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The International Writers Magazine
:Book Review

translated from the French by Janice and Daniel Gross
Grove Press, 2004, 258 pp. ISBN: 0-8021-1780-5

In a foreword to THE LAST NIGHT OF A DAMNED SOUL, Algerian-born and Muslim novelist Slimane Benaissa argues unbelievable as September 11 was, all the talk about the terrorists' technical virtuosity or intelligence breakdowns still skirts a terrible question: "How was it possible from a psychological, religious, and spiritual point of view?" This novel is Benaissa's artistic answer to that compelling question.

Benaissa deftly avoids the trap of trying to write a roman a clef.
This is not Mohammed Atta's story. Instead the reader gets to know two young Muslim men, Raouf and Athman, software engineers living in the Bay Area, who will join what's to be a team of five, ready for the martyrdom of hijacking a Boeing plane and crashing it into a target building. Like Atta, et al, Raouf, narrator of THE LAST NIGHT OF A DAMNED SOUL, is no dispossessed Sirhan B. Sirhan (assassin of presidential candidate Robert Kennedy in 1968), embittered by memories of the harsh life in a Palestinian refugee camp. Narrator Raouf grew up in a comfortable middle-class Muslim household (both parents are professionals) and benefitted from an education in the West (which parallels the fact several of the 9/11 terrorists seemed to be long-term graduate students in Germany). So what, if not basic deprivation, drove Raouf and his cohorts to embrace Islamic martyrdom? Benaissa suggests spiritual hunger when it turns into an addictive perversion of the religious impulse. In a splendid paragraph, Raouf summarizes what drew him, mothlike, into the flame of radical Islamic fervor: "As long as our parents are alive, we have the impression of being sheltered from death as they constitute a protective wall. When my father died, I felt thrust into the front row, into the line of fire. At that moment my protective armor fell off and a flood of existential questions overwhelmed me, leaving me fragile and vulnerable ...."

As narrator, Raouf is at first skeptical of his pal Athman, who is an Eric Hoffer "True Believer" about radical Islamist calls to rise up against the West. But gradually, in a narrative liberally laced with quotations from the Koran, we see the case for Raouf choosing martyrdom build. Raouf reaches a "tipping point," and he pays the price, but in an unexpected way. Benaissa downplays description in the novel--the reader doesn't have any strong sense of place. The author's point might be this could happen anywhere: San Jose, London, Munich ... the list is long. What Benaissa does play up are passages from the Koran, spun with the logic of the illogic driving young men to strike a pact with death. As the saying goes, you can quote the Bible (or in this case, the Koran) and prove anything. It's impressive how the argument for martyrdom hangs together if a few key issues are ignored.

With this novel, Benaissa protests the perversion of religion that equates a suicide bomber to a martyr. This problem has persisted for millennia, in many religions and many sects. For this is about fanaticism, whatever its guise. By way of illustration, this reviewer heard, on a few occasions in the 70s, the Indian religious figure, Jiddu Krishnamurti (1895-1986) speak in Ojai, California (outdoors in a grove of California live oaks). Sometimes called the "anti-guru," Krishnamurti asserted much of religious practice is nonsensical. In particular, at one talk he repeated his claim traditional meditation practice is often nothing more than self-hypnosis.

After this talk concluded, I was struck by the sight of several orangy red-clad Rajneeshees, followers of Bhagwan Shri Rajneesh (1931-1990), who had then launched into loud, mindless chanting. They left the impression of exhibitionists for whom Krishnamurti's words about the meditation that kills awareness was either lost on or ignored by them. That insensitivity that day led me to believe it wasn't entirely accidental--years later--the largest bioterrorism attack in U.S. history occurred in The Dalles, Oregon. In 1986, Rajneeshees poisoned with salmonella several hundred people in local restaurants. We don't always know when such religious perversion will create the violence-prone zombies Benaissa has aptly profiled. We just know it happens.

Enjoy THE LAST NIGHT OF A DAMNED SOUL for a riveting introduction to how the Koran might be misinterpreted, and how vulnerable young men might succumb to religious impulses gone awry. Yes, without the tragedy of 9/11, we might not seek out this book. But to Benaissa's credit, if 9/11 had never happened, THE LAST NIGHT OF A DAMNED SOUL would still stand on its own literary merit as a strong indictment against corrupting a religion practiced by more than one quarter of our brothers and sisters worldwide.

© Charlie Dickinson Jan 2005
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