the bully of britain

Note: This is part of series of posts about my participation in an interfaith program in England. It was briefly deleted from this site under threat of a lawsuit and then reposted, edited to remove references to the specific program and to the university that runs it, as well as to remove a comparison that upon further reflection was just distracting. See here for further explanation. Click here to read all the posts in the series.

The shit hit the fan last night, as it had to at some point in the formation of a new group.

Tim Winter, also known as Sheikh Abdul-Hakim Murad, spoke with us as part of my program’s “Saloon Conversations” — envisioned as informal sessions with speakers in the large room here at the castle that is known as “the Saloon.” At the beginning of the program last week, we were told that all of the speakers — and the formal lecturers as well — had been invited because of their peacemaking work and would be talking about that work in their religious contexts.

We sat down in the Saloon, the room’s comfy chairs and sofa arranged in several semicircles around the fireplace. The director of the program introduced Winter and later moderated the Q&A session.

A convert to Islam, Winter started by speaking about his work with the college that provides a one-year program for imams to give them the education, in his words, from which their religious institutions have shielded them. For instance, they learn pastoral skills and about other religions. Every year he takes the students to the Vatican, where they meet with Catholic priests, with whom they have very little in common and who are often quite frank about their hostility to Islam. It was in this context that Winter told the heartwarming story of an experience that served to bind them together: One night, they were all kept awake by Rome’s Gay Pride activities, the “sounds of secular hedonism” bothering everyone.

That was the first red flag. (Well, perhaps the second: I was struck immediately when I walked into the room by how sour and uninterested Winter seemed, which was off-putting. I think this part of his demeanor becomes important below.) I had a hard time listening after this snide and unnecessary comment. I did manage to tune back in for one of his final stories, about a young, non-Muslim woman in one of his classes (Winter teaches Islamic Studies at Cambridge University). “Immodestly dressed” (Winter indicated a sleeveless and perhaps midriff shirt), she was very moved by the Qur’an and wanted to talk with him about that experience. Expressing bewilderment, Winter said, “I wanted to help her. I figured she might have been having a problem with her boyfriend or something.”

At that point I nearly fell out of my chair, and the only reason I stayed in the room was to be able to find my friends afterwards to process what had happened so far. And then it got worse.

One of my fellow participants, a man who is married to a man, the same one who was asked about his wife at Shabbat dinner, and who had been wanting to talk more openly about his life, took the opportunity in the Q&A session to ask about Winter’s characterization of gay people in Rome. He opened by describing himself “as someone who will soon be part of the group of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender clergy,” essentially — and bravely! — coming out to the group, and then asked about intersectionality. Winter first responded by stating that there was no place for gay people in the Muslim community. The different denominations of Islam, he said, agree on very little, but they are monolithic in condemning homosexuality. My classmate pushed back, and Winter conceded that he knew of one same-sex couple who were practicing celibacy, and this model was acceptable.

In response to another question, Winter went on to call a more progressive Muslim “naive” before taking and answering questions in Arabic from the native speakers. He only translated bits of those exchanges; I was later told that several questions were critical of Scriptural Reasoning (the program’s signature tool, involving close readings of sacred texts from the three traditions). The exclusion of non-Arabic speakers felt deliberate.

As the program mercifully came to an end, my friends and I began to gather and move to another room for processing, and one of the Muslim men on the text study team (academics experienced in the method) approached my classmate who had asked about queer folks and said he wanted to offer some insight into Winter’s answer. So a few us first went to talk with him.

He first explained that Tim Winter is a controversial figure. Mere months ago, there was a student-led campaign at Cambridge calling for his ouster when a 15-plus-year-old video was posted on YouTube of Winter calling homosexuality an “inherent aberration” and “inherently ugly,” among other things. Winter apologized, claiming that the video represented views he no longer held, and he kept his job. It was also shared that Winter is not an academic in the way that word is usually used — he does not have a Ph.D. — and the man providing this context also characterized Winter as more of a politician, or a community leader. (In 2010, Winter was named by the Royal Islamic Strategic Studies Centre as Britain’s most influential Muslim.) Though he considered Winter empirically correct in saying that the vast majority of Muslim leaders do consider homosexuality a sin, he felt that Winter’s answer didn’t express the nuances of the issue that is very present in many Muslim communities. Which is to say that there are of course queer Muslims, and many are accepted — if perhaps not fully — in their communities.

I have many issues with all that transpired. To start, this is now the third time during the first week of this program that I have heard homosexuality condemned: A previous “Saloon Conversation” speaker said so in passing, and then the priest at the Catholic church I visited used the week’s text (Luke 12:49-53) to inveigh against same-sex marriage. While this program certainly cannot control what is said in an independent institution, it is responsible for who it invites. And in this it must be held accountable.

During and after Winter’s presentation, I was trying to figure out who Winter was speaking to: His English was much too quick and sophisticated to reach most of the native-Arabic speakers. But he wasn’t talking to the native English speakers either: The homophobia and sexism were sure to turn off a group of Christians and Jews from more liberal traditions. So he either didn’t know who he was speaking to, which is not the case, as he’s been involved with the program for many years, or he didn’t care who he was speaking to, in which case his behavior was quite outrageous. Going back to the issue of his demeanor, I wonder whether he even wanted to be in the room.

There is of course a way to be faithful to your religious convictions and not marginalize queer folks or demean women. (He has a history of the latter as well, as the premise of his conversion story recalls the chauvinistic doctrine of original sin.) And if you can’t do that, then you ought not to be afforded a place in an interfaith setting in which we are invited into respectful dialogue with each other. One of the goals of our text study is to create a safe space for discussing differences and to learn how to disagree better — and neither of those ends are achieved by dismissiveness. And if the goal of this particular part of the program was to spark conversations about homosexuality in our traditions, which I agree need to happen, there are actually effective and non-traumatic ways of facilitating those. It shouldn’t happen at the expense of those for whom the conversations are not abstract: The other man who is married to a man (who happens to work for Berlin Pride) left the program early in disgust.

More, Winter’s views were given legitimacy by the fawning praise with which the director of the program introduced him, as well as the context into which he was invited to share them. The authority afforded a speaker in a “Saloon Conversation” results in a power imbalance in any ensuing “discussion.”

Finally, I question the choice of a white man to speak about peacemaking in the Muslim community. Putting aside the obvious reality that peacemaking is not Winter’s project, he is not representative of the British Muslim community, which is overwhelming not white. There are of course many non-white Muslim researchers and community leaders and professors who could have spoken to what Winter was brought in to share.

What happens next is not clear. I plan to share these thoughts with the program administrators and to continue having conversations with the people with whom I know it is safe to do so. I don’t know how much of my classmate’s coming out was understood by some of the native-Arabic speakers, so the fallout from that is hard to predict. Last night many expressed, simultaneously with horror at the incident, gratitude for the ensuing conversations. I’m not sure I agree; the price seems quite high for many in the room.

off to the mosque

Note: This is part of series of posts about my participation in an interfaith program in England, and as such, it was briefly deleted from this site and then reposted, edited to remove references to the specific program and to the university that runs it. See here for further explanation. Click here to read all the posts in the series.

I spent the weekend in Birmingham, the second largest city in England. On Friday we went to a mosque; on Saturday, a synagogue; and on Sunday, a church. (Since we’re a large group, we split up, and there were choices for each.) The rest of the visit was punctuated by talks and presentations by various people doing interfaith or faith-based work in Birmingham. The city is a majority-minority area, with Muslims, mostly from Southeast Asia, the fastest growing demographic. In stark contrast, there are less than 2,000 Jews in a total population of over a million.

Our first stop was Christ Church Centre in the neighborhood of Sparkbrook, a working class area whose population is 75% non-white. We first met Rev. Ray Gaston, an Anglican priest involved in the area’s interfaith work (he would be with us the rest of the weekend) and then heard from Mohammed Ali (yes), a local muralist doing art in an interfaith context in Sparkbrook and around the world. Later that afternoon, we were able to see some of his work in the neighborhood.

mohammed ali's "a leap of faith" mural"; photo by salem pearce

mohammed ali’s “a leap of faith” mural”; photo by salem pearce

After the largest lunch you can imagine (the table couldn’t hold the platters of kebabs, pasta, pecoras, dal, salad, and bread that just kept coming) at a restaurant called La Favorita, next up was a mosque visit: I chose Mehfil e Abbas, a Shia mosque, just because it’s a smaller sect of Islam. The women and men split up immediately (hooray for gender binaries! /sarcasm) to go in via separate entrances to separate rooms. The women’s section included, of course, the kitchen and children’s rooms, but also, conveniently, the bathrooms. We took off our shoes at the door. The prayer space was just a simple carpeted room, divided by a curtain from the men’s room adjacent to it and with a TV screen that aired the sermon that was given after prayers.

To be frank, the experience was hard for me: There’s a reason I don’t pray in minyans with separate seating, and it didn’t feel any better when it wasn’t my religion and I wasn’t praying. Similar to what happens in the women’s section in an Orthodox synagogue, there were old women chatting throughout the whole service, a few kids running around, and a couple of teenagers on cell phones. (Okay, maybe that last is different from shul.) My suspicion is that the separation is cultural/traditional and not scriptural, as it is in Judaism, and I find that these kinds of arrangements, which privilege men’s prayer over women’s, to be quite painful. And at first I became even angrier because I wasn’t getting to see a mosque, but instead a rec room — but when the service was over, and the curtain was opened, I saw that the main room was also pretty much a rec room with a few ritual objects. And I had to laugh at myself at how quickly my anger on that point dissipated in light of the modest setting of the men’s prayer room. I pretty much did see the mosque even in the ladies’ section.

That evening, my fellow Jews and I held a Kabbalat Shabbat service at our hotel for the rest of group, which people seemed to enjoy. Afterwards, another rabbinical student and I answered questions from the non-Jews while the others quickly davenned Ma’ariv, the evening prayer service.

brekke and me in mehfil e abbas (yeah, i'm not covering my head because i'm a jerk like that)

brekke and me in mehfil e abbas (yeah, i’m not covering my head because i’m a jerk like that)

The problem with even two Jews answering questions about Jewish prayer and about G-d (and really, about anything in Judaism) is that we’re not likely to agree. The old saying is: Two Jews, three opinions. At some point, one of the men from Oman asked whether there were prayers in our liturgy that called for the destruction of other people or religions. While I answered, “Absolutely not,” my co-religionist said, “Wait. What about Aleinu?” By this time the others had rejoined the conversation, and another rabbinical student jumped in with his understanding of the prayer, which is that it expresses the Jewish people’s unique relationship with G-d. I was sort of horrified that anyone would answer other than the way I did — especially since I perceived the question as coming from a place of fear and perhaps prejudice — but my classmate felt a real duty to nuance, which I am afraid gets lost in non-native language.

This is a bigger issue than can be covered here, but we Jews are indeed uncomfortable with parts of our liturgy: Modern prayer books do omit a sentence from the original Aleinu prayer, referring to non-Jews, “They worship vanity and emptiness, and they pray to a god that doesn’t save.” This moment again illustrates the issue that I talked about briefly in my last post about this program: namely, that we Jews don’t agree on what it means to be Jewish in a way that seems different from at least the Muslims on this trip.

Shabbat dinner was a bit of a letdown, as I sat largely with Omanis playing on their electronic devices. One could probably write a dissertation on cultural norms around cell phones, but in my Shabbat community, people don’t use their phones on Friday night (at least not during services and dinner). There is a real sense of being present with each other, of enjoying what Heschel has called a “sanctuary in time.” I understand that I can’t expect that outside of my community, but it did make the evening less Shabbat-like for me, which was hard. We are still trying to get to know each other, though, and so we did have some conversation. Unfortunately, part of that conversation involved one of the Omani men asking one of the Jewish men, who is married to another man and as such wears a wedding ring, where his wife was. He quickly mumbled, “In America,” before changing the subject.

I don’t know the views of many of the individuals in this program about homosexuality, but there are at least three gay men in the group, and each has chosen not to disclose his sexuality to the Muslims (and to disclose only to two of the Christians). Oman does criminalize same-sex behavior (as do 75 other countries in the world); all of the contingent work for the government. And after earlier in the week we were bombarded with stories from a speaker who does mediation work with Muslim parents who have threatened to kill their gay children, I think caution is not unwise in this situation. A part of me is hoping that this topic will come up, because it makes me sad for members of the group not to be able to bring their whole selves to our conversations about religion; at the same time, I want my friends to be safe.

To end on an up note, I made kiddush on Friday night for the first time. (Yes, I’d been avoiding it for most of my Jewish life.) But I’ve been practicing this summer with a recording that a classmate made for me (my issue is the singing), and I think I did alright. Either way, the vast majority of the people in the room didn’t know the difference!

Next up . . . we go to shul!

reading texts together

Note: This is part of series of posts about my participation in an interfaith program in England, and as such, it was briefly deleted from this site and then reposted, edited to remove references to the specific program and to the university that runs it. See here for further explanation. Click here to read all the posts in the series.

I am spending the next three weeks in England as part of a university’s interfaith program, the basis of which is study of scripture — essentially, reading texts together with people of different religious traditions. (The program also includes lectures and group discussions.)

pearly lake on franklin pierce university campus; photo by salem pearce (via instragram

pearly lake on franklin pierce university campus; photo by salem pearce (via instragram)

I am already exhausted. Besides jet lag, I am faced with a schedule of near constant activities, with people I don’t know and with whom I might have little in common. And of course part of the point of the program is to form relationships with classmates, so we eat and socialize together in addition to learning together.

In some ways, it’s not unlike the past week I spent at the National Havurah Committee’s Summer Institute at Franklin Pierce University in New Hampshire. Though we were (almost) all Jews, as unaffiliated Jews we were from quite different backgrounds and in some cases had quite different ideas about what it means to be Jewish. In other words, being with other Jews in a pluralistic setting can sometimes feel like an interfaith endeavor. And that event also took place in a rural, retreat-like university setting.

And although I am not expected to “represent Judaism” while I am here, it is a bit intimidating to be asked to offer opinions and interpretations as a Jew when I might be one of the few Jews that some of my co-participants might meet. I want to be clear that I can offer a Jewish perspective on the texts at hand and also convey that that perspective might only be one of many.

sunset at Madingley Hall; photo by salem pearce (via instagram

sunset at the castle that serves as our conference center; photo by salem pearce (via instagram)

In the program, there are four other Jewish participants (three rabbinical students and a Judaic Studies graduate student). There are five Christians (from the U.S., China, Nigeria, Singapore, and Egypt), and the rest of the students are Muslim, most of whom are from Oman. What has been striking so far is the experience of being in a primarily Muslim space. Though the setting is thoroughly British, the majority of people in the program — including the staff and interns — are Arabic-speaking Muslims, so the accommodations are geared towards them. There is someone who can serve as an Arabic translator in every group; during meals, all of the meat is halal; and the breaks coincide with times for prayer. It is a new experience for me: While I am used to being in a minority religious group, I only know how to do that within a Christian majority.

Tonight all of the Jews met after dinner to plan the Kabbalat Shabbat service that we’ll lead for the group on Friday night. We also planned morning davenning and benching after meals. It was nice to have some exclusively Jewish time: We all agreed it’s been hard to be constantly earnest and decorous in the group, so as to give a good impression of Judaism. But as one person wailed, “I’m dying to be sarcastic!”

Despite these challenges, much of the program is comfortable: Defying stereotypes, the food is quite good (I’ve been eating vegetarian and fish dishes as my kosher option, though I could have chosen specifically catered hechshered kosher food). I have a single room with my own bathroom (the castle doubles as a bed-and-breakfast, which means that my room is cleaned and the towels changed each day), and there are plenty of large, comfortable salons in which to relax.

And I get to drink all the tea I can manage. Cheers!

joseph anton

Joseph Anton, you must live until you die.

So Salman Rushdie tells his alter-ago – the psuedonym, a combination of the first names of Conrad and Chekhov, respectively, and how he is referred to by his British protection officers – as he embarks on what turns out to be a 13-year journey under a death sentence decreed by Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran on Valentine’s Day in 1989. In this book full of irony, it’s no small irony that the man whose fatwa called for the killing of the London-based Indian expat – for blaspheming Islam in his novel The Satanic Verses – died a few years later while the writer lived on.

First, a confession: I’ve never read anything of Rushdie’s until now. I read an excerpt from this book when it was published in The New Yorker in September, and I was hooked. I tried to read Midnight’s Children a few years ago, and I just couldn’t get into it. It might be time to try something again.

The memoir of his life under the fatwa – with digressions into his child- and young adulthood – is told in the third-person, which is jarring at first but quickly becomes natural. The choice reflects Rushdie’s alienation from himself during this trying period of his life. He is forced to chose the cover name so that the members of the Special Branch of the Metropolitan Police (in charge of personal protection in the United Kingdom) who are his constant companions during the first nine years of the fatwa can refer to him without raising suspicion about his identity; to his extreme dislike and irritation, the men on his detail shorten the name to Joe. Rushdie in other ways ceases to become Salman: He is denounced as Rushdie the apostate (by a large part of the Muslim world), Rushdie the self-aggrandizer (by one of his ex-wives), Rushdie the ungracious (by the British press). His life almost ceases to become his own — and is certainly no longer his intellectual property, as plays and movies and articles and books and stories are written about him and the fatwa. And his new world narrowly circumscribed by what he is “allowed” to do.

Rushdie writes movingly of the pain of those years. Two marriages collapse under their weight, as well as numerous friendships and relationships with colleagues. His interaction with his then eight-year-old son is severely curtailed. For the first few years, he must move every few months, and he is constantly in search of new accommodations. He is almost always afraid – less for himself than for the risk he poses to his loved ones and colleagues. While none of his family is harmed, a foreign translator of The Satanic Verses is murdered and another is almost fatally shot. His publishers face death threats, bookstores carrying his books are bombed. It is for these casualties that Rushdie feels unrelenting guilt.

But Rushdie himself has more than his fair share of trials. Support for free speech — the main issue at hand, as he sees it — does not always come from where he expects, and he feels the betrayal of his colleagues acutely. But he is not always able to confront his accusers (whether erstwhile colleagues or new enemies), which leads to the intermittent, unsent, and often hilarious letters that appear in the text. “It was a time,” Joseph Anton reflects, “where comedy had to be found in dark places.”

The British government in particular is upsetting in its silence and its general inaction on the fatwa. Under house arrest, Rushdie feels like a prisoner, and the resulting depression leads to long periods of writer’s block. His second wife, whom he married just before the fatwa, is breathtaking in her betrayal. But lest the reader began see the author of The Satanic Verses as martyr (another mistaken identity), Rushie is also unflinchingly honest about his own shortcomings: the tactical errors he made in his own defense, the affairs he had (he cheated on three of his four wives).

salman rushdie with the satanic verses in 1992

History plays a large role in this part of Rushdie’s life. He had the misfortune of being targeted by Iranian extremists when U.S. and U.K. citizens were Hezbollah’s hostages in Lebanon; both countries ask for his silence at various times out of fear for their safety. On the other hand, as Rushdie notes at the end of the memoir, he had the fortune of not being this target in the internet age, when the more rapid spread of information might have raised the risk of his detection. (One of the more interesting motifs throughout the book is the development of technology: It begins with him composing drafts of his work on a typewriter and ends with his purchasing of a laptop. The scene of his first encounter with a cellphone is hilarious.)

The book also brought up for me, as a future clergy member, the danger of being on the wrong side of history: For various reasons, stakeholders who by all rights should have been vociferous defenders of free speech were   In addition to politicians and writers, many religious leaders condemned The Satanic Verses on the basis of “offense to Islam,” including the chief rabbi of the United Kingdom, Immanuel Jakobovits, who went even further, declaring that “both Mr. Rushdie and the Ayatollah have abused freedom of speech.” In one of his impossible letters, Rushdie rightly condemns his “making false moral equivalences.”

For indeed as Jews well know, in the words of Heinrich Heine: “Where they burn books they will in the end burn people too.”

the submission

Last week I finished The Submission, by Amy Waldman. The book was a gift from my boss who pronounced it “an amazing read, but not light.” It is certainly compelling — and beautifully written! — if also problematic in significant ways.

The title refers to a proposed design for a memorial for the victims of 9-11, chosen in a blind competition in an re-imagined New York two years after the attack. The plan details a walled, rectangular garden, bisected twice by perpendicular canals, with pathways lined by trees in a grid in each of the quarters. The names of the dead would be inscribed on the garden’s inner walls. The book opens with the contentious deliberations by the jury, composed of mostly artists and other art world professionals plus one representative of “the families,” who is the main proponent of the garden. The other design, preferred by the the most vocal of the artist contingent, is known as “The Void,” a proposal distinctly less comforting or inviting. In a vote largely determined by the emotion of the widow, the garden barely wins, whereupon the identity of the submitter is revealed: an architect named Mohammad Kahn. Dun, dun, DUN.

The freaking out begins with the chairman of the jury embargoing what he now considers to be a tentative decision. The designer’s name is soon leaked to the press, however, and the jury is forced to acknowledge its choice. To mitigate the ensuing controversy, the jury chairman — under pressure from the governor of New York — decides not to finalize the memorial design without a public hearing. The novel details the mobilization of the stakeholders on various sides of the debate over whether it is appropriate for the memorial to victims of a terrorist attack by followers of radical Islam to be designed by an American Muslim.

As expected, the political right opposes the choice. The debate quickly becomes principally about the architect himself instead of his design, which is, however, interpreted as having Islamic influences, then re-interpreted as being the paradise described in the Quran, then re-interpreted again as a heavenly cemetery for martyrs of radical Islam. Other opponents include ad hoc groups formed in response to the jury’s choice, as well as, it seems, the majority of the families of the victims. The governor also falls into the opposition camp. Its proponents include a coalition called the Muslim American Coordinating Council (MACC) as well as, on principle, the artists on the jury who hadn’t advocated for the design in the first place. It’s the widow from the jury and, ultimately, Kahn himself who struggle with their ambivalence.

Simply put, this book was hard to read at times. The extreme opposition in the novel is rooted in reality, which we saw in the debate over the so-called “ground zero mosque.” And Waldman really brings to life one of the victims’ families, whose surviving son acts as spokesperson for that contingent. They are working class family from Brooklyn, and the son is rudderless before and after the attack and becomes increasingly conflicted about his parents’ marching orders to stop the construction of the garden at any cost. At the public hearing, the father of another of the victims is given a particularly sympathetic portrayal; calling the choice “insensitive” and citing the example of the pope’s decision to move a proposed convent from Auschwitz, he notes, “We, who have carried the weight of the loss, are now being asked to carry the weight of proving America’s tolerance.”

The motivations of MACC are fairly easy to understand, and Waldman does a great job of portraying the difficulties of that coalition, coalesced around a shared identity as Muslim Americans which is nevertheless interpreted very differently by its members, religious and secular.

Hard to understand was the character of Claire Burwell, the jury’s widow. Her reaction to discovering the identity of the creator of the garden she loves and fights for is initially unchanged. But upon meeting and getting to know Kahn, she becomes increasingly doubtful of her ability to continue to support the design — mostly, it seems, because Kahn won’t say whether his proposal is “an Islamic garden” and won’t say that he condemns the 9-11 attack. As he says to her when they finally sit down together towards the end of the novel, “‘What is the principle behind demanding that I say it, when your six-year-old son can tell you its wrong? Wouldn’t you assume that any non-Muslim who entered the competition thinks the attack was wrong?’” She is extremely wealthy from her husband’s money, and although great pains are taken to establish her discomfort with the lifestyle she married into, her assertion of her privilege is off-putting. She thinks herself the gatekeeper to design approval, that she represents all of the families — as she goes, so go they, she implies — and that she is entitled to answers from Kahn. The novel is supposed to be about her internal journey towards her true self during this emotional time in her life, but ultimately it’s simply not compelling or sympathy-inducing.

It is Mohammed Kahn who is the standout in the novel. Raised in Virginia by parents who only get involved in a local mosque after the attacks, Mo, as he is known, is Muslim by birth alone. He wrestles with ritual observance during his time in the spotlight, but he is characterized by his talent, drive, and ambition in his field. He is above all supremely rational (and stubborn) and finds completely confounding that he is collapsed into identification with a religion that he hardly knows. His is the experience of many Americans in the post-9-11 world, starting with the scene that introduces him to readers in which he is detained at LAX for flying while Muslim. He is complex, frustrated, principled, lost by the situation he finds himself in, and honestly struggling to make sense of it however he can, all in the center of the extreme pressure cooker of the national debate into which he is thrust.

Missing from the novel are significant contributions from evangelical Christians and Jews of any kind, both of which would have to factor into this situation. And the thought that a memorial design could have been chosen a mere two years after the attacks strains credulity (especially as the actual memorial barely managed to open ten years later). The end of the story is rather puzzling as well; after the protagonists have expended unknowable time and energy panicking about the “source” of the garden — which question is set up to come across as unfounded paranoia — the final scene shows that Kahn did indeed draw his inspiration from a garden he happened across in Afghanistan. The horror! (And it seems clear that this inspiration is purely aesthetic, not religious.) This frustrating development, its placement at the end of the story making it function as a big “reveal,” undermines the narrative argument that Kahn suffered a great injustice in his treatment as the memorial’s creator.

The reader is left with a dull disappointment with Waldman’s America, at the very least for the fact that human prejudice is shown to have vanquished human-made beauty. It is not worthy of the novel’s honest attempts to grapple with how we honor the dead of 9-11.

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