Does flying a plane into the World Trade Center make a Muslim into a martyr? Algerian playwright Benaïssa tackles the terrible question head-on in a small, clever novel, his first translated into English.
American-born Raouf, only child of Lebanese and Egyptian immigrants who both adored him, finds himself drawn into the world of jihadist fundamentalists bankrolled by an oil-rich ex-playboy. Raouf is a well-educated software engineer in a relationship with Jenny, a Christian woman. His closest male relationship since the death of the father he deeply loved is fellow software worker Athman, a much more observant Muslim. It’s Athman who begins to cultivate Raouf’s neglected spiritual side. Raouf has been so unobservant as to keep a pet Labrador and to smoke, but Athman will change all that, leading him to mosques where the sermons breathe fire and the message is thought to be truer than true. Raouf begins to absorb the message, immersing himself more deeply in Athman’s world, cutting himself off first from his dog, then from his girlfriend, and then, to all extents and purposes, from his mother, the only really warm character in Benaïssa’s sad and frightening story. It is, in fact, the mother, largely offstage but often mentioned, on whom Benaïssa ultimately hangs the tale, and if there’s a problem with the believability of the carefully crafted construction, it hinges on the requirement that the reader accept Raouf’s passivity and vulnerability despite the strong and healthy parental ties. Under the sponsorship of wealthy, fanatical Jamal, Raouf publicly repents his un-Islamic past and commits himself to whatever task his spiritual leaders may lead him to. That task is, of course, the destruction of the World Trade Center. Meanwhile, Benaïssa asks the reader to absorb passages of the Koran that may fatigue, but they’re worth hacking through to understand their force on the faithful.
An approach that may reach and inform more desperately curious Westerners than that of the scholarly Orientalists.