense to the story, but also complicates the moral network of the novel by mixing the hero’s candor with deception. She is honest to herself only in the sense that a perplexed believer can be honest, by forgoing all the given assurances and hoping in her faith to save her against everything, including herself.
Because the story happens before 9/11, or more precisely, 9/11 happens halfway through the novel, the question of terrorism is carefully sidelined. The teacher in her madrasa, guessing Aden’s real reason for traveling across the globe, warns her against joining the fight. “I oppose the jihad of the Kalashnikov,” he says, “because the God I follow is the God of mercy.” When she flees with a recruiter and joins a boot camp, her solitude is reinforced by both her hidden identity and her foreignness. One of the most interesting scenes of the story is when she realizes a young camp trainee is suspiciously gazing at her flat crotch. Afraid that she’ll be immediately exposed, Aden comes up with an effective lie. “I come from the other side of the world,” she says, “where believers are hated. […] My mother and father turned their backs on me.” Then, pausing for effect, she clarifies, “They cut me, little brother. With a knife.” What distinguishes Wray from many writers who took a stab at writing about Muslim terrorism is best pronounced in this scene. By quickly turning the reality (her parent’s negligence) into a useful lie about castration, the novel turns the allegory on its head. Losing the manhood she never had as a result of assumed persecution is not a metaphor for something the writer is afraid to utter, but a sign of mutual ignorance between Aden and her new comrades. She cashes in on their slanted view of the United States as the frightening land of infidels, but it also highlights how her attempt to stay away from America ironically makes her more American. If so far she was isolated for being a foreigner, now instead of blending in, she becomes the maimed American boy. Her nationality, unlike her imaginary testicles, cannot be disposed of.
Aden’s quest, in its entirety, is an experiment in reinventing her sense of belonging. She has no interest, or so she thinks, in carrying the mark of her nation. The revolt against her parents is by and large a move against the motherland, too, which produces a great moment when she is told the news of 9/11 attacks. “The city of Manhattan? You know of this city?” she is asked. “There is no financial district any longer. There is no trade tower.” Her immediate reaction is neither horror nor jubilation. She only feels more exposed. “She had gone to the opposite end of the earth, to the void zone on the map, and America had found her. It had found her so quickly.” Then it dawns on her, “Some of the brothers say America will come here to make war. Up into these mountains. Here to us.” It is a writerly feat to comment on the American War on Terror from the twisted angle of a crossdressing Muslim convert who just begins to realize the scope of violence she was so far fantasizing about.
There are, of course, instances in Wray’s narrative that betray his unfamiliarity, despite his efforts, with the risky subject of Islamic observance. Reading a novel to find where the author gets things wrong is a problematic approach, of course. The joy of “gotcha” comes at the expense of the real pleasure of reading, but my point is not pedanticism. The small blind spots in Wray’s well-researched story are important because they point out what evades Intro to Islam textbooks. In her last minutes in the United States, Aden decides to say her diurnal prayer in the airport’s “Interfaith Chapel” to Decker’s initial dismay, who grumbles that, not knowing the proper directions, they’d be “praying at the food court.” Minutes later, he grudgingly joins her. “That’s better, said Aden, prostrating herself.” Here, the Muslim reader squints, not at the joke about the food court, but because Wray didn’t know one isn’t allowed to speak to others during a prayer. After following the recruiter in Afghanistan, Aden is questioned by a ranking officer about her background. “Your family are people of the Book,” he says. “And yet the book you refer to is not the Most Holy Qur’an.” In this case, the giveaway is “yet.” The phrase “People of the Book” is a Qur’anic term exclusively used for those who follow scriptures other than the Qur’an, that is, Jews and Christians. It is never used to refer to Muslims. In the scene mentioned before, when the madrasa teacher warns Aden against the Kalashnikov jihad, he proceeds to say “the greatest words in all the Holy Book” are “Merciful to all” and “Compassionate to each,” and then astutely asks Aden, “Perhaps you recollect this passage?” The recited passage is an ornate translation of Bismillah, the sentence that opens each chapter (sura) of Qur’an, also perhaps the most famous sentence in Arabic. Asking a madrasa student about it is like testing a classicist’s knowledge of Latin by veni, vidi, vici.
None of the peccadillos are, fortunately, detrimental to the overall standing of the novel. In fact, the book’s tactful references to Qur’anic passages are so impressive that a few glitches here and there cannot be held against it. In the camp, the trainees are given a video to watch. Part of it is described as such:
An elderly man addressed the viewer from a divan set beneath a keyhole arch. His speech was barely audible. The veil shuddered, then lifted, then lowered again. Airplanes flew in tight formation over cities being rendered into ash. Palestine was mentioned, then Chechnya, then Bosnia, then Kashmir, then regions still unknown to her. The airplanes crossed from right to left and schools and housing grids and mosques were geometrically erased. Every soul shall taste death. The footage bled white.
The penultimate sentence is a Qur’anic verse, tucked silently in the paragraph, camouflaged by the author’s avoidance of quotation marks. It is not clear whether the verse appeared written on the screen, was heard as a voice-over, or was uttered by the elderly man. The ambiguity generated by this kind of scriptural reference, which occurs several times in the novel, suggests Aden’s recurrent oracular realizations, as if every minute she feels a better grasp of her newly acquired faith, but it also exemplifies the usual critique of fundamentalism, de-contextualization of scripture and manipulation of it for nefarious goals. The novel’s highest achievement is to show how each one of her insights is nothing but an illusion. Yet, by the time the novel establishes how Aden’s mental anguish overtakes her confidence in the pilgrimage of Kalashnikov, everything crumbles. The story takes a few unjustifiable turns and the power of its ambiguity dissipates into a mesh of clever tricks.
The question of Aden’s crossdressing, the Chekhovian rifle on the wall that must go off one way or the other, is finally resolved in the most dramatically banal way possible; not by an epiphany of her utter powerlessness against an irreducibly alien world, nor by furthering her self-examination via ad-libbed excuses like the castration, but by an idyllic romance in a cave. For a few pages, until the next twist takes the story even lower, the reader is beckoned to hop on the thrilling ride of a tryst in the mountains, under the ruthless gaze of local fanatics. The novel’s soar into the rarely pondered questions of faith, nationhood, and maturity comes to a sudden crash onto the all-too-familiar ground of sentimental education. What started as a pensive journey into the heart of an unmapped forest ends with the feel of a walk on Astroturf.
In fact, the novel’s last 30 pages drive this carefully mastered narrative into a ditch so disappointing that one wouldn’t be remiss to assume those pages were by a different writer, bent on checking all the boxes in the list of ill-advised stereotypes, including the Oriental man’s unquenchable lust to people his harem with white girls. The final pages not only leave the reader wistfully guessing what a great book it could’ve been, but retroactively blemishes some of the most potent ambiguities of earlier parts. A powerful scene of stoning a woman, described only post facto, when Aden notices the lifeless body under rocks and bricks, makes a poetically violent image that disillusions her of both her mission’s sanctity and her ability to blend into a society she never knew. Yet, when a few pages later, her sexuality becomes the subject of a virginal exploration in love, one cannot avoid reading the stoning scene as a simple foreshadowing, an extra dose of adrenaline. The more the novel progresses, the more its limits for culminating its daring experiment is revealed. Ultimately, in its fascination with, and disregard for, foreignness, John Wray’s Godsend is as unmistakably American as its hero.