Writing recently on the Vanity Fair website about the controversy surrounding what has become known as the Ground Zero Mosque, Amitava Kumar wondered if both sides in the affair had missed the point—both those who frame the development as an affront to hallowed ground and those who invoke the Constitutional right to freedom of religion to defend it. (For the record: The site of the proposed Park 51 Community Center—not a mosque—is three blocks from the site of the former World Trade Center, on a side street.) Kumar quotes Huxley—“The propagandist’s purpose, is to make one set of people forget that certain other sets of people are human”—and himself concludes: “The real subject of the furor we have been witnessing is not a building but rather the question of whether to grant [Muslims] a measure of ordinary humanity.”
In his latest book, A Foreigner Carrying in the Crook of His Arm a Tiny Book (Duke University Press, 2010), Kumar, a professor of English at Vassar, examines how this quality of “ordinary humanity” has been denied to Muslims and those ensnared, correctly or unjustly, in the War on Terror. At the heart of the book are two men, Hemant Lakhani and Matin Siraj, who were caught up in questionable sting operations and are now serving long prison sentences for terrorism-related crimes. In retelling their stories, Kumar paints a more complicated portrait of these men than the common stereotype of the Muslim radical allows for. Kumar suggests that if we question the application of the stereotype when confronted with prepackaged terrorism narratives, and allow for the ordinary humanity of those reduced to cultural ciphers, we, too, are helping to end the War on Terror. And doing so without torture, confinement, or intimidation—just imagination.
Where does the title of your book—A Foreigner Carrying in the Crook of His Arm a Tiny Bomb—come from?
An Egyptian poet named Edmond Jabés, fleeing Egypt, wrote, in the earlier part of the 20th century, a book called A Foreigner Carrying in the Crook of His Arm a Tiny Book. That paradigm has now shifted. The foreigner is no longer fleeing with a tiny piece of sacred knowledge pressed to his heart. In the popular imagination, particularly in the West, the foreigner is now coming with some clandestine knowledge, knowledge which bears the seeds of destruction. So I wanted to comment on that, and, in some ways, question it.
You use a quote from Jabés as a jumping off point for your book. Jabés writes: “What is a foreigner? He is man who makes you think you are at home.” From the beginning of your book, you invoke this question: How do we relate the Other?
That is central to it: What is the impression we carry in our minds of the Other? And whether the Other always conforms to our deepest prejudices or not.
A good portion of the book is taken up with the stories of two men, now serving long prison sentences for terrorism-related crimes, Hemant Lakhani and Matin Siraj. Talk a bit about Lakhani’s story.
Lakhani was a failed used women’s clothing salesman. He was contacted by a man—Muhammad Habib Rehman—who was an FBI informant, originally from Pakistan. Rehman heard from an Indian gangster in Dubai of this fellow [Lakhani ] who was interested in doing arms trading. And that’s when Rehman contacted Lakhani and asked him what he wanted to sell. But Lakhani wasn’t really an arms trader. He had ambitions to be one, but he had ambitions about various things, including owning an airline. Lakhani offered his services, and everything Rehman asked for, Lakhani said, “I can get it, no problem.” At his trial, Lakhani’s lawyer said, “The only thing Rehman didn’t ask for was a submarine.” But everything else, Lakhani said yes. Hundreds of missiles? Yes! He promised everything.
Except, years passed and there was no missile. Until the FBI had the KGB sell one to Lakhani [on credit]. But Lakhani didn’t know how to get it here. So the FBI magically arranged for it to be brought here. That’s how Lakhani became an arms smuggler.
Lakhani is arrested at the meeting to sell Rehman—posing as a terrorist in this government sting operation—the missile, in a Newark hotel room.
Exactly right. The hotel room, incidentally, had been booked by Rehman. Lakhani arrived [from London] the previous night. Upon meeting Rehman, Lakhani expressed his amazement at seeing the missile. You can see it on YouTube actually. Minutes later, he is arrested, and now he will die in prison.