Book Review: A Foreigner Carrying in the Crook of His Arm a Tiny Bomb by Amitava Kumar

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The trouble with writing about war is that it’s almost impossible to do so without having to name an enemy, and some would argue, almost disingenuous not to. If taking the side of the terrorist, that vague yet absolutely damning term that has taken firm root in the world’s contemporary lexicon, is crude; then to take the side of any of the governments locking horns against this named but nebulous danger is equally reckless. In this lucid and well-researched enquiry into the American vendetta that in the decade since 9/11 has become a “global war on terror”, Amitava Kumar finds one way to approach this: from his position as an individual, he addresses the Other in the same way.

Two individuals in particular are at the centre of A Foreigner Carrying in the Crook of His Arm a Tiny Bomb. Both are men serving long-term prison sentences for the abetment of terrorist advances: Hemant Lakhani, a businessman and habitual braggart whose grandiose lies seal his fate, and Shahawar Matin Siraj, a dim-witted but almost sweetly devout young man. Both were coerced into planning terrorist attacks by paid informants. Neither, Kumar argues, would have gotten involved at all were it not for this coercion, not by radical factions but by the United States government itself. Not unlike the way in which funds that could have been used in the research and eradication of common diseases were diverted to tackle the spectral issue of biological warfare, the ordinary – if gullible – civilian becomes a target while the true progenitors of evil remain at large.

But sting operations are only the more dramatic manifestations of this: less dramatic, but pervasive, is the Islamophobia and general mistrust that had resulted in hundreds of people being taken into custody for transgressions no more serious than minor credit card fraud or having the wrong kind of name. One of the most terrifying examples enumerated in this book is that of Mohamed Yousry, a graduate student who had served as a translator in a court case, an act which later resulted in him being indicted on grounds of providing “material support to terrorists”. Neither his demonstrable lack of “suspicious” allegiance (a non-practicing Muslim with no ties to Islamic organisations, married to a Christian, raising his daughter in her mother’s faith) nor his outright condemnation of the accused he was translating for were enough to keep him from being scapegoated.

The most sinister layer to all of this is torture, as performed at Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib. Here, again, the question of coercion arises: if not granted immunity (for operating under Presidential command) if not for having fallen in love with the wrong person (as Lynndie England, who emerged in shocking photographs holding a leash around a prisoner’s neck pleaded, citing her relationship with “the ringleader” of detainee abuse) – would those members of the military have committed those acts? One of the fundamental precepts this book posits is to consider power play and human psychology, difficult though it is to remain dispassionate.

The book’s most thought-provoking angle, however, deals not with the hapless but with those who make informed and conscious statements about the nature of anti-terrorism in the modern world: artists. Whether playing with shock or dealing with sentiment, the examples Kumar details are neither intellectual nor elitist responses, but a means of direct engagement. Conceptual artist Hasan Elahi’s daily web uploads detailing every aspect of his life becomes “a collaboration [with] the FBI” – by submitting himself willfully to the scrutiny of a surveillance state, he overwhelms it. Video art, installation and literature that deal with the reality of today’s world without necessarily fictionalising it are also explored: creativity as a feasible means of the reclamation of power, protest art in the age of advanced technology.

A Foreigner Carrying In The Crook of His Arm a Tiny Bomb is a valuable book, a nearly academic (and therefore highly meticulous) inquiry into anti-terrorism. In the past ten years, we have seen war through the eyes of artists and through the eyes of journalists, but Kumar’s middle ground brings something different to the discourse, and allows him to analyse both these responses as well.

Although Kumar also explores anti-terrorism in India, the book fares strongest when the focus in on America, and America’s effect on the world. His overarching argument is that the war in Iraq is “an elaborate and expensive distraction that hides from us the real crime” (of the war on terror). But while he presents this argument very successfully, the end of terrorism itself remains an open-ended question. This lack of didacticism, notable because it is quite rare in the work of political writers, is welcome. The question at the core of this text seems to be: if finger-pointing engenders and stokes conflict, where might we find ourselves if we stopped looking for easy answers?

An edited version appeared in this week’s The Sunday Guardian, New Delhi.

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