Swat and Paul Berman and the Limits of the Intellectuals

Today, the Sunday Book Review of The New York Times published Anthony Julius’ review of Paul Berman’s new book, “The Flight of the Intellectuals.” I’ve been interested in Berman’s work, in what Julius rightly calls Berman’s theme: “the repudiation by liberal intellectuals of their value and ideals.” This ties the new Berman book–on the Muslim philosopher Tariq Ramadan and his liberal supporters Ian Buruma and Timothy Garton Ash–to his other books, “Terror and Liberalism,” and “Power and the Idealists.”  One might read them as entirely different from the Ramadan book, and indeed I’ve been guilty of seeing this book as a strange idyll for Berman, a surrogate public obsession for a deeper and unnamed personal one.

If you take a look at New Yorker writer George Packer’s 2005 book, “Assassin’s Gate: American in Iraq,” you’ll find four pages on Berman and the run-up to the Iraq war. Packer and Berman were friends, and both men were early supporters of the Iraq invasion. They supported it not only because they believed that weapons of mass destruction were in Saddam’s possession. They aligned themselves, as I did, with the persuasive account of Iraqi Kanan Makiya’s “Republic of Fear.” I believed that the totalitarian regime of Saddam Hussein was worth dismantling. And the opposing argument, made most strenuously and publicly by Mark Danner and others, that said America could not take on China, or Sudan, or Burma or other such regimes was not an argument in my mind to oppose the Iraq war. A Iraq war that had been justly and intelligently waged, in my view, would have been entirely different than the one the Bush administration under Donald Rumsfeld haphazardly pursued.

This is a rather dry disagreement. But Packer’s portrait of Berman is anything but dry. If you have Assassin’s Gate, take a look at pages 46 through 50. There, Packer describes, in ways Berman no doubt disliked, how Berman was “working out a theory about what was now being called the war on terrorism.”  Packer, who covered the war on the ground in Iraq, paints Berman as a “bold thinker,” but one who, in his early 50s, lived alone above a Palestinian grocery store a half block from the heart of Middle Eastern Brooklyn, in the same neighborhood where Packer also lived. When 9/11 happened, Packer writers, Berman explored the bookstores of the neighborhood and came upon the writings of Sayyid Qutb. Packed into his apartment with copies of The Anarcho-Syndicalist Review and French language literature and philosophy, Berman concluded that the men who flew into the towers weren’t motivated by “Muslim tradition, or Third World Poverty or the clash of civilizations or Western Imperialism.” They were motivated by a modern ideology called Totalitarianism. Qutb espoused a Muslim totalitarianism, and Iraq’s Baathism was another Muslim totalitarianism.

Packer paints Berman thus: “There must have been weeks on end when he never emerged from his apartment. He called it “war duty”—after all, New York had become a front line. Berman believed strenuously that it was the job of the intellectuals to explain and mend the rent that had just been made in the fabric of our world. For him the answer lay in literature and philosophy as much as politics, let alone policy.”

There is a subtext here, not all that difficult to detect. Packer is the brave man who stands at the Assassin’s Gate in Baghdad next to the Bradley Fighting Vehicles. Berman is the lonely man under the lamp, reading.

Berman hasn’t spoken to Packer since the book was published. Or at least that’s what a friend of the two men told me a couple weekends ago when Berman appeared at a Guernica PEN World Voices panel titled “Black Sheep and Exploding Turbans” that tried to explore Europe coming to terms with its Muslim minority. Jamal Mahjoub, a Sudanese born novelist, moderated. Aline Bronsky, a Russian born novelist who writes about the Soviet ghettos of Germany, tried to talk about another Western European minority’s difficulties with assimilation. Danish novelist and essayist Janne Teller talked about how prior to the Muhammad newspaper cartoon in Denmark, “the presence of Islam was very underrepresented in the public space.”  Swiss novelist Peter Stamm spoke about the ban on minarets in his native Switzerland. “My Friend the Fanatic” author Sadanand Dhuma discussed his relationship with an Indonesian advocate of terrorism.

It was a hodgepodge that had almost nothing to do with Berman’s thinking. The real debate should have been between Ramadan and Berman, but Ramadan’s handlers have refused to let that happen. On April 8, Ramadan, when asked about Berman at Cooper Union, at what was his first appearance in the United States since being barred by the Bush administration in 2004, dismissed his book as a rehash of old disputes: “He’s translating things of the last 20 years that I said in French.” (You can read The Weekly Standard’s dressing down of the event here.) Berman’s book is more than that. Yet who was there carrying water for Berman, cornering Ramadan using ammunition from Berman’s work? George Packer.



The Times Square Bomber

This week at the Guggenheim party I ran into a number of people who were surprised I was writing a novel based in Pakistan. Perhaps they asked because a Pakistani man confessed to the almost-bombing last Saturday in Times Square. They wondered what motivated him, and whether Lahore, where my novel is based, was a place I had visited. Was it safe there? The last question is easy–mostly Lahore is safe, but every so often they have bombs that actual explode, in which women, children and the elderly die or are wounded. Pakistan is at war, an ally who is trying to root out militants in its remote regions. Sometimes, we kill civilians when we bomb from our drone aircraft.  And Saturday night, someone from Pakistan tried to bring the war to New York.

I can’t pretend to know what motivated Faisal Shahzad. My first novel Harbor is about the allure of terrorism to young Muslim men from a small town in Algeria called Arzew, but it doesn’t seek a definitive answer the way policy makers or young men writing non-fiction books on terrorism do. It’s a book that dwells in possibility, to borrow from Emily Dickinson. One of the things I learned from talking to Algerians was how little religious ideology was the inspiration for their first contemplating radical violence. They wanted their lives to have meaning in the midst of a lingering sense of helplessness. Sometimes they felt this because of politics, but more often it sprang from the frustration of being born into societies in which humiliation and indignity seemed inevitable. More than anything, it was a sense of emptiness that agitated them. But that of course doesn’t fit into the language of policy conferences, scholars, punditry or the non-fiction books serious readers seem to prefer to read.

So Many Literary Events Not Enough Time

The coming days are chockablock with literary doings that I would love to attend. I can only be in one place at one time, so I’m going to be missing more of these than I’d like.

Sat. May 1. Anne Carson @ McNally Jackson Books, 52 Prince St. between Lafayette and Mulberry at 7 pm. Her newest work, Nox, is a box containing a single sheet of pleated paper covered in images and text. Free.

Sat. May 1. Toni Morrison and South African novelist Marlene van Niekerk discuss literature and politics with K. Anthony Appiah @ Cooper Union 7 E. 7th St. at Third Ave. at 3 pm. $10.

Sat. May 1. Philip Gourevitch, novelist Arnon Grunberg, Sebastian Junger, Daniele Mastrogiacomo and Deborah Amos discuss war reporting at (Le) Poisson Rouge, 158 Bleeker at Thompson St. at 3:30 pm. $10.

Sun. May 2. Chilean revolutionary and novelist Ariel Dorfman in conversation with Tablet magazine writer Gabriel Sanders @ the Museum of Jewish Heritage, 36 Battery Pl. at 3:30 pm. $15.

Sun. May 2. Black Sheep & Exploding Turbans: A Guernica/PEN Event. Paul Berman, Alina Bronsky, Peter Stamm, Janne Teller and Sadanand Dhume discuss Muslims in Europe. Moderated by Sudanese novelist Jamal Mahjoub. @ Powerhouse Arena, 37 Main St. Brooklyn at  5 .m. Free.

Tues. May 4. “How to Write About Africa.” Judith Stone, Binyavanga Wainaina, Sarah Bloom and Deo @ KGB Bar, 85 E. 4th St.   7 pm. Free.

Tues. May 4. Julie Orringer @ Book Court, 163 Court St. between Dean and Pacific, Cobble Hill, Brooklyn at 7 pm. Free.

Readings from around the globe

Last night I went to the PEN World Voices Festival opening reading at the 92nd Street Y. There were nine writers and one rock star who calls herself a poet. Mohsin Hamid from Pakistan, Yiyun Li from China, Daniele Mastrogiacomo from Italy, Sofi Oksanen from Estonia, Atiq Rahimi from Afghanistan, Alberto Ruy-Sanchez from Mexico, Andrzej Stasiuk from Poland, Miguel Syjuco from the Philippines and two superstars, the ubiquitous Salman Rushdie and the embarrasing Patti Smith.

I was enthralled by some of the writers–Daniele Mastrogiacomo, Sofi Oksanen, Yiyun Li and Andrzej Stasiuk. Karachi-born Mastrogiacomo, a Swiss Italian journalist kidnapped by the Taliban in 2007, read from his gorgeous account of his own imprisonment. The man was a poet. He was humble, never the swashbuckler. The scene he read in Italian, with an English translation accompanying him, was sharply drawn. Finnish novelist Oksanen read with a fierceness and cadence that was matched by the English translation scrolling on a screen behind her. I was captivated by her story of two sisters in 1940s Estonia. She’ll be speaking again tomorrow at 5 pm about the novel she read from, “Purge.” Yiyun Li, whom I met years ago in London and have never failed to be astonished by, read from “The Vagrants,” a novel set during China’s Cultural Revolution. (She’ll be reading again tomorrow at 3:30 pm. and Saturday May 1st at Idlewild Books.) Stasiuk, a Polish novelist, impressed me with his searching passages about a teenage girl and men streaming out of an urban factory. He’ll be reading again tomorrow at 3 p.m.

Unfortunately a couple writers–Atiq Rahimi and Patti Smith–were dreadful.

The case of Rahimi reminded me once again that just because one is from a culture with rich stories that no one is telling, that does not make one a writer. We turn to Khaled Hosseini and Rahimi because we long to know Afghanistan. But both are writers who too often feel comfortable with melodrama, sentimentality and cliche. Rahimi’s prose was yet another reminder of how Afghanistan’s prolonged wars have scarred its society so deeply.

As for Patti Smith, she may be a rock star I danced to in college, but a poet she will never be. Her ode to Roberto Bolano was atrocious and when she broke into a warble wishing him a happy birthday it was faux-intellectualism at its most risible.