Mirage of a United Arab States Unconvincing

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By: Leah Caldwell

Published Thursday, February 16, 2012

Book Review: The Mirage by Matt Ruff, February 2012, Harper

With regard to 9/11, author Margaret Atwood found herself wondering, “What would George Orwell have to say about it?”

In Other Worlds, she writes that the social and political aftermath of 9/11 laid the foundation for the co-existence of two of the most prominent, yet contradictory, literary dystopias of the 20th century. The first is Orwell’s 1984, which is known for its grim portrayal of an oppressive surveillance state. The second is Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, where oversexed humans live in a state of drug-induced hedonism so as to avoid society’s greatest offense of being unhappy.

As Atwood phrases it, 9/11 allowed for a society of “open markets, closed minds.”

There will never be a post-9/11 redux of 1984 penned by Orwell, but speculative and science fiction have continued in the wake of the attacks, with authors and filmmakers often drawing on 9/11 to color their work directly or indirectly. American author Matt Ruff’s The Mirage is one of the few, if only, mainstream novels to take 9/11 directly into alternate history territory.

In The Mirage, 9/11 never transpired; instead, 11/9 befell a new global superpower, the United Arab States. Planes flown by Christian crusaders hit the shiny Tigris and Euphrates Twin Towers in Baghdad, the “city of the future,” prompting an aggressive invasion and subsequent occupation of America – a country now fractured by contentious Christian factions. The Green Zone is etched onto Washington DC’s National Mall and American insurgents donning signature tri-cornered hats fight an unjust Arab occupation.

Samir, Mustafa, and Amal are agents of Arab Homeland Security, who, with a little help from the Mossad (Israel is now the UAS’s top ally and located in Central Europe with Berlin as its capital) go on a mission to understand some of the bizarre crusader conspiracies that have arisen from 11/9.

“It’s a mirage. There is no Arab superpower, no union of Arab states. In the real world, you’re just a bunch of backward, third-world countries that no one would even care about except for oil...” a crusader asserts in an interrogation.

The underworld of the American resistance – based in the bombed-out suburbs of Virginia and fronted by Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney – has latched onto conspiracies that reassure the Christian faithful that their current state is a mere mirage, and Arabs have usurped America’s rightful place as a superpower. Their ideas are reinforced by the appearance of “ghost” objects, like a copy of the New York Times from September 12, 2001, that provide tangible links to this parallel world. Saddam Hussein, now a cunning gangster in Baghdad, is obsessed with this other reality since in it, he’s an all-powerful dictator, while Cheney sees the current inverted world as God’s denial of his rightful place in the universe.

This is The Mirage at its most interesting, with theories abounding that American pride somehow led to its downfall, but ultimately, Ruff’s United Arab States seems less like a mirage than a tiresome mirror image of America.

From the names of government agencies to pop culture references like CSI: Damascus or rock group Green Desert’s anti-war anthem “Arabian Idiot,” the world is just a big wink to a dominant American culture that is supposed to no longer exist. But for all its similarities to America, the UAS is still unique in its propagation of sectarian politics and anti-homosexual tendencies.

An interviewer complimented Ruff for promoting a “vision of a decidedly more moderate global Islam” in The Mirage. It seems that in Ruff’s bid to avoid “terrorist” stereotypes, he has situated his characters in an equally deficient “moderate” Islam paradigm. Their personalities are a cross between American cop-show heroes and generic Muslims who clash with the “five pillars” of their faith. Mustafa is a reluctant polygamist, with one wife killed in the 11/9 attacks; Samir is conflicted by his gay sexuality; and Amal is a Shia whose temporary marriage returns to haunt her.

Ruff told CBS that he wanted to create characters that American readers would “identify with and care about.” Instead, he creates characters that Americans have no choice but to identify with since their dialogue is mostly a spattering of Americanisms with “God willing” added as an afterthought. Lines like, “Dude, seriously. Chill out or I’m turning us around,” or “Hear me, O Israel! – You are the man!” don’t create too many barriers to American understanding.

Given the ability of speculative fiction and alternate history to unseat our comfortable assumptions about the fixed destiny of humanity, The Mirage instead assuages our anxieties with its adherence to a parallel reality with few surprises. When we read that the Arab occupation authorities in America disbanded the Minute Men militias upon invasion, we know it’s only a matter of time until we read about four Arab civilian contractors burned and hung from a bridge.

The real 9/11 and the US’s invasion of Iraq are two of the darkest and most destructive events in recent history, but in Ruff’s world, they’re just the launching point for an adventure-thriller. This parallel world is too light to confront more than surface “what ifs.” The more disturbing possibilities of a parallel 9/11 might remain buried until someone can reflect on Atwood’s question: What would Orwell say?

Comments

The book sounds unbearably lame. And the author is getting interviewed by CBS for it? God help us.

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