In the Mojave desert, everything shifts, and Laila, the Iraqi goth chick, finds herself inside someone else’s idea of war. An excerpt from Hari Kunzru’s ambitious new novel
THE JOB of the villagers of Wadi al- Hamam was to help American troops understand what it would be like when they deployed to Iraq. They’d do this by playing realistic roles, some pro-American, some hostile. They’d each been assigned an individualized character with a name, biography and back story. Heather said she wanted them to think about how their characters would react in various situations, so they could be as truthful as possible when interacting with the soldiers. This was, she said, a ‘fine grained simulation’. They should all consider themselves ‘tiny moving parts, like cogs in a watch’.
Laila wasn’t sure she wanted to be a tiny moving part, unless it was lodged in Heather’s windpipe. She was even less sure when she opened the envelope containing her character details. She was a country girl called Rafah, who’d lived in Wadi al-Hamam all her life, but wanted to train as a nurse. She hated the Americans because her father had been killed in a checkpoint shooting. In the game she would be sympathetic to the insurgents and help them whenever she could. As she read the paper, her hands shook. Why had they given her a dead father? Had Hafiz told them about Baba? She went to Heather and asked to be given a different biography. Heather looked at her strangely. ‘It’s only for the simulation, honey. It’s to help you play your part. Look at the alignment graph — you’ll see you have a strongly negative attitude to the US as a liberating force. Just go with that.’
‘But I don’t want to be this Rafah.’
‘It’s not something we can change at this stage.’ ‘Why not?’
‘I’m sorry, but I can’t have this discussion with you. We need you in this role. You’ll just have to live with it. And, while we’re talking, if I could make a suggestion, I think it’d be best if you didn’t wear so much eye make-up. We like our civilian role-players as far as possible to adopt an ethnically traditional look. You brought your veil with you, right?’
‘Your, uh, head-covering and your robes and whatnot?’
The next day the villagers of Wadi al-Hamam started work. It was a strange routine. Every morning they gathered in the hall to hear about the day’s schedule. Sometimes a patrol would be due to pass through and they had to man their imaginary homes and businesses, so they could be searched and questioned and occasionally shot at with bizarrelooking laser-guns. Usually the soldiers just walked around with shit-eating grins on their faces saying Salaam alaikum. This seemed to be the main plank of their counter-insurgency strategy. When violence was on the menu the villagers had to wear special harnesses over their traditional ethnic clothing, so the laser-guns could register hits. When you were shot you had to lie down and place a card on your tummy, showing details of your wound. Sometimes a make-up artist would come and sprinkle on some blood, for extra realism. Then the medics would run over and treat whatever injury was on the card, or just put you in a body bag and carry you away. There were score-keepers who tallied up the net effect on the hearts and minds of Wadi al-Hamam, and, depending on how things had gone, they would be told in the next day’s briefing whether they felt more or less pro-American.
Laila’s role was mainly to stand in the shipping container labeled clinic, though sometimes she had to come out and mill about on the main street, looking hostile. The soldiers would arrive, sometimes just a few in an armored vehicle, sometimes a whole convoy of humvees accompanying the major, a little man in a neatly pressed uniform who looked more like a sales clerk than a soldier, a sort of middle manager of warfare. When the major came, his troops would fan out and point their guns in various directions while he gave out ballpoints and toothbrushes as moraleboosting souvenirs. Then they would all surround the mayor’s office while he took a meeting with Uncle Hafiz. The meetings usually ended with Uncle Hafiz announcing some new bribe for good behavior, a tube well or sanitation project or girls’ school. Sometimes the major would make a speech, which was translated into Arabic by a female interpreter who spoke some Maghrebi dialect no one could understand.
Most of it was easier than Laila expected. The stressful part was when the soldiers conducted raids. The villagers had to assemble in various locations, which were supposed to represent their houses. Even though this wasn’t where she actually slept, it was too close to reality to feel like a game. She still had nightmares about Baba, and one night was shaken awake by the woman in the cot next to her, who’d been disturbed by her moaning and thrashing about. Everyone was very understanding, but she didn’t want their sympathy. When there were night raids she tried to stay in the background, listening to her iPod until it was time to be hooded and cuffed.
One day Uncle Hafiz starred in a beheading video. They shot it inside a mosque because it was the most sinister spot in town. All the insurgents wanted to take part, so Lieutenant Alvarado held a casting call and whittled them down to the six he thought looked most terroristical. The video was for Al-Mojave, a fake TV channel broadcast to the troops in their mess hall, which provided their main feedback on the progress of the simulation. The Al-Mojave reporters would sometimes show up and interview the villagers about how pro- American they were feeling. They particularly liked Noor, who had a good line in wailing and angry denunciations. Uncle Hafiz had been collaborating with the occupier, so he’d been kidnapped from his office in a dramatic dawn raid. He’d spent the day watching Vietnam movies with the insurgents while the flat-topped major directed fruitless house-to-house searches. Uncle Hafiz’s death (reported Al-Mojave) would be a major setback for BLUEFOR, since it called into question their ability to provide security in their sector. As far as Laila was concerned, they couldn’t provide snacks and dips in their sector, let alone security, but she supposed this was the sort of thing they needed to find out before they went to Iraq and did it for real. She and Noor watched the beheaders get ready. They were even more ridiculously dressed than usual; one of them had lost his dishdasha and was wearing a Little Mermaid beach towel wrapped around his waist. Uncle Hafiz was willing to help them sort out their keffiyehs, but was hampered by the fact that his hands were cuffed behind his back.
‘Girls, please come help.’
So they tugged and tucked. Much against her will, Laila found herself assisting the tall black insurgent wrap a length of cloth around his head. He looked imposing, and even more scary than usual, like a Berber dressed to cross the desert. To her surprise he smiled and said thank you. It was the first time he’d ever spoken to her.
‘You’re Laila, aren’t you?,’ he said. His voice was surprisingly high-pitched, almost girlish.
Ty started to saw at Uncle Hafiz’s neck, slicing into a blood bag, which spurted realistically down his shirt
‘Like the song.’
She must have looked blank. He did an impression of someone playing a guitar and hummed a few notes of a riff.
‘Not an Eric Clapton fan, then.’
‘Not so much.’
‘Me neither. I like that one, though. Everyone likes that one.’
He smiled again, waiting for her to say something. She stared awkwardly at the ground.
‘Come Laila,’ said Uncle Hafiz sharply. ‘Come away. Everything is ready now.’
The tall soldier ignored him and struck out his hand for a dap shake. ‘I’m Ty.’
She took it, felt it twist and swivel in a quick series of moves, ending in a fist bump.
‘Yeah, that’s right,’ he grinned. ‘That’s the way.’ Lieutenant Alvarado clapped. ‘OK, ladies, let’s get this done.’
Uncle Hafiz knelt down on the floor. Ty put a hood over his head.
‘Allahu Akbar!’ said one of the insurgents.
‘Too soon!’ snapped Uncle Hafiz, his voice muffled by the hood.
Since he was best at fiery rhetoric, they’d drafted in the imam to play the insurgent leader. He started off in formal Arabic, apostrophizing Allah the most Gracious and the most Merciful and addressing a call to the young men of the Islamic lands never to relent in their fight against the Crusaders and the Jews. He reminded them that there were only two choices in life, victory or martyrdom and tried to lead his followers in a chant of ‘death to the Crusader Bush’, temporarily forgetting that none of them understood a word he was saying. Lieutenant Alvarado, who was holding the camera, started to make ‘wind it up’ gestures. The imam ignored him, launching into a new peroration about the hypocrisy of the invader, who dared to use his serpent’s tongue to talk of human rights and dignity when he was the greatest torturer in the history of the world. Alvarado lost patience.
‘Just cut his head off already!’
‘Allahu Akbar!’ shouted the insurgents. Ty started to saw at Uncle Hafiz’s neck, slicing into a blood bag, which spurted realistically down his shirt. Uncle Hafiz fell over onto the ground.
‘Cut,’ said Lieutenant Alvarado. ‘That’s a wrap.’
Everyone got up. Ty uncuffed Uncle Hafiz, who insisted on looking at the finished product before he’d let Lieutenant Alvarado pass it for broadcast. He seemed pleased with the result. ‘Very realistic,’ he said. ‘Very bloodthirsty.’ Contentedly he turned the camera screen toward Laila. ‘See what they did to me? Animals!’
One of the insurgents wanted to know if he could get a copy to send to his mom. Lieutenant Alvarado suggested maybe a postcard would be more appropriate. Ty came over to Laila, wiping the blood off his hands. ‘That was pretty cool,’ he said.
‘Writing about the desert was a part of understanding America’
What drove author Hari Kunzru to the edge of human existence? Nisha Susan finds out
Why did you move to the US and end up writing about it instead of your planned book about Mughal India? Did you want to escape England, India, the old world?
When I left London, it was temporary. I got a very generous fellowship with the New York Public Library. But when the year ended, I felt I hadn’t really finished with New York. I stayed on out of curiosity. I supposed I was also a little bored with London though it’s a disloyal thing to say (laughs). Writing about America, I underestimated the change it would bring to my writing. You could hardly avoid having a take, wanting to attempt to write what you are feeling. There was the texture of everyday, the rhthyms of the English they speak here. Hearing that was fascinating. I wanted to write like it but, at a larger level, also try to understand America. Writing about the desert was also part of that, I think. It is quintessentially American, the small individual against the big landscape.
After this book, do you feel like you understand why religious epiphanies always seem to happen in deserts?
I didn’t have an epiphany myself unless you count writing a whole novel about the desert (laughs). I travelled out there to the Mojave desert several times. It was the last barrier of the Western expansion before the settlers reached the paradise of the coast. I was struck each time by the strange sense that despite the clear sunlight, bright skies, the lack of moisture in the air, there was something otherworldly about it. You are on the edge of human existence. It has that metaphysical quality of feeling like you are on the edge of life. That you could cross over. Faced with that big empty space, people try to fill it up. It is terrifying, that sense of your insignificance.
What intrigued you about the section where you recreate how Americans try to simulate being in Iraq?
When I read about the Americans running these simulations, I wondered if it was really happening? But they were. They were using Arab Americans to play insurgents and train their people for Iraq and Afghanistan. And I thought what a perfect metaphor about all the unreal moments of modern war when simulation and reality get mixed up. The book is about beginnings and ends and fragments of lives in the desert. So the opportunity to overlay and paste one desert with the other one where the Americans are now was too tempting.
One thread of the novel is the media, the witch hunt that Lisa and Jaz face when their son disappears. As a journalist yourself, do you think contemporary journalism is doomed to manipulate people into recognisable tropes?
The speed of the news cycle creates the impulse to fit people quickly into recognisable patterns that will have high impact. So you are constantly fitting complex human experiences into melodramatic stories. Especially when the people are already going through a very traumatic experience, having your life manipulated into clichés can feel like violence. The Internet does magnify that; in many ways, there is something very cannibalistic about it. Everybody feels that they have an opportunity to express themselves and it is done even more quickly, in more unthinking ways, extreme ways.
The six months of the Arab Spring also seems to have excited you. How did it affect your writing?
I was mostly done with this book when the Arab Spring began. I became very involved in following it on social media. I started reading activists in Egypt, Bahrain, Syria and Libya. I find myself very moved by what has happened there and the will of the young Arab people to make something new. It is a very hopeful thing for the region and for the world. I am not sure how but it will definitely find its way into my writing.
Nisha Susan is a Features Editor with Tehelka.