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- Published on Amazon.com
Pearl Abraham's powerful novel "American Taliban" is the story of John Jude Parish, turned 19 years old during the course of the book, a scion of privilege, and sole offspring of well-educated, liberal, east coast parents Bill and Barbara Parish. In a story inspired by the real life drama of John Walker Lindh, John Jude, named after Barbara's favorite Beatle and a Beatle song, embraces Islam and takes that to the limit. He winds up with the Taliban in the wilds of Afghanistan.
Abraham deals with major concerns of consciousness, spirituality, and world views in this incisely written tale. John embodies post-modern mentality at the story's beginning, as he loves his Dylan, his Emerson, and his Tao Te Ching, while also talking Muslim spirituality with strangers in a chat room. He loves to surf off the Outer Banks of North Carolina, where he and his pals Katie, Sylvie and Jilly explore the razor's edge of extreme sports with existential aplomb. With his post-modern openness to the truths of all wisdom traditions, he begins to plumb the depths of Islam, and to study classical Arabic, moving to Brooklyn to do so after a broken leg cuts his surfing summer short. His parents support this move, not troubled by the fact that, in his openness, John is beginning to embrace a traditional worldview--a gorgeous, intricate, deeply moving and transcendent sectarian perspective. Sectarian perspective, as in, not open, and propounding the belief that theirs is vastly superior to other faiths.
John, with his romantic, 19th century notion of travelling faraway lands in quest of self-transcendance, leaves his dual love interests in America, and heads off for a summer of study in Pakistan. He is taking his spiritual quest more and more seriously, with a seed of fanaticism expressed in the idea that submission leads to freedom. He is onto something profound, the discovery of the highest self through prayer. He is an ardent student of the Qu'ran and Muslim poetry. He begins to explore his newfound bisexuality. A sensitive reader becomes nervous when an esteemed orator addresses John's Pakistani school with praise for the superior intelligence of the Qu'ran, vis a vis the Bible.
A tragedy occurs back in the States. John is distraught, and it is suggested that he recuperate by taking some rest and relaxation in a camp away from the school, in the hills. This camp is military in focus, and John's break morphs into boot camp.
Abraham does a stellar job of slowly, almost imperceptibly, allowing her character to drift into bad decisions, in the realm of relative, political, truth, while pursuing his absolute ideals. September 11, 2001 occurs while John is on the move with the young men who are the Taliban. Beneath the veil of a largely unknown geopolitical history, and the ugly legacy of Western malfeasance, in the language of religious fanaticism, the Taliban persuade John to take up arms against his own country. John is so caught up in the beauty of the mystical pursuit, and the idea of salvation through annihilation, that he fails to distinguish between profundity and propaganda. His quest for high consciousness is an extreme sport of the most exalted order, but is contaminated by naivete. He's 19 years old, and his new comrades are similarly aged. They enjoy the freedom of having conquered the fear of death. They take up arms and march into a firestorm.
"American Taliban" had me weeping in the final pages. Barbara Parish, John's "force of nature" mother, a Freudian analyst by profession, goes through a cauldron of emotion, and to read about her doing so is harrowing. But, in the denouement, Abraham breaks through to an electrifying level of writing, intoning "There is only becoming. Being doesn't exist" as Barbara's brutally-wrought epiphany, uncovered as she finds a spiritual connection with her son. It's the reader's epiphany, too.