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January 13, 2005

'Harbor' — by Lorraine Adams

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This first novel by a Pulitzer Prize-winning former Washington Post investigative reporter is superb.

How a blond-haired American woman, educated at Princeton University, can somehow transmute herself into a desperately poor, semi-terror-stricken Algerian illegal immigrant, so much so that it is as if you yourself were experiencing what it is like to be Abdelaziz Arkoun, is nothing short of a miracle.

I remember once reading that the definition of a great work of art is that it is impossible to understand how it was created.

So.

Anyone who believes that terrorism will be controlled or eliminated by pouring ever more money into surveillance and information-gathering should read this book.

What happens in this story is, on the surface, rather simple: a series of young Algerian men, desperate to escape the nightmare of their own benighted small country's internecine warface, which to date has killed over 100,000 people and continues unabated, make their way to America as stowaways on giant tankers.

They spend months locked below deck in the hold, freezing, starving, at risk of being discovered by the ship's crew and summarily executed and thrown overboard.

On arriving at Boston harbor they leap from the ships, then swim the icy waters to shore and make their way to an enclave of their countrymen in the poorer part of Boston.

There they find safety and shelter and food, living sometimes ten to a small apartment, sleeping in hallways and bathrooms, haltingly learning to speak English while pursuing a succession of dead-end jobs under constant threat of being discovered, jailed, and deported to what for most will be certain death on returning home.

Because not to join a jihadist group in Algeria is to be the enemy.

But to join is to become an enemy of the state.

So it is that they seek harbor in the United States.

Things go badly for some.

They turn to crime: petty theft, credit-card fraud, identity theft, then drug-dealing.

Inevitably, they are confronted by elements of radical Islam and told to assist the effort against the infidels.

At the time in which this book is set, pre-9/11, that means preparing to go to Afghanistan and fight against the U.S. or buying and importing various materials to be used for the construction of bombs.

But the anti-terrorist operation of the U.S. government task force watching Arkoun and his brother and friends can't quite get it right: the facts don't add up, nothing is clear, names are confused, Arabic words can have myriad meanings depending on which country the speaker is from, and the takedown of what is believed by the F.B.I. to be a terrorist cell results in the arrest of the wrong people for the wrong reasons.

Just yesterday in the Washington Post I read a story headlined, "U-MD Gets Center for Terrorism Research."

Daniel de Vise, the reporter, wrote the following:

    Close study of terrorist groups could help the government predict when, where and how the next attack might come.... The researchers will work closely with Homeland Security and other academic centers when they produce knowledge that could thwart an attack or lead to capturing a terror suspect.

    Any such effort will help a U.S. counterterrorism effort that too often bogs down in data that are too vague to prompt action and yet too dire to ignore....

The first thing the University of Maryland should do with the $12 million they're getting is to ask Lorraine Adams to speak.

Then give her a faculty appointment and carte blanche.

January 13, 2005 at 02:01 PM | Permalink


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