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Onyx reviews: Terrorist by John Updike

According to John Updike  at an appearance as part of the Inprint Brown Reading Series in Houston, one of his goals in writing his 22nd novel, Terrorist, was to create a "sympathetic terrorist." Updike and his wife happened to be in Brooklyn Heights on 9/11 and witnessed the collapse of the World Trade Center from their apartment across the East River.

His interest in the genesis of religious zealotry led him to write about Ahmad, an 18-year-old high school student living in New Prospect, NJ. What process leads an otherwise ordinary young man of Arab descent, born and raised in urban America, down the path to terrorism? The book's biggest disappointment is that he never successfully answers this profound question.

Ahmad is the son of Irish-American Teresa Mulloy and an Egyptian father who married Teresa for American citizenship. Ahmad's father abandoned his family when Ahmad was three, after dreams of American prosperity failed to materialize. Ahmad adopts his father's last name as his own, despite the Mulloy on his birth certificate.

At the age of eleven, Ahmad becomes interested in Islam, and his bohemian and benignly neglectful mother does not discourage this pursuit. She understands that it is his way of trying to recapture the missing part of his life represented by his absentee father.

Ahmad joins a small "mosque" located in a strip mall above a beauty shop and a check-cashing joint. The imam is zealous and dedicated, devoting special attention to Ahmad, who grows suspicious of American culture with all of its infidel distractions and wantonness. Together they probe the depths and mysteries of the Qur'an. At odds with the recommendations of Jack Levy, Ahmad's high school guidance counselor, the imam steers Ahmad toward the vocational track. The imam believes college will expose Ahmad to the corrupting influences of godless Western culture.

Levy is jaded about his job and life in general. His wife has gotten fat and he derives little satisfaction from interviewing teenagers who present themselves to their counselor like compact discs "whose shimmering surface gives no clue to their contents without the equipment to play them."

By the time he notices Ahmad, too many critical decisions have already been made without his guidance. Graduation is too close for him to intervene. Perhaps he sees Ahmad as one last opportunity to redeem himself. He takes an intense interest in the boy, offering university calendars and other material in hopes of setting him on the right path. He also becomes involved with Ahmad's mother, a whimsical, artistic woman with a long history of tumbling into bed with inappropriate men.

Ahmad is left to make his way in the world as best he can. Though he acknowledges that he is prone to Western culture's temptations, he resists as strongly as any adolescent can. Girls intrigue him, and many are curious about him, but the lessons of the Qur'an resonate in his mind.

The confusing aspect of Ahmad's story is that he isn't generally immersed in Moslem culture. He attends a normal high school. His home is as American as can be. He doesn't consort with other Arabs, except for his imam. Even later, when the imam gets him a job driving a truck for a furniture company operated by Arabs, his newfound friends are not conspicuously fundamentalist or propagandist.

Which leaves the question of the origin of Ahmad's fundamentalism. Clearly his imam has a strong influence over his thinking, but is this enough to explain how a teenager who has always lived in America and who grew up immersed in Western society was able to completely eschew its influence? Our popular notion of terrorist cells are depictions of small groups of co-conspirators who live in stark, sterile conditions, keeping mostly to themselves, interacting with society only enough for day-to-day necessities. Their fundamentalism percolates in everything they say, do and think.

Not so with Ahmad. He participates in high school sports and other extracurricular activity. He does things with his mother. His life is not a pressure cooker of Moslem indoctrination. He went in search of religious education-it wasn't thrust upon him-and yet Updike never convincingly shows readers how the young boy so quickly accepts certain teachings to the exclusion of everything else. Being a teenager is all about trying on different belief systems in much the same way teens also try out different fads and habits. Yet, from the age of eleven, Ahmad becomes unwaveringly Moslem. An absentee father doesn't seem sufficient to explain that.

Updike also stretches credibility by drawing a fairly direct connection between Ahmad and the Department of Homeland Security. That the sister-in-law of his school guidance counselor happens to be the secretary for the head of this organization, thus providing Levy with a regular update on intelligence information and alert levels, seems a little too convenient. He also falls into the trap of portraying the majority of Moslems as having terrorist tendencies.

In spite of these flaws and shortcomings, Terrorist is an interesting exploration of the perils that come from neglecting our youth. The world is a big, dangerous place eager to prey on vulnerable minds. Though the author is in his mid-70s, he seems very much in touch with the world in which our teens are growing up.


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