An avid, near-six-foot-tall surfer, John Jude Parish cuts a striking figure on the beaches of the Outer Banks in North Carolina. When he isn’t on water, John lives on wheels, a self-described skate rat—grinding and kickflipping with his friends, and encouraged by his progressive parents. His hero is the great explorer Richard Burton, his personal prophet is Bob Dylan, and his world is wide open—to new ideas, philosophies, and religions.
Through online forums and chat rooms, John meets a young woman from Brooklyn who spurs his interest in Islam and Arab literature. Deferring Brown University for a year, he moves to the idyllic New York borough to study Arabic. Like Burton, John embraces the experience heart, body, and soul—submitting to Islam, practicing the salaat, fasting and meditating, dancing with dervishes, and encountering the extraordinary. Burton lived the life of a nineteenth-century adventurer, but he also penetrated the ancient wisdom of secret worlds. John will too—with unforeseen consequences.
Critically acclaimed novelist Pearl Abraham uses her gifts of psychological acuity and uncommon empathy to depict a typical upper-middle-class family snared by the forces of history, politics, and faith. In American Taliban, she imagines this young surfer/skater on a distinctly American spiritual journey that begins with Transcendentalism and countercultural impulses, enters into world mysticism, and finds its destination in Islam.
Provocative, unsettling, and written in a brilliantly inventive, refreshingly original voice, American Taliban is poised to become one of the most talked-about novels of the year.
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Pearl Abraham on American Taliban
On September 8th, 2001, I was in Mantova, Italy for the Festival Litteratura. Between engagements, on a bicycle to see this medieval city, I noticed a poster for a "qabala" exhibit. I tried following these strangely intermittent signs, came upon dead ends, retraced my steps, and tried again, an experience out of a Borges story. The next day, directions in hand, I got to see the works of renowned Kabbalists whose names I'd known since childhood, whose complex of ideas were bound up in the rituals and customs of the Hasidic life I'd lived, and in the novel I was then writing. On my way out, I purchased the catalog to the exhibition and read about the Mantova library's priceless collection. So when at dinner my Italian publisher asked whether there was anything I wanted to see or do, an offer they made each of their participating authors, I was prepared. But the library was under construction, the collection locked in a vault. Borges again. Later that day, the phone rang. The mayor of Mantova would meet us at the vault with the key.
I arrived at Newark Airport late evening, in time to teach my 9 a.m. craft class at Sarah Lawrence. In the morning, I drove up the Henry Hudson. It was a brilliantly blue fall day, first day of classes. On the radio, the traffic report was interrupted for a story about a plane accident.
Five minutes into the session, cell phones started ringing. Then came a knock at the door. Classes were cancelled. The city shut down. I couldn't go home. On the lumpy sofa in the attic office of Sarah Lawrence's Writing Program, I tried sleeping off my jet lag, but I couldn't bring myself to turn off the radio. Announcers repeated what they knew more times than I could count, rehearsing the blow-by-blow of an event no one understood. Yet.
In the weeks that followed Americans rallied around the flag, a nationalism that both soothed and frightened simultaneously. With this surge came, as it usually does, rage and racism and the demonization of the other. American Muslims became afraid. And then, in November, a strange phenom emerged: an American-born, American-bred Taliban. The fury that John Walker Lindh's story elicited was extreme, and in that environment he didn't have a chance. Lindh wasn't the only one of these strange hybrids, both American and Taliban. Yasir Hamdi, Adam Gadahn and others emerged later.
The journeys of these young men struck me as variations on the story I was then finishing. The protagonist of The Seventh Beggar becomes interested in Gnostic meditations on the Tetragrammaton (YHWH), in which Jesus too is said to have engaged, as a way to tap into higher powers. Lindh too was an idealistic seeker, and his tragedy, an accident of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, haunted me.
Americans were asking how an educated young man from a well-to-do family could end up fighting a jihad that had nothing to do with his family or his country, and journalists tried answering them. The more interesting question, it seemed to me, was not HOW and WHAT, but WHY, E. M. Forster’s differentiation between story and plot. And for exploring questions of causality, the novel is the perfect form.(Photo © Christine Pabst)
Pearl Abraham is the author of The Seventh Beggar, Giving Up America, and The Romance Reader, and the editor of an anthology about Jewish heroines in literature, Een sterke vrouw, wie zal haar vinden?. Her stories and essays have appeared in newspapers, literary quarterlies and anthologies. Abraham teaches literature and creative writing at Western New England College and lives in both Springfield, MA, and New York City.
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