This humiliation is the spark that will ignite a revolt with incalculable consequences’, Tahar Ben Jelloun writes in his essay, “A Tale of Two Martyrs”, in this anthology on life after 9/11, <>I>Ten Years Later, by Granta. Jalloun says this about Mohamed Bouazizi, the posthumously-famous street vendor of Tunisia. Bouazizi set himself on fire, unable to suffer the ridicule and torture of local police officers, and set off a chain of events that have been clubbed as the Arab Spring. His was an act of helplessness, the poor’s final act of defiance wherever they might be in the world. But set in a time when global discontent and fear spreads faster than state action to contain it, Bouazizi “became a hero, in self defence over his own dead body”.
This essay, like each one of the carefully chosen ones in the anthology, reminds us that we live in different times. It is a time whose coordinates have been fixed by the image of two burning towers and a date. Life, as we know it, has been demarcated before the date and after it.
The editor of this anthology, John Freeman says in an online magazine called Speakeasy that he and his staff anticipated a deluge of writing to commemorate the 10 years after 9/11 and chose to focus on how the event altered the global landscape to narrow things down. The aim was “to trace the ripples of that day as far as they could go”. Their discerning editorial stance has probably contributed as much as the writing and the stories have to making this a brilliant read. We get to see just how cataclysmic the day has been for all of us. The essays also reveal how the view changes from one side of the border to the another and that for the Americans, history definitely is not the bratty schoolboy definition of one thing after another, but one thing that led to another and then another.
But most interestingly, the essays give us a slice of life in a time that has refocused the spotlight on the heroic and the hero. Through the authors and their characters, we get to see the many faces of the contemporary hero. Like Bouazizi and Sayed Bilal in “The Spark” by Ben Jalloun, Punnu in “Punnu’s Jihad” by Nadeem Aslam and Kais-al-Hilali in Janine di Giovanni’s “In a Land of Silence” are all heroes of our times. Tortured, victimised, helpless and afraid — they are very different from the adventurous and larger than life superheroes of the previous years or of the gods and demi-gods of a mythical age. But they are heroes nevertheless, for as mythologist Joseph Campbell defined with prescient clarity, “a hero is someone who has given his or her life to something bigger than oneself”. They all did.
There are other heroes, too, who did not die but their struggles with death and life have left them angry, confused and “hollow-eyed” like the marine returning home, fighting his private demons in “Redeployment” by Phil Klay. Or Baghdad College in Anthony Shadid’s essay, “The American Age, Iraq” — it reminds us of what the city and the civilisation it harboured may have been. The photo essay puts a face to many such heroes, speaking to us about people whose dignity has been ravaged and whose humiliation too could spark a hundred revolutions.
The essays are sharp, incisive and make you think beyond the stories they tell. For instance, we are forced to look at the concept of evil in the eye. What or who is evil? Is it, as a deaf-mute street artist in Benghazi draws, Gaddafi as the devil? Or is it a faceless, nameless system that beats an innocent man and leaves him to die, for “that is how the police operate under Hosni Mubarak” (Ben Jalloun in his essay, “A Tale of Two Martyrs”). Evil is also the system that allows an innocent man to be tortured inside Guantanamo.
9/11 has changed the world. Undeniably. It has made us more watchful, suspicious and less tolerant of those we do not know. “Fear and suspicion are equal-opportunity employers now,” says Pico Iyer in his essay, “The Terminal Check”. But it has also created a new image of evil, or it may be more appropriate to say it has created many versions of evil: brown skin, dark hair and clad in salwar and kurta for some, and gun-toting, fair-haired and fair-skinned uniforms for others. It all depends on which side of the border you stand. But then again, this is the way things have always been. The demon (asura) in Vedic times was the one who controlled everything and the gods had to either take by force or through assimilation. And one of the ways in which we as a people have reacted to 9/11 has been to go back to the way we were — clannish, fearful and ready to attack.
GRANTA 116/TEN YEARS LATER
Editor: John Freeman
Publisher: Grove press, Granta
256 pages; £12.99/$16.99