Synopses & Reviews
An avid, near-six-foot-tall surfer, John Jude Parish cuts a striking figure on the beaches of the Outer Banks in North Carolina. When he isn’t on water, John lives on wheels, a self-described skate rat—grinding and kickflipping with his friends, and encouraged by his progressive parents. His hero is the great explorer Richard Burton, his personal prophet is Bob Dylan, and his world is wide open—to new ideas, philosophies, and religions.
Through online forums and chat rooms, John meets a young woman from Brooklyn who spurs his interest in Islam and Arab literature. Deferring Brown University for a year, he moves to the idyllic New York borough to study Arabic. Like Burton, John embraces the experience heart, body, and soul—submitting to Islam, practicing the salaat, fasting and meditating, dancing with dervishes, and encountering the extraordinary. Burton lived the life of a nineteenth-century adventurer, but he also penetrated the ancient wisdom of secret worlds. John will too—with unforeseen consequences.
Critically acclaimed novelist Pearl Abraham uses her gifts of psychological acuity and uncommon empathy to depict a typical upper-middle-class family snared by the forces of history, politics, and faith. In American Taliban, she imagines this young surfer/skater on a distinctly American spiritual journey that begins with Transcendentalism and countercultural impulses, enters into world mysticism, and finds its destination in Islam.
Provocative, unsettling, and written in a brilliantly inventive, refreshingly original voice, American Taliban is poised to become one of the most talked-about novels of the year.
"Abraham (The Seventh Beggar) sends a young man of privilege from Washington. D.C.. on a spiritual quest that takes him from surfing the Outer Banks to encountering jihad in Pakistan. It's 2000, and John Jude Parish is an 18-year-old surfer with a nose for exploring spirituality. He reads about Bob Dylan, digests the Tao, and corresponds online with Arabic friends about Islam. When he breaks a leg, he uses his time of enforced immobility to study Sufi poetry, which leads him, eventually, to Brooklyn, where he befriends a young man from Pakistan who suggests going abroad to learn more about Muslim culture. Once in Pakistan, each small step takes him closer to becoming radicalized. His journey toward Islam is not one of disenchantment, but of enlightenment, described in an evocative prose that mimics the confusion and grandeur of a young man driven by ideals. The novel is at its best when John's questing is an earnest, balanced search for meaning, though when Abraham shifts her focus to John's mother late in the book, the story flattens. Mostly, the book is excellent considered, magnetic, surprising but the fizzled ending is a major disappointment." Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
Critically acclaimed novelist Abraham uses her gifts of psychological acuity and uncommon empathy to depict a typical upper-middle-class family snared by the forces of history, politics, and faith.
About the Author
Pearl Abraham is the author of The Seventh Beggar, Giving Up America, and The Romance Reader, and the editor of an anthology about Jewish heroines in literature, Een sterke vrouw, wie zal haar vinden?. Her stories and essays have appeared in newspapers, literary quarterlies and anthologies. Abraham teaches literature and creative writing at Western New England College and lives in both Springfield, MA, and New York City.
Reading Group Guide
1. The book opens on the morning of John’s 18th birthday, when he is headed down to Cape Hatteras to surf. What is the significance of John’s age? If he’d taken on this journey later in life, say when he was twenty-five, would things have ended differently?
2. John Jude reads the Tao and Whitman, listens to music by Dylan, surfs and skates. Some of these texts and cultural experiences are American. How do they influence him in his journey toward Islam? Does John become a fundamentalist?
3. John Jude Parish is an opened-minded, curious, energetic determined young man, indeed the son every parent would want. What, if anything, goes wrong for him? Could anyone have done anything to prevent John’s disappearance? In other words, who is to blame for the tragedy of this story?
4. After 9/11, some of the ideas John picks up, whether from philosophy or skating, have an ominous ring. Think back to a world before 9/11, when this story begins, and when mystical concepts such as Wu-Wei would not have the resonances they have now. How has 9/11 changed the way we think of religion and mysticism?
5. This story takes place in a very particular time and setting. If this were the sixties, would John Jude have become a hippie? Would he have joined a cult in the seventies or become a communist in the 1950’s? If John had landed in Afghanistan in the 80s, when the Soviets were fighting there and the U.S. was providing material support to the Taliban, how would his story have ended?
6. Noor and Khaled, two of John’s friends who influence his move first to Brooklyn then on to Pakistan, are both safe at the end of the novel, both students who are still in school. Discuss whether any of the characters in the book had evil designs on John, whether they recruited him, whether anyone really sent him on his mission?
7. Does this novel suggest that there is or isn’t a terrorist personality? Could anyone’s son become a terrorist? Why or why not?
8. The John Walker Lindh story, widely reported in the press in 2001 when it happened, hovers over this one; indeed Walker-Lindh makes an appearance late in the book. What is it that a fictional depiction can reveal that newspaper stories of captured terrorists do not. Why is historical fiction a popular and important genre?
9. What are John’s goals for his summer abroad in Pakistan and does he fulfill them? Is it possible to achieve a hidden or higher wisdom without succumbing to religious extremism?
10. In Pakistan, John finds himself desiring sex with another male. Do you think that this is the summer he discovers that he is in fact homosexual? Will he like girls again?
11. John’s dorm mates make fun of his ignorance of colonial history and of the US as an imperialist country. They send him to the library and to a local museum to learn and know. Do you think John ever comes to understand the politics of al Qaeda and the Taliban? Why or why not?
12. What do you make of the early scene in which John first wears the shalwar kameez and upsets Noor and others? What about the scene enroute back from Tangi, when he gives a few hungry kids his power bars? Could these scenes have been the experiences of anyone but an American? Consider how differences in cultures sets us up for clumsy misunderstandings.
13. When Barbara sees John Walker Lindh on TV, she just ASSUMES it is her son. What do you think led her to draw that assumption? Is this believable?
14. Early in the novel, John thinks “If there was anything wrong with modern man and woman, it was this: that in their attempt to grow beyond superstition, in their enlightened embrace of the rational, they abandoned knowledge of the extraordinary, the hidden, the transcendent, the whatever—call it by any name.” Does anyone in this novel learn something that transcends the tragedy? Do you?
15. Although John Jude is the main protagonist of this novel, the story ends on Barbara. How do these final scenes provide an ending for this book? How else might this book have ended?
16. Empathetic depiction, the stuff fiction is made of, offers a reader the opportunity to know and understand someone very different. John sees tremendous poverty up close and his sympathy helps him understand the Taliban’s anger at the Western world, including the USA. Would it have been possible for John to develop the understanding he sought WITHOUT becoming a sympathizer? Could he have found some middle ground between the American and al Qaeda’s positions – or are the two positions moral absolutes?