Those who must fall in love with the protagonist of their amusement in order to feel at peace with it are hereby advised to avoid Atta. The subject is unlovable but not quite, at least in Jarett Kobek’s hands, incomprehensible. He is Mohamed Atta, Egyptian-born, highly educated hijacker of American Airlines Flight 11, which collided with and destroyed the north tower of the World Trade Center on Tuesday, September 11th 2001.
I remember shock in the following weeks when it emerged that Atta and his compatriots were not, as supposed, economic victims of the global marketplace; he was not underprivileged, uneducated, or pre-industrial. He was the well-off son of a Cairo lawyer, with an advanced degree from a Western university. This staggered the punditry. They couldn’t conceive of being hated for anything other than their good fortune. Surely, jealousy and ignorance are the only real vehicles of destruction in the world? What’s left? Juvenile delinquency?
No matter – thinking seriously about the motivations of any single terrorist soon became passé, if not unpatriotic. They were evil men who hated our freedom, as our president said, and that was that, as though any gesture toward understanding would have inevitably bloomed into absolution.
Five years later, we had Martin Amis’ “The Last Days of Mohammad Atta,” later collected in the hodgepodge The Second Plane. The story is a comedy, and we meet therein a terrorist who isn’t full of rage so much as he is beleaguered and petulant.
Amis’ Atta opens the story with a Buster Keaton routine: he can’t get the hair off his soap, can’t move his own bowels, cuts himself shaving. Once we’re wise to Amis’s game, the game is dull. Of course, the worst will happen, of course the woman beside him will have a scalp disease, his bowels will attack him as the plane takes off … Amis’ conceit, it emerges, is that through ingestion of a magical potion, or something like that (as in all of Amis, pivotal plot points are weirdly obscured), Mohammad Atta is doomed to the eternal recurrence of his last day, living over and over a mess of petty tedium. Amis’ Atta knows he’s done wrong at the end, suffers the burden of living with hate, and dies in “helpless grief.”
Reading Amis’ story is like sitting across from someone who won’t stop making jokes, won’t let you get a word in, when there’s something serious you want to talk about. More like the Onion headline we all loved (Terrorists Surprised to Find Themselves in Hell) than an open-minded work of art, it is the literary version of one of those rolls of Osama Bin Laden toilet paper making the rounds as gag gifts. “The Last Days of Mohammad Atta” isn’t art, it’s propaganda.
Amis fails with Atta like the better writer, Harry Mulisch, fails with Hitler in his 2001 novel Siegfried. making your villain into a black hole of evil—fathomless, amaranthine—you leave your reader with less than they brought to you. Fortunately, in Atta, Jarett Kobek does not succumb to that mistake.
Instead, we’re given a broken mirror of a man – each handful of paragraphs deadpanning a different style and angle. We’re given Mohammad Atta’s life as comedy, tragedy, mystery and even, briefly, a prelude to romance. This, despite my initial fears, is the farthest thing from frivolity. It’s an assemblage of striking pieces, one where sharply different fragments combine every way into the same shape.
He is young boy in a big Cairo house that he is forbidden to step outside of. His father is strict, and his mother is indulgent enough to draw the boy’s contempt. From this point on, Atta is never more than alone. He’s isolated by habit, by his deep disgust at modernity (thanks to Kobek, it’s an eloquent disgust), and by fear. When another figure approaches him to talk, the emotional chasm between them couldn’t be wider; they’re a couple of Giacometti figures advancing along separate paths.
Whereas Amis used Atta’s architecture studies for a couple of room-temperature jokes, Kobek hangs everything on them, and they chill (Kobek even goes so far as to reprint a couple of pages from Atta’s master’s thesis as an epilogue: Neighborhood Development in an Islamic-Oriental City). Atta is humanized by the disgust we share with him, disgust for the bad architecture of American motels, the coldness of metropolises. But he has his own unique worries too – the way high-rise buildings, for example, provide too-easy a view into the courtyards of good Muslim women below, or how hundreds of years of Muslim history lie neglected and buried by highways of Western money. He sees imperialism in too many places. The high-rises in Aleppo may as well be the Krak des Chevaliers:
Bab al-Nasr teeters on the brink. I hear the difference between its simple streets and the roaring axes, the shrill ululations of the high-rise and the gentle purr of traditional Islamic life. I hear the slow erosion of this purr. Surely this is my fate, surely this is why I study urban planning. Surely there is a thesis here.
The reader does feel for this monster, because his pain is too absorbing not to resonate. When drinking tea with Amal, a woman he is obviously attracted to (though he denies it to himself), all Atta can think, the closest he comes to tender feeling or sympathy is “Amal, I wonder, from what nightmare are you born?” She is too liberated, too forward. After all “what love can exist when a man’s worldly position is equal to that of his wife?” He does it all to himself – the isolation, fear, dehumanization – and we read on, begging him to stop.
Pastiche is the wrong word, but Atta’s pseudo-courtship with Amal (grounded, like everything verifiable in this book, on the facts we have about his life) is modeled on Arabian Nights. She enchants the handsome young man with the body of a curious tale, but holds back at the climax, coaxing him to return to her another night. He never returns.
In other moments, other slivers of mirror, he finds himself obsessed with Walt Disney, whose anti-Semitism he shares but whose anthropomorphic cartoon animals he finds bizarre and incomprehensible. Disney is “a man who brings Muslims to heel. Conquers through blasphemy and seduction,” and begins to emerge as Atta’s nemesis. The inchoate terrorist “observes the ersatz streets of the false king’s city” with strange feelings in his heart. (Kobek’s publisher is Semiotext(e), popularizer of Jean Baudrillard’s eighties-era screeds against “Disneyland … presented as imaginary in order to persuade us that the rest is real.” Atta is aware more than most that, “behind the baroque of images hides the gray eminence of politics.” Atta’s are a politics of disgust, and he empties himself entirely of the non-political. He studies horror movies and poses for pictures with as blank and menacing a look on his face as he can muster. He is coterminous with his mission.)
He circles the Kaaba and feels nothing. He walks the streets of Hamburg’s red-light district in disgust. It is not love that moves the character we gradually come to know, approaching partway on every side, but hate. Atta becomes a genuinely terrifying figure, as any honest representation would paint him, but he is a man as well, one who shocks us with recognition. He bitches about the American electoral fraud of 2000; he strains at familial roles:
They [one’s parents] do not change, they do not leave. You do, you leave, you change. You grow new eyes. You are a new man. Family imagines you never left. Home is poison, home is an overflowing latrine. Any attempt at manhood reduces, crushes away to nothing. You are a child again but lack the child’s protective ignorance. Knowledge of life beyond your neighborhood and family haunts your soul, but you submit anew to the torments of youth.
Atta is a mystery novel: what single moment sets him to murder? Though Kobek keeps the ultimate cause of Atta’s disgust in shadow, the proximate cause could be anywhere. It could be his encounter with Amal, or his visit to modernized Aleppo. Of course, it could be the moment he meets Osama Bin Laden (who challenges the much shorter man to game after game of volleyball): “then he names the target. And I am his. High rises of high rises, the mid-century assault. Minoru Yamasaki’s children, the twin abominations”
This story, a novella, is collected with the vignette-length “The Whitman of Tikrit,” a last-days description of Saddam Hussein holed up in a shack in his hometown, angrily awaiting the Americans. Hussein turns out to be an admirer of Walt Whitman and bits of “Song of Myself” weave their way through his interior mutterings as he crawls into his spider hole and waits for capture.
The Americans are coming. Even now, the Tyrant believes in America. Not the perverted monster ruled by Junior, but the dream of America, an America which gives the world technology and frees people from their oppressors. Walt Whitman, an American, one of the roughs, a kosmos, disorderly, fleshy, sensual, eating, drinking, breeding. Yet like all dreams, America is a thing of smoke and phantasm. it can not be achieved.
He bequeaths himself to the grass he loves, but darkly: he has stopped somewhere, waiting for us. Kobek’s method – as in Atta – of layering those things we hold most sacred with those we abhor, creates an healthfully unsettling mental texture. A story that says something fresh about a stale figure, it also delivers a new and alarming perspective on Leaves of Grass (try reading Whitman’s masterpiece in Saddam Hussein’s voice and see for yourself what happens).
Both Atta and Saddam think deeply about America – Saddam through Walt Whitman; Atta through Walt Disney, and of course through the Americanized world that surrounds and consumes him (“I too,” he thinks to himself, “am an immigrant success”). They are cruel and myopic, and they are also lost in a world of elusive promises that may strike us as familiar. They’re our brothers.
John Cotter‘s novel Under the Small Lights was published by Miami University Press in 2010 and his short fiction is forthcoming from Redivider and New Genre. He’s a founding editor at Open Letters Monthly and lives in Denver, Colorado.