Late August 2000, I drove down the coast, stopping each evening and morning for a cooling swim, until I turned right at Jax Beach, in Florida, after which I was on the Gulf of Mexico in water that was bath temperature. It was a hot August. In North Carolina, on the Outer Banks, where I stopped to see the ESA all women’s surf off, it was 93 degrees. In Louisiana, it was 108. At a plantation in Baton Rouge, I listened to a guide overdressed in 18th century costume discuss the daily work of planting and harvesting, and wondered how humans survived without air conditioning, how the slaves worked through such extreme heat. Emma, my black and tan dachshund, who traveled with me, got out to stretch her legs and was swarmed by fire ants. When I picked her up to see what was wrong, I too experienced their biting heat. I was headed to Houston where I was scheduled as visiting prof for fall in the Writing Program at the University of Houston, and I was not off to an auspicious start.
My students, it turned out, were interested and the teaching experience was good. The temperatures however didn’t get better until November. Missing the wonder of autumn in the northeast, I flew home for long weekends as often as I could. When I couldn’t, I drove to Galveston to swim, and north into the hills of Austen, and to San Antonio. In October, I participated in a conference on Yiddish Literature at UCLA and didn’t want to leave.
In the meantime, campaigns for the presidential election grew heated. On Rice University’s manicured campus, where I exercised Emma before and after reading in the library, kids in ten-gallon hats stumped for Bush. Limp under a tree for shade, while Emma chased squirrels, I wondered about the trajectory of an eighteen-year old conservative. If it’s true that hippies and beatniks and soul surfers of the 70s turned conservative as soon as they started earning good money, where, I wondered, could life take a young already to the right, right-winger? I was at work on The Seventh Beggar, my third novel, writing about a young protagonist whose ambitions to learn and know moved in direct opposition to contemporary anti-intellectual currents suspicious of knowledge and learning, a trend against knowing, and I was anxious for the book’s survival in such a world.
I spent election night online with a friend at the University of Michigan, both of us anachronisms in red states, fish out of water. Finally December came and went. For my journey home, I shipped my car home and booked the fastest way out, a non-stop flight to JFK. And then in January, despite the questionable ballot count in Florida, Bush took office.
On September 8th, 2001, I was in Mantova, Italy for the Festival Litteratura, where thousands gathered to hear writers read and speak. Between engagements, on a bicycle to see something of this medieval city, I noticed a mysterious-looking small poster for a “qabala” (the Italian spelling for Kabbalah) exhibit. I tried following these strangely intermittent signs, came upon dead ends, retraced my steps, tried again, lost my way. It occurred to me that this was an experience out of a Borges story. I tried finding the place again the next day, asked people, and finally walked up a flight of steps and paid for a pass to see work by renowned Kabbalists whose names I’d known since childhood, whose complex of ideas were bound up in the rituals and customs of the Hasidic life I’d lived, and significantly in the novel I was then writing.
On my way out, I purchased the catalog to the exhibition and read about Mantova’s priceless collection of medieval Kabbalah texts. Therefore, when at dinner my Italian publisher Einaudi asked whether there was anything in particular I wanted to see or do, an offer they made each of their participating authors, I was prepared. I wanted to visit the library’s collection of Kabbalah texts. Easy, my editor said.
She called the next morning to say that the library was under construction and the kabbalah texts were locked in a vault. Borges again.
But later that day, the phone rang. The mayor of Mantova had agreed to meet us with the key to the vault.
I arrived at Newark Airport late evening, in time to teach my 9 a.m. graduate workshop at Sarah Lawrence. In the morning, I drove up the Henry Hudson and crossed the toll. It was a brilliantly blue fall day, first day of classes. It was September 11th. On the radio, the traffic report was interrupted for a story about a plane accident.
Five minutes into my first session, cell phones started ringing. Then came a knock at the door. Classes were cancelled. And the city shut down. I couldn’t go home. On the lumpy old sofa in the attic office of Sarah Lawrence’s Graduate Creative Writing Program, I tried sleeping off my jet lag, but I couldn’t bring myself to turn the radio off and it kept me awake. Announcers repeated what they knew more times than I could count, rehearsing the blow-by-blow of an event no one understood. Yet.
I tried calling home but lines were blocked. I finally got through and confirmed that my partner who’d traveled with me to Italy, had taken the day off as planned, slept in, and therefore was not at his desk in the World Trade Center.
In the weeks that followed Americans rallied around America and the American flag, a strangely nationalistic patriotism that both soothed and frightened at once. And with this burst of nationalism came, as it usually does, rage and racism and the demonization of the other. American Muslims became afraid. And then, in November, an interestingly strange phenom emerged: an American-born, American-bred Taliban. The furies and hatreds that John Walker Lindh’s story brought forth were extreme, and in that environment he didn’t have a chance. He became a scapegoat. Lindh wasn’t the only one of these strange hybrids, both American and Taliban simultaneously, a seeming oxymoron. At least one other American Taliban was captured alongside Lindh, but he didn’t make as much press, perhaps because his background didn’t provide the perfect frame: Yasir Hamdi, Adam Gadahn, Richard Reid, and others could not be called Marin-county, hot-tubbing, latte-sipping liberals.
I was finishing The Seventh Beggar and the journeys of these young men struck me as variations on my story, examples of life imitating fiction. The protagonist of The Seventh Beggar becomes interested in mysterious wisdom tales and in Gnostic meditations on the Tetragrammaton (YHWH), in which Jesus too is said to have engaged, as a way to tap into higher powers. Lindh also was an idealistic seeker, and his tragedy, an accident of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, haunted me.
Americans were asking themselves how an educated young man from a well-to-do family could end up on a suicide mission in a bunker in Mazar-e Sharif, fighting a jihad that had nothing to do with his family or his country, and journalists tried answering this question. Having followed one protagonist’s fateful journey into esotericism, I had a particular angle on Lindh’s story. The more interesting question, it seemed to me, was not HOW, but WHY, not what happened but why it happened, E. M. Forster’s differentiation between story and plot. And for exploring questions of causality, the novel is the perfect form.
E. L. Doctorow once said that every novelist has one story, which he writes again and again. American Taliban is indeed a seeker’s journey similar to ones I’ve already written, but it also offers a significant difference: This is a 21st century tale grounded in foundational American myths about the quest for self-knowledge and the spiritual freedom knowing brings. This story begins, not with unknowable jihad, but with Emerson and American Transcendentalism, with Whitman’s celebrated search for the self, which is to say, with the American religion.