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Successful publishers have an immaculate sense of timing and generate literature with an eye on the calendar. It’s no surprise then that the 10th anniversary of 9/11 has produced a spate of books on what went wrong and its aftermath the world over. But most of these books deal with Islam in some form or the other and are either too journalistic, written for the moment, or too scholarly, of little interest to the common reader; or they deal with the unending clash-of-civilisations debate. The latest issue of Granta 116, titled “Ten Years Later”, is an exception; it carries a number of stories that attempt to capture the complexity and sorrow of life since September 11, 2001 — stories from different parts of the world that were impacted by 9/11, as well as those that lay on the periphery of the violence it generated.
The great advantage of such anthologies is their variety, the promise of having something to offer for every reader — dipping backwards and forward, you can put it down, wander around and come back to it afresh.
We have the “Tale of Two Martyrs” by Moroccan novelist and poet Tahar Ben Jelloun, which deals with Mohamed Bouazizi, the Tunisian who burned himself to death which started off the great upheaval in the Arab world; Egyptian boy Sayed Bilal, who was tortured to death that ultimately led to Hosni Mubarak’s ouster; Decclan Walsh’s “Jihad Redux” on the situation in Pakistan’s Waziristan; Nadeem Aslam’s “Punnu’s Jihad”; Anthony Shadid’s “The American Age, Iraq”; Ahmed Errachidi’s “A Handful of Walnuts” on the Af-Pak region, winding up in Guantanamo; plus the usual photo-essays, poems and essays on the current upheaval in the Arab world. Interestingly, most of the contributors are non-British journalists and writers who know the ground realities and may be said to represent the genuine voice of the people in the region.
Pico Iyer’s three-page essay, “The Terminal Check”, is where to start from because he sums up the world after 9/11 in a single essay. “Over the past decade,” Iyer rightly says, “security has tightened around the world, which means that insecurity has increased proportionally.” This has had its impact on the daily lives of ordinary people, especially foreigners who find themselves in Japan.
Iyer, who lives a greater part of the year in Japan which has a deep paranoia of terrorism, faced the problems of an alien on several occasions. “In recent years, Japan has introduced fingerprinting for all foreign visitors arriving at its airports, and takes photographs of every outsider coming across its borders; a large banner on the wall behind the immigration officers in Osaka explains the need for heightened measures in the wake of threats to national order.”
But the problem doesn’t disappear after immigration clearance; it dogs the foreigner at every corner because the population has been indoctrinated to be careful of “strange-looking faces” that are not Japanese and, presumably, to report them to the police. So, ordinary people take it upon themselves to be the eyes and ears of the police. Nothing wrong with that but it can go too far; Iyer was accosted by strangers as he moved around the country. Ordinary people wanted to know where he came from, the purpose of his visit, and how long and where he would stay.
So, he concludes that “airports since 9/11 have become places where everyone may be taken to be guilty until proven innocent. The world is all mixed up these days, and America can no longer claim immunity. On September 11, 2001, Le Monde ran the famous headline, ‘We are all Americans’, which could be changed on September 11, 2011, to ‘We are all Indians’.”
The Arab world is covered comprehensively, first Tunisia and Egypt, then the photo-essay of refugees fleeing the battlefields of Afghanistan, Somalia and elsewhere in north Africa. The refugees are all migrant workers — Bangladeshis, Ghanaians, Filipinos, Sudanese, Vietnamese and all those who had migrated to the oil-rich kingdoms in the hope of making a fast buck. The photographs say it all: many had been robbed of their possessions either by Gaddafi’s soldiers or the rebel militia and were left with nothing except the shirt on their backs.
What these essays tell is that the upheaval in the Arab world (wrongly described as the Arab Spring) had really nothing to do with 9/11 but with the internal conditions in these countries: no democracy, no right to appeal.
“Nothing is left for the parents but tears and prayer. The police order them to bury their son that same night, to avoid a disturbance on Friday, the holiest day of the Muslim week. The parents try to negotiate, but it’s no use: unless they drop their demands, Ibrahim [the brother] will not be released. The parents know the officers will hesitate to kill him. Sayed Bilal is finally buried just before midnight.”
The question that you would ask at the end of these essays is whether the world has become a safer place after 9/11? The answer is an emphatic No; it is much more violent in every way. Iraq and Afghanistan might have started it all but the tyranny of local fiefdoms, too, has thrown in its bit to make the confusion more confounded.