'The Submission': Learning lessons in aftermath of Sept. 11
The first phase of the Flight 93 Memorial in Shanksville is due to open next month as the nation marks the 10th anniversary of the terrorist assault on America.
The final design was not without its critics as some conflated the ring of trees as an "Islamic crescent." The complaints proved groundless, but they reflected a pervasive national distrust of the Muslim faith as well as individual Muslims that blossomed after Sept. 11.
From the widespread opposition to a Muslim religious center near Ground Zero in New York to the casual remarks by TV pundit Juan Williams that he "gets nervous" when he sees airline passengers in "Muslim garb," associations to anything Islamic can touch raw nerves among many Americans.
Debut novelist Amy Waldman seizes on this reaction in her provocative and smartly conceived book with its ambivalent title.
"The submission" appears initially to be architect Mohammed Khan's winning entry in the novelist's fictional 2003 competition to design a memorial at the World Trade Center site.
"Mo," as his friends call him, is a native American born to Indian immigrant parents, a nonpracticing Muslim without a police record or public political stances, but a solid record of professional achievement.
When the selection by the New York based jury becomes known, it touches off a series of unfortunate and often ugly events centered in New York City that spreads around the world. Ms. Waldman divides her story among these groups:
The panel of jurors headed by Paul Rubin, a Wall Street banker, and its moral leader, Claire Burwell, widow of a Sept. 11 victim.
The Muslim American Coordinating Council with executive director Issam Malik, adroit at putting himself at the center of the public eye, and its lawyer, Laila Fathi, who dresses in business suits and attracts high-profile cases involving Muslim clients. She also attracts the architect's attention.
The Memorial Support Committee founded by Sean Gallagher whose firefighter brother died at the Trade Center. The committee gives his unfocused life a purpose, but also draws the nativist organization Save America From Islam, brainchild of blogger and publicity hound Debbie Dawson.
Finally, the New York media, mostly an incendiary radio talk show host and the right-wing tabloids like the New York Post and its lead reporter on the story, Alyssa Spier, an ambitious, but conventional journalist whose true purpose is to promote herself.
Ms. Waldman herself is a former journalist whose description of the media's herd mentality, insensitivity and exaggerated coverage of hot-button issues reflects little respect for her one-time profession. While she's not alone in that disrespect, her treatment of the media is tinged with a little vengeance.
Spier insinuates herself into confrontations with Khan, his close friend and Claire Burwell using less-than-ethical means, then distorts their comments into splashy Page One exclusives, but her most egregious action exposes a sincere and peaceful Muslim immigrant to shame -- and much worse.
Asma Anwar is a young Bangladeshi mother, also widowed in 9/11 when her janitor husband was killed in the towers. Although she leans on the support of the Bangladeshi community in Brooklyn, she hides the fact that the government granted her a $1.05 million death benefit because jealous countrymen might turn her in as an illegal alien.
In the end, she risks everything to speak her mind at a public meeting on Khan's design because the outcry including occasional violence, has clashed with her sense of what it means to live in the United States and be a Muslim
Through the purity of the devout Asma, Ms. Waldman delivers her message of tolerance in the face of self-interest. Unlike her well-dressed and more eloquent counterpart in loss, Claire, Asma has the humility to subsume her own grief to embrace the suffering of everyone as well as the ideal that America is a country for all.
In her moment of sacrifice, Asma delivers "the truest submission" in that she placed principle above herself.
The novelist's message isn't original and it was often heard above the din from time to time, but within the context of her story, it carries weight as the nation prepares to mark this anniversary.
Ms. Waldman concludes the novel with an epilogue that too neatly sums up the fate of her major characters, but I think its true fault is that it delivers key information on the inspiration for Khan's design that readers needed early on.
Khan's own stubbornness -- in the face of the demands and protests he engenders to explain fully the thinking behind his garden-like memorial -- costs him Claire's support at a crucial time as well as leaves readers in the cold.
It's manipulative in a novel that seems largely driven by honest emotional response to the post-Sept. 11 national mood.
First Published August 14, 2011 12:00 am