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Granta's "Ten years later". Animals and other subjects

Dog multiculturalism
The recurrence of animal imagery in Granta Magazine's powerful collection of fiction and reportage remembering the decade after 9/11, points to the depth of incomprehension and "otherness" that we have been left with
Tony Curzon Price
Tony Curzon Price
29 August 2011

There are a lot of animals in Granta's issue 116, "Ten Years Later", its thoughtful and desperately sad 9/11 memorial issue.

Dogs

There is the mysterious canine chorus of "Laikas I", Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer's haunting story of a marriage proposal from Trevor, a rich loafer to Hilary, a "chick with awesome babe swagger". The stray dogs, left behind by economic hardship, adopt Hilary, saint-like in her open welcome. When they bite and scratch her, that is only, as every lover of the under-dog always says, because of "something stupid I did".

Unfortunately, the pack of strays is infiltrated by sinister, violent and wild coyotes. At first, Hilary thinks they are wolfhounds, "the noblest dogs she had ever seen" - another habit of the lover of the under-dog. But then they tear-apart and eat a couple of schnauzers. That's when she discovers their real identity. Trevor buys a gun - which, she is surprised, actually makes him more attractive - the lone, thoughtful cowboy of her dreams. This is how fear of the coyotes helps Trevor in his plans.

The gun turns out not to be very effective, but the tactic that really works for getting the coyotes out of their life is to have the wild animals show up as a pack at the Toronto Transit Commission subway station - this will officialise the threat, take it out of Hilary and Trevor's amateur vigilante hands. The police are called; they make a great show of doing something, but "the animals jumped the turnstiles and hid underground ... Fact: [the police] never saw one coyote." Nevertheless, the wild animals stay in hiding; they are pushed underground. They become an invisible presence. When Trevor proposes, the good stray dogs know the coyotes are still there, "just outside the sight lines, lurking in shadows, their yips now accelerating toward strangled, deformed howls."

Hilary feels "something dark and sober pressing in on her" as she answers Trevor's proposal. And the oppressive sense of the coyotes, invisible but threatening, seems to play into her answer.

Mike, the Toronto Transit Commission employee who has become frightened of Yusef, the new stall-holder in the subway station, has also acquired something to press on him - a kevlar jacket to protect him from the bullets he is sure Yusef - Osama, as he likes to call him, "it's a joke" - has prepared for him. Shooting dogs - including his own, cancer-ravaged mutt - presses heavily on Sergeant Price in "Redeployment", Phil Kay's sad account of the attempt to re-engage with normality afte a tour in Iraq. "We shot dogs ... We did it on purpose ... I'm a dog person, so I thought about that a lot." 

The dogs in this collection can be frightening, violent, disgusting; but they are also clearly "people", however unfathomable to us.

Prawns

There are the prawns in Adam Johnson's "The Third Mate", a masterful vignette of a confrontation between North Korea and the USA extracted from his novel of the same name. The North Korean trawler has a miraculous catch - "deep-water shrimp, white and blind. Those shrimp, with their large, occluded eyes, it was said, were eaten still wriggling and peppered with caviar, by the Dear Leader himself." The occluded eyes are like the eyes of the crew and its eavesdropping, spying, "Third Mate". Jun Do, who lives by night in his under-deck listening post, is entranced by the intimations he has of a world out there - one of communication, purpose, intent. A world that he feels makes sense, though he is not sure how.

Jun Do allows the simple, innocent second mate to keep abreast of the progress of the two American women who are rowing solo around the world. The second mate is mesmerised: "To row around the world ... only an American would do that! ... What's it take to row around the world? A couple of years? ... what about everyone else, the people they left behind? Don't they give a shit about anybody?" But at this point, the second mate is talking admiringly of their freedom from social constraint.

The American empire, even in its noblest endeavours, has left people behind. Some of them are still treated as no more than blind shrimps. But how should America treat them?

The second mate, "new to whatever heavy thinking was going on in his head" is full of naive admiration for the rowers and their culture. But he is the one who, in a violent confrontation with the America of brute power, tries to teach the navy a lesson. "You can't go around the world doing whatever you want... You can't just up and steal people's hats... Someone has to stop them; someone has to take those ideas out of their heads".

The double face of America is a consistent theme in the collection - one analysed and given historical grounding in Anthony Shadid's descriptions of the "American Market" in Baghdad, full of heavy metal t-shirts and pornographic DVDs, versus Baghdad College, the Jesuit school that educated and inspired a whole elite. 

Ants

Ants make a double appearance: first in Nadeem Aslam's terrifyingly brutal "Punnu's Jihad", then in "A handful of walnuts", the shame-inducing Guantanamo memoir by Ahmed Errachidi.

Punnu, the orphan embroiled deeper than he'd thought into the Afghan war in 2001, realises he is about to be sold out of warlord captivity and on to the Americans for $5,000. He has been tricked to go to a Mosque where he will be handed over. The Mosque is elaborately carved with all the words of the Koran. "Beside him on the facade, an ant is wandering in the shallow trough that forms the word 'Allah', carrying a wheat grain in its mouth, trying to climb out of the word but falling back into it again and again."

Innocent and good, Punnu even tries to save his gaolers. Freezing in the Afghan night, Punnu entreprisingly sets fire to the lichen that has grown on the cadavres of MiGs - small as an ant next to the wrecks, he turns them into "birds made of flames". But there's no way out of the trap. Just as there was none for his cousin who'd been sent to a Madrassa to have "the sacred scipt packed tightly inside him" and who, returning from 7 years learning the Koran on 9/11, shot both his parents dead at point-blank range.

But who's trap is it? The ant may fall again and again into the imprinted script of Allah. But the imprints Punnu sees come also from "the soles of several boots that have left deep imprints on the muddy ground of the bend. America is everywhere. The boots are large, as if saying, 'This is how you make an impression on the world.'" (An impression that is confirmed in the powerfully told history of 100 years of conflict in the tribal North West of Pakistan in Declan Walsh's contribution, 'Jihad Redux'; a "Great Game" is a misnomer indeed: not "great" and certainly no game).

Ants offer a palimpsest of humanity to Ahmed Errachidi in his solitary confinement at Guantanamo. Innocent like Punnu - but also grandiose, bipolar and generous - Errachidi was a cook in London who found himself trying to cook for the Afghan refugees in late 2001 after the American invasion. Sold into the hell of American paranoia by rapacious Pakistani officials. As Punnu had noted about the $5,000 per foreigner head the Americans offered in Afghanistan: "... they are all followers of Islam ... but that much money cuts a lot of religious ties."

Errachidi - saved from insanity by his mania, one feels - welcomes ants into his solitary cell at Guantanamo. "I would sit with them, thoroughly enjoying their company ... These beautiful creatures would visit me in my steel prison, bringing hope and life ... If the guards saw them they would ... crush them beneath their military boots. I would get angry and shout at them, "Do not the ants have a right to life? They do not trouble you, so why do you have to kill them?" When the soldiers found out that we fed the ants, they punished us by cutting our rations ... When the ants came to visit, life would creep back into my dead cell. I would feel hope instead of despair."

Errachidi, who had cooked food for Londoners in a string of restaurants where he had been widely appreciated, managed to recreate a memory of normality by preparing meals, this time only for ants.

The animals in this collection - whether humanised or de-humanised, whether Hilary's strays or the Great Leader's prawns; Errachidi's ants or Punnu's ant - share our living space but are incomprehensible. They are the other but they are also part of us, of our lives, people like us.

Martyrs

Granta's 9/11 10 year memorial is about a decade of dreadful, mistrust, violence and incomprehension towards the other. Amid the gloom of so much of the reflection on these 10 years, however, two pieces point forward to something more hopeful. The first is Tahar ben Jelloun's powerful account of the martyrdom of Mohamed Bouazizi, the street seller who sparked off the Arab Spring. "Mohamed is the universal citizen who runs out of patience ... His dignity has been crushed, trampled beneatht the dirty shoes of the police ... And his sacrifice was not in vain." Mohamed was mis-treated by a whole hierarchy of violence, from the smallest bribe-seeking policeman on the street to the dictator Ben Ali, who supposedly said "Ah! Let him croak!" when told of the self-immolation.

The second message of hope comes from the moving history of the Jesuit-founded Baghdad College (or "collage", as the sign today has it) as told by Anthony Shadid's "The American Age, Iraq". He reminds us of a period between 1945 and some later date - some say 1953, others 1958 or 1967 ... who knows ... - when Americans and Arabs "still occupied a common space or, at least, a shared American and Arab idea of what progress represented. Each still had a sense of the other's goodness ... One of the yearbooks at the American School for Girls (in Baghdad) volunteered its mission this way: "The path of learning leads to ... exploration in science ... explanation in Arabic .... expression in English ... expansion in mathematics ... expectation in art." Shadid finds no one who had been a part of that world who can be optimistic - "To go back to what Iraq was would take a miracle," says Father Sara, an alumnus of the glory days of Baghdad College now at Georgetown University.

Shadid's reconstruction of that relationship in those wonderful years shows very powerfully that there was another reality, another path, one that we can strive to rejoin.

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