Diary of a nobody

Abu Zubaydah's writings belong to recognizable genres of melodrama such as romantic novels or pop songs

November 21, 2013 7:15AM ET
Abu Zubaydah

Touted as a crucial source for Al-Qaeda's early years, Abu Zubaydah's diary is at first glance a puzzling document. While it has no doubt provided American officials with "actionable" bits of information about a number of militant plots and personalities, this text, which should have presented us with a perfect account of one man's radicalization, appears to do nothing of the sort. As if to explain this curious absence, U.S. authorities occasionally describe it in psychological terms, as an illustration of its author’s "schizophrenia."

Whatever his mental state, Abu Zubayadah's diary is so stereotyped as to belong to a recognizable genre of melodramatic writing such as romantic novels, the lyrics of popular songs or film scripts. Indeed, what is interesting about it is precisely this sentimental narrative, which investigators looking for another kind of stereotyped story — that of radicalization — have missed because of their obsession with the kind of individual responsibility that is familiar from detective stories and Hollywood-style adventures. But if Abu Zubaydah's testimony is anything to go by, radicalization conceived as an individual's momentous conversion to a cause by the urging of certain people, ideas or experiences is nothing more than a myth. Neither some great trauma nor a sinister course of training seems to have played a role in Zubaydah's turn to militancy; only the sentimental, unexceptionable and even nonviolent themes of mass culture.

Begun in 1990, while he was studying computer science in the Indian city of Mysore, Abu Zubaydah's diary is addressed to a future self, as if it were a time capsule meant to remind an older man of his youth. It is this aspect that led to rumors of his schizophrenia, though such a convention is quite in keeping with the genres of mass culture that Zubaydah frequently cites. These include Arabic ballads, Chris de Burgh songs of the 1980s and Hindi films from the early '90s. So when his brother tried to bring Abu Zubaydah back from the anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan, the most persuasive part of his efforts seems to have been references to the 1990 Indian film "Dil" and Chris de Burgh's 1980 song "Sailor," rather than to Islam or the Quran. Very appropriately, de Burgh’s song is about a prisoner or castaway asking a sailor to take him home.

Whatever its truth, the narrative Zubaydah sets down of his early life in Riyadh, complete with bickering parents, an uncaring father, treacherous friends and academic failure, is also a highly mannered one. The theme of a lonely and alienated young man persisted even when Abu Zubaydah tried to claim his manhood by going to fight in Afghanistan. In fact, the neophyte's comrades in arms asked his visiting brother, a doctor, to stay on and send the failed computer scientist home instead. The melodrama never ends, with Zubaydah's diary quoting letters in which his fellow militants and future martyrs profess their love for him. However heroic and even brutal it might become, the kind of masculinity embraced by our author was far removed from macho Hollywood models, but very close to emotional and frequently lachrymose Bollywood ones.

Abu Zubaydah is himself a narrative cliché: Born into an exiled and dysfunctional Palestinian family living as second-class subjects in Saudi Arabia, he first escapes a life of failure to study at a second-rate college in Mysore, and then moves on to achieve another kind of qualified success in the Afghan jihad. How far can we rely upon his stereotyped account? More important than the answer to this question, perhaps, is the fact that his storyline has no room for radicalization in it. We move straight from Abu Zubaydah's guilty bouts of non-penetrative sex with his unattractive maid Philomena (translated as "Flumina" in the diaries), who we are told pursued him relentlessly in Mysore, to the train that takes him first to Delhi and then, through Pakistan, to a training camp in Afghanistan. On the way to join the jihad, all he can think of is securing a sleeping berth on the train. Quite apart from any reluctance he may have felt in revealing the name of some "recruiter," Zubaydah neither quotes the Quran and traditions of the Prophet, nor makes any reference to the infidel enemy and his hatred of their oppression when deciding to become a holy warrior. Indeed, there is no reason at all given for joining the jihad, which suggests that rather than being a transformative event, it might well have been as ordinary and uncertain a decision as that which Abu Zubaydah made when traveling to India for his education.

There is no 'cause' for radicalization outside the quotidian themes of mass culture in a global arena where militancy operates as an open secret.

Alongside other figures associated with Al-Qaeda, Abu Zubaydah possesses no worked-out ideology of a kind familiar since the last century with communism, liberalism or fascism. When, in 1990, on his way to Pakistan, he hears news of Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait, and writes about the American mobilization of forces against Iraq, Zubaydah makes no further comment. There is no attempt to fit what he recognizes is an important event into some teleological account of Islamic history. Instead of an all-embracing ideology, what we get are fragmentary arguments and disconnected phrases about the caliphate, the importance of individual jihad, recovering Palestine or defending the Muslim "ummah," or global Muslim community.  What else to expect from the cosmopolitan and polyglot society of a training camp that included American converts to Islam and North African migrants to Europe, men who shared little if anything by way of background or culture?

Like the Saudi Arabia in which Abu Zubaydah grew up, with its enormous population of migrant workers, the camp that appears so regimented from the outside represented, in reality, a cultural microcosm of the globe. For however repressive they might otherwise be, these supposedly uniform spaces are very likely more cosmopolitan than, say, those of Anglo-American urban life. After all, Saudis are not only exposed to mass culture from Europe, America and Asia, but must inevitably speak Hindi, Urdu and English, and other languages, if only to speak to their servants, doctors, waiters and shopkeepers.

However secretive his life will become, Abu Zubaydah, like many other militants, exhibits no cultic behavior in his diary. There is no hidden knowledge or tradition here, no cloistered world in which young men can be "brainwashed" in the old-fashioned way by which religious cults and clandestine organizations are meant to work — by separating inductees from their previous lives or family to create an entirely new environment and fictitious kin for them. And yet we see that Abu Zubaydah remains in touch with his relatives, while other figures in Al-Qaeda, most famously Osama bin Laden himself, lead ordinary family lives in the camps, which were indeed places where women and children came and went. Yet without an ideology there can be no radicalization of the laborious kind we have come to know from the Cold War, in which individuals are "indoctrinated" into the communist or capitalist way of life by "re-education," propaganda or even consumerism. And because there is no single doctrine, but instead some overlapping if incomplete lines of argument, there cannot be a militant personality either.

Rather a number of role models exist, with militants free to adopt first one kind and then another. After all, Zubaydah himself was initially a jihad tourist who returned to his studies in India. Whether or not it is biographically accurate, therefore, Abu Zubaydah's melodramatic narrative offers us a greater insight into his behavior than some standard-issue account of radicalization. It tells us how the commonplace themes and sentiments of mass culture, perfectly innocuous in themselves, might be of more consequence to global forms of militancy than traditional ideologies. Emerging as it does from the structures and sentiments of everyday life, in which we all make decisions on the basis of half-reasoned arguments, militant behavior draws upon an almost inexhaustible source and is highly flexible within the limits it sets for itself.   

As he sinks into the life of jihad, of course, Abu Zubaydah's narrative also changes, and while remaining sentimental, comes to include newer themes having to do with battle, martyrdom and the hatred of Jews. And yet he never quite gives up on his previous persona, as we see when a generic phrase in the diary, about India being the land of Hindu polytheists, is written down and then crossed out. For we already know from his earlier entries that Abu Zubaydah liked India and had only good things to say about his Hindu acquaintances there — his disagreements, in fact, being only with Muslim friends, who he thought had taken financial advantage of him. As a fair-skinned Arab in India, he is not only presumed to be attractive but rich as well, and thus a target for fraud. So his diary describes how a Muslim family Abu Zubaydah had befriended suddenly left town, because of rumors that he was paying for sexual favors from the man's beautiful wife. But Zubaydah's shift from one kind of role to another — from the gullible foreigner in India to the virtuous militant in Afghanistan, for example — in each case remains mysterious. And this is so because there is no "cause" for radicalization outside the quotidian themes of mass culture in a global arena where militancy operates as an open secret.   

Dr. Faisal Devji is Reader in Indian History and Fellow of St. Antony's College at the University of Oxford. He is the author of four books, most recently "Muslim Zion: Pakistan as a Political Idea."    

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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