peteg's blog

Jarett Kobek: ATTA and The Whitman of Tikrit.

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This book has no electronic edition! The horror. Some dead tree cost me $US12.78 from Book Depository, and I bought it on the strength of Kobek's recent spray against the internet's more social zones in combination with the bleak outlook of what was up next on the Kindle. It turned up in less than a week. I certainly cannot fault their efficiency.

This is billed as a fictional biography of Mohamed Atta, and runs on twin tracks straight for 9/11. Kobek's imagining of his internal life is similar to what David Malouf did for King Priam in Ransom (and other characters in other works). There is no shortage of raw material, I'm sure, and Kobek is sufficiently across his subject that his spare prose is never overstuffed with irrelevant detail; in other words, he avoids the inexcusable self-indulgence of old hands Salman Rushdie and Amitav Ghosh. Atta's is something of an Odyssean journey, featuring dreamt Sirens and a bin Laden who is blind in the right eye. There is also a dash of Arabian every-readies Harun al-Rashid and Scheherazade, the latter in the form of Palestian temptation Amal, who tells him a story in classic cliff-hanger style. Is it through weakness or impregnable fortitude that Atta does not return to her family's house to find out what happens next?

Kobek focuses on Atta's education as an architect and mines his TUHH Masters thesis on the Citadel of Aleppo, painted as a natural Islamic urban environment inherently superior to the sterilities and missteps of the West. The Tarnak Farms present as a paradise where no man gets between Muslim and Allah (p126), and yet there is hierarchy; is this Atta's inability to see past his own nose? His initial skepticism of bin Laden yields to his visceral revulsion of Modern Brutalism (p131):

He speaks. The plot is outlandish. It involves a journey to America, into the toothy maw. He assures us it will work [...]

And 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.

Somewhat ironically the backlash that Atta and co unleashed eventually led to the mauling of the old souk in Aleppo.

Atta has a persistent hum in his head, which sometimes becomes a voice that is not quite Allah's. (The reader may worry that this is Kobek's mechanism for taking Atta beyond human comprehension and moral culpability.) He feels nothing at the climax of his Hajj, on the Plain of Arafat amongst his Muslim brothers. He attempts to understand the West through its cultural output: Times Square, Disneyland, horror movies. (I think that once you've seen Army of Darkness you've seen them all.) This is Kobek's vantage point for criticism, and a good one it is. Still, why does Atta's disgust with the West shade into violence? He is radicalized at the mosque in Hamburg, but most who are do not go to the lengths that he did. To be horrified by the suffering in Palestine is not to think that further death and destruction will help in any way. (Was empathy an invention of the Englightenment that failed to influence scholars of Islam?) Kobek also does not discuss the status of democracy in Islamic thought, nor explore Atta's leadership role; he is mostly exasperated with the Saudi musclemen and his fellow conspirators, and suspicious of bin Laden's hubristic propaganda about a new Caliphate.

[p61, After analyzing Walt Disney's film of Kipling's The Jungle Book...]

A story repeats itself. A man, or his parents, or his parents' parents, come to America. Hard work, toil in obscurity amongst unknown wretches. Great open land. The one who works hardest reaps eventual reward, rises to prominence, achieves great things, makes himself a name.

This also is my story, thinks Atta. I am Sayyid Qutb! I too am an immigrant success.

The second, far shorter piece The Whitman of Tikrit imagines Saddam Hussein's final day before his capture by American troops. The conceit is that Rumsfeld slipped him a book of Whitman's poetry back in the 1980s. Hussein is far more fiery and scatalogical than Atta, further showcasing Kobek's technique and fine grasp of personality.

Unfortunately the other texts in the semiotext(e) series are very different to this one (mostly critical theory/Marxist tracts).

Kobek's is a rich source text, in addition to being a satisfying read all by itself. Richard Byrne observes his acute analysis of Americana. Jonathan Raban lays out further historical context at the New Yorker. John Cotter takes the time to diss Martin Amis's go at the same subject (The Last Days of Mohammad Atta) while praising this book.

I just ordered Kobek's BTW from 2013; again, it has no ebook edition.