Although September 11th-oriented literary production has been prodigious, literature somehow remains for many an ancillary project at best, at worst an elitist aesthetic endeavor. How might we understand literature as part and parcel of the on-the-ground urgencies of September 11th and its aftermath? How might literature deepen our understanding of the event and its legacies, and how has September 11th changed literature?
The September 11th attacks led first to a search for books on Islam. (Not that there wasn’t a widespread presumption that much was already known about it. Here is Leon Wieseltier memorable description of this state of affairs: “On September 10, 2001, nobody in America seemed to know anything about Islam. On September 12, 2001, everybody seemed to know everything about Islam.”) The books available at that time, and more would be produced in short order, tried to explain the rise of a fierce ideology. In the days after the attacks, you could be at an airport in any city in America, and you would inevitably see two things: machine guns in the hands of patrolling military, and, in the shop windows, books on Islam with covers showing bearded men or veiled women.
An early favorite was Ahmed Rashid’s excellent report, Taliban. And there were other titles by a wide variety of writers, ranging from Gilles Kepel and Olivier Roy to Bernard Lewis and Samuel Huntington. In the years that followed there would be more books that brought news from the Muslim world–works of both fiction and nonfiction by writers of widely differing talent, Khaled Hosseini, Christopher de Bellaigue, Azar Nafisi, Rory Stewart, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Reza Aslan, Laila Lalami, and Mohsin Hamid, to name just a few–but I still vividly recall the early days, in the days and weeks after the attacks, when war was imminent and there was little to read about Afghanistan.
Who were the people that the U.S. was about to bomb? In recent years, I have taught a course called “Literature of 9/11.” (For more on this, see my recently published book, A Foreigner Carrying in the Crook of His Arm A Tiny Bomb.) The students in my class were too young to have been curious in this way when the September 11th attacks took place; most of them were in middle school; background reading on the Taliban wasn’t a part of their class assignments. In my classes I have tried to reconstruct for them the plain absence of real information in those days. I describe to them my own small discoveries. Let me give you an example.
In late September 2001, an article written by John Sifton, an American aid worker in Afghanistan, appeared in The New York Times Magazine. Sifton’s piece spoke of populations displaced by war, reduced to begging in a ruined land strewn with relics from the Cold War era. The premodern in Afghanistan coexisted with the postmodern. In the rural countryside, people lived in a way that Sifton conjectured their ancestors had lived four hundred years ago, but in Kabul, the young Talibs in black robes sped around in their “clean new Toyota pickup trucks, tricked-out, hip-hop ghetto-rigs.”
While reading Sifton’s report, I say to my students, I had the sense that this was the beginning of our new “war lit.” The writer had described how, upon his arrival at a hotel in a small, drought-hit Afghani town, he found himself looking at a large, somewhat ghastly landscape painting of animals standing beside a pond. The heads of the animals standing in the forest had been cut out to comply with the Taliban’s interpretation of the Islamic law forbidding the representation of living beings. Sifton wrote, “This left a decapitated deer standing by a pond and a headless beaver sitting on a tree stump.” But this encounter with bad art and medieval outrage–making for the unsettling montage of tawdry beauty and mutilation–didn’t in the least prepare the visitor for the life outside and the pure shock of human suffering:
Displaced persons without enough food to eat were drinking water taken from muddy ponds–mud really. “They’re drinking mud,” I said into my tape recorder. “They’re drinking mud.” I remember one particular experience especially. We were in a windy camp for displaced persons, and a man was showing us the graves of his three children, who had died of disease on three consecutive days: Thursday, Friday and Saturday. It was Monday, and he had buried his last child the day before. After he described all this, we stood around the graves in the strangely loud silence of the wind, hot as an oven, and the man absent-mindedly adjusted a rock atop one child’s grave.
It was a very emotional moment, yet I didn’t really feel sad. I was just fascinated by the realness of it all. You look out an office window, and you see a displaced family living in a bombed-out school, sleeping on the balcony and cooking some birds they caught, doves. This is their life. They can’t change the channel.
Sifton’s report found a place on the reading list for my course because it carried a terrible truth–a truth not only about bare life but also about our naÃ¯ve fascination with its irrefutable, fixed reality. The image of the father standing beside the graves of his small children, each dying within days of each other, was so dire and so moving and so powerful that it would have been easy to believe that it could not be touched even by falling bombs. But there is nothing static about tragedy. A tragic situation gets better or worse. The attacks of September 11th led to the war in Afghanistan and then the invasion of Iraq, with its own litany of terrible tragedies.
So that is about the beginning of the course. Let me tell you about the way I end. Every time I’ve taught my course on the “Literature of 9/11” we’ve finished with a reading of the interrogation log of Detainee 063 at GuantÃ¡namo. Detainee 063 was a young Saudi named Mohammed al-Qahtani, who is believed by many to be the so-called twentieth hijacker. He had attempted entry into the United States in August 2001 and been turned back at the Orlando airport–it has been confirmed that even while he was being questioned by the suspicious immigration official, Mohammed Atta was waiting for him outside in the airport’s parking lot. Later, al-Qahtani was arrested in Afghanistan, while fleeing Tora Bora, although he claimed he was where he was because of his love for falconry. The log of his interrogation at GuantÃ¡namo was leaked to Time magazine and published in early January 2005. The log covers fifty days from November 2002 to January 2003, a period during which the new torture techniques that Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld had approved were used on prisoners.
Time wrote that the log “reads like a night watchman’s diary.” This is because the document presents in a terse syntax, replete with acronyms and references to procedures, a record of the detainee’s acts. How much did he sleep, what did he eat, the visits he made to the bathroom or requests for a visit to the bathroom, and what exactly he did there. The document details the active as well as passive attempts to extract information from al-Qahtani. His physical condition, which was frequently examined, sometimes several times a day, is also described so that it is clear how much stress the detainee can actually take. There are lines that record the detainee’s struggle with an IV drip, his refusal to drink water, his desire for water or to urinate. As if caught in a recurring dream, the prisoner is denied sleep, and this severe routine is scrupulously recorded. Once, in December, interrogation is called off for twenty-four hours when al-Qahtani is put in the hospital and a CT scan is performed. More tests are administered. But in the hospital, too, the log tells us, music is played to prevent the detainee from sleeping.
It is a remarkable text, the interrogation log, because it is also in some ways the record of an experiment. A technique of torture is tried, a result is achieved, it is explained in terms of a training manual, a different result is sought, and so forth. We read the log in search of a narrative where the subjectivity of the detainee, like that of a patient in a difficult operation, begins to emerge or express itself. When we as readers seem to find such a moment, it is impossible to know what exactly it is we are learning, and whether what we are learning is more about the detainee or his captors. The following is a part of the record from December 11, 2002:
0100: Detainee began to cry during pride and ego down. Detainee was reminded that no one loved, cared or remembered him. He was reminded that he was less than human and that animals had more freedom and love than he does. He was taken outside to see a family of banana rats. The banana rats were moving around freely, playing, eating, showing concern for one another. Detainee was compared to the family of banana rats and reinforced that they had more love, freedom, and concern than he had. Detainee began to cry during this comparison.
This is where it ended. This was the last shot in the film. A man kneeling in his cage while the sun sets in the Caribbean Sea. We are left with this picture of a shorn sociality, of a man in isolation, contemplating banana rats. We could have been reading Beckett.
In the immediate aftermath of 9/11 U.S. newspapers were filled with photos of white Americans praying, but for whom? Certainly not for Americans of color, who were likely to be scapegoated. Predictably, in the weeks and months after 9/11 numerous incidents of violence were directed at dark-skinned humans–Sikhs, Armenians, Latinos–because of their imagined resemblance to the alleged Muslim perpetrators.
Meanwhile, official U.S., like a wounded giant, was whirling about dizzily looking to strike back, which it did in short order with its massive assault on Iraq, a country unconnected to the 9/11 attacks but on the U.S. war agenda for other reasons. The writing that accompanied the 9/11 attacks and the aftermath was almost exclusively journalistic and jingoistic. Dissenting responses, whether in literature or journalism, were peremptorily marginalized and menaced.
The U.S. has a long history of segregating social activism from literature, with a handful of exceptions: the Abolitionists in the mid-19th century; the Muckrackers at the turn of the 20th century; the 1930s socialists; and the counter-cultural writers of the late 1960s and early ‘70s. Each of these movements was short-lived in comparison with ongoing social activist literature in European and “Third World” countries across the globe.
Why it is that social or political crisis and literature have not interfaced in the U.S. has several determinants. A crucial factor is the U.S.’s myopic sense of its own virtue, of being above dirty politics and war mongering, so that literature which deigns to call itself committed or engaged is viewed as a deviation from its idealist potential. This is of course delusional, because since the gratuitous bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the U.S. has been an international predator without peer.
A related, though not clearly realized, reason for the U.S. ghettoization of committed art is the fear that a literary rendition could be activated into a response which might then fracture, or even modify, the U.S.’s entrenched racism and classism.
For example, when Katrina took its terrible toll on New Orleans and without warning the faces of chronically impoverished black New Orleanians were plastered on TV screens, many white people expressed surprise that people at that level of poverty actually inhabited the U.S. Those humans like the tens of thousands of incarcerated were supposed to be kept out of public view.
The argument between committed (or social activist) writing on the one hand and so-called autonomous writing on the other, fiction or poetry, that is, without an axe to grind, is a quintessentially American argument. If this were France, the Netherlands, Ireland, Hungary, Brazil, Colombia, Trinidad, or India, whether or not those countries were at war–the notion of committed writing would be acknowledged without condescension.
In the early ‘80s after the Sandinista defeat of the Somoza forces, the U.S. intervened in Nicaragua on behalf of the autocratic old guard, even as the U.S. had intervened–with fatal consequences–in Guatemala against the duly elected leftist prime minister, and was in the process of intervening in El Salvador on the side of the right wing junta.
When in a 1984 issue of Fiction International devoted to “Writing and Politics,” I asked the Nicaraguan novelist Claribel Alegria whether her country’s imaginative writers should, in her opinion, address the ongoing Nicaraguan revolution and U.S.-led counter-revolution, she said yes, absolutely. When I asked how she would respond to a writer who chose not to address this issue, she said she would refuse to shake his hand.
I have related this exchange to American writers a number of times and nearly always their response was to disapprove on the grounds that the writer needs full independence, without which his or her mÃ©tier would be meaningless.
Art is not an unmoved mover; it is, one way or another, a reflection of and response to contemporary culture and it employs the techniques and references at hand. I emphasize one way or another because I am not arguing for a single mode of committed writing. Upton Sinclair, Brecht, Nelly Sachs, Elsa Morante, Hikmet, Sartre, Richard Wright, B. Traven, Primo Levi, John Berger, Simon Ortiz, Amiri Baraka, and Ernesto Cardenal, to take representative examples, all responded variously in terms of technique, yet each wrote, or writes, an engaged literature.
Aside from the misguided belief in artistic autonomy, the U.S. establishment-writer will likely raise the following objections: what authority does an imaginative writer have to enter the public discourse about terror and genocide?
How can an author maintain esthetic integrity in writing that is committed to a cause outside itself?
What artistic resonance will a work of committed writing hold for future generations?
The authority to enter the political discourse is based on the probability that the imaginative writer has had more time to ponder and ruminate than his 8:30 to 5:30 workaday neighbors. Moreover, the imaginative writer, though implicitly pressured to write a certain way, is not absolutely beholden to his benefactors. That is, once he or she has established a degree of status, he has the option to deviate, with the increased risk of course that a given publisher will reject his manuscript. Finally, the imaginative writer has the capacity to circulate his perceptions in his published writings and thus to exert some small influence on readers.
But doesn’t this amount to “preaching to the choir”? Who after all reads “serious” writing besides writers? Well, writers also teach and are in position to discuss their new or modified views about committed writing with their students. This circulation is not negligible, even as samizdat (passing “dissident” manuscripts from hand to hand during the Soviet repression) was far from negligible.
Esthetic integrity. In a time of wide-scale ethnocide and unprecedented political mean-spiritedness, even as Mother Earth is being contaminated irreparably, consider, if you will, whether the attempt to remain above the fray represents integrity or silent complicity.
Artistic resonance. How will a committed artistic response be appraised 20 years from now when the crisis that evoked it is no longer a factor?
Often surprisingly well. Numerous examples include B Traven’s novels about the Mexican Indian oppression; Camus’s The Plague, an allegory about France’s collaboration with the Nazis; Pierre Guyotat’s Eden, Eden, Eden about the French-Algerian war; Solzhenitsyn’s novels; Yeats’s poems about the Easter Rebellion; Thoreau’s essay and Melville’s poem, “The Portent,” each about John Brown; Whitman’s poems about the American Civil War…
In any case, committed writing generally recognizes that judgments about what constitutes so-called great art are primarily made by managers of corporations, which is what mainstream book publishing has become.
For theoretical-minded writers and artists there is a more fundamental question, which has to do with the distinction the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor (see New Left Review 170, July-August 1988) makes between the liberation from nature and the liberation of nature. Liberation of proponents would, among other things, embrace the possibility of effective concerted response on behalf of an issue or even an ideal.
Liberation from proponents would deny that possibility, maintaining, in Auden’s words (after his disillusioned stint as a committed writer), that “poetry makes nothing happen.”
Taylor suggests that these opposing notions of liberation have been confounded in poststructuralist discourse primarily because of their common enemies, each being opposed to the appropriation of consciousness and desire “founded on greed and unfettered instrumental reason”; and also because the liberation from has often incorrectly presented itself as a “radicalization” of the allegedly “outmoded” liberation of.
How do these two hypothetical liberations function as politics? The aspiration to the liberation of nature “grounds its confidence on something in the motivational make-up of human beings which could be the basis of a more convivial, ecologically responsible, more self-managing society.” Whereas the opposition towards the institutional appropriation of consciousness and desire proposed by the liberation from advocates aspires to what Foucault called an “aesthetics of existence,” and Derrida, “the joyous affirmation of the free play of the world, without truth [and] without origin.”
Liberation from nature signifies the option of existential delectation–insofar as it is accessible–without the “illusion” of anything beyond it which might–collectively or otherwise–ameliorate the human dilemma. The Italian revolutionary Antonio Gramsci, a famous proponent of the liberation of nature, referred to himself as a “pessimist of the intellect but optimist of the will.” The liberation from proponent would alter that to: pessimist of the intellect and pessimist of the will.
The point is this: whether the writer endorses liberation of or from nature, the question of stopping the mindless destruction must still obtain. However skeptical we might be about the practical usefulness of literature, can we still invoke (in the committed poet Tom McGrath’s words) “the privilege of alienation”?
No, we cannot.
There has yet to be a proper 9/11 literary response. There is a fundamental reason for this. American writers have accepted the official version of events. Was there, in fact, a terror attack of the magnitude depicted by the official media? In other words, are terrorists as capable of disrupting normal life as we have been led to believe? Do they have that kind of power and ability, allegedly sitting in caves in Afghanistan and operating from Pakistan’s frontier areas? Or is it just a huge myth, meant for the gullible amongst us–which turns out to be everyone? It is as if a few Japanese terrorists, some local cult in that country, poor and bereft, had orchestrated the Pearl Harbor disaster, and for the next ten years, instead of fighting the nation of Japan and its allies, we embarked on a global war without limits as to enemies and scale of response, in the belief that we were fighting an existential threat. Of course, the literature that results from 9/11 is elitist; the myth is elitist, the motivation is elitist, the terror is elitist.
The whole thing is a propaganda effect of the highest magnitude, and writers, unfortunately, have fallen for it, lock, stock, and barrel. Novel after novel takes 9/11 as the triggering premise, a convenient instrument, to describe idyllic (or estranged) domestic settings, which are interrupted by the event, so that either more sophistication results or more simplification. These books are all crap. They might as well have used an earthquake or tsunami or some other natural disaster to drive their narratives. They contribute to the general air of victimization, that we were a good people doing good deeds when the evildoers came along and made life difficult for us–and the aim is to return to life as it was before the shattering event. Similarly, nearly all the poetry written in direct response to 9/11 has been crap.
9/11 and its consequences don’t represent a fight between good and evil. It was the natural outcome of an empire desperately in search of enemies in its very last days. Islamic fundamentalism was everywhere on the wane in the late 1990s; the Bush Administration desperately revived it, and succeeded in large part. Yet even today, minus the external impetus provided by the American empire’s Machiavellian masters, fundamentalism, in the natural course of events, would quickly fade out in Islamic countries.
These few books stand out as sincere efforts to get behind the psychology of terror, but it must be said, however, that they engage with terror after the fact, not a direct confrontation with its bases and biases: Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland, Ken Kalfus’s A Disorder Peculiar to the Country, Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist, Claire Messud’s The Emperor’s Children, and Teddy Wayne’s Kapitoil. The rest, we can pretty much write off. Prominent novelists who attempted to come to terms with the event showed how terribly constrained the rules of American fiction-making are–thus, Don DeLillo’s collapse, for example. Even John Updike’s Terrorist, which seemed somewhat worthwhile at the time, fails to pass the test of time.
One hopes there were some postmodern fiction writers having a go at it: the fascist shenanigans of the Bush Administration, the advertising industry’s creation of the addiction to perpetual war taken to its final limits, the complicity of the elites and the working classes in the self-destructiveness that has been brought on all our heads. This, indeed, is a time to be paranoid and escapist and unrealistic, for any writer worth his salt. Instead, we get sincere, earnest, very politically correct takes on the event. Did 9/11 happen? Ask Baudrillard. Ask Zizek. We would ask Foucault if he were alive. What was 9/11? American writers don’t have the first clue, lacking the foundational ethics to respond to politics appropriately, and so this country, faced with its greatest disaster in the making, has offered no suitable literary response.
Of course, writers should be fundamentally affected by this event–except, in exactly the opposite ways that the Bush and Obama Administrations asked us to be affected by them. 9/11 has profoundly affected American literature–it seems like every novel, and increasingly every book of poetry, is a 9/11 book. To the extent that the new novels and poetry assimilate empire’s tricks and illusions, they are all collaborating in the Big Lie–and aiding and abetting the final collapse.
Here is the real meaning of 9/11: empire is coming to a loud, crashing, thunderous end, and there’s nothing anyone can do about it, because all the principals have determined that this is how it’s going to be. What does this mean for the working classes and the middle classes in the near future, no more than five or ten or fifteen years from now, when the social contract as we now know it has ceased to exist? That’s something writers should be obsessing about. The country has shut down, closed its borders, shunned innovation and openness and all the social gains of the last fifty years, as a “response” to 9/11. That’s what writers should fight against.
It’s not that anyone’s going out of their way to stop the writers from publishing the appropriate non-elitist response to the event, so that its meaning becomes clarified, open to dispute again, shorn of its aura of deceit and secrecy and confusion and hagiography and sacredness. They just don’t have the ideological sophistication to comprehend the event, and to offer writing that would erode the official version of things. That’s a very great shame. In the final event, American writers will have been found to be absent from the scene of the crime; there they were, harboring fantasies of omnipotence in their individual creative realms, just as the country at large remained besotted with dreams of grandeur. It will eventually be seen as a very dark period in American letters–when something like a downscaled American industry of letters reconstitutes itself, after the end of empire.
The notion of literature as singular, monolith, is a fantasy. If 9/11 offers anything to “Literature,” it would be the dissolution of that fantasy, for the reality of literatures. Plural. Diverse. Conflicting, overlapping, evolving, a full spectrum of projects in motion. Never again can one story, one history, the narrative of the dominant culture and class, be told as the only story.
In this response, I will focus only on U.S. literatures, and take “we” and “our” to refer to U.S.-based writers and readers.
A consideration of U.S. literatures in the plural, both pre- and post-9/11, must include oral literatures. Performative texts. Found literatures, on the frontlines of advocacy, resistance, and dissent. From anti-war chants to creative protest signs, from the text of the Patriot Act to the deluge of hate messages received by U.S. Muslims and Sikhs. It would be incomplete without the graphic narratives presented by Osama bin Laden toilet paper and hundreds of millions of fluttering American flags–both manufactured in China. It must encompass the literatures generated in the theatre of the silent war on immigrant families, the literatures that document what happened when the FBI came for Daddy, when my brother Mohammed reported to the INS as instructed and has not been heard from since, when my husband was abducted by the State Department and deported to a country he left as an infant. The dirges of families in limbo, irreparably maimed or permanently shattered, that reverberate from mosques, temples, community centres across the country. Affidavits, testimonials, letters, petitions, diaries, habeas corpus writs are the odes of our time. They are the literatures future generations will read to reconstruct this moment in the history of the United States.
Through this lens, we can understand that 9/11 presented U.S. writers with a choice of positions. To engage literature as an elitist aesthetic endeavor, as spectator and commentator? Or to enter the battle for language, for story, as one vital to our own survival and the survival of our communities? In the literary communities I inhabit, literatures have never been ancillary. Rather than being the sidebars to history, politics, news, public discourse, literatures of non-dominant communities are history, politics, news. They are the alternatives to corporate media, broadcast from slam stages, speakouts, poems gone viral on the internet. One such example is “A Moment Of Silence” by Emmanuel Ortiz, widely circulated online one year after 9/11:
You want a moment of silence
You mourn now as if the world will never be the
And the rest of us hope to hell it won’t be.
Not like it always has been
Because this is not a 9-1-1 poem
This is a September 11th poem
for Chile, 1971
This is a September 12th poem
for Steven Biko in South Africa, 1977
This is a September 13th poem
for the brothers at Attica Prison,
New York, 1971.
This is a September 14th poem
for Somalia, 1992.
This is a poem
for every date that falls
to the ground in ashes
This is a poem for the 110 stories
that were never told
The 110 stories that history
chose not to write in textbooks
The 110 stories that CNN, BBC,
The New York Times,
and Newsweek ignored:
You want a moment of silence
Then take it
Before this poem begins.
Let your silence begin
at the beginning of crime
Tonight we will keep right on singing
For our dead.
I separate literary production in the U.S. post 9/11 into two simple categories: works of courage and works of cowardice. Works of courage are those that asked intelligent questions, that addressed 9/11 in the continuum of history and the context of U.S. foreign policy, that offered nuance and perspective. That placed the USA’s national grief on par with that of other societies across the world that had experienced similar or far greater traumas. Such works were and continue to be remarkably rare. “Dissent Is Not UnAmerican” read a giant post-9/11 banner on the front of San Francisco’s legendary City Lights Bookstore. But even for liberal writers, dismayed by the tides of militant nationalism that swept the U.S., it seemed unthinkable to accord the lives of non-Americans the same value and meaning as those of U.S. citizens. To suggest that this was an opportunity for Americans to abandon their myth of exceptionalism and join the human race.
9/11 in the US created far more literary cowards than literary heroes. Just as in the McCarthy era, the climate of censorship imposed by Homeland Security, the draconian “With Us or Against Us,” the very real penalties visited on public intellectuals like Bill Maher and Ward Churchill who stepped outside the boundaries of permitted discourse, drew a chill fog of silence over the land.
And it is when literatures become dangerous, charged with risk, that they also become most relevant. If, as Orson Welles said, the enemy of art is the absence of limitations, then what cannot be said, what is punishable to publish, becomes the defining silence at the centre of the discourse. But only if a society has a few brave writers who are willing to call attention to it.
Consider this statement from the U.S. Department of Defense, on its confiscation and destruction of Styrofoam cups etched with poems, scratched using pebbles, by GuantÃ¡namo prisoners:
Poetry…presents a special risk, and DoD standards are not to approve the release of any poetry in its original form or language.
–The Independent. 21 June 2007. “Inmates’ Words: The Poems Of Guantanamo”
These poems scratched on Styrofoam are the 9/11 literatures that are urgent, fearsome, and alive. The ones bearing vital messages for our survival and humanity. The ones we must search out, rescue, and amplify.
I like Shailja Patel’s call for a more commodious notion of literature of 9/11, including performative texts, found literatures, affidavits, testimonials, letters, petitions. In the course I have been teaching on the “Literature of 9/11,” I have always made it a point to discuss not only court cases or trials or news reports but also new art. I have in mind the work of artists like Paul Chan, Trevor Paglen, Paul Shambroom, Coco Fusco, Jill Magid, Martha Rosler, Margo Herster, and others. These are artists who are mapping the altered geographies of freedom and control, but they are of special interest because in the making of their art they foreground the techniques of the terror state. Let’s call it “the art of surveillance.” My best example, perhaps, is Hasan Elahi.
Elahi is a conceptual artist who teaches art and visual theory at the University of Maryland, College Park. He was born in Bangladesh and grew up in New York. Like many other Muslims in the days following the attacks of September 11, 2001, Elahi found his name on the government’s terrorist watch list. In response, he decided to open nearly every aspect of his life on his website, TrackingTransience.net. At that site one can find a record of the coffee he has bought or the amount of cash he has withdrawn in the past week. Over 20,000 images on the site are time-stamped and give information about the places he has been and meals he has consumed.
The Orwell Project, which is the name that Elahi has given to his exercise, is in reality a work of collaboration between the artist and the FBI. It was the latter which inspired this work that is part performance, part protest. On June 19, 2002, Hasan Elahi returned to the U.S. from an artists’ residency program in Senegal, and, on arrival at the airport in Detroit, was detained for questioning. He became the subject of an FBI investigation that went on for six months and concluded with nine polygraph tests administered within the space of one day. The owners of a facility where he rented a locker had wrongly informed the police, on September 12, 2001, that an “Arab” man had fled the country and had left explosives behind. In order to prove to his interrogators, over the course of dozens of interviews, what he had been doing on that particular day as well as the days that followed, Elahi showed them all the information that he had available on his PDA–the record of his appointments, his itineraries, his phone calls. And when the investigation was over, Elahi began working on documenting publicly his every move. He was motivated partly by concern that his unpleasant experience with the FBI could easily be repeated, but also by the subversive desire to hold a mirror to the agencies that watch us. His aim is to overwhelm those who have him under surveillance–the log for his site, incidentally, reveals addersses that belong to a variety of U.S. government agencies–with the information they need. Elahi’s reasoning is expressed thus: “If 300 million people were to offer up the details of their private lives, you would need to hire another 300 million people just to keep up.”
For Harold Jaffe, who makes a salutary appeal for “engaged literature,” I have a question: why is it that contemporary artists in the U.S., in contrast to writers here, have been more successful in revealing to us what Dick Cheney had infamously called “the dark side?” In fact, even Hollywood, in films like Syriana, The Constant Gardener, and Babel, has been able to explore transnational realities in a way that very few post-9/11 literary works have managed to do. In such films, which others have seen as examples of “hyperlinked cinema,” there is a deliberate and drastic use of multiple narratives, characters, story lines, and globe-spanning locations. Destinies collide not so much as a way of capturing coincidence as describing our hyper-globalized connectedness. A more subtle point is also made in these films about history. The various timelines being displayed out of sync are suggestive of a world that is somewhat conscious of being caught in the unending aftershock of catastrophe. And what else but that is the name we can give to the gigantic debacles in Afghanistan and Iraq?
Anis Shivani’s irascible dismissal of post-9/11 novels (“These books are all crap”) is later qualified by his gentle approval of a handful of titles. May I take a stab at explaining why one of them, Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist, appealed to me? Judith Butler has written, “In the United States we begin the story by invoking a first-person narrative point of view, and telling what happened on September 11.” There are very few other narrative options available–or at least they weren’t when Butler was writing, in the immediate aftermath of the attacks–for those who want to frame the story in broader terms. To provide a sense of contrast to the dominant narrative, I teach books like Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist. In Hamid’s novel, the first-person narrative point of view is usurped by a voice from the other side. Hamid’s narrator is a young Pakistani man who comes to America to get an education at Princeton; later, he finds work in an elite financial firm in New York City, and then, after the attacks of September 11th, feels increasingly estranged and returns to Lahore. The entire novel is the account of a single evening in Lahore as the young man, whose name is Changez, tells his story to a silent American visitor. Part thriller, part testimonial, the book is very much a riposte to the West’s vilification of Islam and Muslims; and yet, in its structure and denouement, the novel remains intentionally inconclusive, and this feature has been a part of its appeal for readers both “here” and “there.”
I need to emphasize something here. A book like The Reluctant Fundamentalist appears
incongruous in the emerging canon of 9/11 literature because the notion of a dialogue with the Other that is present at its heart is entirely missing from books like John Updike’s Terrorist, Don DeLillo’s Falling Man, and Martin Amis’s The Second Plane. Islamic terrorists appear in the work of these Western writers–Muhammad Atta’s fictional form finds a ghostly realization in more than one book–but they remain unreal and wholly unconvincing. Amis’s Atta is chronically constipated, hence the pained expression on his face. The master terrorist is, literally, laughably, “full of shit.” The portrayal of the Arab terrorist ends up being more an exercise in parochialism, confirming what the writer already knows and believes in accord with the rest of the surrounding culture. In contrast to this, our effort in our classrooms has to be aimed at provincializing America. That is what I believe Patel is saying when she talks about using the upheaval of 9/11 to provide “an opportunity for Americans to abandon their myth of exceptionalism and join the human race.”
Regarding the seeming fact that there have been U.S.-based writings about 9/11 but very little literature, per se, or as one of the respondents put it, “There has yet to be a proper literary response.”
Unlike many countries, both in the “Third” and “First” World, there is in the U.S. no ongoing relationship between art–perhaps especially writing–and politics. There have been historical exceptions, which I’ve cited in my previous response: the Abolitionists/Transcendentalists; the Naturalists at the turn of the 20th century; the Thirties Marxists before Stalin; aspects of the Beat movement.
Why the U.S. has discouraged imaginative production to remain separate from political tragedy has several determinants, the overriding determinant being the metastasis of capitalism. With very few exceptions, the mainstream publishing houses belong to larger corporate entities enmeshed in the self-righteous US narrative about itself. Hence Random House, Simon and Schuster, Viking, etc. are not likely to publish a novel or collection of poems that takes issue with the U.S. grand narrative of 9/11. Even university presses will generally take the same line, since universities have increasingly been swept into the incorporated orbit.
However, there has been response at the margins: on blogs, elsewhere on the net, and via “alternative” presses. I published my Terror-dot-Gov, a collection of linked “docufictions” about 9/11 and the fruitless wars that followed, with Raw Dog Screaming Press in 2005. Even with the praising blurb I got from Father Daniel Berrigan, the book did not really surface beyond the fringe review venues. Similarly, as editor of Fiction International, I published an entire issue on “War and Resistance” in 2004, with more than 30 contributors from the U.S. and abroad, which likewise was not permitted to make a broader impact.
American authors know that they are forbidden to take a heterodox position about political events in the U.S. while the events are in heat. And authors generally are institutionally untrained in writing what used to be called “engaged” literature, because, as I said, most, if not all, universities have been sucked into the vortex of Capital. For them to deviate would cost them grant money and very likely put editors’ jobs in dangers.
Once the engaging incident has retreated from current history into a species of archeology, then it could usually be inscribed as a mystery narrative and broadcast on the History Channel as yet another consumer item. Who actually Murdered Lincoln? The Truth About the Meat Industry in the Early 20th Century. LSD Experimentation on African-American US Prison Inmates in the 1940s.
In response to Amitava, I’d have to say that the biggest favor the West could do for Islam and Muslims and Arabs and South Asians would be get out of the business of “understanding” those cultures–and get out of those cultures, period. Stop bombing Pakistan-Afghanistan (I hate that loathsome Obama coinage, AfPak, as if to merge Pakistan into the “problem” of Afghanistan), stop publishing sentimental books like Khaled Hosseini’s, stop lionizing cultural “intermediaries” like Azar Nafisi, and just leave us the hell alone. As for teaching GuantÃ¡namo in the classroom, this raises the larger question of what ethics requires of us (writers/teachers/intellectuals) in a situation where the country to which we pay nominal or explicit allegiance is in the ongoing business of murdering or torturing or ruining the lives of large numbers of people. Can we “teach” such materials while the depravities are not yet in the past? For example, Holocaust testimony while the Holocaust was going on–was that feasible? Is the best teaching in such a situation a refusal to teach? To abdicate? And if we abdicate, then how do we end up not endorsing? Bernard Lewis is an asshole, of course, and so is Samuel Huntington, but I want to utter the heretical thought that Chomsky is no less patronizing, sticking up for the lesser peoples, looking out for their interests, in the most elite Cambridge forums imaginable.
No doubt this will feed into the charge of “passivity,” or quietism, or cynicism, or anti-citizenship. And this gets me to Harold Jaffe’s distinction between committed/engaged literature and literature that is not. I’d like to say that, again, the best possible (least elitist, most democratic) response from intellectuals/writers would be to not advocate committed writing. Commitment has a certain 1950s aura of meaning, and I don’t see Harold’s explanation escaping the prison cage of distinctions. Writing that is committed is supposed to be committed to something. To what? I expect no New York (or West Coast) liberals to transcend their inheritance as to what counts for commitment. For example, suppose that I, educated (and probably very elitist) Anis Shivani, were to argue that abortion ought to be severely restricted, or that–and this one I actually believe–global warming is more or less a hoax perpetrated by Al Gore and his crony James Hansen, and has severe imperialist/racist overtones to boot–then I would become instantly persona non grata. Commitment to the idea that 9/11 was a conspiracy? A conspiracy need not imply a cabal of idiots sitting around plotting something, but in the larger sense of institutional interests coalescing to create, interpret, and respond to certain events. Nope, not allowed. Can I commit to the idea that the Afghanistan war is as illegal as the Iraq War? Nope, for most liberals that’s the good war. It’s totally illegal since the Afghans were willing to hand over Osama bin Laden and his companions, but we wouldn’t entertain the idea. And even if that weren’t the case, one cannot invade a country to pursue individual criminals.
Another point is that when literature tries to be committed, mostly it results in trash. There’s little worth to the thirties American literature of commitment. There are any number of Turkish writers of commitment, but Orhan Pamuk–who’s not committed to any particular political agenda–will last, whereas the others won’t. Harold is right that writers in this country are put on the defensive about bringing politics into their writing. But the answer is not to bring in a particular politics. You might have been invested in the politics of Obama, as a liberal, in 2007-2008, and how wrong you would have been to support this particular black-racist variant on the mass-murdering institutional compulsions of our presidencies. The least elitist, most democratic take on current politics would be dismiss all of it, to escape all of its prisons, to not be engaged. If such writing contains a political worldview, consistent or otherwise, so be it. If it doesn’t, then it probably won’t last, because imperial politics is of the essence of the moment, but at least the writer won’t have debased himself by bowing to current fashions in political belief.
I have difficulties with Shailja Patel’s response too. Poetry, in the example given of the poem by Ortiz, cannot descend to the level of politics in the pragmatic/realist sense and have any effectiveness. Poets and writers become advocates of causes, and causes are the death of literature–even if the cause is that of advocating U.S. disengagement from Latin America or elsewhere. Did I just contradict myself? Didn’t I say at the beginning that disengagement would be best? Yes, but it cannot be the function of a writer to plead for such a cause. I think that a certain multicultural earnestness (and if there’s one thing that should have happened as a response to 9/11, it should have been to end that bland, bullshit, all-things-to-everyone and therefore meaningless multiculturalism of the 1992-2001 period) permeates the poem quoted by Shailja and other literature of that kind. That kind of diversity and pluralism only plays into the hands of the masters of empire, precisely the kind of humble, meek, supplicant writing they want us to do. Also, poetry is not what everyone–at poetry slams or whatever–decides to do. Okay, it is poetry at some level, as is rap, but we ought not to equalize and make claims that hierarchies are worthless. There is a reverse racism in holding the minority to a lesser standard, and it’s time we stop bending our standards in search of false equality.
In short, 9/11 was not the event to be bothered with at all. A particular stage of empire was represented by 9/11, which is still unfolding via xenophobia, torture, open racism, drone attacks, extrajudicial killings, deportations, and mass rewriting of history. 9/11 was a non-event, as I said in my original formulation. The writer, at this moment in history, must be a total rejectionist. He should reject, above all, anything that smacks of intervention, engagement, commitment, political duty. If we were really ethical, we would find a way not to live in a country that is, as we speak, killing people by dropping bombs in the good war that all liberals supported at its inauguration. What are we going to do? Give up citizenship? Move to Costa Rica? Investigate the nature of the 9/11 conspiracy? Come out on the streets to protest continuing torture?
All literature is a lie at the present moment, since the lies ordinary people are telling themselves are so great, the divisions between truth and reality so wide, that writing cannot address those divisions as they stand, in their manifest appearance. The writer would have to give up writing to feel whole and sensible again and, since we’re denied that, on pain of giving up our vocation, the only psychologically consistent answer is total rejectionism. America is irrelevant to the whole clash of civilizations going on. It is a doomed power, sinking fast, already a manifest autocracy and headed for unimaginably worse. Accept that. And tell yourself to screw it and move on. Move on to a position where it can’t hurt you. Be stronger than anything they can throw at you. Be superhuman in your rejection.
NO MORE Robert Pinsky and Robert Hass poems lamenting Bush and 9/11 and Katrina and whatever else they want to lament. No more trying to be relevant–while getting your fat salary from the university that also houses departments of war psychology (under assumed names, of course). No more C.D. Wright trying to do that stuff either. It’s worse than worthless. Just shut up, dudes.
All our first round responses in this dialogue were safe. We wrote behind masks of activist, editor, literary critic, professor. Absent: ourselves as writers. We failed to show how we grappled and closed with the matter of writing, after 9/11.
Had we already accepted ancillary status? Were we afraid to claim that our own writing mattered?
These are the two questions I want to put to 9/11 literatures.
One: do you go where the danger is?
Two: what work do you do? And for whom?
What I seek in writers who care that literatures be dangerous and necessary, is best captured by the word “jihad.” Jihad defined as “both internal spiritual struggle to maintain faith and improve the soul, and external struggle against injustice and oppression” (Moezzi).
I want to look at four works that undertake this journey. Each is in a different medium, but all were created in the aftermath of 9/11. Each goes towards danger, undertakes specific labor.
They are Kayhan Irani’s play, We’ve Come Undone; Leila Aboulela’s novel, Minaret; the stand-up comedy of Shazia Mirza; and my poem, “Eater of Death.”
We’ve Come Undone, Kayhan Irani
Kayhan Irani is a New Yorker of Parsi descent, born in Bombay, raised in Queens. Her one-woman show, We’ve Come Undone, is a tapestry of monologues in voices of women and girls in New York post 9/11. From a child whose father is “disappeared” by the INS, to an INS agent herself, thrown in at the deep end of Special Registration, detentions, and deportations, Irani shows the invisible casualties of Homeland Security, “the families and lives behind demonized brown men.”
jihad calls for condemning oppression
from a polished heart
resistance from within
–Not Refugees, Sarwat Rumi
In conversation, Irani says:
I was working with Asian and South Asian theatre artists, in New York, after 9/11, and no one was addressing [what was happening to our communities]. I kept thinking, Hello, people? Why isn’t anyone writing what’s going on–this state-sponsored unraveling of our society? I never experienced personal attack, because I’m often not perceived as South Asian. But I was reading lawyers’ intake documents, the statements of families and detainees…
I did the show in community spaces, and so many people from South Asian, Middle Eastern, Muslim communities told me that was the first time they had ever seen themselves portrayed as fully human, in their complexity. At the end of each performance, I do a Q and A. I also invite audience members onto the stage to do an exercise from image theatre–they freeze into a physical depiction of a concept–a word like “illegal” for example. I then dynamize the pose they’ve chosen, and get the audience to discuss what’s evoked. Even non-targets talked about how hard it is to discern what to do in those situations. It’s not touchy-feely, people just unloading their emotions. It’s a concrete demonstration of how story helps people to organize themselves in solidarity.
Using theater–and involving the audience as both spectator and active participant–brings home that “post 9/11” is not a static concept–but one that we, every American, can reshape every day.
Minaret, Leila Aboulela
jihad calls […]
for mending an identity
from fractured to divine and whole.
–Not Refugees, Sarwat Rumi
Leila Aboulela’s hauntingly lovely Minaret, published in 2005, is the “9/11 novel” I recommend most frequently, precisely because it confounds expectations. It also frustrates reviewers, who don’t know what to do with a novel about Islam as a lived and living practice, the air the characters breathe, rather than a political and cultural identity.
Minaret’s protagonist, Najwa, is the daughter of an elite Sudanese politician. We follow her from a privileged Westernized youth in Khartoum to lonely impoverished later-life exile in London, where she works as a domestic for a wealthy Egyptian family. Her faith in Islam, acquired at the nadir of her dispossession, is Najwa’s bulwark. Religion offers her a wellspring of beauty, dignity, and fortitude. Aboulela delivers with exquisite skill a series of gentle shocks to all my assumptions of what Najwa should want. And to what I, the reader, desire for her. I am left rooting for Najwa to cleave to her religion over secular outward forms of enablement.
“I want to write about the faith, but it’s so difficult to talk about it like this when everyone else is talking about the political aspects. I’m concerned that Islam has not just been politicised but that it’s becoming an identity. This is like turning religion into a football match, it’s a distraction from the real thing.”
Shazia Mirza’s Standup Comedy
“My name is Shazia Mirza. At least, that’s what it says on my pilot’s licence.”
–British standup comic Shazia Mirza, 2001
A joke that works is a succinct alliance of laughter and power. Subalterns who joke against Empire can be dangerous–and endangered. Mirza, daughter of Pakistani migrants, was one of the few comedians brave enough to mine the humor from 9/11. And the first woman anywhere to hit the stand-up circuit, a notoriously racist and misogynist arena, in hijab. Alongside TV slots and invitations to international comedy festivals, she attracted a slew of death threats and hate messages.
She incorporated some of the threats into her routine:
Here’s one that says: I will rape you, then burn you. Well, that’s thoughtful. I mean, what girl wants to be burned before she’s raped?
In 2003, Mirza was listed by The Observer as one of the 50 funniest acts in British comedy. An award-winning column followed, in Britain’s left-wing journal, the New Statesman. She continues to skewer racism by making audiences laugh, both at themselves, and at their stereotypes of Muslims:
I always wanted to be like my white friends, who had abortions, herpes and chlamydia. And my mother would say, “Wait until you are married, your husband will give you all of that.”
“Eater of Death,” Shailja Patel
“Why do you live in the U.S. when you’re so critical of it? Because I’d rather be in the country that’s dropping the bombs than the country the bombs are dropping on.”
–Shailja Patel, Migritude
October 2001. The U.S. bombs Afghanistan. “Well, what else can we do?” demands my boyfriend at the time, a white American Buddhist. We break up. A friend remarks wryly: U.S. foreign policy is not a bonding factor in your relationship.
The poem is seeded by a stark report on the website of RAWA (Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan) about a woman in Kabul, Bibi Sardar, whose husband and seven children are killed at breakfast by U.S. air strikes. The New York Times is running a daily profile of each 9/11 victim. I need Americans to see the faces of Afghani victims. To understand them as equally loved, equally grievable.
I begin with the names of six imagined children–Kamal, Gohar, Shahnaz, Sadiya, Zainab, Zarafshan–and their meanings. The act of naming is an act of faith in individual lives. A dream that they will endure. It grows into my first ever persona poem, written in the voice of their unnamed mother, who loses all six in one attack:
children screamed, walls shattered,
a voice like a jackal’s howled
Kamal Gohar Shahnaz Sadiyah Zainab Zarafshan
It split my head, I would have beaten it
I raised my hands
to block my ears, my fingers fell
into the well
of a hole in my face,
came from me.
All allegiances are suddenly fragile. Emails on the listserve of the APIA spoken word community, addressed to “family,” assume a shared American-ness that leaves me queasy. I counter calls to raise funds for 9/11 victims with the suggestion that Afghanis are in far greater need. A Chinese American poet in LA responds: “Don’t the folks in that region always eat grass to survive?”
It emerges that the foodpacks being dropped by the U.S. on Afghanistan are the same size, shape, and dull yellow color as unexploded cluster bombs.
Food coloured like
the bombs. For the children
to pick from minefields
with the hands
they still have
of a people
who would gloat
over those they kill,
who would take the limbs,
of their victims
before execution. I cried out
to the shelter roof, dark as a coffin:
Have they no mothers
In the rabid and xenophobic nationalism of the time, I am physically scared each time I read the poem in public.
A friend calls. “I just heard ‘Eater of Death’ on Flashpoint, the news show on Pacifica Radio. But it wasn’t you reading it, and they didn’t say it was by you.”
I call the station. Flashpoint’s producer tells me a copy of the poem was sent in, unattributed, by a listener. She invited Tanya Farzana, a community organizer from Fremont, CA (home to the largest Afghani community in the U.S.), to read the poem on air.
I call Tanya. Ask how she feels about a Kenyan poet writing in the voice of an Afghani woman. Is it appropriation?
She says, “When I read the poem in the studio, I was crying. My sister, sitting in the reception outside, hearing my reading, was also crying. And I have a daughter named Zainab.”
An uncle in the UK emails me:
Be careful how you express yourself in public. Both the Govts, there and here, have power to lock us up and seize all we have. The US authorities can strip you of your US rights and send you back to Kenya with instructions to torture you there.
My sister, with whom I share an apartment, is very angry with me. She fears the attention this poem is bringing. She has nightmares about the FBI at our door. The confiscation of our property. Neither of us has citizenship. “You don’t have the right to put me at risk, to destroy everything Mum and Dad have worked for.”
This seems to be the most dangerous story to tell in the U.S. The one that presents non-Americans as equally grievable.
In my first round response, I wrote of the poems scratched into Styrofoam cups by GuantÃ¡namo prisoners. Vital literature is not writing about, writing to, or writing from. It is writing within–from inside that which is written of. Writing through the skin, to the outside. Internal struggle to external resistance, writing as jihad.
if you save a life
it is as though you have spared
the entire human race
we would always start
with our own brown skins.
–Not Refugees, Sarwat Rumi
Aboulela, Leila. Minaret. New York: Grove Press, Black Cat, 2005.
Irani, Kayhan. We’ve Come Undone (theatre), 2001.
“Leila Aboulela Returns To The Land Of Her Fathers.” The Independent. 17 December 2010.
Mirza, Shazia. Comedy File, available at http://comedyfiles.tv/shazia-mirza.
Moezzi, Melody. “Islamophobia, Feminism and Jihad.” Talk at St. Lawrence University. 12 April 2011.
Patel, Shailja. “Eater of Death.” Migritude. Kaya Press, 2010.
Rumi, Sarwat. “Not Refugees.” WAR (Chapbook), 2005.
Wieseltier, Leon. “The Catastrophist.” New York Times Book Review. 27 April 2008.
Rashid, Ahmed. Taliban. New Haven: Yale UP, 2001.
Sifton, John. “Temporal Vertigo.” The New York Times Sunday Magazine. 30 Sept 2001.
 “Interrogation Log Detainee 063,” available at http://ccrjustice.org/files/Publication_AlQahtaniLog.pdf. Also see
Adam Zagorin and Michael Duffy’s “Inside the Interrogation of Detainee 063” (Time. 12 June 2005).