The Bangladeshi-born, New York-raised artist Hasan Elahi stepped off a plane at Detroit airport in 2002 and was detained by the FBI. The agents behind the detention explained to Elahi, then 30 years old, that they had uncovered his secret: he was stockpiling explosives in Florida, ahead of a planned terrorist strike.
The subsequent six-month investigation, including nine lie-detector tests, convinced them that they had made a mistake: Elahi was a Muslim-American artist and academic, and not a terrorist. The FBI soon lost interest, but for Elahi the experience was the start of a remarkable creative project that continues to this day.
Soon afterwards, Elahi began meticulously documenting every aspect of his daily life using a digital camera, and posting the pictures online.
During the investigation that cleared his name, commonplace digital records – of phone calls, appointments, text messages – had helped prove to the FBI that it had got the wrong man. “I realised that the best way to protect your privacy is to give it away,” said Elahi. And so the project began: part insurance against again becoming an FBI suspect – the project means Elahi has evidence of every waking moment – and part conceptual art commentary on our 21st-century surveillance culture: “If all 300 million Americans surveilled themselves like this,” says Elahi, “they’d need another 300 million just to keep up.” You can see the project at Elahi’s website: www.trackingtransience.net.
Elahi is just one of the artists discussed in a new, arresting book. A Foreigner Carrying in the Crook of His Arm a Tiny Bomb – the title is a reference to Edmond Jabes’s 1993 book A Foreigner Carrying in the Crook of his Arm a Tiny Book – by the US writer and academic Amitava Kumar, a professor of English at Vassar College.
The book is Kumar’s attempt to come to terms with the cultural and artistic impact of the “war on terror”; to “calibrate what is happening in our hearts and in our minds” as a result of that campaign. A Foreigner Carrying – which has already won admiring attention in the US – makes for a fascinating tour through the creative response to the war on terror; and an acute analysis of the hidden assumptions behind, and implications of, the West’s new culture of “homeland security”.
When talking about the book, Kumar is just as considered and interesting as he is in print. We start, inevitably, with the cataclysm that precipitated this new age: the attacks of September 11, 2001. In the aftermath, George W Bush launched his war on terror with the now famous dictum: “You’re either with us or against us.” So why has the battle to prevent another terrorist outrage become such a potent part of the 21st-century culture?
“First, I ask myself: why do my students monumentalise what happened on 9/11?” says Kumar. “It’s not just because it happened so close to home, but because it happened in a spectacular way. The suffering of people in Somalia, for example, is not spectacular: it is not presented in that way.
“That makes this kind of terrorist act a different order of experience, and that is crucial. It makes people willing to take extraordinary action. And it makes people feel unwilling to ask: what is causing this?”
Kumar’s subsequent work began with the need to answer one question: “I wanted to know: who is this figure, the terrorist, who is dictating the shape of so much of our daily lives? Who is this person?”
While A Foreigner Carrying is a guided tour of the answers that various artists have given to that question, it’s also an attempt to give an answer in its own right. The book orbits around a reportage centre, which tells the stories of two men convicted on terrorism charges: Hemant Lakhani and Shahawar Matin Siraj. Both stories raise crucial questions about the “war on terror” as a paradigm of state mindset, and action.
Take Lakhani: in 2005, aged 70, this British-Indian rice trader was convicted in the US of providing material support to terrorists and sentenced to 47 years in jail. Lakhani had tried to sell a missile to a terrorist who in fact was an FBI informant, and Lakhani was arrested once the deal was done. American newspapers heralded a great intelligence triumph: another plot foiled.
As becomes apparent in Kumar’s brilliant dissection, the case is not so clear. Critics of Lakhani’s conviction argue that the FBI itself prompted Lakhani to become involved in illegal arms trading. It was the informant who had first asked Lakhani if he could supply a missile. When Lakhani said no, a member of Russian intelligence telephoned him, to offer to sell him one.
“This man was convicted of selling a missile,” says Kumar. “It’s pretty clear that he hardly knew what a missile was.
“One interesting aspect of these cases – and Siraj’s is similar – is that the men who are the targets and the informants are so similar: so often they are struggling immigrants, failed businessmen who are credulous, and need money.”
As Kumar delineates the events that brought Lakhani and Siraj to public attention, what begins to emerge is an oblique, penetrating look at the ideological underpinnings of the war on terror. And that’s not just government ideology, but our own, too:
“The media is key in our complicity in the ‘war on terror’,” says Kumar. “They sensationalise everything. They condemn people on the strength of a press release. We get so used to these sensational stories, we don’t tend to question when we hear about the conviction of someone such as Lakhani.
“A recent RAND Corporation study said that in the 1970s there were around 70 terrorist incidents in the US a year. Since 9/11, there have been about 50 incidents, including failed plots. So why do we have this feeling of living in an exceptional time? We’ve all been complicit in this idea that we face this other, the Muslim, whose reach and power and violence exceeds anything we’ve seen before: I call that Islamophobia.”
Art, of course, is the bright light that might shine on these truths and reveal them for what they are. Kumar agrees with the idea that visual and conceptual artists have, so far, made the best responses:
“I think visual art is quicker to respond than literature. The literature inspired by the ‘war on terror’ – novels such as John Updike’s Terrorist – has been bedevilled by this false intimacy with the terrorist figure: there has just been a parading of old prejudices.”
It’s the engaged insight and the mischievous humour shown by artists like Hasan Elahi that seems most to inspire Kumar. “It was self-surveillance that saved his life, so why not take it to its fullest extent?” he asks. “I thought that was wonderful, very witty.
“As I writer, I think that’s all I aspire to do when it comes to this issue: to see with some sensitivity what is happening to our hearts and our minds, and to try to be prescient about what further sorrows await us. Unfortunately, I’m not in a position to offer a cure.”
• A Foreigner Carrying in the Crook of His Arm a Tiny Bomb is published by Duke University Press, Dh80.60.
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