Sunday, April 23, 2006

Martin Amis, Muhammad Atta and the raisins of paradise

PLEASE NOTE: An update of this post dated 7/29/06 can be found here.

9/18/06 Update: "Martin Amis: Drinking too much neocon Kool Aid?"

The Last Days of Muhammad Atta.” a short story by the British writer Martin Amis appeared in The New Yorker this week. I thought I would be able to link to it, because the magazine usually posts its fiction online, but not this time. The missing link probably has to do with publishing rights, since the story is part of Amis’s controversial next book, to be published in September in the UK, next year in the U.S.

(Please Note: Now you can read the story online. The UK's Observer published the story Sept. 3 and the story title now links to their site.)

The story follows Atta in a rambling stream of consciousness from Portland, Maine all the way to the Twin Towers. The Independent quotes his publisher:
The publisher said of the new work, which will be released in September: "These themes and settings may look like unfamiliar ground for Martin Amis. But in fact he is returning to his central preoccupation: the nature of masculinity, and the connections between male sexuality and violence."
Well, maybe. It was hard for me to get caught up in the story. Maybe it’s just me. The tragedy of 9/11 seems too recent for fiction -- I can't help but wonder, what’s the point of make-believe when the reality is still so close and it takes so little to start the tapes playing all over again in our heads?

And then there was the matter of the raisins. Atta is getting ready to commit one of the greatest crimes in history when he interrupts his preparations for this little epiphany about the raisins of paradise.
Ah, yes, the virgins: six dozen of them -- half a gross. He had read in a news magazine that “virgins,” in the holy book, was a mistranslation from the Aramaic. It should be “raisins.” He idly wondered whether the quibble might have something to do with “sultana,” which meant (a) a small seedless raisin, and (b) the wife or a concubine of a sultan. Abdul-aziz, Marwan, Ziad, and the others: they would not be best pleased, on their arrival in the Garden, to find a little red packet of Sun-Maid Sultanas (Average Contents 72).
What the hell is going on here? The passage intrudes by adding an incongruous note to the narrative. This sounds less like something a Muslim terrorist might think than something a British writer might think about a Muslim terrorist. And the whole idea of this absurd mistranslation at the heart of the sacred texts diminishes the religion of Islam, virtually reducing it to a bad joke. Even if Muhammad Atta were as secular as Amis makes him out to be and if he actually did think about this during his last days, wouldn't he have tended to see the substitution of raisins for virgins as one more Western slander of his culture?

I wondered about those raisins. Where did they come from? I wasted the better part of an afternoon on the internet trying to track them down. Turns out that there was a very specific source for this passage -- a book published in Germany in 2000 by one Christoph Luxenberg, a pseudonym for a scholar who supposedly did not dare reveal his name. The book still has not been published in English, though there were plenty of announcements on the web over the last few years saying English publication was imminent. Luxenberg’s theory of mistranslation, which went way beyond raisins and challenged the entire foundation of Islam’s sacred texts, hit the English-speaking mainstream media with a January, 2002 article in the UK’s Guardian, by one Ibn Warraq, also a pseudonym. In March of 2003, during the run-up to the Iraq war, the New York Times published an article about Luxenberg. And in July of 2003, the issue of International Newsweek carrying the story was banned and burned in Pakistan. That’s about it for mainstream media, but Google currently shows 31,200 hits for “Christoph Luxenberg.”

It’s when I started to follow some of these links that I began to feel I was lost inside an echo chamber inside a hall of mirrors. The sources all echoed each other, and didn't seem to lead anywhere else. This post from the Daniel Pipes weblog is typical. Most of this stuff was written during the triumphalist period leading up to and immediately after the invasion of Iraq, when the U.S. was going to remake the entire Middle East. After that, it all seemed to go away. Luxenberg’s book still hasn’t been published in English, and the only current references to it just cite the old sources.

It seems to me that this all was part of one of those disinformation campaigns that swirled around the world, like news of the infamous Niger documents, before and during the Iraq invasion. With sufficient resources, you can turn the internet into an amplifier for almost anything. Did Christoph Luxenberg ever really exist? Who knows? But the contempt for Islam implicit in his work (though he always was careful to deny that he was attacking Islam) was echoed in the mockery of the prisoners’ religion at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo. Once they were no longer useful -- or because there were starting to be too many loose threads -- both Luxenberg and his book seem to have quietly faded away.

Leaving the question: How and why did Luxenberg’s raisins end up in the Martin Amis story?

UPDATE: Regarding the pain of others.


Anonymous said...

Err, because its funny.

Anonymous said...

I thought that bit was hilarious. It is accurate to say that it is "less like something a Muslim terrorist might think than something a British writer might think about a Muslim terrorist," but the whole article is Amis refracted through Atta anyway, which is fine because the story is imagined rather than real. Of course, the template is 'reality' but as soon as events cease, they become history, which is simply another form of narrative, or literature. Literature is mostly history imagined so the proximity of the event is only relevant in so far as it gives perspective. If he had written it on September 12th 2001, I would still have liked it. It is not meant to be authentic necessarily. It is perhaps, an 'unreal mockery,' but a brilliantly conceived one.