Published January 16, 2022
A Pakistani boy during a December 2010 protest against US drone attacks on North Waziristan in Islamabad | AFP
A Pakistani boy during a December 2010 protest against US drone attacks on North Waziristan in Islamabad | AFP

There are some books that are absolutely impossible not to admire, and The American Way: Stories of Invasion is one of them.

In it, British journalist and courageous founder of Comma Press, Ra Page, and notable Havana-based journalist Orsola Casagrande, take on the Herculean task of compiling a collection of 20 short semi-fictional pieces by fine creative writers, each of which is accompanied by an erudite, non-fictional explanation of the specific conflict-ridden historical background to each story.

The editors’ agendum is far from veiled or apologetic: they seek to expose the manner in which American imperialism has worked over decades, generally by means of involvement of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) of the United States, in helping the superpower consolidate its position on the world’s geopolitical stage.

In their introduction, the editors mention the work of Frantz Fanon — the French West Indian psychiatrist and philosopher and major decolonisation expert — but the work goes far beyond even that critic’s vision in positing that American dominance, cultural colonisation and imperialism have been moulding modern history from the 1940s to the present day, often with horrific and far-reaching consequences.

Every single one of these big brother-little brother pairs of literary craftsmanship is worth an extensive perusal and the book is not for the faint-hearted, or for those who wish to engage in light reads.

A collection of semi-fictional pieces based on real events and people interrogates American imperialism

‘Please Step Out of the Vehicle’ by Lidudumalingani is a fascinating story on how the Agency grabbed hold of former president of South Africa Nelson Mandela’s chauffeur and, by means of a stranglehold of terror, manipulated him into spying on his boss and eventually betraying him (partly unintentionally).

Another equally impressive piece is ‘Petit Four’ by Huseyin Karabey, which tells how a CIA agent was placed in Turkey and given the task of safeguarding one of the most valuable of Nazi hunters — who had been the nemesis of none other than the notorious German Adolf Eichmann. Ironically, this Jewish gentleman was also one of the founders of the respected and feared Israeli secret service agency, Mossad!

However, the book is egalitarian in its approach. Some of the stories’ protagonists, such as in the sections on Iran and Kurdistan, are young girls. Others, such as the one in Pakistani writer Bina Shah’s beautifully written piece, ‘A Bird with One Wing’, on drone attacks in Pakistan, are young, relatively uneducated women. Shah’s protagonist, Zayghrun, is the sole survivor of a drone attack that effectively destroys everyone on a bus except for her, and the story ends on a touching note, whereby the heroine gets some personal peace from knowing that she will continue to be there for her only child, who is afflicted with Down Syndrome.

In ‘Runner in White’, author and screenplay writer Payam Nasser dwells on the tensions between the Shah of Iran and former prime minister Mohammad Mossadegh, but the main character of this story is a young girl with a heart condition, whose father gets into trouble with the government for writing spiritedly on politics.

The female protagonist of ‘Soramin’s Diary’ by A. Haluk Unal in the Kurdistan section is a gutsy girl with flaming red hair who goes on a hunger strike in order to get her family to listen to her — one is repeatedly reminded in these tales that war tends to bend the psyches of people grossly out of shape, until they lose touch with anything remotely resembling normal.

Speaking of ‘normal’, Canadian writer Paige Cooper’s terrifying piece ‘Conditions’, on psychological experiments carried out by a sadistic and brilliant doctor, overseen discreetly but unmistakably by the CIA itself, reads — as its critical commentator notes — like something out of dystopian horror fiction, but the experiments were very much true. Just as one thinks things can’t get any worse, psychological atrocities end up being complemented by unspeakable physical crimes.

The section on Baghdad and the Abu Ghraib prison is particularly well written. The fictional segment ‘Babylon’ (the name of a song) by Hasan Blasim focuses on a meeting between two damaged survivors of the Iraq-based ordeal, where one of them comments on how he was tortured brutally in various ways, including being forced to listen to heavy metal music.

The critical commentary about Abu Ghraib makes the auditory torture depicted in Anthony Burgess’s novel A Clockwork Orange look as innocuous as something out of Mother Goose. I made special note of the fact that one of the actual overseers of the torture centres was a callous, nonchalant woman — this type of thing is rare; over 90 percent of serial killers and psychopathic individuals are male, but the occasional, truly frightening woman is always especially terrifying.

There is very little redeeming or alleviating humour in these tales, naturally, but there are brief instances of deep and heart-rending beauty. Fariba Nawa’s piece ‘Surkhi’ [Redness], that plays out against a backdrop of Afghan tensions, is a story of love gone wrong.

In the section on Grenada, Jacob Ross’s ‘The Gathering Voice’ hauntingly depicts a mother wailing as her son is lost in warfare, and the protagonist of Najwa bin Shatwan’s piece on Libya is a formidable nonagenarian grandmother named Saliha, who has survived everything ranging from colonial terrors to scorpions that disturb her sleep.

Coups, such as the one that ousted Salvador Allende from the presidency in Chile, are viewed in Ahmel Echevarría Peré’s ‘Goodbye, Moskvitch’, through the conflicting eyes of a world-weary academic and her fusspot of a mother, who herself actively participated in protests when younger. But aside from the occasional moment of beauty, the work depicts how heinously ugly some acts committed by humans can be: ‘An American Hero’ by Gianfranco Bettin, a fictional piece on the Italian bombings of 1969, makes note of especially sordid and violent rapes of women involving objects as bizarre as vacuum cleaners and broomsticks.

As the non-fictional commentaries — done by people as diverse as British university professors and international journalists and filmmakers — demonstrate, in many cases the CIA was responsible for much of the strife that arose in countries such as Vietnam, Nicaragua, Colombia, Gaza and the Congo, among others.

Famous figures such as Cuba’s Fidel Castro and the Congo’s Patrice Lumumba make their appearances in the tales, but so, too, do wretched young male soldiers and strongly oppressed commoners, including many women and children.

The era of Ronald Reagan is highlighted as having been especially sinister, although obviously neither Richard Nixon, nor George W. Bush, nor even Joe Biden come out smelling like roses. Perusing the book reminded me of Margaret Atwood’s insightful poem ‘The Loneliness of the Military Historian’, on how one ideally should recoil from warfare and strife.

In conclusion, all I can state is that there is no doubt that, in their own way, Page and Casagrande have helped to prove that the pen is mightier than the sword.

The reviewer is assistant professor of social sciences and liberal arts at the Institute of Business Administration, Karachi

The American Way: Stories of Invasion
Edited by Ra Page and Orsola Casagrande
Comma Press, UK
ISBN: 978-1912697397

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, January 16th, 2022



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