Off the Shelves
Legacy of the Cold War
by Hirsh Sawhney
Mahmood Mamdani, Good Muslim, Bad Muslim: America, the Cold War, and the Roots of Terror (Pantheon, 2004)
On September 16, 2001, while stepping down from the presidential helicopter, George W. Bush told the world, "…this crusade, this war on terrorism, is going to take awhile." In referring to the war on terror as a "crusade," Bush not only infused religious fervor into mainstream political discourse, but he also alluded to a civilizational rift between the "West" and Islam, thus echoing the thought of conservative ideologue Samuel Huntington. In the days that followed, however, the Bush Administration refined its rhetoric to a more politically correct one, telling the world that there is in fact no clash of civilizations occurring, but rather one within Islam between "good Muslims" and "bad Muslims," this time invoking another conservative intellectual, Bernard Lewis.
In Good Muslim, Bad Muslim: America, the Cold War, and the Roots of Terror, Mahmood Mamdani argues that there is no such thing as a "good"—or for that matter a "bad"—Muslim, and that using such terms "masks a refusal to make a political analysis of our times." In this poignant and revelatory book, Mamdani tells us that the events of 9/11 are the result of an "alliance" between radical Islamists and the United States government "gone sour" and need "to be understood first and foremost as the unfinished business of the Cold War." Accordingly, Mamdani illustrates the emergence of twentieth-century political terror and organized radical Islam as a product of the United States’ desire to wage covert proxy wars aimed at thwarting Communism in Third World countries. In doing so, Mamdani weaves together an incisive analysis of U.S. foreign policy from the onset of the Cold War to the present, a story that takes him across three continents.
Mamdani sees Indochina in the 1960s as the birthplace of the U.S. strategy of fighting the Cold War through proxies relying on CIA-backed mercenary forces instead of deploying national ground troops. In northern Laos, beginning in 1962, the CIA led an army of more than 30,000 local mercenaries for over a decade, a mission largely unbeknownst to the American public. "As the opposition to the Vietnam War mounted back home," Mamdani notes, "the advantages of proxy war became clear: waged in secret, it was at the same time removed from congressional oversight, public scrutiny, and conventional diplomacy."
Mamdani then finds the origin of the U.S. liaison with contemporary political terror in Southern Africa, beginning well before the proliferation of the radical Islamist movements of the 1980s and ’90s. In Angola, despite Congressional legislation banning support of any sides of the ongoing war, the CIA backed the anti-Communist Unita movement, which had ties to South Africa’s Apartheid regime. Mamdani notes that during the devastating war in Angola, "UNICEF calculated that 331,000 civilians died of causes directly or indirectly related to the war." The U.S. also embraced South Africa via a policy known as "Constructive Engagement," so that it could tap into its military resources to support the anticommunist terrorist outfit known as Renamo—which Mamdani calls Africa’s "first genuine terrorist movement"—in Mozambique.
From Africa, the main theater of proxy war shifted to Central America, where the Reagan Administration openly embraced terror and drug lords to propagate Low Intensity Conflict. In Nicaragua, Mamdani aptly explains how the CIA wed the terrorism of the Contras to electoral politics, which was clearly a dangerous mix. As the author writes of this multi-faceted anti-Sandinista effort, "The point of harnessing terror as part of an electoral campaign was to turn it into a form of blackmail that could be switched off and on at will." For American readers in the midst of a U.S. presidential race stained by terror, the Nicaraguan example seems particularly chilling.
Mamdani’s main case in point, however, is Afghanistan. Launched near the end of the Carter Administration in 1979, the Afghan Jihad was initiated and backed by the CIA against the Soviets in collusion with Pakistan’s intelligence bureau, the ISI. To fight the Jihad in Afghanistan, the CIA recruited fringe radical Islamists from across the world—including one Osama bin Laden—to ensure that the Soviets would incur losses in Afghanistan that equaled those of the United States in Vietnam. In CIA-backed Pakistani and Afghani training camps throughout the 1980s, the preliminary structures of Al Qaeda were born. "The real damage the CIA did was not the providing of arms and money but the privatization of information about how to produce and spread violence—the formation of private militias—capable of creating terror," Mamdani maintains. His discussion of the relationship that developed between radical Islamists who would later carry out attacks against the United States and the CIA is especially distressing. In fact, the key leaders of every terrorist attack of the end of the 20th century—from New York to France to South Africa—turned out to be veterans of the Afghan war.
Good Muslim, Bad Muslim offers a nuanced and complex examination of the political context of the terrorist attacks of 9/11. At the outset it also provides a theoretical framework in which to consider 9/11, one which will undoubtedly challenge non-academic readers—Mamdani’s intended audience. In these pages, Mamdani examines the notion of "Culture Talk," the tendency to view political events through cultural histories employed by governments and intellectuals in pursuit of power, which stigmatizes Third World people as archaic or barbaric. Mamdani’s critique of "Culture Talk"—whose formulation he accredits to Lewis and Huntington—debunks the widely held notion that radical Islam is a throwback to pre-modern times. Mamdani effectively illustrates—in theoretical as well as practical terms—that political Islam is a product of modern, secular political events.
Mamdani reminds us that 9/11 was indeed a day in which the world changed, but that it shouldn’t separate us from the historical events of the past 50 or 500 years or cloud our memories with "political amnesia." In some ways, after finishing this book I felt disheartened and overwhelmed, the corrupt and destructive nature of socio-political affairs at home and abroad all too apparent. But at the same time Mamdani’s work leaves room for optimism in the face of an era defined by widespread political terror and war, urging readers to emulate the last global movement for peace—the one which brought an end to the war in Vietnam.
Tramps Like Us
by Michael Calderone
Jim Tully, Beggars of Life: A Hobo Autobiography (AK Press/Nabat Books, 2004)
The first of San Quentin’s great prison writers, Jim Tully gained literary acclaim in the mid-1920s when H.L. Mencken published several of his stories in the American Mercury. First published in 1924, Tully’s Beggars of Life is the most recent "lost" classic reprinted in the essential Nabat Books series that documents the "forgotten memoirs by various misfits, outsiders, and rebels."
Tully’s book memorably describes the gritty underworld of the hoboes who used to ride the rails across America. Here they have names like Peg-Leg, Dutch, and Oklahoma Red. They tempt fate as a vocation, stoically embracing the long, bumpy rides with "parching throats and smoked-streaked faces." On the road, communal kegs of stolen moonshine quench one’s thirst, while hunger remains an obstacle to overcome. "Every ‘road kid’ knows that forty-nine out of every fifty drunkards will feed him," says the author, serving up one of the many nuggets of vagabond wisdom scattered throughout the text. Although far more than a manual on ‘how to hop trains,’ Beggars does impart upon the reader advice on everything from breaking out of handcuffs to stealing library books.
"Across a chasm of years the outlines of even the most vivid life are blurred," begins Tully in the novel’s opening salvo, "but the impressions gained as a youthful hobo are likely to endure." As a narrator, Tully’s authenticity is the by-product of well-worn experience; sullied from the dusty box-car and strengthened by out-running the bulls, or cops, in the train yard. Reading accounts of Tully’s teenage wanderlust is enough to make anyone’s formative years feel uneventful. Fearful of working away his life in the factory, or as a ditchdigger like his father, Tully started hopping freight trains at fourteen. Among his many adventures, he was knocked unconscious for 24 hours in a San Francisco bar fight, worked in a traveling circus sideshow, and was hired to help rig a Chicago election by voting under fake names.
Tully’s distinct vantage point, keenly observing life from moving freight trains and brief sojourns into small towns, remains a testament to turn-of-the-century America. In our ‘global village’ of seamless interconnectedness, it is impossible to imagine that a steel track once provided the fastest connection between cities and towns. Throughout his journey, Tully scopes out both urban and rural America prior to the First World War; chameleon-like, he enters various social worlds, gallivanting with newsboys or resting along the riverbank with religious revivalists down South. Posing as a Catholic, he wisely carries a Bible while in Boston, a tactical move that leads to a free dinner at an Irish cop’s house as opposed to jail for vagrancy.
By embarking on the hobo life, Tully ages quickly. Sleeping in an attic amongst an assemblage of road-weary vagrants, the young tramp awakens to the painful moans of the man lying next to him, who then dies in a convulsive attack. Seasoned hoboes, accustomed as they are to the ailments induced on the wayward body, remain unmoved. Tully, however, is visibly shocked by the deathbed scene, only to be reminded by a veteran of the rails, "It’s hell, hey Kid. The old boy’s beat the train to the last division." Eight cents is extracted from the dead man’s pocket, the police remove the nameless corpse, and life goes on.
Neither the sight of, nor being near death himself deters Tully from his wanderlust. Diagnosed with malaria and typhoid, he secures free admittance to St. Luke’s Hospital by posing as a newsboy. While hospitalized, Tully is given food and reading materials—"I roamed over India with Kipling’s Kim, and down the roads of England with Hardy’s Tess." Even while bed-ridden, his vivid imagination soars while his sick body remains stationary. Throughout Beggars, the author relies on stolen library books to help him through the long trips and time spent at rest in backwater bogs.
The early novels of many writers feature a protagonist pushing life to the extremes, scavenging for spare change or affection—think Genet, Hamsun, or Kerouac—but Tully offers a distinct account. Free of endless pontificating, or extraneous description, Tully’s early hardboiled prose captures the uniquely American hobo experience with clarity and confidence. Nabat describes its publishing mission as tapping into "a large cache of hidden history." Tully’s effort indeed offers a viewpoint more lively than the familiar narratives of the Rough Riders and Manifest Destiny.
Michael Calderone is a writer based in Brooklyn.
Another Bride, Another…
by Erinne Dobson
Darcy Cosper, Wedding Season (Three Rivers Press, 2004)
"People want to get married, and the world wants people to get married," says a friend to Joy Silverman, the heroine of Darcy Cosper’s refreshing first novel, Wedding Season. Joy and her perfect boyfriend, Gabe, are both successful, thirtyish Manhattanites who are madly in love and determined never to marry. The pair are secure in this arrangement until Joy realizes she is slated to attend 17 weddings between May and September, including those of her little brother, both of her parents, and her lesbian best friend. This wallet-denting parade of bachelorette parties, showers, ceremonies and receptions tests Joy’s resolve, and provides a fitting backdrop for razor-sharp social critique.
Joy is characteristically unmoved by the first onslaught of weddings—as her older brother jokes, "If this is the happiest day of their lives, isn’t it all downhill from here?" But Joy’s vulnerability emerges when a slutty-but-famous writer—aptly named "Ora"—inadvertently announces she is out to snare Gabe. Though Ora has hired Gabe as photographer, Joy is determined not to succumb to her insecurities by informing him of Ora’s intentions. Tension mounts as the three meet at several weddings, resulting in unnerving confrontations that break down Joy’s iron will, and force her toward drastic action.
Readers will find Joy to be bracingly modern, with a depth of intellect and emotion that goes far beyond the husband-seeking heroines so pervasive in novels that appeal to young women. Cosper rejects the passé objectives of Jane Austen’s protagonists, but retains their sharp wit and stubborn idealism, while her colorful supporting characters are reminiscent of Thackeray’s—parodies of themselves, yet ultimately human. The weddings themselves are a vivisection of familiar, albeit affluent urban characters—ranging from a WASPy Park Avenue wedding to a commitment ceremony on the beach, to an industrial loft where open-marriage vows are broadcast live on the Internet. But the enormous cast of brides, grooms, and family members that populate these myriad weddings becomes a logistical problem. Like condensation on a chilled glass of champagne, they make the reader thirsty for more—but their very presence obscures the central conflict of the story.
The final third of the novel is by far the strongest—inevitabilities of character established in the first part come to fruition, pulling the reader into Joy’s crisis of conscience, toward a surprising and satisfying conclusion. However, be warned: like a scallop-edged invite that gives you a paper cut, this book goes deeper than its lighthearted, beach-read cover implies. Wedding Season forces the reader, like Joy, to question whether marriage is merely an attempt to make permanent something that is transient by nature, and whether ultimate happiness is about making a decision you can live with.
Cosper is best when she bores deep—validating thoughts most single young women have momentarily entertained, yet cast away, afraid of their life-changing implications. Readers can look forward to reading her next work, and finding more question marks emerge where periods once were.
Erinne Dobson is a writer based in Brooklyn.
Some Numinous Places
by Priya Jain
A.S. Byatt, Little Black Book of Stories (Knopf, 2004)
A.S. Byatt, novelist, literary critic and Harry Potter curmudgeon, caused no small amount of outrage last year in an op-ed piece for the New York Times. The boy wizard’s adventures are all well and good for children, she declared, but not for intelligent adults. Her argument boiled down to one, now often repeated and rebutted, phrase: "Ms. Rowling’s magic world has no place for the numinous."
By contrast, the numinous is everywhere in Little Black Book of Stories, Byatt’s most recent short-story collection. Byatt is no stranger to the otherworldly; her previous story collections, including The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye and Elementals, are filled with fairies and magical creatures, mythical forces and Grimm-like journeys. But the tales in Little Black Book of Stories are more sinister than those of her previous works. They are dark but brilliant studies in the collision of myth and reality, filled with violence, difficult choices and unhappy endings.
The first and last stories are partly set during the World War II bombing of London, lending the whole collection an atmosphere of earthly calamity. In "The Thing in the Forest," two little girls named Penny and Primrose, evacuees from the city, wander into a wood, where they encounter the Thing—a monstrous worm whose triangular face expresses "neither wrath nor greed, but pure misery." In "The Pink Ribbon," a once-intelligent woman breaks down, after the war, into a violent and demented creature. Her brain, says her husband, has become "a mass of thick plaques and tangles of meaningless stuff. Like moth-eaten knitting." As Penny and Primrose grow up with the horrible memory of the monster in the forest, so the husband of "The Pink Ribbon" lives with the monster in his house.
In "A Stone Woman," a daughter overcome by grief for her dead mother transforms into a creature from Icelandic myth: her flesh becomes a collage of minerals, and hot lava flows through her veins. "A Stone Woman" is the most tedious tale in the book—little happens—but it is saved by Byatt’s lyrical language, which propels the story even when the words are nonsensical to anyone not a geologist. In a typical description, the woman notices her inner arm becoming "a bubble of rosy barite crystals, breaking through a vein of fluorspar, and opening into the form known as desert rose, bunched with ore flowers of blue john."
The best stories in the collection are "Body Art" and "Raw Material." They are also the most "realistic"; the magic in them is more mystical because it is also more ordinary. In "Body Art," babies are the source of life and death: a gynecologist delivers newborns among a ghoulish collection of medical curios—preserved fetuses, shrunken heads, old-fashioned surgical instruments. And in "Raw Material," a creative writing teacher, frustrated by the idiotic, melodramatic tales that his students write, loses his own writerly inspiration. The students’ ideas of good fiction are hilarious and pathetic: an estate agent writes "a story of the prolonged rape and abduction of an estate agent"; a veterinarian composes "a tale of the elaborate torture of two Sealyham dogs." When the teacher gets a student who has true talent, a quiet, old woman with bad hearing, he latches onto her like a personal muse. But for all the good fun of bad writing, "Raw Material" haunts and chills like a ghost story. It could be told around a campfire, preferably after the kids have gone to sleep.
Byatt has credited Sir Charles Sherrington for influencing her writing. Sherrington—the first physiologist to study synapses—described visual perception in this way: "The eye sends…into the cell-and-fibre forest of the brain, throughout the waking day continual rhythmic streams of tiny, individually evanescent, electric potentials." That idea, of the mind as a forest of possibility traversed by flashes of light, runs through Little Black Book of Stories. Here, the magical and surreal rub against the real, and characters weave like electric pulses through the dark wood of the soul.
Byatt’s magical world isn’t better or worse than J.K. Rowling’s—it’s just different. Rowling hits us in the gut, where we still strive to be better, to do good. Reading Harry Potter, we take an imaginative leap away from our own lives. Byatt attacks the brain, where adults have already formed a tangled reality. Rather than leaping, we make a returning to something deep within us, dragging our adult sacrifices, compromises and hurts along for the journey.
Priya Jain is a writer based in Manhattan.
Charles Baxter’s Wonderlands: Essays on the Life of LiteratureBy Joseph Peschel
SEPT 2022 | Books
The hardest part of being a writer is learning how to survive the dark nights of the soul, Charles Baxter writes about halfway through his new book, Wonderlands: Essays on the Life of Literature. This isnt Baxters first book about writing and the life of the writer as an artist.
Henry Threadgill and Brent Hayes Edwards’s Easily Slip Into Another World: A Life in MusicBy George Grella
JUNE 2023 | Music
It is absolutely a measure of his importance and achievement as a musician that a major publisher has brought out this book, Henry Threadgill’s autobiography (written with Brent Hayes Edwards in a fluid and engrossing style close to that of an oral history). Jazz in general is not a subject the big publishers are interested in, much less for someone like Threadgill who has been a leader in the avant-garde for decades.
The Book of CrowBy Lyle Rexer
APRIL 2022 | Fiction
The unfinished, epic series of narrative poems, Crow: from the Life and Songs of Crow, served as a repository for Ted Hughes’s grieving and guilt. As a locus of bereavement, the Crow poems made intuitive sense as a shadow text for Max Porter’s Grief is the Thing with Feathers and, here, for Lyle Rexers picaresque that attempts to make sense of the past two years. This excerpt comes from two short stories, The Last of Crow and Crow in the Time of Cholera. Playful absurdity emerges with the crows-eye view, and theres much to be enjoyed in the trickster experience of corvid covid.
Matthew Cheneys The Last Vanishing Man: And Other StoriesBy Yvonne C. Garrett
MAY 2023 | Books
Cheneys new collection is less the horror! that his publisher hypes and more a combination of wildly post-apocalyptic brutalism and deeply sympathetic studies of peoplelost or irreparably harmed by modern life and the punishing ways masculinity is often shaped.