What if Israel Were in Germany? An Alternate History

Haroon Moghul in Religion Dispatches, February 23, 2012

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The Mirage: A Novel
by Matt Ruff
Harper , 2012


Not all of Germany, of course, but at least the northern half. Israel emerged after the mighty United Arab States, with its Turkish, Kurdish and Persian allies, crushed the Nazis and put an end to the Holocaust. Then the Middle Easterners helped create the Jewish homeland, and remain its closest allies.

This is also called alternate history. The what if instead of the what is. And since we often like to be surprised, alternate histories are usually good fun. They start you with the world as most everyone knows and accepts it, but then challenge your expectations, presumptions, and comfortable conclusions–that is, how the world is accords with how it should be.

But alternate histories are difficult to pull off. Should history turn out too differently, it becomes entirely unrecognizable, and then the reader wonders: Why not create a standalone fantasy world? Conversely, should the history be too similar, that suggests the author can’t transcend her circumstances. Which is a nice way of saying the author isn’t very imaginative.

At first, The Mirage seems to fall into the latter category. But there’s a far more profound reason for that, which forces us by the end to wonder: What is it about the way the world works that informs our sense of right and wrong? What if the roles were reversed? It’s a point you have to get, or otherwise, as the novel gets going, you’ll begin to feel you’re in a very unoriginal place.

Early on, The Mirage reminded me of Graham Fuller’s A World Without Islam. While the teacher in me appreciated the point of his exercise, the academic in me fretted over the perfect similarities between a world with Islam–our world–and Fuller’s hypothetical world without it. Dig out Islam, Fuller seems to say, and nothing really changes. While Islam is thus revealed to be unexceptional, it also becomes superfluous.

In The Mirage, 9/11 is actually 11/9, the day when Texan Crusaders slammed airliners into Baghdad skyscrapers, sparking a war on terror that rages across a nearly unrecognizable North America, where LBJ has run the U.S. since Kennedy died, the Mormons rule an independent Missouri monarchy, the heartland is another country altogether, and the Rockies are better left alone, a series of war-torn tribal homelands producing fierce warriors.

Soon enough the novel’s main characters, years after 11/9, chasing down criminals and corruption in Baghdad, stumble on something bigger. Captured American terrorists hint that this isn’t the real world; in the real world the Arabs are fragmented, divided, and altogether backwards, while America runs the planet. More uncomfortably, these folks bring evidence from that world, which suggests they may not be making this up.

So: Is it dangerous delusion, prophetic ideology, or something more?

The journey to figure that question out sets The Mirage going. Ruff’s neat asides, where he quotes a Wikipedia-like resource every few chapters to give us background are fun—when did the Arabs come together? Why is oil-rich Texas a Muslim ally?—and the entire exercise is intriguing, but it trumped the story, which seems far less compelling in comparison to this wild context.

In the last few years, we have seen a shift in how Arabs and Muslims are talked about, not just politically, but in the arts and in our culture, too—a shift that only hints at how differently we could be talking about the world in the years to come. A kind of alternate future. It couldn’t hurt to ask Matt Ruff where his idea came from, and what truths his fiction might reveal to us.

Israel is in Germany and the Mormons rule a Missouri monarchy. I think you could do a much better job than me in explaining the doppelgänger world you created…

The Arab states of the Middle East and North Africa are united in a democratic superpower—the UAS—with its capital in Riyadh. Persia, Kurdistan, and Turkey are independent democracies closely allied with the UAS. Israel, as you note, is located in central Europe—the story there is that after the Arabs beat Hitler, they broke Germany in two and gave the northern half to the Jews, something which the Lutherans and Catholics are still fuming about.

North America is a patchwork of dictatorships and Christian theocracies. On November 9, 2001, Christian fundamentalists from the Rocky Mountain Independent Territories hijack four jet planes and fly them into buildings in Baghdad and Riyadh. In retaliation, the Arabs capture Denver and shoot up the surrounding countryside, but after failing to locate the terrorist mastermind, they decide to open a second front in the now global War on Terror.

The obvious target would be the Evangelical Republic of Texas, which supplied the hijackers with their passports, but Texas is a member of OPEC and an Arabian ally, so instead President Bandar decides to invade the Christian States of America, a country on the Eastern Seaboard that had nothing to do with the 11/9 attacks. America is swiftly defeated, and the Arabs set up a Green Zone in Washington, D.C. to oversee what they hope will be a brief occupation. Six years later, when the main story begins, the troops are still there.

Putting Israel in northern Europe was, I have to admit, quite surprising. And Israel’s alliance with an Arab superpower actually reflects how much of Jewish and Muslim history played out prior to the 19th century–Jews and Muslims were back then quite close, much more so than we assume today. I wonder if this alliance had any deeper meaning for you, or if this was simply part another part of turning the world upside down.

Well, initially this was just one of those world-building questions that comes up in a story like this: If the state of Israel still exists, but Palestine is taken, where would Israel go? The idea of giving them part of Germany as reparations for the Holocaust struck me as a plausible enough choice that also allowed for some interesting parallels to what happened in the real world. And once you eliminate the land dispute with the Palestinians and get rid of the Middle Eastern dictators for whom Israel is such a convenient propaganda target, I don’t see any reason why Jews and Muslims couldn’t be close allies—especially if they face a common enemy.

Alternate histories are usually insightful for any number of reasons (and fun for those reasons, too), but why the author chooses to write them can be equally illuminating. What pushed you to write this, and when did you start on it?

Like a lot of novelists, I started thinking about writing a 9/11 story pretty much from the moment the towers fell. I wanted to write something distinctive, though, not just a minor variation on the legion of other 9/11 stories that I knew would be coming. So I bided my time, and watched what other writers were doing, and what they weren’t doing.

And one of the things I noticed was that American storytellers, naturally enough, tended to focus on what 9/11 had done to us. Relatively little attention was paid to the folks bearing the brunt of the War on Terror: the innocents on the ground in places like Iraq, whose only crime was being the wrong kind of people at the wrong moment in history.

So I thought I might try telling a story about them, and maybe in the process get at some more general truths. And in mulling this over I hit on the conceit of turning the world on its head—flipping not just the geopolitical situation, but also the notion of who constitutes a fit protagonist, who matters enough to be the center of the story.

You seem to suggest a world in which similar events happen but the persons and places involved are reversed. It seems like culture and religion matter less than power; a superpower Arabia, largely Muslim, behaves a lot like a superpower America, largely Christian. Is that a fair conclusion?

I’d put it a bit differently. I think that culture and religion matter enormously, but our tendency to stereotype means that we underestimate what particular cultures and religions are capable of. We also have a strong bias towards assuming that the status quo was inevitable, rather than the result of decisions and historical chances that could easily have gone another way. So America is a great power: Well, of course. And the Arab world is fractured, plagued by sectarian violence, and ruled over by brutes like Hussein and Assad: Sad, but what else would you expect?

Except, of course, that it didn’t have to be that way at all—and probably won’t be that way, tomorrow. As to power, the main thing I’d say about that is that in the long run it tends to change hands. And while there are nicer reasons to cultivate an ethic of mercy and fairness, one of the most important ones is: Your turn on the bottom could be next.

Maybe this isn’t the kind of question you, as an author, would like to get, but why do you think the Arab world is in the condition it is in? Do you think that the Arab spring will change things–for people over there, as well as people over here? Recent events certainly intimate a different kind of future than we expected, and feed into what The Mirage conveys…

I’m nowhere near a good enough historian to give a comprehensive answer to your first question, but part of the explanation, obviously, is the meddling of Western powers to whom a genuine commitment to Arab rights and freedoms is not a priority.

I feel even less qualified to make predictions about the Arab Spring, but the fact that the push for change is coming from within rather than being imposed from without seems like grounds for cautious optimism. I hope it pans out, and I also hope that whomever we elect in November doesn’t decide to “help” in ways that do more harm than good.

In the long run, if there were widespread democratic reforms in the Arab world, then I would expect that to change us too, by forcing us to take the human consequences of our foreign policy in the region more seriously. But after listening to the recent Republican debates and to the Obama administration’s defense of its drone assassination program, I think that particular transformation is going to take a while.

This is a book whose lead characters are almost all Arabs and Muslims. Do you think American readers can go for that? Do you think it will be easy to make the readers identify with peoples who are usually ignored, misunderstood, or often even disliked?

I’m pretty optimistic. I think the premise is intriguing enough to overcome whatever initial reservations some readers might have, and once they get into the story I think they’ll find the characters easy enough to relate to. Also, it’s a fast-paced thriller, so if I’m doing my job they should be too busy turning pages to worry about casting conventions.

Did any books or authors inspire you in this direction? What did you read while writing this?

I’m a lifelong [science fiction] geek with a special fondness for alternate histories—Robert Harris’s Fatherland is a touchstone—and stories, like most of Philip K. Dick’s work, that mess with reality generally, and that in doing so make you question things you normally take for granted.

In crafting The Mirage, I read enough about the real history of Iraq and the Middle East so I’d know just how far I was twisting it.

I read accounts of the war-in-progress, like Thomas E. Ricks’ Fiasco, and books like Peter Bergen’s The Osama bin Laden I Know and Lawrence Wright’s The Looming Tower. I read Between Two Worlds, by Zainab Salbi, the daughter of Saddam Hussein’s personal pilot. Most of all I read a lot of news, magazine articles, and all manner of strange things on the internet, to find anecdotes and bits of business I could incorporate into the novel.

The book features a lot of personalities we’ve come to know, and have strong feelings about. At times you put them into very different kinds of roles. Maybe to flip the last question around, was there anything you were writing against? Did any books or authors turn you off?

I wouldn’t say I was writing in opposition to anything so much as, again, looking for a story that hadn’t been told, and trying to put a spotlight on people who hadn’t gotten their fair share of attention. There are characters in The Mirage whose views I disagree with, but there’s no point in arguing with them. Torture is wrong. Murder is wrong. If you don’t already see that, what’s to say? And meanwhile the underlying sin, the one that enables all the others, is a basic failure of empathy. The way you combat that is not by arguing, but by pointing out the thing that’s been overlooked—the humanity of the victims.

Okay, spoiler alert.

In the last few pages of the novel, the surviving characters–I won’t say who–come upon a city, and we are unsure what it’s supposed to be. I have a few guesses, but I’d like to hear how your ending means to escape the trap of us (an American superpower) or them (an Arab superpower), if you follow what I mean.

I think the answer to your question is contained in the title of the epilogue—“The City of the Future”—and in the line that reads, “If [this] is a new world, it is as apt to contain good surprises as bad ones.” The way I escape the trap is by not presuming to dictate what tomorrow will be like—because I don’t know—while acknowledging that uncertainty still leaves room for hope.

RD Associate Editor Haroon Moghul is a doctoral candidate at Columbia University, focusing on Islamic reformism in South Asia and the emergence of the modern Muslim world. He is a Fellow at the Center on National Security at Fordham Law and the author of The Order of Light (Penguin, 2006).