Terrorist by John Updike. Published by Random House 2006.
Terrorist Minds in a Terrorist World
Terrorist by John Updike is a story about Ahmad Mulloy (Ashmawy), an 18 year old high school student on the verge of graduating but there is something peculiar about Ahmad. He was raised by his Irish mother since he was three (his father went M.I.A.) and at the age of 12 Ahmad wished to study the Qur’an and was devoted to Allah since. The focus is a social commentary primarily on how the population treated Arabic people after 9/11 but through the perspective of the “enemy” (Ahmad) which provides insight into the thought process of a Muslim man. There are also threaded themes of the institution of the family and how single mothers raise their children; the institution of marriage and how relationships deteriorate; the institutions of education and obviously the institution of religion.
From the beginning the point of view, in the third person, jumps right into Ahmad’s inner thoughts of America: that this country is immoral, trashy and deserves to be punished. The point of view sets a disturbing tone in Ahmad’s narrative but he not the only perspective shown. Many characters are developed through their most inner desires such as lust, God, drugs, war…and Ahmad is trapped in the middle of all of it. It was easy to care about what Ahmad chose to do with his life and be tragically let down. There was one significant character that provoked the questioning of his religious beliefs within himself. Her name was Joryleen Grant, an African American teenager who Ahmad views as sinful temptation but as the characters develop Ahmad cannot help himself but to think immoral and lustful thoughts. She is a character who breaks through Ahmad’s barrier yet she is constantly seen as “Little Miss Popular” scornfully through the eyes of Ahmad because she is flirtatious, speaks well, and attracts men by revealing a little too much skin.
“He pictures her smooth body, darker than caramel but paler than chocolate, roasting in that vault of flames and being scorched into blisters; he experiences a shiver of pity, since she is trying to be nice to him…” (9).
Ahmad clearly does not approve of the American way of life just by how he judges Joryleen. He is guided strictly by “God” in his mind through the prose which read like a stream of consciousness passing smoothly through each character’s thoughts. Updike used Arabic excerpts from the Qur’an which can be dauntingly long and easy to overlook. Although it was an interesting concept, the words tended to be skipped over as the prose pushed forward. There is such a gigantic buildup that sizzles out though, as the development of the characters can no longer be exciting and fresh but rather become expected. Ahmad attempts to become a celebrated Muslim which is honored in the eyes of his people but terrorism in the eyes of Americans. This is a great story that deals with a touchy subject and many complicated yet driving emotions.