October 17, 2011
Morgenbladet’s review of Thabit’s Terrorist no.20

Morgenbladet’s review of Thabit’s Terrorist no.20

Culture Match in Arabic
Joumana Haddad and Abdullah Thabit’s prominent cultural actors in a world where murder threats of shotguns.

By Lasse Midttun for Morgenbladet, September 2011

Joumana Haddad and Abdullah Thabit, both Arab, but the similarity ends almost there. Haddad is a woman, Thabit a man, she is from Lebanon, he from Saudi Arabia, she is from a city, he from the countryside, she is a Christian, he a Muslim, she is from an intellectual and book player family, he from the simple mountain people with no special literary interests.

It could be legitimate to ask whether there is reason for a joint review. But precisely these many differences also displays the major gaps within the Arabic-speaking world, and demonstrates that any depiction with the same brush is reductionism.


Religion as a shield. Of course, religions and cultures have mutual influence, which is emphasized from the first moments in Abdullah Thabit’s novel The twentieth. Young Zahi growing up in Saudi Arabia, within Islam, of course, but also with other constraints. The village he comes from has their own site-specific customs and traditions. The description of the village people of the province is subtle and speaking:

“There are good people here in Asir province, and they do not do anything wrong, unless they have a reason for it, for example, if someone has made them mad with rage. They can be hot-tempered and always tense. Sometimes pride and arrogance are almost ridiculous (…) They are as fierce as a mountain sun, just as unpredictable as the fog, just as stringent as the frost, as gloomy as the skies.”

One should obviously not lie with the people of Asir Province. But that’s easier said than done if one of the more typical Asirene is your own father.
Zahi is the youngest of a whole flock of brothers. School is hard and scary. But Zahi detects two alternative items to strengthen a young identity: football and faith. This road goes to the youth that combine Quranic reading and religion with sports and recreation.
It is fascinating how religion acts as a shield against the tyranny of the family: the Quranic authority overthrows his father’s, releases him from the structure Zahi grew up with. Only gradually is this freedom limited again: It is for example forbidden to cheer during football matches, because only God can be honored and love for the team is blasphemy. The religious conversations are themselves increasingly darker: visions of hell take over the paradisiacal vistas, intimacy and contemplation is replaced by the aggressive proselytizing and moral campaigns.
Finally, it comes to mean that beating up and destroying people they think are not believers are both viable and commendable.

Hijacker. This is how the book’s title, The twentieth, is explained. Abdullah Thabit felt himself a person undergoing the transformation of Zahi: Ahmed Al-Nami was one of the 19 hijackers in the United States on 11 September 2001. Thabit’s goal with this novel, besides the purely artistic endeavor, is to describe how a Zahi – and Abdullah, for that matter – could have ended as terrorist No. 20 that fateful day. The development is described as a Holi than thou game: The more extreme faith and fighting spirit on behalf of faith, the more respect and esteem you gain. The climax is suicide attack on infidels and blasphemers as the way to salvation.
But Zahi does not end there. He is exposed to others’ envy when he attracts the young disciples, it is about him and the young boys of his on a insinuating and dangerous manner. At the same time he is less willing to continue the extremist track, he starts to feel sorry for those destroyed by the comrades in the self-appointed and increasingly brutal morality police.
Finally expelled himself from the community, he must find a new life, and the road goes through language, through his talent for writing and poetry.

Time for change. As with Joumana Haddad is Abdullah Thabit a controversial writer in his own country. His book was not printed in Saudi Arabia, but in Syria. A major article in the Washington Post reports that Prince Khalid al-Faisal, the governor of Asir provinse, ostentatiously bought 50 copies when he found the book in Lebanon, while others send hate and threat letters. Thabit has moved to the opposite end of Saudi Arabia.
Haddad says on her page right out that she is as provocative as possible. “I live in a country that hates me,” she admits.