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“من أجل ذلك كتبنا على بني إسرائيل أنه من قتل نفسا بغير نفس أو فساد في الأرض فكأنما قتل الناس جميعا ومن أحياها فكأنما أحيا الناس جميعا ولقد جاءتهم رسلنا بالبينات ثم إن كثيرا منهم بعد ذلك في الأرض لمسرفون”

سورة المائدة، آية 32.

 For this reason We prescribed for the Children of Israel that whoever kills a person, unless it be for manslaughter or for mischief in the land, it is as though he had killed all men. And whoever saves a life, it is as though he had saved the lives of all men. And certainly Our messengers came to them with clear arguments, but even after that many of them commit excesses in the land

Al Maeda, Verse 32

john-updike

There is something typically odd about John Updike’s fiction that reminds me of the comedian, David Larry. Perhaps it is the awkward situations he describes in his numerous novels or the sheer clumsiness of his characters. I’m thinking more of his penultimate novel, Terrorist (2006) which is a deplorable work, deeply flawed by its misinformed rendition of Islam, and full embracement of the right-wing ideology of the Bush era. You’d expect an accomplished writer of his caliber to rise above the idiotic and bankrupt rhetoric of Republican warmongers. Or perhaps you’d imagine that at the turn of a new millennium, perceptions of other ethnicities and religions would be much more enlightened or at least less frantically bigoted. Well, on reading Terrorist I felt both disturbed and amused. If you have seen the 2012 comic movie, the Dictator you’d probably understand what I mean, except that Terrorist was not meant to be a comic novel. The portrait of an American Muslim youth who comes under the destructive influence of a radical Imam and turns into a brainwashed Jihadist ready to blow himself up in revenge of the enemies of Islam is a cliché bordering on banality.

John Updike, Terrorist

Of course analogies may be drawn with the 9/11 terrorist attacks against New York and Washington. Updike’s novel clearly derives its relevance from these tragic incidents, but in so doing it endeavors not so much to tell a similar story as to seek to explain the philosophy behind these acts. I don’t know what made Updike believe that he, who lacked any training in Islamic history and theology, could provide an analysis of the kind of mindset that engineered those mass killings.  At any rate his own selections from the Holy Quran are entirely misquoted and misinterpreted, and reflect poor knowledge of Islam as a religion and culture.

Back in 1979 Updike published a short story titled ‘Morocco’ in the Atlantic Monthly. It was published again in 2009.[1] The story was a record of a ten-day trip to Morocco in the spring of 1969 in the company of his family. With a typical David Larry maladroitness, the father picks up the wrong time and place for an exotic holiday in this south Mediterranean country. Arriving in a beach resort in Tetouan (north of Morocco), he is upset to find the beach empty, the hotel deserted, the wind blowing, and the waves too choppy for the kids to swim. He decides to head south to Agadir. Nothing in the vast landscape he crossed in Renault seemed pleasant or worthy of praise.

Obviously he has an explanation for everything. The hotel manager was mean because he refused to refund the money paid in advance in London. Waiting for the bus to Tangier, every passerby seemed suspicious and dangerous. The bus itself was dirty and “Inside, there were Moroccans: dusty hunched patient unknown people, wearing knit little things on their heads and knit little things on their feet, their bodies mixed in with their bundles, the women wrapped in black, some with veils”. The bus driver “had a Nasseresque mustache and a jaw to match”. Mind you Nasser, Egypt ‘s former powerful president, was not particularly liked in America back in the late 1960s. But the poor bus driver certainly had no clue he had already become the quintessential symbol of this obsessive malaise. In Rabat, the capital of a supposedly pro-America country, there were “hammers and sickles and posters of Lenin”. And how vexing it was to find the hotel they wished to stay had been “booked so solid with Communists that it could not shelter even the most needy children of free enterprise.”

While staying in a motel a little off Agadir, the family heard there was a traffic incident on the street. A girl was hit by a car and her mother arriving at the spot of accident was in extreme agony. One would expect that in a tragic moment as this one would show a modicum of sympathy. What the father could see, however, is an ethnic ritual- an indigenous performance shrouded in mystery and primitiveness:

  The mother was short and wore black, without a veil; she raced up and down the bare slopes on the other side of the road, splitting the skies with her uncanny keening, her ululating, while men raced after her, trying to pin her down. As they failed to catch her, the excited crowd of them grew, a train of clumsy bodies her grief in its superhuman strength trailed behind her. No American could have made the noise she made; all the breath of her chest was poured upward into the heavens that had so suddenly, powerfully struck her a blow. Ancient modes of lamentation sustained her. Her performance was so naked and pure we turned our heads away.

 On the beach in Agadir, the family became suddenly aware of a Moroccan (Arab in the story) with “dark, pentagonal” face gazing at them and masturbating. He was sitting thirty yards away and wearing thick robes. Was he indeed masturbating? Or simply counting his beads and wondering at how peaceful those Nassranis looked? The father didn’t have the courage to inspect the matter properly and so we are left trapped between disgust and doubt. There is frequent occurrence in this story of this Moroccan masculine specter who wishes the father and his family harm. Could that be a mere phobia of the ‘Arab Man’?

The beach was no longer a possibility and the remaining days spent between the hotel rooms and the swimming pool. Eventually the journey back was seen as an escape. “We escaped from Agadir, from Morocco, narrowly”. The father, who forgot to book domestic flight from Agadir to Tangier way in advance, was told that the plane had no seats for such a large family as his (six members). He was forced to drive some five hundred miles north to Tangier. In Safi, he drove through the red light and ignored the policeman’s whistle. Along the way, the implications of his transgression kept troubling him:

  … he had grown certain that his license-plate number was being telegraphed up and down the coast, through the network of secret police that all monarchies maintain. At any moment sirens would wail, and he would be arrested, arrested and thrust deep into the bitter truth of Morocco, which he had tried to ignore, while stealing the sun and the exotica.

Or the police would be waiting for him at the hotel desk in Tangier; already his name would have been traced from Restinga through a trail of one-night stops to the receipt he had signed in the bank in Agadir. Or else there would be a scene at the airport: handcuffs at passport control. Oh, why hadn’t I stopped when the whistle blew?

Had my French been less primitive, I might have stopped.

Had we not recently read, in a Newsweek at the hotel with the parrot, an article about innocent Americans moldering away in African and Asian prisons, I might have stopped.

Had the United States not been fighting so indefensibly yet inextricably in Vietnam, I might have stopped.

Had it not been for the red flags in Rabat, the masturbating man on the beach, the dead girl by the truck wheel… my failure or refusal or cowardice still exists, a stain upon my memories of Morocco.

 Exactly! The traffic light incident is a remarkable metaphor of this compound clumsiness and outright bigotry. Driving through the red light not only symbolizes a feeling of disrespect of native culture and aggression against its laws and customs, it also typifies the nature of Updike’s writing which has little place for such obvious realities of our times such as cultural relativism, plurality, and diversity.


[1] John updike My Fathers Tears and Other Stories . New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2009.

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