You’re a respected scholar with a number of academic books and papers to your name – why decide to write a novel?
I saw that there were too few novels about terrorism that I could honestly recommend to my students as a way of animating and informing them about the subject. I came to believe that writing my own novel might be a more effective way of reaching a wider audience and engaging my students. Once I had decided to write the novel I then had to work out a good story, characters, dialogue and the like. I shared my initial thoughts with some wonderful and skilled people I trusted, and over a number of drafts and a lot of conversations, what I think is a good story emerged. Of course, I also drew upon my personal stories of growing up in Africa and the stories of people I had met or read about. Novelists are, in many ways, story collectors. They pick them up and then try and weave them into a new form.
Who is your favourite novelist and why?
For me, John Le Carré has an eloquence and incisiveness that lifts him above many other contemporary novelists, especially within the espionage genre. He was clearly very angry with what he saw after 9/11, and it came out in the series of brilliant novelistic deconstructions of the absurdity and savagery of the global war on terror. While other novelists in this genre appear to have bought into the logic of the war on terror unquestioningly, John Le Carré tore its inverted morality and counterproductive logic to shreds. I am also a big fan of Yasmina Khadra, who writes about the conflicts in Algeria, Palestine and Iraq – and the people caught up in them – with an insight and authenticity that many Western authors simply haven’t captured.
What’s frustrated you most reading fictional depictions of ‘terrorists’?
I remain puzzled by the failure of many contemporary novelists to depict ‘terrorists’ in an authentic manner, although it’s not surprising given the powerful cultural taboo against terrorism today. In a sense, ‘terrorists’ have come to be viewed in the same way that paedophiles are – as a kind of pure evil, and as inhuman and without any redeeming human qualities. This is the result of years of political speechmaking, movies, television shows, novels and the like depicting them as cruel, inhuman fanatics. The point is, even a most basic level of research would reveal that terrorists are not evil, inhuman, animal-like. I would have thought that some courageous novelists would have by now made a real effort to understand their subjects as real human beings – done some real research – and then narrated them in more authentic, more human terms. In my experience, most literary depictions of ‘terrorists’ involve a great deal of stereotyping, and are psychologically shallow and unconvincing. I think that film has been much better at depicting ‘terrorists’ in meaningful and insightful ways. Paradise Now (2005), for example, is a brilliant exploration of two Palestinian suicide bombers in the twenty four hours after they have been selected for an operation. It draws out their humanity, their politics, their frailties, and never reduces them to caricatures.
Why do you think novelists have struggled so much to accurately depict the psyche of a terrorist?
I think the primary reason for this is cultural and political. It’s a direct consequence of the powerful terrorism taboo. Particularly after 9/11, the atmosphere was so fraught and tense that public figures really had to watch what they said. There are numerous cases of television presenters, comedians and other public figures who made comments that were considered sympathetic to ‘terrorists’ by questioning the dominant idea of ‘evil, cowardly terrorists’ who subsequently lost their careers and faced vociferous public opprobrium. It became taboo to even hear the voice of a ‘terrorist’, lest one come to understand and sympathise with their point of view. This is why, despite how prevalent this topic is, and how easy it would be to interview an actual ‘terrorist’, we never see direct interviews with them on television. In this context, writing a sympathetic literary depiction of a ‘terrorist’ is seen as akin to writing a sympathetic portrayal of a paedophile. That’s why I think most novelists find it too challenging to even attempt. I think I can probably get away with writing against the grain like this because I have been writing critically about terrorism for years, and have a number of academic publications to back up the way I have constructed the ‘terrorist’ in my story. However, I expect that some people will still be upset at the way in which my novel violates the terrorism taboo.
Do you get frustrated at how the ‘war on terror’ is depicted in the mass media?
I get immensely frustrated at the way the war on terror is depicted in the mainstream media, although there are some notable journalists and publications who have courageously reported on it against the norm. This is because the media largely appears to have adopted an unquestioning and uncritical viewpoint, and consequently never rigorously questions the official narratives about terrorism and the war on terror given by politicians. Nor does it engage in any in-depth research or analysis itself, relying instead largely on official sources – despite their proven penchant for misinformation and lying. In particular, the media has failed to question the assertion that terrorism is a massive existential threat requiring billions of pounds to counter-act, or the notion that our security requires giving up some of our civil liberties. A little research would demonstrate that neither of these narratives are credible. It has also failed to probe the question of why ‘terrorists’ want to attack us, or whether our violence overseas could be reasonably considered terroristic itself. In truth, the war on terror has been not only a massive mistake which has fuelled violence and militarism around the world, but it has been deeply immoral and very often criminal. I believe that over the next few decades, as documents are declassified, prisoners released and stories brought to light, the crimes of the war on terror will come to collectively haunt us. We will have to confront all the victims of torture, extra-judicial murder, disappearance, death squad activity, and innocently imprisoned people – not to mention the hundreds of thousands of civilians killed in Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia and elsewhere for the sake of lies and distortions. We will then have to face up to the fact that all this was done in our name, and that our media failed to inform us and warn us about it, and that we failed to effectively oppose it. In part, the novel is an attempt to educate the readers about some of the terrible things being done in our name, and the reasons why intelligent, concerned individuals might be led to violently oppose our governments’ foreign policies.
How do you reconcile your own beliefs as a pacifist with your sympathetic portrayal of the Professor – someone who is prepared to use extreme violence to achieve their aims?
The purpose of the novel is not to justify violence, but to try and understand why someone would decide to employ political violence in the pursuit of justice and freedom. I don’t believe that violence is either an effective or moral instrument by which to achieve one’s political goals. However, in a world where the powerful retain the right to use violence in pursuit of their interests and do so all the time, and where democratic mechanisms are often ineffective in freeing people from oppression and domination, I can understand why someone might think that they needed to fight back against the violence and oppression they face. My novel is also something of an attempt to show that violence begets violence, and that we are currently trapped in a vicious cycle of attack and counterattack in the war on terror. In this sense I think it is essentially a pacifist novel.
Have you ever met anyone like the Professor in real life?
I have met many individuals who were convicted of terrorism and have since been released. On occasions, I’ve even invited them to speak at my conferences. Of course, they do not consider themselves to be ‘terrorists’ and would reject this label. More importantly, I have read a great many interviews with militants and militant autobiographies in which militants were allowed to explain themselves. I list some of these sources at the end of the novel. On the other hand, I have also met people I would consider to be state terrorists, although neither would they see themselves that way. The minute you talk to such individuals all the stereotypes about so-called ‘terrorists’ disappear. What remains is a human being with a real story – ideals, aspirations, intelligence, humour and real humanity. This is not to excuse the often terrible things they have done, but simply to acknowledge their humanity and reject the notion that they are somehow no longer human or worthy of human rights.