A Novelist Looks at 9/11

Danuta Hinc

Danuta Hinc, author of To Kill the Other

Hinc tells her story masterfully by weaving multiple perspectives, revealing the core of human sorrow and the transcendent quality of compassion.

–Chukwudi Okpala, author of The Uncircumcised

Danuta Hinc’s novel To Kill the Other distills three decades of geo- and socio-political forces to their impact on the protagonist, Taher, an upper class Egyptian boy who at 33 years of age will become a 9/11 hijacker on one of the planes flown into the World Trade Center. The chapters are divided geographically and chronologically, each representing a pivotal phase of his metamorphosis.

Taher’s family consider him a miracle baby. After his twin sister is born, the doctors and nurses leave the mother and child to tend to soldiers wounded by Israeli shelling of their city of Ismaïlia on the west bank of the Suez Canal. As the family members combat their grief that their firstborn is a girl, Taher, a surprise twin, arrives.

From the time Taher is seven, his father takes him on a retreat to the desert to teach the boy what it means to be a man. “A man makes decisions by himself. Nobody can do it for him,” his father says. On these retreats, Taher develops a close and life-altering relationship with his cousin Ahmed, 11 years Taher’s senior.

After the assassination of Anwar El Sadat in the fall of 1981, Ahmed is among the 800 reformers arrested. Upon his release in 1984, he recites tales of prison horrors and torture. He shows Taher his prison Qur’an, bloody from torture. In it, he keeps a photograph of a toddler who became the emblem of the prisoners’ fight. The child is so mangled by Israeli bombs that his gender is indiscernible. Years later, Taher will discover that the child was actually an Israeli, the victim of a Palestinian bomb.

Impassioned by the prison atrocities that Ahmed labels crimes against Islam, Taher leaves his final year in high school to join Ahmed on what he considers the front lines of the war to preserve Islam, the war against the Russians in Afghanistan.

Hinc skillfully appeals to all of the senses, contrasting the cold and fear in an Afghani cave and the serenity of Taher’s Egyptian home. The author’s aesthetic descriptions and imagery are haunting. Spiders, poisonous lizards and a painting that comes to life in flickering candlelight border on magical realism.

In Afghanistan, Taher encounters several expertly drawn secondary characters in the freedom fighter subculture who are not backward zealots or country folk. They, along with Taher, have long, erudite, Dostoeveskian debates about good and evil and the meaning of life and death.

Out of these experiences, a friendship grows with a Pole named Marek. He joined the Mujahideen to avenge the death of his mother, who had been shot by Russians in Poland. The most beautiful and intimate writing of the book centers around Marek’s memories of Poland, Hinc’s native country.

Marek and Taher take separate paths after the war. Taher helps Ahmed smuggle antibiotics and money for weapons into a Palestinian refugee camp. In the camp, Taher is horrified by the use of children in their war, telling them,“The killing will turn against you. Eventually, one day you will see it.”

In 1995, Taher visits Marek and his wife and twins in New York City. Taher is repulsed by how Western his friend has become yet envies the intimacy Marek has with his wife. Marek shares how his philosophy on life has evolved. “Killing the opponent makes you die because there are no more moves for you either,” Marek says.

Taher returns to Afghanistan, this time to a terrorist training camp. Although some of the coincidences are implausible, they are allowable in fiction. Hinc does not employ stock characters: a Palestinian has a Jewish ancestor, a Jew who believes in Jesus is married to a Muslim. Unlike many works about violence, the author neither condemns nor defends Taher’s actions. The reader is left to draw his or her own conclusions. Underpinning the entire novel is the universal quest for human connection that is repeatedly taken from Taher through loss.

Danuta Hinc is on the faculty of Howard Community College in Columbia, Maryland, where she teaches Developmental Writing, Composition Writing and First Year Experience. She was born near Gdańsk, Poland, and emigrated to the United States in 1991 after completing her studies in the history of language and classical literature at the University of Gdańsk.

Her stories were published in the Winter 2010 and Winter 2011 issues of the Little Patuxent Review, and she will read excerpts from “Singing to an Ocean” at the January 30 launch of the Winter 2011, Water issue. She will also participate in an LPR Salon Series event on February 7, where she will read from To Kill the Other and sign copies.

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4 thoughts on “A Novelist Looks at 9/11

  1. I am not sure I agree completely that “the author neither condemns nor defends Taher’s actions.” Simply portraying the cold brutality of the hijacking–both in the opening scene with the flight stewardess and the closing act as mass violence–is the greatest condemnation of terrorism I can imagine.

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  2. Pingback: Pre-release reading and signing of To Kill the Other « Danuta Hinc

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