In the United States of America, it would seem that polarization is the order of the day. Beliefs that make it onto the Internet through social media are thoroughly scrutinized and judged against subjective standards of morality and political correctness. There is a growing and aggressive sense of an “if you are not with us, you are against us” attitude. So I found myself quite amazed after reading Atta, by Jarett Kobek. There are plenty of reasons to enjoy and laud this book – the strength of the language, the character development, and the atmospheric inversion, to name a few – but my mind keeps returning to a key part of this novel’s identity. It is an attempt to understand the perspective of “The Other”.
The title Atta is a reference to the protagonist of this story, Mohammed Mohammed el-Amir Awad el-Sayed Atta, an Egyptian man whose most famous exploit was being one of the men who hijacked American Airlines Flight 11 and steered it into the North Tower of the World Trade Center in 2001. This was a man that Americans have been taught to hate, and yet Mr. Kobek has taken a step that so few of us are willing to do – he tries to imagine what it must and may have been like to be Mohammed Atta. And the reader is, quite frankly, not given much choice in the matter. There is no indication of the protagonist’s identity at the start of the novel (unless one is familiar with Atta’s personal history), and the reader is immediately confronted with a first person perspective. That perspective returns routinely, forcing the reader to communicate directly with Atta, to hear his thoughts, and to witness the man’s hopes, dreams, and fears. Atta even directly addresses the reader, adding an immersive sense of disquiet as the tendrils of complicity crawl off the page. “Knowledge of life beyond your neighborhood and family haunts your soul, but you submit anew to the torments of youth.” If you are willing to read this book, you are forced to confront the notion of Mohammed Atta as a real person, rather reduce him to an inhuman idea.
This attempt to understand Atta, while vastly important, would likely fall flat on its face with improper delivery. And yet Mr. Kobek handles the endeavor with exquisite care. The precision of the language is impeccable. Descriptions are delivered in tight and efficient terms (“The alarm rings. No dreams.”) while the character’s inner monologue and personal reflections flow tangible life (“From perverse meditations within dark reaches of poverty, Disney imagines the world anew, an oubliette of under occupation by animals in imitation of human society”). It paints the portrait of an individual who swings pendulously between sensory blindness and vivid eloquence, and yet both feel entirely consistent given the convictions cemented into the character. Atta’s whole character arc is shaped (or perhaps plagued, depending on your point of view) by these convictions and the reader watches and listens as he embraces and struggles with them in equal measure. He wavers, as anyone would, even if that wavering only appears in some momentary mental flash. He completes his mission in a dark mirror of the traditional hero’s journey, sacrificing himself for what he believes to be a greater purpose. This familiar structure and intimate exploration of character then combine with a thorough attention to detail that reinforces the closeness of the reader’s perspective. You are left standing as witness to and part of a meeting of men who will commit an unbelievably heinous act of terrorism.
The real strength of Atta lies in its consistency in the face of its own audacity. Much of the book is fictional, and yet none of it feels implausible. Its protagonist is terrifying, and made moreso by his very Human convictions and motivations. Atta does not balk when confronted with the scope of what it is trying to do. And I do not think we as readers and potential readers should either. I suspect that this book has had or will have accusations of cultural appropriation levied against it, but I think such claims are missing the point. This is an attempt to understand and to see someone with whom we might disagree with wholeheartedly as a person with agency and culpability. That reason alone makes Atta worth the read, and the quality of the writing will keep you from regretting it.
Atta is available through Semiotext