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"…a retooling of the real-life tale of John Walker Lindh…"
As New York smoldered after 9/11, an upper-middle-class American 19-year-old, John Jude Parish, was pledging to fight with the Taliban in Pearl Abraham’s novel, American Taliban. If the story line sounds familiar, it’s because Abraham’s version is a retooling of the real-life tale of John Walker Lindh, labeled as the “American Taliban” when he was captured in Afghanistan aiding al-Qaeda.
Images of Lindh’s bearded face and skeletal body strapped to a gurney outraged U.S. citizens who questioned why an American would take up arms against his own country. Abraham attempts to penetrate the mind of her fictional character based on what is known about Lindh. Both teens, named after John Lennon, converted to Islam, and in order to properly read the Qur’an, studied Arabic at a university in Pakistan. Both were sons of professional liberal parents. In the fictional story, Parish’s parents wanted their son to be original, an intellectual who would live “a life shaped by liberal and humanist ideas.”
On his eighteenth birthday in August 2000, Parish is surfing with his friends in South Carolina. After a party while skateboarding, he is struck by a car. Laid up from the injuries, he returns to the internet chat room he frequented when he was working on for his high school thesis on religion. A new person, Noor, who has joined the group, encourages John to enroll at Brooklyn’s “Sharia School of Classical Arabic,” where after a few months he takes vows as a Muslim and decides to expand his studies at the Islamia College in Pakistan.
Parish goes to the Faisal mosque and is awakened. He says he is “alive, enlarged—broomswept—uncluttered, I.” He begins bisexual experiences with other students, goes to a military training camp for children, and in front of three Taliban, he pledges jihad.
Abraham’s novel and Lindh’s reality both compel and perplex. But her fictional story didn’t deliver in explaining motivation. It is one thing to comprehend a person’s decision toward a spiritual path, but another mystery to explain what prompted them to become military combatants and support the Taliban. Rather than push her imagination in this direction, Abraham abruptly shifts from Parish’s perspective to the parental point of view.
But the novel is nevertheless a fast-paced read with intriguing insight into religion and linguistics, two themes of interest for Jewish-born Abraham, who is an award-winning novelist and professor of creative writing.