Archive for the "Column" Category

Chiasmus: A short short published in Epoch

In lieu of this month’s column, here is the full text of Chiasmus, a short short published in Epoch’s December issue. Enjoy.


At first only Mrs. James noticed: Robbie’s style had changed. His shrug, or perhaps it was the way he used his hands—where before he had moved with the efficient swing and stride of an athlete, with nothing extraneous, he was slower now and newly expressive. Home after surgery and weeks of therapy, Robbie picked up the book that Ritchie had been reading—Christopher Ricks on Bob Dylan—discussed Ricks’s gloss on Dylan’s lyrics, and added his own. When Robbie wasn’t reading, he worked out. He was determined to get back in the game the following season, and he started by putting himself through his rehabilitation exercises every day, sometimes twice a day, though it was painful.
Mrs. James encouraged him. She made energy shakes and purchased liquids infused with electrolytes. When he was well enough to make his way down to the basement to his bench, he wanted to start lifting weights again; he wanted, he said, to regain the upper body strength necessary for lacrosse, though his therapist warned him to go easy because his newly-transplanted organs were still settling in, ribs, muscles and ligaments still healing. You’re young, she said, and you were lucky, you couldn’t have had a closer match, but your connective tissues are new and still forming. If suddenly it feels like glass breaking, ease up right away.
One day, Mrs. James heard the rat-a-tat-tat of drums, and when she went downstairs, she found Robbie on Ritchie’s drums.
“Thought I’d give them a workout,” he explained, “so they don’t gather dust. Watch.” He struck the cymbals and a hundred dust motes floated white in the sunlit air.
Mrs. James watched the lonely motes settle, dust to dust, and listened to Robbie find his rhythm, fumbling at first, then confident enough to add a secondary off-beat thump. He kept this going a while, and soon he attempted a third track and kept it up, and soon drumming was part of his daily routine and he was going downstairs to give Ritchie’s drums a workout even on off days, when his muscles were repairing.
He’s coming through beautifully, the doctors said.
Traumatic experience can, in the best cases, set off a period of intellectual growth, the occupational therapist said when Mrs. James mentioned Robbie’s new interests.
She was anxious about Robbie’s state of mind, about the difficulty of finding himself alive while his brother was not. He didn’t talk about it and she didn’t want to press. Fortunately, he had not been driving. In this, at least, God had been merciful. Though it was an accident, it would have been hard for Robbie to live with the knowledge that he had killed Ritchie, and it would have been difficult knowing that the perpetrator had survived. Still this tragedy was impossible to understand, impossible to accept, and most days, halfway through the day, Mrs. James felt her head grow too warm and inside shells shattered, became shells again, which shattered, which became shells, which shattered which became which shattered which—
until she swallowed a sedative.
Ritchie wasn’t, had never been, a wild driver. He had never been a boy easily pushed toward daredevilry, had never performed stunts on demand, not even as a toddler. Though he had walked from bed to bed and wall to wall, arms akimbo for balance, though Mrs. James had seen him perform it in the morning and knew he could, he refused to show Poppa. Baby Ritchie walked only when and where he wanted to. And grown-up Ritchie impressed, when he wanted to impress, suddenly, so that they didn’t see it coming, so that by the time he let them in on a newly learned skill, he’d perfected the act. He’d surprised them all with his musical ability. They’d had no idea that he was practicing the drums at school until one day he invited them to a performance, and hearing him play, Mr. James, who years ago had played the banjo in a traveling bluegrass band, was moved to go online and bid on an awesome set of Double-Helix drums.
Now the band was looking for a drummer to take Ritchie’s place, they posted ads, and without saying anything to anyone, Robbie recorded and mailed a demo tape.
“The band will be rehearsing downstairs today,” Robbie announced one morning at breakfast, as if he were Ritchie informing his mother in advance, as they’d long ago agreed, so that Mrs. James could schedule errands or a movie or coffee with friends for that cacophonous afternoon. Mr. and Mrs. James exchanged glances and, then, seeing Robbie pour himself a bowl of Cheerios and top it off with raisins, as if he’d never disliked Cheerios with raisins, Mrs. James started out of her seat, propelled herself out of the room, out of her home—out of her mind, she felt—and Mr. James had to coax her inside and back to bed.
For his first public performance, Robbie needed black pants and a white shirt, the band’s uniform, and he borrowed Ritchie’s. After which, he started wearing Ritchie’s school hoodie, and Ritchie’s jacket, and Ritchie’s favorite flannel shirt, and soon Ritchie’s closet became Robbie’s second wardrobe, and Mrs. James understood that she wouldn’t have the dreaded task of clearing out Ritchie’s things, though she also wanted or needed it.
In September, when the lacrosse season started again, Robbie looked at the schedule and realized that he couldn’t participate in the band’s rehearsals and performances as well as in lacrosse practice and games. He didn’t debate long. After weeks of weight training and body conditioning, he gave up lacrosse for the drums. At first he continued showing interest in his former team’s scores and wins, and he high-fived his former teammates, but it was the band that came to the house for rehearsals, and it was with the band he spent his free time, so that Ritchie’s old best friends became Robbie’s new friends. But the way he was with these new friends, Mrs. James noted, was unnatural. Robbie had always been self-assured in his friendships, carefree and confident and largely unconcerned; now he showed a tentative, fragile quality. He’s trying too hard, she thought. She watched him and became convinced that he was trying to fill Ritchie’s shoes, he was trying to be Ritchie.
She worried that it was somehow her fault, that she had favored Ritchie over Robbie, rousing jealousy unthinkingly. She remembered that Ritchie had called Robbie an illiterate idiot at least once, and tone deaf too, but if they were sometimes jealous brothers, they were also often playful.
At the end of hard days came harder nights, when Mrs. James lay awake. One night, she asked herself if, given the option, she would have chosen Ritchie over Robbie. But no, it wasn’t true; she’d loved them equally, and for their very differences: Ritchie for his quiet subtlety and imaginative sensitivity, Robbie for his obtuse ease, taking life always easily. She’d loved well, loved equally, and yet. Between reality and perception floats the cloud of unknowing. She thought she heard Ritchie, or was it Robbie’s voice, reciting in her ear, a lyric without its music, with only the treble of voice, “I hurt easy, I just don’t show it/ You can hurt someone and not even know it.” The voice was Robbie’s, but the words belonged to Ritchie. She was blind and groping. She was blind biblical Isaac groping to identify which son. She no longer knew anything. She’d given life to two sons, twins. They’d arrived equally blessed, with enough in the world for both. And she had sent them into this world, to partake of it, and only one had returned, blessedness damaged.
For the anniversary of the accident, when Robbie was back in school and walking and eating and breathing as well as almost anyone, Mrs. James ordered Ritchie’s headstone etched with lines that Robbie had selected from Dylan’s Forever Young, and family and friends gathered for the long-delayed memorial. The band played Mr. Tambourine Man, and Robbie spoke eloquently, remembering characteristic moments with Ritchie, and seeing him up there, hearing him speak and read, Mrs. James understood that she had been mourning for Ritchie though it was Robbie they’d lost.

ON THE ROAD: in Amsterdam

On The Road: After airport closings on Sunday and Monday morning, Schipol re-opened, and my flight remained on schedule, and was indeed on time and entirely, pleasantly uneventful. I arrived Tuesday morning and found my wonderfully diligent publicist Marianna (actually, she found me) waiting. Yes, in the Netherlands, in the 21st century, friends and family still meet you at the airport.

Checked in at the lovely Hotel Ambassade, where I’ve stayed for almost every visit, and reviewed my schedule with Marianne. I had the entire morning and early afternoon off for rest. I stepped out on my little balcony, with its view of the canal and the steeply pitched red-tile roofs across the way, and watched passer-by on bicycles. I would live in Amsterdam just for the bicycles. Then went to pour my bath in my newly-renovated sparkling-clean European white bathroom. After which I slept for the precisely-prescribed ideal half hour (my iphone alarm woke me), and though desperate for more sleep, I forced myself out the door to meet Ilonka Leenheer, friend, fashion scout, and more, for a late lunch and shopping. We had a leisurely lunch on Wolvenstraat at a fashionable place fashionably without a name, drank twee koffie veerkeerd, exchanged gifties (a lovely necklace with double stars for me; Smartwool cushy ankle socks for her), then on to Marimekko and Rika. That woke me. I got back to the hotel in time for two afternoon interviews, and a photo session. For once, the photographer arrived prepared with a reflector and light, so the photos should be better than past NL photos.

Dinner that evening was at Flo, a French bistro that’s somehow related to La Coupole in Paris, where I had my very first raw oysters about, oh, a hundred years ago. So I started with a half dozen cold water oysters and cold white wine: yummmmm. For my entrée, spicy beef carpaccio. I wished I weren’t too tired to finish it. It was delectable dining in excellent company: My smart and lovely publisher, Maaike le Noble, whom I’d met in NYC in the winter—a pleasure to see her again; Marianne, my wonderful publicist; and Thijs, the non-fiction editor at Meulenhoff.

The next morning, I took the Haarlem-line train Zandvoort aan Zee (the sea), to meet Sander Knol, the managing director of Meulenhoff, for our ride through the dunes to the beach. After an espresso at the upstairs bar at the barn (fun to have a bar at the barn!), we were off: Sander, Marlise (Sander’s wife) and I, in the rear, led by Manege Ruckert, the owner and trainer at the barn. It was a lovely sunny day, with a good breeze. I was on 14-year old Shumi, a forward-going 15- or so hand horse, so shorter (and with a shorter stride) than Homère. We walked, trotted, cantered–no flying changes despite changes of bend on the narrow paths between dunes. We opened swinging gates and got the horses through them, with only one objection. Shumi was fine with it. We crossed a highway. We cantered on the beach. Shumi got a little too excited. We turned the horses into the water, paused for pics, then trotted most of the way back. And we all stayed on! 22 kilometers (about 18 miles) total. We were running late, but with Sander driving, I had just enough time for a shower, change of clothes, and onward for drinks at the publishing house with friends and guests and authors of Meulenhoff. What a fun way to close a fun day: the house is on the canal at Herengracht, and sipping cold wine in the lovely lobby, and in the sun on the front steps is glorious. Met old friends, met new friends, authors. Signed books. And Maaike spoke lovingly, inspiringly. And then dinner with my best Dutch girlfriends: Nanda van den Berg, my first NL editor, and Ilonka Leenheer, editor at Elle. We went to George, a new trendy spot, where we met other trendsters. And finally ended at Ilonka’s place, for tea and wine and some cuddling with Holly, her sweet and sometime jealous kittykat. She wanted her Mom to herself, so she scratched my hand! But I also got a high-tech band-aid for the blister (the reins) I’d developed, having forgotten to pack gloves.

Back to back interviews the next day: an hour each. As always, I talk faster at end of day. Lunched with Marianne: White asparagus with hollandaise sauce, ham and a poached egg—mmmmm. I think I could eat this every day and not get bored. Finished the day with another photo session, then a quick stop at Rika to purchase one of the five items under consideration: the renowned Rika star scarf: grey with large pink stars. Wore it the next day (good airplane wrap) and the next and the next.

Dinner at BIHP (Be Hip?) with my fine translator, Sjaak de Jong, with Bart Krammer, fiction editor and authors’ friend!, and the lovely Nina, assistant to Marianne. I had trout, spinach and, significantly, fries with mayonnaise. Apres dinner, Bart, Ilonka and I stopped for a quick g&t at De Pels, a local popular neighborhood bar, where it turns out the owner knows me or my work. ☺

In the morning, a morning chat with Sander, then to Schipol, for a long long journey home (USA), and home (Upper West Side) and home (Ancramdale, NY) to join Steve and Emma (my little family) for the weekend and some much needed R&R.


The readings last week started in MA at Brookline Booksmith. I’d spoken with someone from The Boston Globe (an intern? she sounded about twelve years old) the week before, provided her with enough material for a full write-up, and then, Tuesday morning, The Boston Globe published a short piece that sent my audience to the Brattle Theatre (about an hour away from the bookstore, given the traffic that day). So not a good start. Genie, the manager at the bookstore, was taken aback by the small audience (eleven people showed up) and wanted to delay until I mentioned Boston Globe’s misdirection. Despite, or perhaps because it was, a small audience, the q&a was lively. Dr. Luke Piretti, my favorite sports therapist/chiropracter who gave up the Lakeville, CT practice to move to the Boston area, was there! And Paige Gough, fellow NYU graduate CW student and friend, whom I haven’t seen in years, came. We (also her friend Elizabeth) had dinner at the local Thai place (her treat!) and talked horses all evening. Which was fun. Also fun: Judy Bolton-Fasman, who reviewed two of my earlier novels, picked me up at the station (our first non-virtual meeting) and we chatted through traffic all the way to Brookline, then walked to the bookstore together. Fashion: Big White Shirt, Jbrand skinnies, camo scarf, (it was colder in Boston) and my workhorse jacket: A boyfriend-style pin-stripe I’ve had for about ten years.

On the morning Acela train from South Station to NYC, announcements about heightened security. Bomb-sniffing dogs were walked past waiting passengers in line and all luggage had to be tagged. Got into Penn Station about 1:15, home by two, to walk Emma. Then Stephanie Grant (author of Map of Ireland) arrived, having flown in from Durham, NC, and we ordered California rolls and Pad Thai, caught up some and hurried to shower and dress.

For the Barnes&Noble reading, my local bookstore in NYC—Upper West Siders stopped me to report seeing my face in the windows–I expected and got a wonderful audience. Charles Bock, author of Beautiful Children, introduced. Beautifully. And the q&a was very good, with some debate about the differences between contemporary and earlier American opportunities to BECOME. The party at Inez Bon’s newly-opened wine bar VYNE followed. The place is gorgeous and intimate, and the moderately-priced wines it’s noted for, the cold white Veltliner especially, were delicious. Another late night.

Stephanie and I were on the train to Springfield, MA, for the Odyssey Books reading by 11:30 the next morning. Traveling with Stephanie has got to be the most fun way to do a book tour! We chatted, read, wrote, chatted. I checked in at the Sheraton, then we had to get on the road again, with a stop at WNEC, where I teach, to pick up final papers. We arrived in time to say hi to everyone at the English Major Social. I snacked on some chicken tenders and then we were on the road again, north to South Hadley. We had just enough time to see Mt. Holyoke’s awesome library—a fabulous cathedral to scholarship—and the amazing equestrian center. Then the reading. Stephanie introduced. Beautifully. Personally. And revealed a bit about what she’d heard about me (from Mona Simpson, with whom we both studied at NYU) before she’d ever met me. Some of my former students were there; also a reader who’d read my work, including the more difficult Seventh Beggar. Odyssey Books has a loyal first-edition book club (this place is amazing: customers keep a running tab and pay at end of every month) and had pre-sold a good number of copies of American Taliban, so I signed books.

Stephanie, Janet Bowdan, poet and Professor at WNEC, and I had a delicious dinner and good conversation at Food 101.

I was up at 4:30 to make the 6 a.m. train back to Boston for an appearance on Fox News “God Talk” segment. The train ran late, the first cab we (my fine publicist Meghan Cassidy and I) flagged was hit by a truck before we could get in, but everyone, including the driver who could have been really hurt, was fine. We flagged another cab, got to the studio with some moments to spare, and went live. Listen and watch the 7 minute clip here.

On the Road: At Brown Bookstore

HOW NOW, BROWN? So I think I need a fancy semiotics degree to figure this one out. Brown University’s Hillel Group dictated that the event at the Brown Bookstore be scheduled for 4 in the afternoon. It would be better for student attendance, we were told. And also for members of the large Jewish Community who would attend, we were told. We waited until 4:10 to give stragglers a chance to get there. In the end, not a single Hillel or Jewish Community member showed. Is it a stretch to assume that they were at their offices, working 9 to 5? Even the Hillel organizer was a no-show. And students who did attend complained that it was an impossible time, that afternoon classes tend to go until 4:20, after which it would take at least ten minutes to get to the store. So we all walked away wondering why the Hillel Group was allowed to dictate the time. Call it Stupidity 101.

The students who did attend were wonderfully curious, questioning, and sophisticated, asking questions about authority, gender and the use of the body, and more. We had a lively q&a, and then two students who were working on a global media project for a class video-interviewed me about the media, the internet, and its effects on terrorism.

On the Road at Newtonville Books

On the Road, as promised:
Thursday evening, the debut reading from American Taliban took place at Newtonville Books, in a charming grotto-like space, actually the ground floor of an old Masonic lodge. Very cool: Intimate, pretty, and rather appropriate for a novel about a spiritual, sometime ecstatic journey. To get there, I walked through to the back of this lovely community bookstore, up the narrow steps, through the (by now infamous?) corridor of autographs—all the writers who’ve read here before me.

I read the first pages of American Taliban, which introduces John Jude Parish, the protagonist, and his mother, Barbara, who serves as a foil to his deepening interest in religion. Had to pause to sing/chant (me sing?) Bob Marley’s oiyoiyoi and the Beatles Love, Love… Ouch. A vigorous q&a followed, showing that my audience got the thematic setup, the context of American individuality and its pursuit. Eugenio, a “real” surfer in the audience, declared himself impressed (flattering me?) with my knowledge of the word overheads, and promised to read the book and point out surfer lingo errors. I might see him again in Providence, RI, where he lives and surfs, and where I will be at the end of the month, visiting Brown for a reading, q&a and signing.

After which, Mary Clark, the owner, handed me a fat black marker with which to leave my autograph. I found just enough space on the left lintel of the grotto’s entrance, and writing sideways, thanked Newtonville Books for allowing for the side stance–surfer/skater lingo, meaning an alternate point of view on the world. And then drinks—a delicious glass of cold Sauvignon for me, courtesy of the Clarks (thx, Jaime). And fries and things. A fun night all around.

Enroute back to Springfield, the GPS misled us, and we ended up in Wellesley before my iphone’s map app put us on the right track.

Fashion (as promised): Red with tiny white polka dots blouse, jbrand skinnies, with my favorite lace-up F&B boots, a look my friend Patricia dubbed French girl.

I will post the link to the store’s very fun author questionnaire soon.

12 Reasons to Buy American Taliban NOW

Twelve reasons to buy AMERICAN TALIBAN now (pub date: April 13). Please don’t hesitate to add your own reasons and share them with your network of family and friends, and ask them to share them with their network of family and friends, who will (I hope) share them with their network……………….

1. A novel like this encourages the reader to pay attention to the world and to ponder complex issues. — Bookpage

2. The author has taken a complex and volatile subject and brought it to a human scale, without compromising or trivializing the global importance of the issues raised. An incredible achievement; highly recommended. —Christine DeZelar-Tiedman, Univ. of Minnesota Libs

3. It’s a heart- and mind provoking tale that Abraham, who was raised as an Orthodox Jew, has fashioned with nerve, verve, and righteous vigor. -Lisa Shea for Elle

4. Abraham’s breathless, exhilarating style matches the timely subject matter as she grapples with the question of how a search for truth might lead a normal American kid into the jaws of the sworn enemies of his homeland. –Village Voice

5. AMERICAN TALIBAN transforms unknowable jihad into something legible, familiar, and as deeply American as the search for self. As her unlikely hero John Jude Parish surfs, grinds and prays his way to ecstatic becoming, Pearl Abraham transforms the imperiled American novel into something intellectually bold and morally urgent. A virtuoso performance. — Stephanie Grant, author of The Passion of Alice

6. The book is excellent—considered, magnetic, surprising. -Publishers Weekly

7. “[A] wonderfully intimate portrait of how a more or less ordinary American boy might be seduced by the idea of submitting to Islam. The stages of John’s journey, and the many Muslims he meets along the way, are evoked in such vivid and persuasive detail that I felt I too was learning about the ancient wisdom of this complex culture. American Taliban is a fascinating and important novel.” – Margot Livesey, author of The house on Fortune Street

8. “Riveting and revealing, Pearl Abraham’s bottomless imagination has created an intellectual page-turner for our brave new world.” – Gary Shteyngart, author of Absurdistan

9. Consensus: Abraham covers a very volatile subject with grace and feeling. –Lit Review

10. Her thoughtful approach to the characters and honest appraisal of the events make what could have been merely provocative into a challenging and effective novel…. “American Taliban” should be a must-read for anyone interested in current events. – Lauren Bufferd

11. When I glanced at the title of this book, I thought I knew what I was getting into. I had no clue. AMERICAN TALIBAN is so much more than just the story of an American kid who ends up joining the Taliban. John Jude is a superb literary creation: the smart, generous, open-minded teenager that every parent would be proud to raise. Well-written to the point where you can’t put the damn thing down, AMERICAN TALIBAN is empathetic, enlightening, and frightening all at once, a story that not only opens your eyes but gives you ideas to learn from, viewpoints to argue with. It is a rare delight to be given a novel that acutally makes you tink, rarer still to have a book utterly rip open your heart. AMERICAN TALIBAN is that rarest of accomplishments, one that does both at the same time. -Charles Bock, author of Beautiful Children

12. Abraham’s riveting fourth novel shows how the unthinkable can happen when a young American dreamer becomes a fanatic. In the months leading up to 9.11, college bound John Jude Parish–lover of Dylan and the Tao Te Ching–becomes smitten with the rigor and doctrinal purity of radical Islam. He ends up thirsting for self-abnegation in the forbidding mountains of Pakistan. This nuanced portrait of a homegrown terrorist goes far beyond the headline evoked by its title to explore the imperatives of love, the lure of exotic adventure and the rocky terrain of faith. – MORE magazine

On the Road

On request from friends and fans, I will blog from the road to tell you where I’m going, what I’m reading, whom I’m meeting, and (this for my friend Patricia et al) what I wore. First entry will be on the 15th, when I will head to Newtonville Books, in Newton, MA, just outside of Boston. This place sounds really wonderful. Read Ru Freeman’s Huffington Post piece about it.

Owner Jaime Clark has sent me a fun author questionnaire. Fun questions beget fun answers. Read some examples.

Should we talk to the Taliban?

Mullah Omar, the spiritual leader of the Taliban, issued a 69-point document that includes a ban on “suicide bombings against civilians, burning down schools, or cutting off ears, lips and tongues.” (Allisa J. Rubin, NYT, Jan 21) Though this new Taliban code of behavior goes so far as to echo Geneva Conventions for the treatment of prisoners, it has not attracted the kind of attention you’d expect. If anything, the newsworthiness of this extreme turnaround has been played down, the Taliban’s motivations questioned, and Mullah Omar’s influence placed in doubt.

In the meantime, at the London conference on Afghanistan, Hamid Karzai announced plans to expand a program that invites lower level Taliban soldiers to change sides. Matching the salaries of the so-called $10-a-day-Taliban, young men from impoverished villages who sign on as foot soldiers because they must earn a living somehow, the argument goes, will persuade. Karzai has also been urging talks with the Afghan Taliban since they will have to be included in a government that purports to represent all the Afghan people. Indeed, even Defense Secretary Robert Gates, visiting Pakistan, ostensibly to persuade the army to take on the Afghan, not just the Pakistani, Taliban, acknowledged that the Afghan Taliban will have to take part in governing the new Afghanistan. Somehow the contradiction involved in making both arguments at once escaped him.

Perhaps the U.S. strategy is a dual one: tough talk from one side of the mouth and float the possibility of peace talks from the other, all while keeping the pressure on with stepped up drone attacks that kill civilians alongside the targeted militants. The problem: We are violating the rights of a sovereign nation and justifying the jihad against us. Pakistan’s youth and the popular musicians and cultural figures that attract them have been quoted as saying that the West and not the Taliban is Pakistan’s problem. So this is not a strategy that is winning hearts and minds, or stabilizing Afghanistan.

The notable news here is that there is some consensus that the success of an Afghan nation will depend on drawing together the various factions and groups to represent all the people in this fractured war-torn country. And, significantly, the Taliban seems to have chosen this moment “to recast itself as a local liberation movement, independent of Al Qaeda,” but only, the article quickly points out, to capitalize “on mounting Afghan frustrations.” (NYT) But these counter arguments miss the point. We have an opportunity to seize this given initiative and encourage the Taliban toward a gentler, more humane face, toward more mainstream governance, and hope that the sheer momentum of such rehabilitation sticks.

Of course there are reasons to doubt and question Mullah Omar’s intentions. Given what we know of the Taliban, even before 9-11, we have reason to fear a Taliban takeover, in which Afghans are forced to live as a pre-modern people. Afghan women especially have much to fear. On the other hand, the Afghan people have been making their desire for security known. They don’t care whether they’re governed by Karzai or the Taliban. What they want is an end to corruption. What they want are schools and hospitals. And jobs.

We also know what the Taliban want. When Obama decided that pulling out of Afghanistan was not a choice, Mullah Omar released a statement that refuted the administration’s premise that it has no choice, and restated the Taliban message that should by now be loud and clear: They don’t want Western occupation.

So instead of going after Mullah Omar himself, as the CIA is doing, with increased drone attacks in Quetta where he is said to be living, this is the moment to re-evaluate his statements and actions, his conditions for talks, the fulfillment of at least one of which is already in the pipeline: the UN is said to be taking him off its most wanted list. In fact, Omar’s vilification in the US rests largely on the fact that he refused to turn over bin Laden when the Bush administration issued its ultimatum, a choice it surely knew no Muslim, not even our allies in Saudi Arabia, could or would make. A cleric from a poor village said to have been raised in a Sufic dervish order and a fighter in the war against the Soviets, Omar is revered by both Afghans and Pakistanis. Going after him rather than respond to his offers, which indicate a willingness to share power with the Karzai government, reveals a tin ear and serves to cast doubt on our claim that we have no interest in long-term occupation of Afghanistan or Pakistan.

The argument by experts that the war in Afghanistan has always been a political not a religious one should guide our understanding of Mullah Omar’s actions, based largely in exigency. To build a larger army, he invited tribal leaders, former warlords, and various factions including Al-Qaeda, to fight alongside his old mujahideen comrades. Their brutal idea of justice combined a mix of biblical style eye for an eye, ancient-style revenge, and traditional, patriarchal misogyny, all repulsive. But consider our own suspension of constitutional liberties in the face of war, which ended with illegal torture, spying on our own citizens, secret detention cells, silencing of whistleblowers, and more.

The most convincing argument for talks with Mullah Omar might be that he is the best man we have now or are likely to have in the near and far future. A spiritual man with some moral compass and with sway over his people, a leader with experience in the devastations of war and who seems to be moving to bring an end to it, Mullah Omar might be the only Taliban partner a representative Afghan government has. Killing him can only extend the war in Afghanistan and our engagement in it.

“We are not Terrorists. We are jihadists.”

On December 9th, five Americans were arrested in Pakistan for allegedly attempting to join terrorist organizations. Entering the courtroom for a hearing, Howard University student Ramy Zamzam, one of the arrested five, told reporters: “We are not terrorists. We are jihadists, and jihad is not terrorism.’’ In court, the young men maintained “that they had neither sought nor established contact with extremist groups, and traveled to the region only “to help the helpless Muslims.’’

But according to Pakistani police, who had been alerted by neighbors, the men had traveled to Hyderabad and Lahore to make contact with extreme organizations. Americans, including these kids’ parents, are once again asking why. “What,” one blogger writes, “could make seemingly normal, integrated, university-educated Muslims turn to terrorism?”

The Internet has been coming in for a large share of the blame for providing terrorists with a platform for recruitment, for dispersing Jihadi websites and videos and serving as a forum for airing grievances of Muslim persecution and oppression, that is for doing what it was designed to do: provide free speech for all. But it’s not as if YouTube videos and websites find their target audience so easily, though they surely want to. Given the overflow of information available online, the chance that any posting will be watched and read grows ever smaller. SO FACTS: These young men went online, googled specific topics of interest, and took the time to load and watch, to sit and read and know. These young men were more than less self-recruited and self-indoctrinated, which is a frightening truth, incomprehensible to most Westerners.

A close reading of what these kids–by all accounts good, even hardworking young men–have to say about why they went to Pakistan might help.

Ramy Zamzam told reporters, “Jihad is not terrorism.” Google the word jihad and you will come upon an Islamic concept known as the greater and lesser jihad, a newly controversial idea sourced in an old hadith or saying credited to the Prophet on his return from war in Mecca: “We have returned from the lesser jihad to the greater jihad.” What is the greater jihad? “Holy is the warrior who is at war with himself,” Mohammed is said to have said. The greater jihad, according to Sufi writings, is an inner spiritual struggle toward self-perfection, an ideal perhaps best known to us in the West, courtesy of the Monty Python Brothers, as the search for the Holy Grail. The grail, according to Sufis and other mystics, is a perfected or pure self, one who can submerge his own needs and ego for the larger good. This is a form of self-sacrifice familiar to soldiers in every army, from the Kamikaze Pilots in WWII to our own soldiers fighting in Afghanistan.

“We are jihadists,” Zamzam said. He and his friends didn’t go to Pakistan to seek comfort and luxury, they gave up a lot, perhaps everything, to “help the helpless.” In modern Arabic, the word jihad stands for the struggle for any cause, such as Gandhi’s jihad for India’s Independence, a third-world country’s jihad for economic development, or the struggle for women’s liberation. These five young men became jihadists against injustice and oppression, which are seen, even in the west, as cause for a just war. For the sake of a better world, they gave themselves to a struggle that places the highest demands on its soldiers, and such extreme self-sacrifice is difficult to understand and accept.

Understanding requires a kind of empathetic self-extension, asks that you enter into the mind of the other and imagine the world from another point of view. Living as these kids did near Washington DC, in close proximity to the White House and the U.S. Justice Department, institutions charged with upholding the constitution, they might have been inspired by our ideals of justice and freedom for all. But then they witnessed what the American government is capable of: lying to go to war, blackout flights, waterboarding, months of imprisonment without representation, spying on its own citizens. As Muslims living in America at a difficult time, they might have experienced racism first hand. And when the Abu Ghraib photos were released, they had evidence of what Americans will do to those perceived as other, a position in which they and their families suddenly, frighteningly found themselves.

The relief of a new president, a black president!, would have helped during the first months of 2009, but then came the same old struggle to effect change–provide healthcare for more Americans, keep America safe—while still remaining politically viable. They would have seen the corrupting snares of partisanship and political posturing standing in the way of justice for all, compromising the best intentions. They would have heard about the drones that kill civilians, women and children, along with targeted individuals. They would have been appalled by the decision to send more troops to Afghanistan. They would have found all this frustrating and would have wanted to do something better. And they knew: struggle, including Obama’s, is important, honorable. Sacrifice for the larger good is the path toward self-perfection. So they traveled to Pakistan “to help the helpless Muslims.’’

As it happens the altruism and individual self-reliance involved in sacrifice are deeply embedded in the American grain, which means that to understand we have only to be more rigorously honest and willing to know ourselves. Self-knowledge isn’t easy; it’s rather close to the spiritual struggle the Prophet called the greater jihad.

Tripped by Phonetics of Arabic, Again

On Jan 4, 2010, The David Letterman show aired a video titled The Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab Mispronunciation Roundup, in which news anchors stumbled over the Christmas Day terrorist’s name. It was funny, made its point the way comedy does: lightly. But the Letterman writers couldn’t have known that they were onto something.

Three days later, the night before Obama was scheduled to reveal so-called shocking details about the Christmas Bomber fiasco, MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow promised a revelation and actually delivered what Obama still has not: The reason Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab’s name didn’t raise red flags at airports and immigration was a misspelling. Of only one letter.

The Arabic language has tripped us up before. When the FBI rounded up suspected terrorists after 9/11, they picked up some innocent men whose names resembled names on their lists. And though the error was based in unknowing sloppiness, the onus to prove that they were merely Muslims with Arabic names– not the terrorists they were accused of being—fell upon the arrested, who often didn’t know why they were being held.

Arabic words, including proper names, make their way to English largely phonetically by transcription, which means sounding the word and finding an approximate match in the Roman alphabet. The results, in the absence of an agreed upon standard for transliteration, are both inexact and various. And since Arabic writing, like Hebrew, uses the Phoenician alphabet, it presents particular difficulties: Only eight consonants correspond exactly to a Roman (English) one. In several cases, two Arabic consonants correspond to the same Roman letter. And Arabic letters that signify glottal stops don’t have corresponding Roman letters.
Without a standardized system in place, alphabetic listings of Arabic names complicate the task of databases and search engines. According to one website, there are 32 ways to spell Osama bin Ladin’s name. He might easily be listed under O (or U for Usama), B, or L. One of the most popular names in the world comes in four different spellings: Muhammed, Mohammed, Mohamed, and Mahomet. The Quran is also spelled as the Koran and the Qur’an. Al-Qaeda shows up as al-Qaida, al-Qa’ida, and Qa’eda. You get the point.
Many of these spelling variations were introduced in the days of early colonialism, and every transcription depended on the transcriber’s country of origin. A Frenchman transcribed the same Arabic word differently from an Englishman, and a native of Algeria, influenced as he was by the French, transcribed differently from an Egyptian Arab. Of course, the different regional dialects and pronunciations of Arabic spoken in different countries also affected transcription. T. E. Lawrence famously refused to change the inconsistent spellings of proper names in his manuscripts, arguing that “Arabic names won’t go into English exactly, for their consonants are not the same as ours, and their vowels, like ours, vary from district to district.”
So we are confronted with the kind of nuanced problem usually found in good spy novels, resolutions for which an agile, intuitive imagination is required rather than routine, machine-aided information processing. In other words, we’ll need the kind of smarts an underdog is better at providing than is an established power. To solve this problem, we might want to turn to minds not yet shaped by established institutions where a good day’s work means business as usual.

One suggestion: Last week was the deadline for NYC’s Better App contest, in which contestants were asked to make obscure government-gathered information stored in neglected databases transparent to citizens. Among the most popular entries was one called NYCBooks, in which users could enter a title and find the nearest public library that had it. My favorite was an app that provided information about every tree growing in NYC. By offering this challenge to individuals with know-how and playful ambition rather than giving a software company a fat contract, NYC saved both time and billions. Perhaps this can work on a federal level too: Let’s put our young best agile individuals to work.