Nine Parts of Desire: New Afterword
Nine Parts of Desire has a new Afterword.
It is now more than a decade since I sat in a tiny study in London, writing the last chapter of this book. In that conclusion, I evaluated the call by the Shiite cleric Ali Allawi for Westerners to disassociate Islam from the “background noise” of prejudice and dire social practice in so many Islamic regimes.
On September 11, 2001, that background noise became a roar. That morning, I woke to the news in a hotel room in Portland, Oregon, about as far as one could be from the dust and flame of the Pentagon and the World Trade Center and still be in the continental United States. I was on a speaking tour for my first novel, Year of Wonders. After years of toiling through the hardwood forests of contemporary fact, I had turned to historical fiction as an alternate way to explore questions of faith and idealism, and how human beings cope with catastrophe.
Like thousands of people in America whose itineraries had been disrupted by the closure of the nation’s airspace, I had to make alternate plans. I rented a car and embarked on a road trip I’d never expected to take. Driving through the mountains of Oregon and the flat golden fields of California, the voices of America filled my ears. Avid for news, I listened to the familiar, measured cadences of the national public broadcaster. When its signal dissolved into static, I would hit the “seek” button and find myself in the foreign territory of small-town talkback radio.
Much of what I heard only added to the week’s burden of despair. To a deafening rattle of sabers was added a cacophony of ignorant comment. On a so-called Christian station, I heard a preacher tell his listeners that Islam was a cult that worshipped the moon and preached total destruction of Jews and Christians. Callers seemed baffled about which religion the terrorists might have adhered to—“Islam or Muslim?”—or asked which Middle Easterners they’d seen on TV celebrating the explosions: “Is it the Israelis who hate us or the Palestinians?” When George Bush mentioned he had been seeking co-operation from Pakistan’s leader, General Pervez Musharraf, I couldn’t help remembering that not many months earlier, when running for president, he hadn’t been able to come up with that gentleman’s name. Bush had been unruffled about his ignorance at the time, and most Americans, glutted on prosperity and lost in trivial introspection, hadn’t seemed to mind it.
By the time I reached San Francisco, two things were clear: the majority of the hijackers and their leader were Saudis, and the things that I had learned while researching Nine Parts of Desire were urgently relevant and remained little understood. The book had made clear my conviction that the Saudi regime, with its munificent sponsorship of an airless, hate-mongering Islam, was a pernicious force, and that America’s supine posture on the Saudis’ many abuses of human rights, especially women’s rights, was a betrayal of its own most fundamental ideals. When I saw the tear-streaked faces of the 9/11 widows, I thought of the tear-streaked faces of women – US citizens – seeking refuge from violent Saudi husbands. The gates of the American embassy in Riyadh had remained closed to them because Washington did not want to offend the regime that obligingly controlled its oil prices and underwrote its arms industry with billion dollar purchases. I thought, too, of the other weeping faces we were never allowed to see: the bruised and battered Saudi women, hidden by the veil and imprisoned behind the high walls of their houses.
Saudi Arabia’s long-serving ambassador to the US, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, had done a magnificent job of soft-selling his despotic relatives, whipping up fear of Iran or Iraq as the season required. He had insinuated his way into the White House’s foreign-policy elite so thoroughly that he functioned more as a member of the National Security Council than the representative of a foreign power. In the days following 9/11, his influence was such that he was able to secure safe passage out of the United States for numerous Bin Laden relatives, some of whom the FBI was anxious to question.
Surveys just after 9/11 showed 75 per cent of Americans favored going to war. But against whom? Certainly not the Saudis. The biblical scripture animating the evangelical Christian president was ‘an eye for an eye,’ with no seeming grasp of the fact that this doctrine was actually the first recorded call in human history for a proportional response to violence, a message of restraint rather than an exhortation to the hot satisfactions of unlimited revenge. That harder, higher teaching, “resist not evil,” was absent from the White House scripts. If Jesus Christ himself had called in to the rural talkback stations suggesting that the US turn the other cheek, I doubt they would have let him on the air.
It is impossible to say, now, what would have happened had the US not responded unilaterally, but taken the time to channel the justified outrage and sympathy of the rest of the world. Or if it had restricted its response to Afghanistan. What if US military force had been focused on capturing Bin Laden, then used to stabilize and reconstruct Afghanistan, rather than deployed in such haste to the disastrous adventure in Iraq? It is never possible to know what lies down the road not taken. But it is certain that the one we are on is blighted; Bali, Madrid, the London Underground—the background noise remains deafening.
One other memory from that road trip: in the course of a week, in three major cities and numerous small towns, I did not see one Muslim woman wearing a headscarf. There are six million Muslims in the United States, half of them born here. Islam is the country’s fastest-growing religion. An American Muslim is twice as likely to be African-American as she is to be Arab. Yet in the weeks following 9/11, Muslim women were so afraid of being identified that they either took off their headscarves or hid in their houses. Once again, it was the women of Islam who were bearing the brunt of a society’s trauma.
It was a strange sensation for me, scouring crowds in the hope of seeing a woman wearing a veil. But the thought that an individual felt she had to hide her faith was abhorrent to me. While I would champion any campaign to support Muslim women who do not wish to cover, I would now also protest vigorously for the right of a woman to wear that covering, if it is what she wants and believes in. Ayatollah Khomeini and Jacques Chirac have much more in common than either of them would care to acknowledge. Each tried to solve overarching social problems by imposing his will on the bodies of women. Khomeini ordered women into chadors to make Iran look Islamic overnight, rather than tackle harder issues of Islamic law such as outlawing bank interest payments. For Chirac, making a visual problem go away by stripping scarves from the heads of French schoolgirls was easier than addressing the entrenched inequities facing Muslim immigrants trying to find a place in French society.
As I write this, in Guantanamo, young Muslim men wake up to another day of incarceration without trial, imprisonment without end. One of them, the Australian David Hicks, had the word “love” redacted from the few letters his family was allowed to send him. The symbolism of that petty pen slash is almost unbearably apt, for love seems to have been edited out of so much of our public discourse in this era of hate and vengeance. In Sydney one morning, chatting with a cab driver as the blur of my home town’s ethnic diversity passed by the window, the driver—himself of Middle Eastern background– told me he was glad the government was locking up asylum seekers in desert concentration camps. “Most of those people had criminal records in their own country,” he said. I wanted to tear out my hair in frustration. Yes, they did. Some had been arrested by the Taliban for such terrible offenses as letting their daughters go to school or their wives practice medicine or for listening to music or watching a video. Somehow, a tolerant, polyglot, fantastically successful society built on migration had been hijacked into demonizing the Other, especially if the Other was Muslim and wore a scarf.
Some of the women in this book I have lost touch with; a few remain friends. Others I hear of, from time to time. Sahar did not marry her oppressive fiancé. Still veiled, but in the soignée style of moderate, modern Muslims, she balances her faith and her academic ambitions with a position as a professor at an Egyptian university. Not long after the first Gulf War, the unchecked power of the Saudi religious police created such a harassing atmosphere that Faiza felt obliged to leave her job in journalism and reluctantly sought employment abroad. Against the odds, Asya, in Gaza, found her American Muslim preacher and married him. Raed, the stone-throwing Palestinian firebrand, graduated from college with the help of scholarships and got a good job that allows him to support his mother Rahme in a house of her own. His story inspired a Palestinian Quaker in Lexington, Virginia to set up the Hope Fund, a charity that continues to rescue very poor refugees and fund their educations. “Rose” grew discouraged trying to find a mate through an arranged marriage and decided to abandon the search and devote herself to her career. While pursuing graduate studies abroad, she met an Egyptian and married for love. “Margaret” managed to leave Tehran with her young son, though I wasn’t able to learn what became of them.
I have my own young sons now, and it is unlikely that I will go adventuring again into lives so far removed from my own. Somehow, moving house between London and Sydney, Virginia and Massachusetts, I lost the chador in which so many of my memories were wrapped. Yet they are with me, always; memories of women who trusted me across the chasm of faith and culture. When I think of them, I think of laughter and kindness, warmth and hospitality. I think of the things that united us rather than those things on which we disagreed. They wanted to live, to see their children live. That, at least, we had in common. That, at least, is a place to start.