In literature, the events of 9/11 resulted in a fine piece of satire, “French Intellectuals Deployed to Afghanistan to Convince Al-Queda of Non-Existence of God;” and a sublime personal statement, the Tamim Ansary essay that circled the earth via e-mail. And a letter to the President from Amber Amundson, whose husband was killed in the Pentagon crash, asking that he be excused from the “list of victims used to justify further attacks.” And a funny Allen Thornton take on the Afghan version of TV guide.
A widely-read magazine offered advice on which books to read for comfort and guidance during our national time of confusion. One recommendation was Blue Highways by William Least Heat Moon, an old favorite of mine. And the various writings of C.S. Lewis on pain, grief, and miracles. I would have added to their list his Screwtape Letters, the sections that discuss the effects of war on the soul. But when it comes to a book that makes some kind of sense of the whole thing, my pick is The True Believer by Eric Hoffer, a brilliant study of delusion and the roots of tyranny everywhere and at all times.
Personally, I discovered an odd connection. One of my all-time top ten desert island movies is Remember My Name, which for some incomprehensible and probably reprehensible reason never made it to videotape. I’m in awe of Geraldine Chaplin’s portrayal of a recently freed convict who decides to get her husband back. The movie had Alberta Hunter on the sound track, and also starred Anthony Perkins and his real-life wife Berry Berenson – and she died as a passenger in the plane that hit the Pentagon.
It is said that on VH1 and public radio, the “unofficial anthem” for the 9/11 attack was Jeff Buckley’s cover of “Hallelujah.” As performed by its creator, Leonard Cohen, this just happens to be one of my all-time top ten desert island songs. Its refrain is, “Even though it all went wrong, I’ll stand before the Lord of song with nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah.” Unless Buckley wrote new lyrics, I don’t see the connection. But here’s a strange thing: many years ago Leonard Cohen wrote another song, “First We Take Manhattan.” This one was in the voice of, from the point of view of, and could be considered sympathetic to, an international terrorist.
In the USA, images of the World Trade Center provoked a public reaction that was at first aversive. In late September of 2001, everybody in the entertainment business was falling all over themselves to remove images of the twin towers from album covers and book jackets. Then there was a quick rebound to attraction. By December, the New Yorker was running an ad for a $449 decorative metal wall sculpture, “Remembrance” by name, featuring the towers.
Perhaps the most amazing sequel of the destruction is the transformation of the hole in the ground into a tourist mecca. The number of visitors in the past year is said to exceed three and a half million. (It’s too bad three and a half million people don’t stay home and read Eric Hoffer, which would be more useful and to the point.) The tourist total is supplemented by vendors, whose free enterprise was forbidden and trade restrained on the actual 9/11 anniversary when they were told not to peddle anything. But wait – how can this be? The entrepreneurial spirit is a bedrock value of our nation. What’s more quintessentially American than a bunch of people selling stuff?
The human face of Afghanistan, for me, has always been the girl on the cover of National Geographic 17 years ago. Eleven or twelve at the time, she had a solemn, wary, spooked expression and amazing eyes, the irises gold near the centers, then turquoise, with gray rims. Last year the photographer set out to find her again and astonishingly, considering the chaos in that part of the world, succeeded. Sharbat Gula is now the mother of three living children, a handsome woman still, but showing the effects of her rough life as a refugee. .
As homeland security buffs in U.S. salivated over the prospect of biometric face scanning as a way to keep tabs on potential saboteurs, the rulers of Afghanistan were unable to adopt this measure. Their most subversive foes, the courageous Muslim women who videotaped and smuggled out evidence of the worst criminal excesses, could never be indexed and tracked by this means because of the Taliban’s own repressive law requiring women to cover their faces with veils. Hah! We were told that irony died on 9/11, but rest assured, it still thrives.
Not long ago I read the memoirs of the Dalai Lama’s mother, who described the old ways in her homeland, and it made me wonder why Americans are so sentimental about Tibet. The condition of women in that society sounds as shitty as anything the Taliban ever cooked up. When a Tibetan girl married, she became the property of her inlaws, with the rank of household appliance, a labor-saving device the son presented to his parents in recompense for the trouble and expense of his upbringing. The new bride became, and remained, a drudge, on call 24/7. No degree of ill treatment was deemed abusive. Traditionally, a Tibetan woman was at the mercy of her husband’s parents and a slave to their every whim, with no say about any aspect of her own life or those of her children. Can Chinese communism be any worse?