3. AL-QAEDA, THE TALIBAN, NUDJARIN,
TERRORISM AND ME (Jan. 2003)
don't want any women to go to my grave at all during my funeral
or any occasion thereafter." - Mohammed
"Know that the gardens of paradise are waiting for you in all their
beauty, and the women of paradise are
waiting, calling out, 'Come
hither, friend of God.' " - Mohammed
I refer to her as my "then-wife" though we're still legally
married as I write. However, a divorce will take care of that. But as
we sat in the United Airlines departure lounge that Tuesday morning at
JFK, I still had hope for us. In retrospect, I was a fool. When a
woman loves you she shows it, in "print" large enough for the densest
male to read. When she doesn't, but she needs to keep you for other
reasons, her art is clear unless you're blinded by love, or hope, or
so desperate just to be married. I was all three. Once upon a time in
this world of ours men like me didn't have to go through this. A girl
was assigned - in some cultures several, say, four - and a man didn't
have to struggle to keep her, any more than he had to struggle to keep
his thumb on his hand.
Nudjarin, my brainy, pretty, ultramoody,
not-ready-for-marriage Thai bride of fifteen months was returning to
Thailand. Again. Less than four months before her mother Manee had
died, and Nudjarin was rocked by a grief deeper and harder and more
agonized than I have ever seen in a human being ("She dies! She
dies!"), crying so maniacally not just her tears but her snot and
spittle covered her face. Now fate, cruel and sadistic, took her
father Yorn too, and quickly, disbelievingly, we arranged for the same
Again I had held her as tightly as I could, I cried with
her, though I had known her parents only a little. Nud's grief
infected me and I couldn't hold back my tears, but I assume a
half-conscious ulterior motive: to show her, whatever her dark
thoughts about men (and she had many), that this man was worth staying
married to, he felt, he bled, he was there in good and bad, could she
not simply surrender to him then, her true husband?
How could she be so cool to me as we waited for the boarding
announcement? United Flight 897, 7:15 AM to LAX, where she'd switch to
Thai Airways. I very much wanted a "goodbye-for-a-little, my darling,"
scene, but she was quiet, preoccupied, distant and sad. Also sickish,
with some long trips to the airport bathroom. Also worried. Apropos of
nothing, in my opinion, I must report she did turn to me and say "I
feel something terrible is going to happen today." I, atheist and
terminal skeptic, told her, she proud of her "foresight", seer of
ghosts and spirits, that her sadness and dislike of flying were at
We were there in that lounge, but history was too, perhaps,
if it had arrived early enough. Robert Mueller, our FBI Director, told
Congress that once the September 11 hijackers completed their flight
training they made a series of cross-country flights, evaluating
airport security and specific flights' weaknesses. They were looking
for Boeing 767's and 757's, planes they'd trained for, set for long
journeys, with few passengers and much fuel. (I myself noticed how few
passengers boarded Nudjarin's plane.) Morning weekday flights proved
best, and I imagine flights from Kennedy Airport had been scoped. A
somewhat later flight, United 23, 8:30 AM for San Francisco, was late
out of the gate, so before it could take off Kennedy was shut. The
New York Times (10/20/01) reported that "When the captain announced
that the plane was returning to the gate, four male passengers
described as Middle Eastern in appearance stood up and began urgently
consulting with each other...The men refused orders from flight
attendants to return to their seats....'As soon as the door opened,
these four guys bolted,' said one of the officials." So who knows?
We could have been seated back-to-back with them, for all I
noticed. What I noticed was her goodbye kiss, her quick little
perfunctory buss, a mere obligatory taste of the lips, which disgusted
me, but, ever the good husband, I said nothing.
I waited till the plane lifted off at 7:30, fifteen minutes
late, and grabbed a taxi for home. The trip back was fast and
uneventful, and the cab broke from the early morning commute to drop
me off at Steinway Street in Long Island City. I walked to a
supermarket so I could add some other vegetables to the salad Nudjarin
had left me. The faces in the supermarket were ordinary. The old world
had forty-five minutes to run.
About the time I walked into the apartment, Mohammed Atta,
at the controls of American Airlines 11 from Boston, turned south, and
soon one of the flight attendants, in a cell call to an American
Airlines supervisor on the ground, would cry out "I see water and
buildings. Oh my God, oh my God!"
Atta wasn't much with girls, nor did he want to be. He had
contempt for them, and was cold to them. His distraught and clueless
father, a lawyer back in Cairo, was still trying to set him up, though
in the older culture, the Islamic culture, that means arranging a
marriage, not suggesting a Saturday night date. "He was never touching
woman, so how can he live?", his father's been quoted as saying.
Nonetheless, in October 1999 "we found him a bride who was nice and
delicate, the daughter of a former ambassador". Well, a proposed
In the kitchen, chopping vegetables, I never heard Flight 11
smash into the North Tower. I was some six miles away, with the Towers
visible from my bedroom if I craned my head to the right. It was only
ten or twelve minutes later, when I sat down to eat and turned on the
Washington Post's website, that I learned.
I never wanted to be an Atta. I hungered for marriage and
fatherhood, but at 51 had found neither. A friend of mine recently
told me I'm "inept" at relationships, but no one has ever questioned
my integrity or intelligence, so there were two pluses, and in a
Western world where men are damned as "commitophobes", even as women
open themselves to commitophobes - that is a truth though not a p.c.
truth - I thought I had a third plus. In fact, I think my friend is
wrong. It's worse: I leave the Western woman flat. Hard experience's
taught me. And why?
This essay purports to connect my private life to the
greatest public event of our time, and I questioned that. To the point
of thinking I should stop writing. But over my shoulder stood a
chorus, making a case, some of the voices sounding like Nud's. How she
urged me on,
how she played with me, feeding me what I wanted to hear, things about
culture and civilizations, things larger than just she and me: that
Asian girls aren't like American girls, that they're loyaler, more
feminine, their culture exalts marriage and family, they will never
abandon you and run away, they place the communal over the individual,
and how I wanted to hear this, how I wanted to believe it, how I deep
down hated my world, what it's become, how I wanted to believe that
the Old Way lives somewhere, that there is an Old Way, so I
could be happy, and Westernization and modernity stop at its gate. At
the same time she couldn't help telling me stories of family
dysfunction in Thailand, of increasing divorce, of adultery, of the
spread of drugs, of AIDS, of crime and violence, and children ignoring
or abandoning their old parents (perhaps the ultimate taboo in Thai
culture), of the utter disappearance of the river she loved to splash
in as a little girl, and of woods she knew to illegal logging. Of the
worship of Western things, to the extent that hip Thais in Bangkok
force loathsome nonsensical alien bread and hamburgers down their
throats, and Thai women (the most beautiful in the world - the myth is
no myth) seek plastic surgery and exalt white skin and glorify "halfs"
as models and movie stars. Nud said she hated her cheekbones (which
women in Beverly Hills and Miami would no doubt pay thousands for),
and in fact she'd had a little work done, on her nose, which, as far
as I can see from her earlier photos, went perfectly with her face, so
what was going on, what the hell was going on in this world, that we
increasingly seemed to be moving towards two cultures only: America or
The nineteen hijackers, on the surface, flirted with this
Western Pervasion as well. They wore Western dress, were clean-cut,
mostly beardless (and those with only lightly bearded). On the night
of September 10 Atta and Abdulaziz Alomari - one of the young Arab
"musclemen" brought in at the last moment to seize and control the
plane - visited both a Pizza Hut and a Wal-Mart. Just hours before
eternity, and eternal Islamic fame, and their eternal/infernal deed!
(They had to catch a 6:00 AM Portland flight to connect to the Boston
flight.) Down in Hollywood, Florida, shortly before moving north to
embrace their fate, Atta and some of the boys enjoyed a night out at
Shuckums, a bar. Marwan al-Shehhi, who'd pilot Flight 175 into the
South Tower sixteen minutes after Atta, had five vodkas. Several of
the hijackers, the FBI believes, kept girlfriends in Las Vegas. Ziad
al-Jarrah, who piloted United Flight 93, taken down in Pennsylvania,
is said by a cousin to have loved discos, drunk whiskey at a family
wedding, and "used to go to church more than to the mosque." Khalid
al-Midhar and Nawaf Alhazmi (American Airlines 77 into the Pentagon),
clean-cut like all the others, frequented California strip joints. And
of course American Taliban John Walker Lindh grew up in ultra-American
Marin County, the richest county in the United States, and wanted for
Americans, Westerners, do love to think of their life-way as
inevitably, unalterably, irresistibly seductive to anyone who
experiences it, the Casanova of civilizations.
But then I read of Takfir wal Hijra, super-terrorists,
Islamic fundamentalists so hardcore they actually attacked Osama bin
Laden in the Sudan in 1995, and believers, according to a French
official quoted in Time Magazine (11/12/01), in blending "into corrupt
societies in order to plot attacks against them better. Members live
together, will drink alcohol, eat during Ramadan, become smart
dressers and ladies' men to show just how integrated they are....Some
won't even worship with other Muslims..."
As for us, after many weeks Nudjarin finally returned from
her second sad trip to Thailand, and our marriage continued on its
troubled way, but with just enough sweet moments of happiness and ease
to show me what a blessing a good marriage can be. But in late July of
2002 she hit me with hard truths about her feelings: "I don't want to
be married to anyone. I don't believe in marriage." Stupidly, though,
I still wasn't ready to believe that.
On August 5, 2002, returning home late from one of my two
jobs - the Music Store one - I walked into an apartment emptied of my
wife's things, the closets cleared out, the garbage container in the
kitchen stuffed with makeup and medicines and women's magazines and
hair ribbons, and this note was left on the kitchen table:
"I don't know how to start. The first thing I'd like to say
is I'm really sorry....
"You are too good, but I am not good enough to be your wife.
I'm sorry I've been hurting your feeling for many times....
"You brought my life to America and you have done lots of
good things to me. I owe you a lot....
"About my family in Thailand. You don't have to worry about
them. They won't blame you, they know you have been very good to me
and you are a good man. They know about me well, but they can't do
anything to convince me to stay married....
"I've got a lawyer. She is going to do about our divorce....
"I will never forget you for the rest of my life.
I never heard from that lawyer. But I waited. And, honestly,
I still hoped...
Finally, in December 2002, she called. She had gone to Los
Angeles to live and make her fortune, but "hated it" and was back. It
turns out, on her second return to the U.S., she had met a Thai girl
on the plane, and they became friends, and this Thai girl told Nud
that if her marriage ever faltered she could come to Los Angeles and
live with her.
We spoke several times. One call Nudjarin began in tears: "I
miss you!" I asked if she wanted to come home, and she said yes. I
suggested the next day, but she backed off. She then suddenly ended
her last call (to this point), after some aimless chatter about the
state of her English, with "I have to tell you honestly. I love
freedom." (Or perhaps it was "I love my freedom.")
And then I knew it was over, and I got a lawyer, to proceed
without worrying about her nonexistent one.
"If you relax the woman's bridle a tiny bit, she will take
you and bolt wildly." (Al-Ghazali, medieval Islamic scholar and
The nineteen hijackers never broke. How they never broke,
never hesitated. None seemed to even break a sweat as they strode
proudly, happily and implacably to their deaths, and 3,000 of ours.
They had much to live for. By Western standards, material standards,
they were by no means "losers". Both of Mohammed Atta's sisters have
doctorates. He earned a masters, was fluent in English and German, and
in another time would have gone on to a successful career as an
architect or academic, maybe even marrying that "delicate"
ambassador's daughter. His fellow death-pilots Marwan al-Shehhi and
Ziad al-Jarrah were also middle-class, educated, from good families,
computer-comfortable. And Ayman al-Zawahiri, Al-Qaeda's # 2, once had
no beard and wore Western suits. One grandfather was President of
Cairo University, his father was the Dean of its Pharmacy School. Al-Zawahiri
became a successful doctor, fluent in English.
No doubt Islamic terrorists say they're acting out of love,
love for the truth of their God. I, secular, skeptical, think of their
hate, but then my hate and theirs shockingly begin to merge. I cannot
help it, this inner Taliban crying out for order against the
revolution of our world, and I blame that world for my aloneness now,
because it exalts "freedom" and took away my male power, and took away
my happiness, and leaves me alone at 55. Curse me if you wish. I think
there may be some other Westerners who are cursing these days, even as
they are readied to fight. Perhaps here a man who once had a good
factory job, but it's gone to Bangladesh, because such is
globalization and its ways. Perhaps here a man of 45, who's lost wife,
and, worse, his children, to divorce, though he was a good man (there
are such) and it was his wife who was at fault. (Really, she divorced
him because he wasn't exciting enough anymore. After 200,000 years
women can finally do that.) And vaguely he understands in the future
she may be able to clone asexually without him and his kind, yet still
he must be willing to die for the revolution that makes such a
scientific 9/11 possible. Perhaps here a man who's supposed to love
the West and all its miracles, and they are miracles, but the
forest he loved is lost, and soon the canyon, and the birds that used
to sing him awake have fled, if indeed that's all that's happened to
And I muse on the fate of my sister humans, who once would
have been mine, and whom I've lost my power over. And I am aware,
deeply, specifically, of the depredations upon them by Taliban and
Wahhabis. Women! With their swaying hips and lipsticked lips, their
love-button clitorises and utterly annihilating climaxes, and tireless
journeys through orgasm after orgasm while the little male lies beside
them, all soft and pooped-out after two or three (or one, or none).
Women! With their quick laughing highs and hairtrigger lows, all moods
and moodiness beyond a man's understanding or ability to satisfy. With
their skirts and panties and ribbons in their hair and alienness and
doodads on their ears and enormous brown nipples quick to show if some
attractive possibility appears. Women! With the matchless human brain,
most of its possibilities not even explored yet by the human race, and
their counter-revolution and contempt and cry for freedom, whoever's
happiness it leaves in the dust.
There must be some immense...thing happening that could make
intelligent and able males actually choose death to living in a world
such as this, or letting it continue on its all-enveloping way.
And I read what I've written with a sense of wonder. Can a
moral Western intellectual really...?
But in the end you don't have to worry about the likes of
me. A deeply disappointed
but utterly harmless and impotent observer, albeit an acute one, I
pick up no gun and fly no plane. (Unlike them, a
hundred thousand, a hundred million? I can get a grip on my
As the woman's letter praised me:
"You are too good...."