Last fall Public Books sponsored a lively roundtable discussion of Amy Waldman’s widely praised novel The Submission (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011), which considers what might have happened if the winner of an anonymous architectural design competition for a Ground Zero memorial had been an American Muslim.
The novel poses questions about our obligations as citizens; our obligations to those we love, and to those we don’t know; to those here, and to those elsewhere; to those we have lost, and to those to come; to truth and to beauty; to ideas and to experience; to those we agree with, and to those whose views may seem beyond the pale.
Now we are pleased to publish the remarks delivered by two of the live event’s participants, Nadia Abu el-Haj and Bruce Robbins, along with two original essays by Rebecca Walkowitz and by James E. Young, a member of the jury for a National 9/11 Memorial at Ground Zero:
— James E. Young: Counterfactual 9/11-Memorial Storm Hits NYC— Rebecca L. Walkowitz: Building Character— Nadia Abu el-Haj: Bringing Politics Back In— Bruce Robbins: Why Claire Slams the Door
What happens when fictionalized history weaves itself back into actual history on the ground? At an appreciation dinner for the 9/11 Memorial jurors hosted by Mayor Michael Bloomberg last September, the subject of Amy Waldman’s brilliant counterfactual novel based on the 2003–04 memorial competition came up between the salad and main course. Two of the memorial jury members had read the novel and enjoyed it thoroughly, they said, regaling the rest of us with the novel’s uncannily plausible premise: of 5,201 submissions from 62 different countries, a Muslim-American architect wins the blind competition for the National 9/11 Memorial at Ground Zero.
Waldman’s storytelling is taut and textured, her deeply complicated characters convincing, but there is also an unexpectedly penetrating critique of the 9/11 Memorial’s aesthetic logic.
At which point, in Waldman’s novel, all hell breaks loose—first, internally, among jurors who bicker bitterly about what they may have wrought. Then, after someone leaks the Muslim identity of the memorial’s designer, one Mohammad Khan, a political and public firestorm explodes, even before the design or designer is known. Soon after, Khan’s “Memorial Garden” is publicly announced. An “Islamic Victory Garden!” the tabloids howl; “Memorial Paradise for the Killers!” blares Fox news—“stay tuned!” And we do, rapt at the spectacle of 9/11 family members turning on each other, attacking the jury, and demonizing the talented but recalcitrant Muslim architect, known by his American nickname, Mo.
At first, Waldman’s novel seems eerily prophetic for the ways it seems to have anticipated the furious protests greeting Community Board 1’s 2010 approval of an Islamic cultural center at 51 Park Place, just north of Ground Zero. Waldman has an acute ear for the pitch of those battles over the so-called “Ground Zero Mosque” (neither mosque, nor at Ground Zero), and a profound grasp of the political, ethical, and aesthetic imperatives of the memorial process itself. Would this be a defiant monument to a nation’s resilience? Would Ground Zero remain a gaping wound in the cityscape, even a permanent graveyard in the eyes of the victims’ families? Or would the memorial find a way to formalize both the pain of loss and the need for regeneration? “Weren’t you offended?” one of the jurors asked our lone family member, after hearing her describe her own “portrayal” in the novel. “Not at all,” she replied with a shrug and broad smile. “But what if it doesn’t make you look good?” someone else asked her. “It’s a novel!” exclaimed our family member, widowed with two children when her husband died in the South Tower. “It’s not about us!” Preening jury members that we were, it would always be about us, wouldn’t it? The fact-fiction parlor game continued: “What was Maya Lin’s counterpart like in the novel?” “How about Vartan [Gregorian]’s?” “As long as George Clooney plays me in the film-version,” quipped a male jury member. Then the counterfactual speculations began: “What if we had chosen a Muslim”? Before anyone could answer, someone else chimed in, “Did any of you have any qualms that our choice, Michael Arad, was an Israeli-American?” The question shocked the room into silence, followed by a chorus of guffaws. “Don’t be ridiculous! Of course not!” And then a clinking of glasses to toast the imperfect process that yielded both a great memorial and an excellent counterfactual novel.
Waldman’s storytelling is taut and textured, her deeply complicated characters convincing, but there is also an unexpectedly penetrating critique of the 9/11 Memorial’s aesthetic logic embedded in the brittle exchanges between the jury’s family member, Claire, and the jury’s professional “memorialist,” Ariana (a stand-in for Maya Lin). “The Garden was beautiful,” according to Ariana. “Too beautiful.” Ariana asks whether beauty can compensate for and console terror, as the family members might wish, or whether a memorial to victims of terror must formally articulate pain and loss. Here the novelist captures the essential difference between family members’ need for a place to mourn and the public artist’s need to signify national meaning in the site:
“Graveyards,” Claire said, an old tenacity rising within her. “Why are they often the loveliest places in cities?” “The Garden,” she continued, “will be a place where we—where the widows, their children, anyone—can stumble on joy. My husband…” she said, and everyone leaned in to listen.
“I’m sorry,” [said Ariana] “but a memorial isn’t a graveyard. It’s a national symbol, an historic signifier, a way to make sure anyone who visits—no matter how attenuated their link in time or geography to the attack—understands how it felt, what it meant. The Void [Ariana’s choice to be the winning design] is visceral, angry, dark, raw, because there was no joy on that day… The Garden speaks to a longing we have for healing. It’s a very natural impulse, but maybe not our most sophisticated one.”
Even if none of the real jury’s internal arguments actually unfolded as they do in the novel (we were neither this pedantic nor this provocative), the exchanges Waldman pens eloquently capture the underlying tensions in any memorial between its personal, civic, and aesthetic functions: its role as a mourning site for bereaved loved ones, its role as one memorial node in the matrix of national memory, and its formalization of grief, which demands aesthetic integrity. In fact, the dramatic pitting of a grieving family member against professional memorialists highlights a fundamental tension between the families’ need for closure and the contemporary artist’s need to articulate unredeemable loss.
In another exchange between family members grieving a lost firefighter son and brother, the victim’s mother says, “Sometimes I wish Patrick had died in a regular fire. No firefighter dies a private death, not if he dies on the job. But to have all these politics mixed in—I don’t like it, all… the noise.” Throughout the novel, the all-too-real issues of remembrance and the many stumbling blocks for the real jurors are depicted seamlessly in real time. How should such public and political deaths be remembered differently from the more private deaths of office workers? Can we mark the rescuers’ civic deaths without creating a hierarchy of victims?
In a concentrated summing up of the national, collective trauma of watching televised replays of the towers’ collapse, the chair of the memorial jury, Paul, imagines himself pledging allegiance to the devastation of that day in September 2011: “You couldn’t call yourself an American if you hadn’t, in solidarity, watched your fellow Americans being pulverized, yet what kind of American did watching create? A traumatized victim? A charged-up avenger? A queasy voyeur? Paul, and he suspected many Americans, harbored all of these protagonists. The memorial was meant to tame them.” Did the memorial tame or inflame these protagonists? Or do we ask too much of any memorial?
Even Special Master of the Victims’ Compensation Fund, Kenneth Feinberg, makes a cameo appearance, just before a crushing exchange between Claire and a reporter shouting at her as she and other widows leave a meeting with the head of the Fund:
“How do you answer Americans who say they’re tired of your sense of entitlement, that you’re being greedy?” Claire had gripped her purse to keep her hands from shaking, but she didn’t bother to mute the tremble in her voice. “Entitlement? Was that the word you used?” The reporter shrank back. “Was I entitled to lose my husband? Was I entitled to have to explain to my children why they will never know their father, to have to raise them alone? Am I entitled to live knowing the suffering my husband endured?… This isn’t about money. It’s about justice, accountability. And yes, I’m entitled to that.”
Imagine what it must have felt like to be designated as the memorial jury’s sole representative of some 2,800 grieving families. This is what Waldman has attempted, and, I think, succeeded in doing beautifully.
Soon we discover that Mohammad Khan is just as interesting and tortured as the rest of the novel’s characters. “Where were you during the attack?” security agents grill him as he attempts to depart LAX for his home in New York City a week after 9/11. “Here, in Los Angeles,” he said, “working on the theater” whose blueprints he has just showed them. And then, the narrator adds: “Working and longing for New York. Southern California was the white dress at the funeral, ill-suited to national tragedy.” After the attacks, Mohammad Khan “realized that the difference wasn’t in how he was being treated but in how he was behaving. Customarily brusque on work sites, he had become gingerly, polite, careful to give no cause for alarm or criticism.”
In fact, it is Mohammad who seems to grasp the ambience and visceral details of the first days after the attack especially well, in his reflections on what might be regarded as the city’s first found memorials of 9/11: “A quilt of the missing—bright portraits of tuxedoed men and lipsticked women—had been pasted on fences and construction plywood, but the streets were empty, and for the first time in memory, he heard his own footsteps in New York City.” Later, he reflects on the World Trade Center towers themselves, in all their unloveliness, and the voids they left behind: “They were living rebukes to nostalgia, these Goliaths that had crushed small businesses, vibrant streetscapes, generational continuities, and other romantic notions beneath their giant feet. Yet it was nostalgia he felt for them. A skyline was a collaboration, if an inadvertent one, between generations, seeming no less natural than a mountain range that had shuddered up from the earth. This new gap in space reversed time.”
With its panoply of victims (including a searing portrait of an undocumented Muslim Bangladeshi and his family and neighbors), careerist reporters and editors, family organizations hijacked by bigots, and politicians attempting to leverage public opinion to their advantage, all thrown together into a climactic public hearing on the merit of Khan’s “Garden Memorial,” it’s no wonder that other critics have called Waldman’s novel the Bonfire of the Vanities of the post-9/11 era. Whip-smart and multilayered, this novel is, like memory itself, never just one thing. The 9/11 attacks and their aftermath also came in pieces, moments, shattered lives, and shards of afterlife. Sometimes fiction and imagination outrun reality; sometimes reality is more imaginative than fiction can ever be.
In the end, Waldman has imagined a brilliant counterfactual result for the memorial process, showing what could have happened if some of the procedural details she invents had been part of the actual 9/11 Memorial competition (e.g., the public hearing, the governor’s threatened veto, a leaking jury). At one point, Waldman’s narrator felicitously observes that the governor’s “ambition kept outflanking [jury chair] Paul’s ambition.” I would add that the novelist’s imagination has certainly outflanked the actual jury’s ambition. This is a masterpiece. Now if only Newt Gingrich’s buffoonish demagoguery in response to the Islamic cultural center had also been nothing but the fevered work of a novelist’s imagination, and not real-world grist for the novelist’s mill. If only.
The Submission is a novel about character. This is in some ways surprising. The thematic register of public deliberation, political haggling, and urban acrimony suggests a work devoted not to the minutiae of consciousness but to the mechanisms of narrative action. Plot should rule the day.
But at the heart of Amy Waldman’s plot is a debate about the character of artworks. Where does the meaning of a sculpture, a film, or a novel come from? Do these creations, like their makers, have personalities? And how can thinking about the character of artworks help us think about the character of persons?
WALDMAN ALIGNS HER WORK WITH THE LIKES OF THE BONFIRE OF THE VANITIES AND AT THE SAME TIME DISAVOWS THE CONNECTION. WHY?
These questions take us directly to the novel’s eponymous artwork, the architectural design that Mohammad Khan “submits” to the memorial jury. Politicians, victims’ families, journalists, everyday New Yorkers, and indeed readers find themselves asking whether Khan’s “Garden,” because it may have been inspired by Afghanistan’s Islamic gardens, pays homage to a history of martyrdom that they consider continuous with the contemporary history of terrorism. They ask whether a Muslim artist’s artwork will be itself Muslim, and whether Muslim culture and history have an identifiable message that the artwork cannot help but communicate. The ensuing debate generates a striking meditation about the relationship between art and culture.
Critics have treated The Submission as a historical novel about the aftermath of September 11. This judgment has sometimes implied a critique of Waldman’s artfulness as a novelist. Wedded to history, albeit a counterfactual history, Waldman is said to give less attention to—and have less to say about—the formal and epistemological concerns we associate with literary fiction. In fact, as I’ll suggest below, Waldman engages seriously with the theory and philosophy of art as well as with the history of the novel. The questions of character she attaches to Khan’s submission fan out to encompass other artworks within the text as well as The Submission itself.
We should note, for example, that Waldman’s narrative is full of memorials but that it too is a memorial: it was published less than a month before the 10th anniversary of the World Trade Center attacks. The title is telling. While The Submission refers to Khan’s creation, it can also refer to Waldman’s, and the overlap calls for comparison. What do these artworks have in common? What is the appropriate context for understanding these memorials?
In addition to being a historical novel, The Submission can be understood as yet another contemporary novel of multiculturalism. Its themes of social conflict and cultural stereotyping evoke this genre—as does an explicit reference on the novel’s fourth page to Tom Wolfe’s 1987 blockbuster. The jury chairman Paul Rubin, not as “literary” as his wife thinks he is, “wasn’t sure he’d read a novel since The Bonfire of the Vanities.” We’re meant to understand that there’s something a little thin about multicultural fiction; Paul’s deficient literariness is a matter of poor quality as well as low quantity. Waldman seems to share this view. She aligns her work with the likes of Bonfire and at the same time disavows the connection. Why?
Multicultural fictions imply a kind of rigid exemplarity, in which social categories are doled out among the principal actors and in which those categories govern to a large degree what those actors think and do. Culture seems to determine character. In Waldman’s novel, we have the Irish firefighter’s brother, the undocumented Bangladeshi immigrant, the wealthy WASP widow, and the secular Jewish philanthropist. Each character has a categorical point of view—a point of view generated demographically—and those viewpoints, aggregated, suggest the irreducible mosaic of the novel’s community. In the typical novel of multiculturalism, that mosaic is to be found within a large metropolis: for example, the London of Zadie Smith or Alan Hollinghurst, the San Francisco of Karen Tei Yamashita, and the New York City of Tom Wolfe, Colum McCann, or Richard Price.
At first blush, Waldman’s fiction seems to follow the scheme I’ve sketched, in so far as characterization is tied to identity. The Jewish politico, Paul Rubin, seems motivated by a family history of economic and religious marginalization; he wants to keep the power he’s earned and can now take for granted. Asma Anwar, the Bangladeshi immigrant, is pregnant when her husband is killed in the terrorist attack; she wants to delay her deportation so that she can give birth to “an American citizen.” The Jewish philanthropist seems intent on secularization; the “illegal” immigrant seems intent on Americanization. Sean Gallagher, the brother of an Irish firefighter killed in the attack, pits his family’s patriotism against Kahn’s “Muslim” design. Each of these personae appears, at least initially, typical rather than distinct.
Yet things get more interesting when the problem of character migrates from persons to literary and visual art. Some members of the memorial jury wonder whether Kahn’s use of arches and canals that feature in Islamic architecture means that his design will also be Islamic. They imagine that the terrorism they associate with Islamic fundamentalism might permeate Kahn’s work. Can an arch or a canal support terrorism?
Claire Burwell, the wealthy WASP widow who initially champions Khan’s work, worries that his memorial “quotes” (this is his word) details from architectural gardens in Afghanistan. Because those gardens celebrate an Islamic paradise, she asks, is his “Garden” also a paradise? Khan responds by drawing two intersecting lines and then holding his paper at two different angles. Claire sees a cross; then she sees an X. Khan adds more lines, and Claire sees a window, a checkerboard, or a grid, perhaps Manhattan. “It’s all of those things, or maybe none of them. It’s lines on a plane, just like the Garden,” Khan explains. “Lines on a plane. Geometry doesn’t belong to a single culture.”
In this exchange, histories of circulation and reception add a new dimension to the question of character. If an arch was used to convey Islamic paradise in sixteenth-century Afghanistan, does this feature carry the same meaning when it reappears in mid-twentieth-century New York or twenty-first-century Mumbai? What happens to an artwork’s meaning when it is adapted into new artworks and when it is read, viewed, or experienced by new audiences?
Here are the three most interesting ways that Waldman’s novel interferes with character as usual.
First, Waldman questions the relevance of character by asking us to imagine right away that the work of art we are reading extends beyond the object in our hands and beyond the identity of its author. She does this by framing her novel ambiguously, beginning with an epigraph attributed to “an unidentified Pashto poet” and ending with an author’s note that directs us to the book’s “sources of information and inspiration.” Like the speaker in the epigraph, the novel is “not bound by its attachments.” Its origins seem to be various and to some extent “unidentified.”
Yet, what is the epigraph telling us? That origins don’t matter? What about the origins of the epigraph itself? When one sees on the copyright page that the untitled fragment of uncertain “Pashto” origin in fact comes from a specific poem by a named poet of precise origin—“The Afghans, by Mohammed Ali, Kabul, 1969”—it becomes clear that the abstraction, withholding, display, and proliferation of origins is crucial to the novel’s project. Waldman is interested in the difference between categories and individuals, between the “Pashto poet” and the individual writer publishing in Afghanistan. The architect Kahn argues that sources are not at all relevant. But Waldman’s novel doesn’t dismiss sources so quickly. Instead, it suggests that sources enlarge the meanings of art; instead of defining the work, once and for all, sources can help us see how an artwork’s meanings are established, and how those meanings might change in the future.
Waldman interferes with character in a second way by aligning her fiction not only with the contemporary novel of multiculturalism but also with several of its precursors. These include the novel of urban bureaucracy (think Charles Dickens’s Bleak House) and the modernist novel of colonial anti-Semitism (think James Joyce’s Ulysses). These are related traditions, and both present us with social worlds of overlapping interests and partial allegiances.
The imprint of Ulysses is especially notable. When Paul Rubin first sees the name of the winning architect, he says to himself, “A dark horse indeed,” echoing the phrase used to describe the uncircumcised Irish-Jewish Leopold Bloom in Ulysses. By having the Jewish chairman apply this epithet to the secular Muslim-American architect Mo Kahn, Waldman asks us to compare anti-Semitic and anti-Islamic prejudice. She asks us to notice, as Joyce did, that being victimized does not preclude victimizing others. She also asks us to consider that racism tends to assign definitive identities. How Jewish is Bloom? How Muslim is Khan? Most interestingly, Waldman’s use of a well-known literary allusion gestures to the idea—so central to Ulysses—that the circulation of objects, including phrases, through citation and appropriation generates meanings far in excess of the original source. In this way, too, The Submission suggests that we can’t judge the character of the artwork by the implied character of the artist.
Finally, Waldman takes on character by suggesting that narrative, because it develops over time and integrates different moments of remembering, interrupts the potentially stagnant quality of position-taking and position-keeping. Monuments fix, narratives unfold; this novel turns monuments into narratives. The most effective memorial for the terrorist attack, we learn in the novel’s final chapter, is a documentary film. Twenty years after the architectural competition, Claire Burwell’s son William and his girlfriend Molly are producing a film about the events that occupied the first 280 pages of the novel. Their documentary breaks from the traditional mold. Instead of editing and collating separate interviews, they are creating what we might call a “living” documentary, in which subjects watch and respond to each other’s interviews. An effective memorial, Waldman suggests, solicits audience participation.
Yet it is part of the brilliance of Waldman’s novel that the documentary, which seems to trump the site-specific sculpture as a medium of memorialization, actually echoes Kahn’s design. William and Molly fly to Mumbai to interview Kahn, who left the US after withdrawing from the New York competition and has made his fortune building towers and gardens all over the world. He has built a version of his Garden, which the filmmakers include in their video. As William tours the grounds, we see that the Garden is a kind of narrative, both because its living materials grow and because it is used as well as observed.
We see, too, that William’s reception of the Garden constitutes a new production. He adds to the artwork by placing in one corner what his mother calls a “cairn,” the Celtic term for stones used to mark and remember. A small pile of stones placed in remembrance invokes many traditions, including the Jewish custom of placing small stones at a grave. It also registers William’s memorial to his father, who had taught him about cairns when he was a child. The stones’ significance is visible to William and to his mother, who sees the video, but perhaps to no one else. The cairn appears as the novel’s final reminder of form’s resistance to character and of reception’s effects on the meanings of art.
Because Waldman asks us to question whether a Muslim artist produces a Muslim artwork, we might also find ourselves asking whether a Jewish novelist produces a Jewish novel. The Submission responds to both of these questions by insisting that the work of art is not reducible to the artist’s geographic location and biographical history, in part because those locations and histories draw on traditions from many cultures, in part because artworks live in the future as well as the past. For all its irony about the multicultural novel, The Submission doesn’t leave it entirely behind, and yet Waldman updates the genre by emphasizing points of contact rather than points of view. Instead of distinguishing among categories, she shows how they overlap, share histories, and develop into something new. The Submission believes in character, but it is the kind that art makes, not the kind that makes art.
With an “event” that, as many reviewers of the book have noted, ends up being eerily prescient of the “controversy” over Park51, the Islamic cultural center to be built in downtown Manhattan, the question that stands at the center of The Submission is: “Who do or have we become”—we “liberal Americans,” perhaps, we white liberal Americans—in the aftermath of the attacks? If there is a moral dilemma that stands at the novel’s heart and gives it much of its power, it is the question of the staying power of liberalism. And if there is a teleology that emerges through the narrative it is a kind of triumphalism about that liberalism, at least vis-à-vis the US in which liberal commitments, even when interrupted, seem destined to return. (“The country had moved on, self-corrected, as it always did, that feverish time mostly forgotten”—the narrator recounts, 20 years hence.) I want to think briefly about liberalism in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks in a way that departs from Waldman’s vision, even as the contours of the political imaginary that I sketch are captured, if perhaps unintentionally, in the story that she tells.
It is to those silences that I turn: I want to point to a whole other set of critical conver-sations that were, while certainly not absent, very hard—indeed, much, much harder—to have.
Grief and “identity,” and attachments to them, drive the characters in this book. There is the grief of having lost a relative to the attacks. There is the grief of having lost something as an American. There is the grief of trying to be a Muslim or not a Muslim, or to be just an American in a society in which neither seems to be much of an option any longer. And there is the grief—or pain—of being or remaining a liberal in the face of not just horror but of a kind of horror and a kind of enemy that presumably embodies the very essence of illiberalism and intolerance. It seems to me that the inextricability of one from the other—that is, of grief from identity—drives not just the kind of soul-searching that the novel narrates and its characters endure but quite crucially the kinds of conversations—presumably, “political” conversations—that the characters do and do not—or can and cannot—have.
I recognize all the characters in this historical novel as either real persons or as types. I will list some but not all of them. There is the New York Post reporter, testament to the rise of tabloid journalism tethered to the Swift-boat tactics of America’s right wing: just send out a story, regardless of whether or not it is true, saturate the airwaves with it, and make it true (and of course, make one’s career). There is the Pamela Geller–type anti-Muslim Christian crusader (Debbie, in the novel). There are the Muslim activists—driven by a variety of outlooks, but the more prominent of whom are driven by, in addition to sheer ambition, a commitment to a multicultural, inclusive America. They are passionate about a crucial element of “the American dream,” one could say. There is the oppressed Muslim woman who finds her voice in the aftermath of her husband’s death—and it is worth noting, she finds her voice in America, not in Bangladesh that is characterized, as the novel tells us over and over again, by the submission of women. There is the assimilated Muslim who comes to the very painful realization that in the aftermath of the attacks, he cannot be just another American. In his grief about the impossibility of his own subject position, he ultimately leaves. And there is the angst-ridden liberal widow—her very personal grief ultimately overtaking her more generous, principled position on the Garden (the design submitted by the assimilated Muslim architect). What we have lined up in these characters are all the necessary ingredients for a culture war.
And a culture war is precisely what The Submission depicts. In so doing, it articulates most powerfully and accurately what the immediate post-9/11 period was seen to be from the perspective of (New York) liberals. In so doing, it also necessarily recreates the silences that saturate(d) that liberal world. It is to those silences that I turn: I want to point to a whole other set of critical conversations that were, while certainly not absent, very hard—indeed, much, much harder—to have.
The proposal to build an Islamic cultural center in lower Manhattan exploded into public consciousness in much the same way as did the fictional event portrayed in this novel. And both sides—those defending the center and those opposing it—did so in the discursive terms laid out by Waldman: in opposition to the center, activists argued that Islam is a violent religion, inherently; that this would be a victory for the terrorists; that it would be insensitive, at best, to build a Muslim center here. In defense of the center, other activists insisted that Islam is not a violent religion; that the terrorists do not represent Islam; that this center is being built precisely to embody moderate Islam; that we are all Americans and Muslims should have the same civil rights as any other community in this democratic nation of ours.
My intention here is not to criticize those who defended the center. It was a fight that needed to be waged in light of the anti-Muslim rhetoric through which the project was being opposed and in light of the sometimes violent and often successful efforts to block Muslim communities from practicing their faith and building cultural centers in other parts of the US. Moreover, I recognize that the fight had to be waged in the terms that were chosen: there is no other politically solicitous language available than that of a defense of multiculturalism and civil rights. Nevertheless, I want to raise some questions about the terms of that debate and I do so in order to remind us of the kinds of conversations we have not been able to have over the past decade—at least not in any widely circulated public forum.
Let me begin with what united both sides of the “controversy” over Park51. They both took for granted that this is a civilizational battle, if not between Islam and the West, then between different values—those of moderation versus those of intolerance. (Which side of the argument might best be labeled in which way was clearly the object of rather contentious dispute). Those arguing in defense of the center, after all, argued that the US, if it is to really win this war, must show itself to be the democratic liberal nation that it is, and that regimes in places from Pakistan to Saudi Arabia are certainly not. (Note how often that argument—in the mouths of various characters—shows up in the novel.) Those that argued against the center insisted that violence, and not just intolerance, are endemic to Islam, and that we, therefore, can only save our own civilizational values by keeping “them” out. What all parties to the conflict seemed to share was a belief that this is a culture war, and it is a culture war gone global.
But what is the cost of turning 9/11 into a culture war? What are the costs of turning it into a clash of cultures and of values? Before I continue let me be clear: I am not arguing that I have any sympathy for the attacks on September 11. They were horrifying. Nor am I arguing that I have any sympathy for al-Qaeda and its political program. What I am arguing is that what is at stake, for better or for worse, are political disagreements, not “cultural” ones. And what I am arguing is that there is a historical and political genealogy to this conflict—or more accurately, to the many and varied if often overlapping movements and organizations now subsumed under the rubric of radical Islam (Hamas, Hezbollah, the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, al-Qaeda to name but a few). And I am arguing that in the immediate aftermath of September 11 it became pretty difficult to have those conversations. And yet those were and still are the conversations that most need to be had.
At the risk of proving one of Amy Waldman’s characters correct, I want to talk about Palestine. No, not everything is about Palestine, but that is a critical conversation which we needed to have and which was impossible to have in the aftermath of September 11, 2001. It is a conversation which illustrates my point about what gets lost when we accept the terms of the debate and just argue the opposite: no, there are moderate Muslims; no, the terrorists just hijacked Islam.
It is worth keeping in mind the political genealogies of the rhetoric deployed by figures such as Pamela Geller. Let me take the example of what has come to be known as “soft jihad.” I begin by quoting the character of Debbie: “Two years after the attack, Americans were getting complacent. This attempt to claim our most sacred space—it’s a wake-up call. This is what I’ve been trying to tell you people: You think the violent Muslims are dangerous? Wait until you see what the nonviolent ones do! What’s next? The crescent over the Capitol? They’re trying to make this piece of land Dar al-Islam.” Soft jihad—the concept was developed (as far as I know) and promoted by the likes of David Horowitz, a neoconservative Jewish blogger and activist whose maligning of Islam cannot be understood without knowing that his primary political project is a defense of Israel. And Horowitz is not alone: Daniel Pipes, of Campus Watch and the Middle East Forum, a group with right-wing Zionist commitments, organized a successful campaign against the “Khalil Gibran Academy” (in Brooklyn) and its principal in the name of soft jihad several years ago. The question of Palestine, to use Edward Said’s term, hangs in the balance for Pipes, as it does for many an activist and scholar aligned with this brand of neoconservative Jewish politics. And the characters involved in this campaign, individuals who have worked long and hard to forge a more powerful alliance between Israel and the US, reached both directly into the Bush White House (through the power and “expertise” of Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle, and Douglas Feith, to name a few) and outwards to conservative Christian political movements, with their own investments in demonizing Islam and excluding Muslims from this nation-state. In turning all political conversations into discussions of Islam—or into discussions of whether or not there indeed are good Muslims, whether or not Islam was hijacked by the hijackers—other kinds of questions, that is, arguments about history, rights and injustices, about colonialism, military occupations, population transfers, and imperial power are subsumed under the terms of an identity politics gone global. All conflicts are about an “us” and a “them,” and the forms of life—liberal, modern, and democratic; illiberal, backward, and violent—for which each of us stands. (It is worth noting that none of the main Muslim characters in The Submission is Arab, perhaps making it easier not to address some very central political disagreements without which there is no way to give a coherent account of the al-Qaeda attack in 2001.)
In a recent book called The Shape of the Signifier, Walter Benn Michaels writes, “Culture… has become a primary technology for disarticulating difference from disagreement.” We seem to talk about difference a lot more than we talk about disagreement, he argues, a reflection of the reorganization of political life within the grammar of identity politics. We speak from our own “perspectives” now and those perspectives are grounded in identitarian claims. That is certainly true for the characters in this novel. And identitarian claims are not just embraced by or foisted on the novel’s Muslim (or would-be-Muslim) characters. As the soul-searching goes on and Claire—and Paul—struggle to articulate their positions vis-à-vis this memorial “designed by a Muslim,” liberalism itself is no longer a political commitment born of a philosophical tradition and the history of the modern state. It has become just another identity. It has become a matter of who I am—and who I will have become—depending on which side of the debate over the memorial Garden I ultimately choose.
There’s a scene toward the end of this very rich and very gripping novel that has a strong claim to be thought of as its climax, when Claire Burwell and Mohammad Khan sit together in a small room and Claire questions him about the meaning of his plan for the memorial. She says, “I can’t go on backing the Garden without knowing more.” And “How can I support a memorial when I don’t know what it is?” The assumption she’s making here is that what the memorial is is what Khan intended it to be, and that she can find out by sitting next to him and asking. When I read this scene, I thought, this is going to be a lot like sitting in a room with Amy Waldman and talking about the meaning of her novel. Which will be a little uncomfortable, just as that scene is. The best way of dealing with the discomfort that I could come up with is to declare right away that I’m not making Claire’s assumption. D. H. Lawrence once said, speaking of how Tolstoy wanted us to like Levin but was really in love with Vronsky, “Never trust the teller, trust the tale.” Maybe it’s in our professional self-interest as literary critics, since there’s more for us to say about tales than about the intentions of their tellers, but that’s usually our working assumption: trust the tale more than the teller. We give novels credit for meaning a lot more than their authors may have intended them to mean, and also for meaning different things. And that’s also going to be my assumption here.
here the idea is still to unite us Americans as Americans. There is no idea that this piety might not be enough, that it might be a bit provincial, that the novel might have to make an effort to know and make stories out of what non-Americans think and feel.
As you perhaps remember, the scene ends when Claire jumps up and slams the door behind her, and the next time we see her (through Paul Rubin’s eyes) she is speaking at a press conference, flanked by members of the American Muslim community, and asking Mo to withdraw his submission. The most immediate cause of this change of heart, back in the room, is the idea that Alyssa Spier may have been right, that Mo may have seen her husband as “mere collateral damage in a war America had brought on itself.” I take this as the novel’s climactic scene because it’s where Claire backs down from her support for the Garden, and because Claire’s backing down from her support for the Garden seems to me the central “action” of the novel, though there are other ways of describing it. But I also underline the scene because it marks the unspeakability of the idea that America did to some extent bring 9/11 on itself. As it happens, this is not what Mohammad says or what he thinks; it’s merely a moment when Claire fantasizes this position, egged on by the disgusting Alyssa Spier, who has a strange kind of access to her thoughts and feelings. Right after the pages Amy read [pp. 185–190, Ed.], we get this: “For all Claire’s resistance, Spier’s insinuations about Khan had slithered inside to coil around Claire’s own doubts.” Claire’s resistance? Where is that resistance when she needs it? Her lack of resistance to the odious Gummi bear–eating Spier, or one might say the perverse intimacy or unconscious bond between them, seems to me a sort of giveaway. It may not show where the novel’s heart wants to be, but it shows the novel’s “submission”—one more meaning of its multiply meaningful title.
I don’t know how much sympathy Amy Waldman intended us to have for Claire. Perhaps she is not even meant to be central. Perhaps Mo’s intransigent refusal to answer her questions (though elsewhere Mo does in fact declare his abhorrence of the mass murder) is meant to be equally important to the outcome, creating a balance between them. (Paul Rubin seems built up mainly so as to take some of the weight of being central off Claire, but in my opinion he’s too thin a character for his point of view to do this.) In my opinion, Claire is the novel’s central figure, the figure in the middle who is pulled in opposite directions. She is also the female half of the ideal couple—Claire and Mo—that, if it did come together, would represent the novel’s ideal “resolution,” but that the novel of course never does bring together, its failure to bestow coupledom upon them marking its own very realistic, very successful conclusion. I think the novel blames Claire for the fact that things don’t turn out better more than it blames Mo, and I think that’s right. Mo withdrawal, his “abdication,” is clearly not as important to the plot; it comes when things are already decided. It doesn’t really matter, just as the jury’s support wouldn’t have mattered. Similarly, the betrayal of Mo by the “official” American Muslims, who want him to back out, and the anger at him by the fundamentalists who think he’s denied the divine authorship of the Qur’an, don’t really matter; they aren’t fully realized causes of what happens. In terms of causality, the novel puts the weight on Claire. She’s the one who wanted to hold back the wave of nationalism that we see the politicians riding, and she’s the one who might actually have been able to. But this is a weight she can’t bear. And I want to give the novel credit for showing this—for effectively sucking us into Claire’s viewpoint, and then making us see how pitifully limited that viewpoint is, and how genuinely irritating her character is. That may not be what the author intended—she’s here to say—and it may express in part my irritation that the idea that “America brought this on itself” (which is not the same thing as “your husband deserved to die”) remains an unspeakable idea, outside the limits of the sayable as Claire, our figure of liberal good intentions, represents them. Which is to say that it marks a certain limit on what counts as common sense in America. A limit that seems to me a bit too narrow.
In this respect the novel can be classed with most other “9/11 novels.” The 9/11 novel is not necessarily the most interesting category to put it in, and I know Amy Waldman has said it’s not the category she herself was thinking of, but it does share with, say, Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close an inability to get beyond the problematic of mourning and moving forward—what this novel calls “healing.” 9/11 novels are sometimes good at capturing the feel of loss, and this one is especially good at capturing the changes in the feel of loss over time. But there’s a lot that these novels don’t try to do that would be worth doing. Healing seems to be the highest value they can imagine. Healing is a good thing: it’s opposed to racism, chauvinism, and vengefulness. All that is very good. But here the idea is still to unite us Americans as Americans—to say that Mo is as American as anyone else, and that we should accept him as such. This is easy piety. There is no idea that this piety might not be enough, that it might be a bit provincial, that the novel might have to make an effort to know and make stories out of what non-Americans think and feel. Which would certainly include opinions on American foreign policy, for example in the Middle East, over the past three or four decades.
Like other 9/11 novels, The Submission makes very little attempt to get beyond this provinciality. Even the Bangladeshi characters are of course Bangladeshis in America, and Asma’s story comes close to the paradigm that American writers seem to fall back on over and over again when they try to get more of the world in. If you look at the rest of the world, what you see is injustice and atrocity. You look at how bad things are over there and you realize, all in all, how much better things are in the US. Women really are better off here, aren’t they? Look at the American Dream. If you’re a woman, don’t you really have to come to America? If you’re an immigrant, don’t you really want to stay? The patriotism gets a bit claustrophobic.
Aesthetically speaking, one of this novel’s virtues is that it has a lot of endings, all of them pretty subtle. The documentary film introduced at the very end makes Mo and Claire into a kind of couple after all—that’s one ending. The pile of pebbles left by Claire’s son in the built-but-not-built-in-America garden is the perfect memorial to her dead husband. That’s ending #2. From one point of view, the flashback to Mohammad’s walk through Kabul offers another ending: a sort of “revelation” that the inspiration for his proposal really was Islamic after all—it was the garden built by the Mughal Emperor Babur in 1526. Which means that Claire was finally right, but also that she was wrong: the inspiration was Islamic, but it was a very positive inspiration, an aesthetic image of peace and order amid suffering and chaos.
After all, how and why does Claire pull back from her support of the Garden? Part of the answer is Claire’s strange vulnerability to the odious Spier, and for that matter to Sean Gallagher and his angry parents. Claire abstains after asking “what makes [Asma’s] voice more authentic than Frank Gallagher’s?” I would speculate, since you can’t do more than speculate, that there is a general principle involved here (which makes more sense than individual psychology) and that the principle is this: the rich elite liberal is vulnerable, and knows herself to be vulnerable, in terms of class, and that means her support for international understanding is soft. She will fall back from whatever cosmopolitanism she has been granted or has achieved, if and when pressured by the have-not class below her. She will therefore accept the necessity of military aggression, as the liberal hawks did in Afghanistan and Iraq, even when she knows better. Or maybe it’s not so much about class as about liberalism itself. The liberal hawks and their ambivalent ten-year-long recantation make up another context into which this book could be productively placed. In a sense, Claire’s last words, eighteen years later, combine with the late flashback to Mo in Afghanistan to make Claire’s withdrawal of support for the peaceful garden into an allegory of how the liberals got behind the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and how they feel about it now. The answer the book gives would be: bad, but not bad enough. Claire can’t apologize, and then, seeing the Arabic characters where the names were to have been in New York, she finds she still can’t apologize. In that sense the novel’s hope leaves her behind and moves on to the next generation. A generation will hopefully read this novel and take from it exactly that moral: the need to overcome the shortcomings of its elders.