The Last Days of Muhammad Atta
By Martin Amis

No physical, documentary, or analytical evidence provides a convincing explanation of why [Muhammad] Atta and [Abdulaziz al] Omari drove to Portland, Maine, from Boston on the morning of September 10, only to return to Logan on Flight 5930 on the morning of September 11.—”The 9/11 Commission Report.”

I

On September 11, 2001, he opened his eyes at 4 A.M., in Portland, Maine; and Muhammad Atta’s last day began.

What was the scene of this awaken­ing? A room in a hotel, of the type designated as “budget” in his guide­book—one step up from “basic.” It was a Repose Inn, part of a chain. But it wasn’t like the other Repose Inns he had lodged at: brisk, hygienic establish­ments. This place was ponderous and labyrinthine, and as elderly as most of its clientele. And it was cheap. So. The padded nylon bedcover as weighty as a lead vest; the big cuboid television on the dresser opposite; and the dented white fridge—where, as it happened, Muhammad Atta’s reason for coming to Portland, Maine, lay cooling on a shelf…. The particular frugality of these final weeks was part of a peer­group piety contest that he was laconi­cally going along with. Like the others, he was attending to his prayers, dis­bursing his alms, washing often, eating little, sleeping little. (But he wasn’t like the others.) Days earlier, their surplus operational funds-about twenty-six thousand dollars-had been abstemi­ously wired back to the go-between in Dubai.

He slid from the bed and called Ab­dulaziz, who was already stirring, and perhaps already praying, next door. Then to the bathroom: the chore of ab­lution, the ordeal of excretion, the tor­ment of depilation. He activated the shower nozzle and removed his under­shorts. He stepped within, submitting to the cold and clammy caress of the plastic curtain on his calf and thigh. Then he spent an unbelievably long time trying to remove a hair from the bar of soap. The alien strand kept changing its shape—question mark, infinity symbol—but stayed in place; and the bar of soap, no bigger than a matchbook when he began, barely existed when he finished. Next, as sometimes happens in these old, massive, and essentially well­intentioned and broad-handed hotels, the water gave a gulp and then turned, in an instant, from a tepid trickle to a molten blast; and as he struggled from the stall he trod on a leaking shampoo sachet and fell heavily and sharply on his coccyx. He had to kick himself out through the steam, and rasped his head on the shower’s serrated metal sill. After a while he slowly climbed to his feet and stood there, hands on hips, eyes only lightly closed, head bowed, awaiting recovery. He dried himself with a thin white towel, catching a hangnail in its shine.

Now, emitting a sigh of unqualified grimness, he crouched on the bowl. He didn’t even bother with his usual scowl­ing and straining and shuddering, partly because his head felt dangerously engorged. More saliently, he had not moved his bowels since May. In general his upper body was impressively lean, from all the hours in the gym with the “muscle” Saudis; but now there was a solemn mound where his abdominals used to be, as taut and proud as a four-­month pregnancy. Nor was this the only sequela. He had a feverish and unvary­ing ache, not in his gut but in his lower back, his pelvic saddle, and his scrotum. Every few minutes he was required to wait out an interlude of nausea, while disused gastric juices bubbled up in the sump of his throat. His breath smelled like a blighted river.

The worst was yet to come: shaving. Shaving was the worst because it neces­sarily involved him in the contemplation of his own face. He looked downward while he lathered his cheeks, but then the chin came up and there it was, revealed by the razor in vertical strips: the face of Muhammad Atta. A year ago, after Af­ghanistan, he had said goodbye to his beard. Tangled and oblong and slightly off center, it had had the effect of soft­ening the disgusted lineaments of his mouth, and it had wholly concealed the frank animus of his underbite. His in­sides were seized, but his face was some­how incontinent, or so Muhammad Atta felt. The detestation, the detestation of everything, was being sculpted on it, from within. He was amazed that he was still allowed to walk the streets, let alone enter a building or board a plane. Another day, one more day, and they wouldn’t let him. Why didn’t everybody point, why didn’t they cringe, why didn’t they run? And yet this face, by now al­most comically malevolent, would soon be smiled at, and perfunctorily fussed over (his ticket was business class), by the doomed stewardess.

A hypothesis. If he stood down from the planes operation, and it went ahead without him (or if he somehow sur­vived it), he would never again be able to travel by air in the United States or anywhere else—not by air, not by train, not by boat, not by bus. The profiling wouldn’t need to be racial; it would be facial, merely. No sane man or woman would ever agree to be confined in his vicinity. With that face, growing more gangrenous by the day. And that name, the name he journeyed under, itself like a promise of vengeance: Muhammad Atta.

In the last decade, only one human being had taken obvious pleasure from setting eyes on him, and that was the Sheikh. It had happened at their intro­ductory meeting, in Kandahar—where, within a matter of minutes, the Sheikh had appointed him operation leader. Muhammad Atta had known that the first thing he would be asked was whether he was prepared to die. But the Sheikh was smiling, almost with eyes of love, when he said it. “The question isn’t nec­essary,” he began. “I see the answer in your face.”

The Colgan Air commuter flight to Logan was scheduled to leave at six. So he had an hour. He put on his clothes (the dark-blue shirt, the black slacks), and settled himself at the dresser, awk­wardly, his legs out to one side. Two doc­uments were before him. He yawned, then sneezed. While shaving, Muham­mad Atta, for the first time in his life, had cut himself on the lip (the lower); with surprising speed the gash had set­tled into a convincing imitation of a cold sore. Much less unusually, he had also nicked the fleshy volute of his right nos­tril, releasing an apparently endless sup­ply of blood; he kept having to get up and fetch more tissues, leaving behind him a paper trail of the stanched gouts. The themes of recurrence and prolonga­tion, he sensed, were already beginning to associate themselves with his last day.

Document No. 1 was displayed on the screen of his laptop. It was his last will and testament, composed in April, 1996, when the thoughts of the group had turned to Chechnya. Two Moroc­can friends, Mounir and Abdelghani, both devout, had been his witnesses, so he had included a fair amount of formu­laic sanctimony. Any old thing would do. “During my funeral, I want every­one to be quiet because God mentioned that he likes being quiet on three occa­sions, when you recite the Koran, dur­ing the funeral, and when you are crawl­ing.” Crawling? Had he mistyped? Another provision stared out at him, and further deepened his frown: “The person who will wash my body near my genitals must wear gloves on his hands so he won’t touch my genitals.” And this: “I don’t want a pregnant woman or a person who is not clean to come and say goodbye to me because I don’t approve of it.” Well, these anxieties were now ac­ademic. No one would say goodbye to him. No one would wash him. No one would touch his genitals.

There was another document on the dresser’s surface, a four-page booklet in Arabic, put together by the information office in Kandahar (and bound by a grimy tassel). Each of them had been given one; the others would often pro­duce their personal copies and nod and sway and mutter over them for hour after hour. But Muhammad Atta wasn’t like the others (and he was paying a price for it). He had barely glanced at the thing until now. “Pull your shoelaces tight and wear tight socks that grip the shoes and do not come out of them.” He supposed that this was sound advice. “Let every one of you sharpen his knife and kill his animal and bring about com­fort and relief of his slaugh­ter.” A reference, presumably, to what would happen to the pilots, the first officers, the flight attendants. Some of the Saudis, they said, had butchered sheep and camels at Khaldan, the training camp near Kabul. Muhammad Atta did not expect to relish that part of it: the ex­emplary use of the box cutters. He pic­tured the women, in their uniforms, in their open-necked shirts. He did not expect to like it; he did not expect to like death in that form.

Now he sat back, and felt the ap­proach of nausea: it gathered round him, then sifted through him. His mind, inasmuch u it was separable from his body; was close to the “complete tran­quillity” praised and recommended by Kandahar. A very different kind of thirty-three-year-old might have felt the same tranced surety while contem­plating an afternoon in a borrowed apartment with his true love (and sexual obsession). But Muhammad Atta’s mind and his body were not separable: this was the difficulty; this was the mind-body problem—in his case, fan­tastically acute. Muhammad Atta wasn’t like the others, because he was doing what he was doing for the core reason. The others were doing what they were doing for the core reason, too, but they had achieved sublimation, by means of jihadi ardor, and their bodies had been convinced by this arrangement and had gone along with it. They ate, drank, smoked, smiled, snored; they took the stairs two at a time. Muhammad Atta’s body had not gone along with it. He was doing what he was doing for the core reason and for the core reason only.

“Purify your heart and cleanse it of stains. Forget and be oblivious of the thing which is called World.” Muham­mad Atta was not religious; he was not even especially political. He had allied himself with the militants because jihad was, by many magnitudes, the most charismatic idea of his gener­ation. To unite ferocity and rectitude in a single word: nothing could compete with that. He played along with it, and did the things that im­pressed his peers; he collected citations, charities, pilgrim­ages, conspiracy theories, and so on, as other people col­lected autographs or beer mats. And it suited his char­acter. If you took away all the rubbish about faith, then fundamentalism suited his character, and with an almost sinister precision.

For example, the attitude toward women: the blend of extreme hostility and extreme wariness he found highly congenial. In addition, he liked the idea of the brotherhood, although of course he thoroughly despised the current contingent, particularly his fellow-pilots: Hani (the Pentagon) he barely knew, but he was continuously enraged by Marwan (the other Twin Tower) and almost fascinated by the pitch of his loathing for Ziad (the Capitol)…. Adultery punished by whipping, sod­omy by burial alive: this seemed about right to Muhammad Atta. He also joined in the hatred of music. And the hatred of laughter. “Why do you never laugh?” he and the others were some­times asked. Ziad would answer, “How can you laugh when people are dying in Palestine?” Muhammad Atta never laughed, not because people were dy­ing in Palestine but because he found nothing funny. The thing which is called World. That, too, spoke to him. World had always felt like an illusion—an un­real mockery.

“The time between you and your marriage in heaven is very short.” Ah, yes, the virgins: six dozen of them—half a gross. He had read in a news magazine that “virgins,” in the holy book, was a mistranslation from the Aramaic. It should be “raisins.” He idly wondered whether the quibble might have some­thing to do with “sultana,” which meant (a) a small seedless raisin, and (b) the wife or concubine of a sultan. Abdul­aziz, Marwan, Ziad, and the others: they would not be best pleased, on their arrival in the Garden, to find a little red packet of Sun-Maid Sultanas (Average Contents 72). Muhammad Atta, with his two degrees in architecture, his ex­cellent English, his excellent German: Muhammad Atta did not believe in the virgins, did not believe in the Garden. (How could he believe in such an im­plausibly, and dauntingly, priapic para­dise?) He was an apostate: that’s what he was. He didn’t expect paradise. What he expected was oblivion. And, strange to say, he would find neither.

He packed. He paused and stooped over the dented refrigerator, then straightened up and headed for the door.

In its descent the elevator, with a succession of long-suffering sighs, stopped at the twelfth, the eleventh, the tenth, the ninth, the eighth, the sev­enth, the sixth, the fifth, the fourth, the third, and the second floors. Old peo­ple, their faces flickering with distrust, inched in and out while they did so, one of their number would press the open­-doors boom with a defiant, Marfanic thumb. And at this hour, too: it was barely light. Muhammad Atta briefly horrified himself with the notion that they were all lovers, returning early to their beds. But no: it must be the sleep­lessness, the insomnia of age—the dawn vigils of age. Their efforts to stay alive, in any case, struck him as essentially ig­noble. He had felt the same way in the hospital the night before, when he went to see the imam…. Consulting his watch every ten or fifteen seconds, he decided dut this downward journey was dead time, as dead as time could get, like queueing, or an interminable red light, or staring stupidly at the baggage on an airport carrousel. He stood there, hemmed in by pallor and decay, and martyred by compound revulsions.

Abdulaziz was waiting for him in the weak glow and piped music of the lobby. Wordless, breakfastless, they joined the line for checkout. More dead time passed. As they fell into step and pro­ceeded through the last of the night to the parking lot, Muhammad Atta, in no very generous spirit, considered his col­league. This particular muscle Saudi seemed as limply calflike as Ahmed al Nami—the prettyboy in Ziad’s platoon. On the other hand, Abdulaziz, with his softly African face, his childish eyes, was almost insultingly easy to dominate. He had a wife and a daughter in southern Saudi Arabia. But this was like saying that he had a flatbed truck in southern Saudi Arabia, so little did it appear to weigh on him. He had also, incredibly, performed certain devotional duties at his local mosque. And yet it was Abdul­aziz who carried the knife, Abdulaziz who was ready to apply it to the flesh of the stewardess.

When they reached their car Abdul­aziz said a few words in praise of God, adding, with some attempt at panache, “So. Let us begin our ‘architectural studies.'”

Muhammad Atta felt his body give an involuntary jolt. “Who told you?” he said.

“Ziad.”

They loaded up and then bent them­selves into the front seats.
Abdulaziz wasn’t supposed to know about that—about the target code. “Law” was the Capitol. “Politics” was the White House. In the discussions with the Sheikh there had been firm concur­rence about “architecture” (the World Trade Center) and “arts” (the Penta­gon), but they had disagreed about an altogether different kind of target, namely “electrical engineering.” This was the nuclear power plant that Mu­hammad Atta had seen on one of his training flights near New York. Puz­zlingly, the Sheikh had withheld his blessing–despite the presumably attrac­tive possibility of turning large swathes of the Eastern seaboard into a plutonium cemetery for the next seventy millen­nia (that is, until the year 72001). The Sheikh gave his reasons (restricted air­space, no “symbolic value”). But Mu­hammad Atta sensed a moral qualm, a silent suggestion that such a move could be considered exorbitant. It was the first and only indication that, in their cosmic war against God’s enemies, there was any kind of upper limit. Muham­mad Atta often asked himself: Was the Sheikh prepared to die? In the course of their conversations it had emerged that the Sheikh, while plainly reconciled to eventual martyrdom (he would have it no other way, and so on), felt little personal attraction to death; and he would soon be additionally famous, Muhammad Atta prophesied, for the strenuousness with which he eluded it.
These meetings and discussions—with the Sheikh and, later, with his Ye­meni emissary, Ramzi bin al-Shibh—now lost weight and value in Muham­mad Atta’s mind, tarnished by Ziad’s indiscipline, by Ziad’s promiscuity (and, if Abdulaziz knew, then all the Saudis knew). He thought back to his historic conversation with Ramzi, on the tele­phone, in the third week of August.
“Our friend is anxious to know when your course will begin.”
“It would be more interesting to study ‘law’ when Congress has convened.”
“But we shouldn’t delay. With so many of our students in the U.S….”
“All right. Two branches, an oblique stroke, and a lollipop.”
Ramzi called him back and said, “To be clear. The eleventh of the ninth?”
“Yes,” Muhammad Atta confirmed. And he was the first person on earth to say it—to say in that way: “September eleventh.”
He had cherished the secret until Sep­tember 9th. Now, of course, everyone knew: the day itself had come. He was impatient for his talk on the phone with Ziad, which was scheduled for 7 A.M. Ziad was still claiming that he hadn’t de­cided between “law” and “politics.” It looked like “law.” As a target, the Presi­dents house had lost much of its appeal when they’d established, insofar as they could, that the President wouldn’t be in it.

At that moment the President was readying himself for an early-morning run in Sarasota, Florida, where Muham­mad Atta had been taught how to fly, at Jones Aviation, in September, 2000.

It was during the drive to Portland International Jetport that the head­ache began. In recent months he had become something of a connoisseur of headaches. And yet those earlier head­aches, it now seemed, were barely worth the name: this was what a headache was. At first he attributed its virulence to his misadventure in the shower stall; but then the pain pushed forward over his crown and established itself, like an elec­tric eel, from ear to ear, then from eye to eye—and then both. He had two head­aches, not one, and they were apparently at war. The automobile, a Nissan Altima, was brand-new, factory-fresh, and this had seemed like a mild bonus on Sep­tember 10th, but now its vacuum-packed breath tasted of seasickness and the smell of ships below the waterline. Suddenly his vision became pixellated with little swarms of blind spots. So it was then re­quired of him to pull over and tell an as­tonished Abdulaziz to take the wheel.

There seemed to be a completely un­reasonable weight of traffic. Americans, already about their business … Tor­menting his passenger with regular glances of concern, Abdulaziz otherwise drove with his usual superstitious watch­fulness, beset by small fears, on this day. Muhammad Atta tried not to writhe around in his seat; on his way to the parking lot, ten minutes earlier, he had tried not to run; in the elevator, ten minutes earlier still, he had tried not to groan or scream. He was always trying not to do something.

It was 5:35. And at this point he began to belabor himself for the diver­sion to Portland: a puerile undertaking, as he now saw it. His group was com­petitive not only in piety but also in ni­hilistic élan, in nihilistic insouciance; and he had thought it would be conclu­sively stylish to stroll from one end of Logan to the other with less than an hour to go. Then, too, there was the promise, itchier to the heart than ever, of his conversation with Ziad. But his reason for coming to Portland had been fundamentally unserious. He wouldn’t have done it if the Internet, on Septem­ber 10th, had not assured him so repeat­edly that it was going to be a flawless morning on September 11th.

And he didn’t solace himself with the thought that this was, after all, Septem­ber 11th, and you could still get to air­ports without much time to spare.

“Did you pack these bags yourself?”

Muhammad Atta’s hand crept toward his brow. “Yes,” he said.

“Have they been with you at all times?”

“Yes.”

“Did anyone ask you to carry anything for them?”

“No. Is the flight on time?”

“You should make your connection.”

“And the bags will go straight through?”

“No, Sir. You’ll need to recheck them at Logan.”

“You mean I’ll have to go through all this again?”

Whatever else terrorism had achieved in the past few decades, it had certainly brought about a net increase in world boredom. It didn’t take very long to ask and answer those three questions—about fifteen seconds. But those dead-time questions and answers were repeated, without any variation whatever, hun­dreds of thousands of times a day. If the planes operation went ahead as planned, Muhammad Atta would bequeath more, perhaps much more, dead time, planet­wide. It was appropriate, perhaps, and not paradoxical, that terror should also sharply promote its most obvious oppo­site. Boredom.

As it happened, Muhammad Atta was a selectee of the Computer-Assisted Passenger Prescreening System (CAPPS). All this meant was that his checked bag would not be stowed until he himself had boarded the aircraft. This was at Port­land. At Logan, a “Category X” airport like Newark Liberty and Washington Dulles, and supposedly more secure, three of his muscle Saudis would be se­lected by CAPPS, with the same irrelevant consequences.

Muhammad Atta and Abdulaziz submitted to the checkpoint screening. Their bags were not searched; they were not frisked, or blessed by the hand wand. Abdulaziz’s childish rucksack, containing the box cutters and the Mace, passed through the tunnel of love. Just before they boarded, another pall of nausea gathered about Muhammad Atta, like a host of tiny myrmidons. He waited for them to move on, but they did not do so, and, instead, coagulated in his craw. Mu­hammad Atta went to the men’s room and released a fathom of bilious green. He was still wiping his foul mouth as he walked out onto the tarmac and climbed the trembling metal steps.

Colgan 5930 was not only late: it was also an open-propeller nineteen-seater, and it was full. Excruciatingly, he had to wedge himself in next to a fat blonde with a scalp disease and, moreover, a baby, whose incredulous weeping (its ears) she attempted and failed to slake with re­peated applications of the breast. Between heartbeats, when he was briefly capable of consecutive thought, he imagined that the blonde was the doomed stewardess.

The plane leapt eagerly into the air, with none of the technological toil that would characterise the ascent of Ameri­can 11.

He had gone to Portland, Maine, for his quid pro quo with the imam. The hospital, where he lay dying, was a blistered medium-rise downtown: one more business among all the other busi­nesses. Inside, too, Muhammad Atta had had no sense of entering an atmo­sphere of vocational care just the American matter-of-factness, with no softening of the voice, the tread, no soft­ening of the receptionists’ minimal smiles…. Directed to the ward, he moved through the moist warmth of half-eaten or untouched dinners and the heavier undersmell of drugs. The imam was asleep in his bed, recessed into it, as if an imam-size channel had been re­cessed into the mattress. His lips, Mu­hammad Atta noticed, were dark gray, like the lips of dogs. Dead time passed. Then the imam awoke to Muhammad Atta’s humorless stare. He sighed, with­out restraint. The two of them went back a way: to the mosque in Falls Church, Virginia.

“You have a citation for me?” the imam asked, unexpectedly alert.

“It’s from the traditions. The Prophet said, Whoever kills himself with a blade will be tormented with that blade in the fires of Hell…. He who throws himself off a mountain and kills himself will throw himself downward into the fires of Hell for ever and ever…. Whoever kills himself in any way in this world will be tormented in that way in Hell!”

“Always there are exceptions. Re­member we are in the lands of unbelief,” the imam said, and went on to list the crimes of the Americans.

These were familiar to his visitor, who regarded the grievances as real. Depend­ing on how you tallied it, America was re­sponsible for this or that many million deaths. But Muhammad Atta was not persuaded of a moral equivalence. Certain weapons systems claimed to be precise; power was not precise. Power was always a monster. And there had never been a monster the size of America. Every time it turned over in its sleep it entrained di­sasters that would have to roll through villages. There were blunderings and perver­sities and calculated cruelties; and there was no self-knowledge—none. Still, America did not expend ingenuity in its efforts to kill the innocent.

“Is it an enemy installation?” the imam was sharply asking.

Muhammad Atta gave no reply. He just said, “Do you have it?”

“Yes. And you will need it.”

The imam’s hand, to Muhammad Atta’s far from sympathetic gaze, looked and sounded like the foreclaw of a lobster as it rattled up against the laminate of his bedside table; the cupboard opened, drawbridge-wise. The thing within ex­actly resembled a half-empty sixteen­ounce bottle of Volvic.

“Take it, not on waking, but when you feel your trial is near. Now. You were kind enough to say that you would de­scribe your induction.”

Here was the quid pro quo: he wanted to be told about the Sheikh. Just then the imam abruptly turned onto his side, facing Muhammad Atta, and for a moment his posture repulsively recalled that of a child starting to warm to a bed­time story. But this lurch was only part of a larger maneuver of the imam’s. He edged himself backward and upward, so that a few stray hairs, at least, rested on the pillow.

Muhammad Atta had unthinkingly assumed, earlier on, that he would give the imam a reassuring, even an ideal­ized, portrait of the Sheikh—the long­fingered visionary on the mountaintop who yet, in his humility and openness, remained a simple warrior of God. Now he recomposed himself. Never in his life had he spoken his mind. The smell of drugs was particularly strong near the yellow sink, half a yard from his nose.

“I had several meetings with him,” he said, “at the al Faruq camp, in Kan­dahar. And at Tamak Farms. He casts the spell of success on you—that’s what he does—when he talks about the defeat of the Russians … To hear him tell it, it wasn’t the West that won the Cold War. It was the Sheikh. But we badly need that spell, don’t we? The spell of success.”

“‘But the successes are real. And this is only the beginning.”

“His hopes of victory depend,” Mu­hammad Atta said, “on the active partic­ipation of the superpower.”

“What superpower?”

“God. Hence the present crisis.”

“Meaning?”

“It comes from religious hurt, don’t you think? For centuries God has forsaken the believers, and rewarded the infidels. How do you explain his indifference?”

Or his enmity, he thought, as he left the bedside and the ward. He consid­ered, too, that it could go like this, sub­consciously, of course: if prayer and piety had failed—had so dearly failed—then it might seem time to change allegiance, and summon up the other powers.

At Logan, he and Abdulaziz were the only passengers at the carrou­sel supposedly serving the commuter flight from Portland. And the carrousel was silent and motionless. Staring at a carrousel with actual baggage going around on it suddenly seemed a fairly stimulating thing to do. Meanwhile, the eels or stingrays in his head were having a fight to the death in the area just behind his ears. Sometimes for mo­ments on end he could step back from the pain and just listen to it. This was music in its next evolutionary phase, be­yond the atonal. And he realized why he had always hated music; all of it, even the most emollient melody, had entered his mind as pain. Using every reserve, he continued to stare at the changeless slats of black rubber for an­other thirty seconds, another minute, then he turned on his heel, and Abdul­aziz followed.

“Did you pack these bags yourself?”

“What bags? As I took the trouble to explain …”

“Sir, your bags will be on our next flight. I still need to ask the security ques­tions, sir.”

Americans—the way they called you “sir.” They might as well be calling you “bub.”

“Did you pack these bags yourself?”

Oh, the misery of recurrence, like the hotel elevator doing its ancient curtsy on every floor, like the alien hair on the soap changing its shape through a succession of alphabets, like the (necessarily) mo­notonous gonging inside his head. It had occurred to him before that his condi­tion, if you could call it that, was merely the condition of boredom, unbounded boredom, where all time was dead time. As if his whole life consisted of answer­ing those same three questions, saying “Yes” and “Yes” and “No.”

“And did anyone ask you to carry any­thing for them?”

“Yes,” Muhammad Atta said. “Last night, at the Lebanese restaurant, a waiter asked us to take a heavy clock radio to his cousin in Los Angeles.”

Her smile was flat and brief. “That’s funny,” she said.

They made their way to Gate 32 and then retreated from it, into the mall. With a flip of the hand he told Abdu­laziz to go and look for his countrymen. Muhammad Atta took a seat outside a dormant coffee shop and readied him­self for the call to Ziad. Ziad: the Bei­ruti beach boy and disco ghost, the tip­pler and debauchee, now with his exaltations and prostrations, his chant­ing and wailing, his rocking and sway­ing … To discountenance Ziad, to send him to his death with a heart full of doubt: this was the reason for the dele­gation to Maine.

Back in Germany, once, Ziad had said that the brides in the Garden would be “made of light.” In bold con­trast, then, to the darkness and heavi­ness of their terrestrial sisters, in partic­ular the heaviness and darkness of Aysel Senguen—Ziad’s German Turk, or Turkish German. Muhammad Atta had seen Aysel only once (bare legs, bare arms, bare hair), in the medical bookstore in Hamburg, and he had not forgotten her face. Ziad and Aysel were his control experiment for the life lived by sexual love; and for many months the two of them had peopled his insomnias. He knew that Aysel had come to Florida in January (and had scandalously accompanied Ziad to the flight school); he was also obscurely moved by the fact that a letter to her was Ziad’s last will and testament. And he kept wondering how their bodies conjoined, how she must open herself up to him, with all her heaviness and darkness…. Muhammad Atta had decided that romantic and religious ardor came from contiguous parts of the human being: the parts he didn’t have. Yet Ziad, as the obliterator of “law” (and the obliterator of United 93), was duly poised for mass murder. Only roughly contiguous, then: Ziad could say that he was doing it for God, and many would believe him, but he couldn’t say that he was doing it for love. He wasn’t doing it for love, or for God. He was doing it for the core rea­son, just like Muhammad Atta.

“All is well at Newark Liberty?”

“All is well. We’re in the sterile area. Did you see your precious imam?”

“I did. And he gave me the water.”

“The water? What water?”

“The holy water,” Muhammad Atta said with delectation, “from the Oasis.”

There was a silence. “What does it do?” Ziad asked.

“It absolves you of what the imam called the ‘enormity,’ the atrocious crime, Ziad, of the self-felony.”

There was another silence—but that wasn’t quite true anymore. Muhammad Atta thought that he might be getting more out of this conversation if there hadn’t been a mechanized floor-sweeper, resembling a hovercraft, with an old man on it, beeping and snivelling around his chair.

“I’m preparing to drink the holy water even as I speak.”

“Does it come in a special bottle?”

“A crystal vial. God said, ‘All those who hate me love and court death.’ You see, Ziad, you are the trustee of your body, not its owner. God is its owner.”

“And the water?”

“The water is within me and preserves me for God. It’s a new technique—it began in Palestine. Your hell will burn with jet fuel for eternity. And eternity never ends, Ziad—it never even begins. So there may be some delay before you get those brides of light. Perhaps you should have settled for your German nudist. Goodbye, Ziad.”

He hung up, redialled, and had a more or less identical conversation with Marwan, minus the theme of Aysel. In the case of Marwan (the other half of “architecture,” and just across the way, now, at United), different consider­ations obtained. The emphasis of their rivalry was not jihadi ardor so much as nihilistic insouciance. So the two of them exchanged yawning boasts, in code, about how low down, and at what angle, they would strike, and coolly agreed that, if there were F-15s over New York, they would crash their planes into the streets…. Finally, du­tifully, he called Hani (“arts”), the only Saudi pilot, with whom he shared no history, and not much hatred. Muham­mad Atta hoped that he hadn’t deci­sively undermined Ziad, who, after all, was a Saudi short (or two Saudis short, if you discounted the punklike Ahmed). No. He believed that he could safely rely, at this point, on the fierce physics of the peer group.

A peer group piously competitive about suicide, he had concluded, was a very powerful thing, and the West had no equivalent to it. A peer group for whom death was not death—and life was not life, either. Yet an inversion so ex­treme, he thought, would quickly be­come decadent: hospitals, schools, nurs­eries, old people’s homes. Transgression, by its nature, was helter-skelter, and al­ways bound to escalate. And the thing would start to be over in a generation, as everyone slowly and incredulously intu­ited it: the core reason.

Perhaps the closest equivalent the West could field was the firefighters. Muhammad Atta had studied architec­ture and engineering. The fire that would be created by ten thousand gal­lons of jet fuel, he knew, could not be fought: the steel frame of the tower would buckle; the walls, which were not intended to be weight-bearing, would collapse, one onto another; and down it would all come. The fire could not be fought—but there would be firefighters. They were called the “bravest,” accu­rately, in his view; and, as the bravest, they took on a certain responsibility. The firefighters were saying, every day, Who’s going to do it, if we don’t? If the bravest don’t, who else is going to risk death to save the lives of strangers?

As he sat for another few moments on the tin chair, as he watched the mall , awaken and come into commercial being, filling up now with Americans and American purpose and automatic self­-belief, he felt he had timed it about right. (And his face had timed it about right.) Because he couldn’t possibly survive an­other day of the all-inclusive detesta­tion—of the pan-anathema. This feeling had been his familiar since the age of twelve or thirteen; it had come upon him, like an illness without a symptom. Cairo, Hamburg, even the winter dawn over Kandahar: they had all looked the same to him. Unreal mockery.

Muhammad Atta took the bottle from his carry-on. The imam said it was from Medina. He shrugged, and drank the holy Volvic.

Boarding began with first class. And, if Muhammad Atta ever found any­thing funny, he might have smiled at this: Wail and Waleed, the brothers, the two semiliterate yokels from the bad­lands of the Yemeni border, shuffling off to their thrones—2A and 2B. Then business. He led. Abdulaziz and Satam followed.

He hadn’t even reached his seat when it hit him. It came with great purity of address, replacing everything else in his stretched sensorium. Even his headache, while not actually taking its leave, imme­diately stepped aside, almost with a flourish, to accommodate the new guest. It was a feeling that had abandoned him forever, he’d thought, four months ago—but now it was back. With twinkly promptitude, canned music flooded forth: a standard ballad, a flowery flute with many trills and graces. The breathy refrain joined the simmer of the engines; yet neither could drown the popping, the groaning, the creaking, as of a dungeon door to an inner sanctum—the ungain­sayable anger of his bowels.

So now he sat gripping the armrests of 8D as the coach passengers filed by. Why did there have to be so many of them, al­ways another briefcase, another backpack, always another buzz cut, another white­hair? … He waited, rose, and with gruel­ling nonchalance, his buttocks clenched, sauntered forward. All three toilets claimed to be occupied. They were not occupied, he knew. A frequent and in­quisitive traveller on American commer­cial jets, Muhammad Atta knew that the toilets were locked, like all the other toi­lets (this was the practice on tight turn­arounds), and would remain locked until the plane levelled out. He pressed a flat hand against all three: again, the misery of recurrence, of duplication. He tried, but he couldn’t abstain from a brief flurry of shoving and kicking and rattling. As he returned to 8D he saw that Abdulaziz was looking at him, not with commiseration, now, but with puzzled disappointment, even turning in his seat to exchange a re­sponsible frown with Satam.

Strapped in, Muhammad Atta man­aged the following series of thoughts. You needed the belief system, the ide­ology, the ardor. You had to have it. The core reason was good enough for the mind. But it couldn’t carry the body.

To the others, he realized, he was giv­ing a detailed impersonation of a man who had lost his nerve. But he had not lost his nerve. Even before the plane gave its preliminary jolt (like a polite cough of introduction), he felt the pull of it, with relief, with recognition: the necessary speed, the escape velocity he needed to deliver him to his journeys end.

American 11 pushed back from Gate 32, Terminal B, at 7:40. There was the captain and the first officer; there were nine flight atten­dants, and seventy-six passengers, ex­cluding Wail, Waleed, Satam, Abdul­aziz, and Muhammad Atta. Ameri­can 11 was in the air at 7:59.

Now he obliged himself to do what he had always intended to do, during the climb. He had a memory ready, and a thought experiment. He wanted to prepare himself for the opening of female flesh; he wanted to pre­pare himself for what would soon be happening to the throat of the stewardess—whom he could see, on her jump seat, head bowed low, with a pen in her hand and a clipboard on her lap.

In 2000 his return ticket from Af­ghanistan had put him on an Iberia flight from the United Arab Emirates to Madrid. The plane had just levelled out when he became aware of an altercation in the back of the cabin. Swivelling in his seat, he saw that per­haps fifteen or sixteen men, turbanned and white-robed, had crowded into the aisle and were now on the floor, humped in prayer. You could hear the male flight attendant’s monotonous and defeated remonstrations as he backed away. “Por, favor, señores. Es ile­gal. Señores, por favor!” Minutes later the captain came on the P.A., saying in Spanish, English, and Gulf Arabic that if the passengers didn’t return to their seats he would most certainly re­turn to Dubai. Then she appeared. Even Muhammad Atta at once con­ceded that here was the dark female in her most swinishly luxurious form: tall, long-necked, herself streamlined and aerodynamic, with hair like a billboard for a chocolate sundae, and all that flesh, damp and glowing as if from fever or even lust. She came to a halt and gave a roll of the eyes that took her whole head with it, then she surged forward with great scoop­ing motions of her hands, bellowing, “Vamos arriba, coño!” And the kneeling men had to peer out at this seraph of breast and haunch and uniformed power, and straighten up and scowl, and slowly grope for their seats. Muhammad Atta had felt only contempt for the men bent over the patterned carpet, but he would never forget the face of the stew­ardess—the face of cloudless entitle­ment—and how badly he had wanted to hurt it.

And yet—no, it wasn’t going to work. For him, the combination, up close, was wholly unmanageable: the combination of women and blood. So far, he thought, this is the worst day of my life—provably the worst day. In his head the weary fight between the vermin was finished; one was dying, and was now being disgustingly eaten by the other. And his loins, between them, were contriving for him some­thing very close to the sensation of anal rape. So far, this was the worst day of his life. But then every day was the worst day, because every day was the most recent day, and the most de­veloped, the most advanced (with all those other days behind it) toward the pan-anathema.

The plane was flattening out. He waited for the order. This would be given by the captain, when he turned off the fasten-seatbelts sign.

“We have some planes,” Muham­mad Atta said coolly. “Just stay quiet, and you’ll be O.K. We are return­ing to the airport. Nobody move. Every­thing will be O.K. If you try to make any moves, you’ll endanger yourself and the airplane. Just stay quiet.”

He had stepped through the region of inexpressible sordor, and gained the cockpit. Here, in the grotto of the mad clocksmith, was more cringing flesh and more blood—but manageably male. Now he disengaged the computer and prepared to fly by direct law.

It was 8:24. He laughed for the first time since childhood: he was in the At­lantic of the sky, at the controls of the biggest weapon in history.

At 8:27 he made a grand counter­clockwise semicircle, turning south.

At 8:44 he began his descent.

The core reason was of course all the killing—all the putting to death. Not the crew, not the passen­gers, not the office workers in the Twin Towers, not the cleaners and the caterers, not the men of the N.Y.P.D. and the F.D.N.Y. He was thinking of the war, the wars, the war cycles that would flow from this day. He didn’t believe in the Devil, as an active force, but he did believe in death. Death, at certain times, stopped moving at its even pace and broke into a hungry, lumbering run. Here was the primor­dial secret. No longer closely guarded—no longer well kept. Killing was divine delight. And your suicide was just a part of the contribution you made—the massive contribution to death. All your frigidities and futilities were re­written, becoming swollen with mean­ing. This was what was possible when you turned the tides of life around, when you ran with beasts, when you flew with the flies.

First, the lesser totems of Queens, like a line of defense for the tute­lary godlings of the island.

When he came clattering in over the struts and slats of Manhattan, there it was ahead of him and below him—the thing which is called World. Cross streets, blocks, districts, shot out from beneath the speed lines of the plane. He was glad that he wouldn’t have to plow down into the city, and he even felt love for it, for all its strivings and couplings and sunderings. And he felt no impulse to increase power or to bank or to strike even lower. It was reeling him in. Now even the need to shit felt right and good as his destination surged toward him.

There are many accounts, uni­formly incomplete, of what it is like to die slowly. But there is no in­formation at all about what it is like to die suddenly and violently. We are being gentle when we describe such ‘ deaths as instant. “The passengers died instantly.” Did they? It may be that soar people can do it, can die in­stantly. The very old, because the vital powers weak; the very young, be­cause there is no great accretion of ex­perience needing to be scattered. Mu­hammad Atta was thirty-three. As for him (and perhaps this is true even in cases of vaporization, perhaps this was true even for the wall-shadows of Japan), it took much longer than an instant. By the time the last second ar­rived, the first second seemed as far away as childhood.

American 11 struck at 8:46:40. Muhammad Atta’s body was beyond all healing by 8:46:41, but his mind, his presence, needed time to shut it­self down. The physical torment—a panic attack in every nerve, a riot of the atoms—merely italicized the last shinings of his brain. They weren’t thoughts; they were more like a series of unignorable conclusions, imposed from without. Here was the hereafter, after all; and here was the reckoning. His mind groaned and fumbled with an irreconcilability, a defeat, a self­cancellation. Could he assemble the argument? It follows—by definition—if and only if. And then the argument assembled, all by itself…. The joy of killing was proportional to the value of what was destroyed. But that value was something a killer could never see and never gauge. And where was the joy he thought he had felt—where was that joy, that itch, that paltry tingle? Yes, how gravely he had underesti­mated it. How very gravely he had underestimated life. His own he had hated, and had wished away, but see how long it was taking to absent it­self–and with what helpless grief was he watching it go, imperturbable in its beauty and its power. Even as his flesh fried and his blood boiled, there was life, kissing its fingertips. Then it echoed out, and ended.

II

On September 11, 2001, he opened his eyes at 4 A.M., in Portland, Maine; and Muhammad Atta’s last day began.

Thus then the skull last place of all makes to glimmer again in lieu of going out.
(Samuel Beckett, For to End Yet Again/Pour finir encore, 1976)


Teenage Pynchon

Negative epiphany (2): The closing chapters of Bret Easton Ellis’s Glamorama

14

Sinead O’Connor was singing “The Last Day of Our Acquaintance and it was either 11:00 or 1:00 or maybe it was 3:15 and we were all lying around Gianni’s pool in the big house on Ocean Drive and there were about twenty of us and everyone was talking into a cell phone and doing dope and I had just met Chloe earlier that week. She was lying on a chaise longue, burning under the sun, and her lips were puffy from collagen injections and my skull was on fire from a hangover caused by a dozen mango daiquiris and I was carefully eyeing the forty-carat diamond she was wearing, and the lemonade I was drinking stung my mouth and everyone was saying “So what?” and there had been a cockroach sighting earlier and people were basically becoming unglued. There were boys everywhere—slim, full-lipped, big-bulged, sucking in their cheeks—and there were also a couple of rock stars and a teenage gay guy from Palestine bragging about a really cool stone-throwing he’d attended in Hebron. All of this under a calm gumball-blue sky.

And Sinead O’Connor was singing “The Last Day of Our Acquaintance” and a girl lying across from me was positioned in such a way that I could see her anus and she would reach under her bikini bottom and scratch it, then bring her fingers to her face and lightly smell them. On a huge Bang & Olufsen TV that had been wheeled out, an episode of “The X-Files” was playing where someone’s dog had been eaten by a sea serpent and for some reason everyone was reading a book called The Amityville Horror and tired from last night’s premiere for a new movie called Autopsy 18-the guy hunched over the Ouija board, the girl just back from Madonna’s baby shower, the kid playing with a cobra he’d bought with a stolen credit card. A big murder trial was going on that week in which the defense team convinced me that the victim—a seven-year-old girl fatally beaten by her drunken father—was actually guilty of her own death. Mermaids had been spotted during a swim before dawn.

“Could you kill somebody?” I heard a voice ask.

A moment passed before another voice answered, “Yeah, I guess so.”

“Oh, so what?” someone else moaned.

Someone walked by with a panting wolf on a leash.

And Sinead O’Connor was singing “The Last Day of Our Acquaintance ” and I had spent part of the morning trimming my pubic hair and everyone was checking various gossip columns to see if they had made it but they were basically one-shots and it was never going to happen for any of them and there was a Rauschenberg in the bathroom and a Picasso in the pantry and the guy I had slept with the night before—a boy who looked like Paul Newman at twenty-started talking about a friend who had been murdered in Maui last week and then everyone around the pool joined in and I couldn’t follow the conversation. A tiny rift with a drug dealer? An irate exporter/importer? A run-in with a cannibal? Who knew? Was his death bad? He had been lowered into a barrel of hungry insects. A poll was taken. On a scale of 1 to 10- being lowered into a barrel of hungry insects? Opinions were offered. I thought I was going to faint. This conversation was the only indication that anyone here knew anybody else. I lit a cigarette I bummed from River Phoenix. I was just becoming famous and my whole relationship to the world was about to change.

And Sinead O’Connor was singing “The Last Day of Our Acquaintance ” and someone tossed Pergola the keys to one of the Mercedes parked in the garage and it was just too hot out and a jet flew overhead and I jealously studied Bruce Rhinebeck’s face smirking at me from the cover of a magazine and the guy I’d slept with the night before whispered to me “You’re a piece of shit” and there was my “stunned disbelief” and me saying “So what?” and I was so tan my nipples had changed color and I looked down at my muscled body admiringly but a fly was dozing on my thigh and when I brushed it away it came back, hovering. A Brazilian boy asked me how I got my abs that cubed and I was so flattered I had to concentrate very seriously in order to answer him.

An injured bat had crawled out from beneath a chaise longue and it was chirping and flapping its wings uselessly and a few of the teenage boys stood around it silently. The bat rolled over, upended, and when one of the boys kicked it, the bat screamed. Someone struck it with a branch, and a puff of dust flew off its skin. Light was flickering across the water in the vast pool and I was watching everything through binoculars. A servant brought me a piece of birthday cake and a can of Hawaiian Punch as I had requested. The bat was wriggling on the ground next to a discarded cell phone. Its spine was broken and it tried to bite anyone who got near it. The boys continued torturing it. Someone brought out a fork.

There was no system to any of this. At that point Chloe Byrnes wasn’t a real person to me and on that afternoon in the House on Ocean Drive a few decisions had to be made, the priority being: I would never dream of leaving any of this. At first I was confused by what passed for love in this world: people were discarded because they were too old or too fat or too poor or they had too much hair or not enough, they were wrinkled, they had no muscles, no definition, no tone, they weren’t hip, they weren’t remotely famous. This was how you chose lovers. This was what decided friends. And I had to accept this if I wanted to get anywhere. When I looked over at Chloe, she shrugged. I observed the shrug. She mouthed the words Take . . . a . . . hike. . . . On the verge of tears-because I was dealing with the fact that we lived in a world where beauty was considered an accomplishment—I turned away and made a promise to myself: to be harder, to not care, to be cool. The future started mapping itself out and I focused on it. In that moment I felt as if I was disappearing from poolside in the villa on Ocean Drive and I was floating above the palm trees, growing smaller in the wide blank sky until I no longer existed and relief swept over me with such force I sighed.

One of the teenage boys was ready to pounce on me, and the boy splashing in the pool, I realized faintly, could have been drowning and no one would have noticed. I avoided thinking about that and concentrated on the patterns in a bathing suit that Marky Mark was wearing. I might not even remember this afternoon, I was thinking. I was thinking that a part of me might destroy it. A cold voice inside my head begged me to.

But I was being introduced to too many cool people and I was becoming famous and at that point I had no way of understanding one thing: if I didn’t erase this afternoon from my memory and just walk out that door and leave Chloe Byrnes behind, sections of this afternoon would come back to me in nightmares. This was what the cold voice assured me. This was what it promised. Someone was praying over the half-smashed bat but the gesture seemed far away and unimportant. People started dancing around the praying boy.

“You want to know how this all ends?” Chloe asked, eyes closed.

I nodded.

“Buy the rights,” she whispered.

And as the final crashing verse of ‘The Last Day of Our Acquaintance’ boomed out, I faded away and my image overlapped and dissolved into an image of myself years later sitting in a hotel bar in Milan where I was staring at a mural.

15

I’m drinking a glass of water in the empty hotel bar at the Principe di Savoia and staring at the mural behind the bar and in the mural there is a giant mountain, a vast field spread out below it where villages are celebrating in a field of long grass that blankets the mountains dotted with tall white flowers, and in the sky above the mountain it’s morning and the sun is spreading itself across the mural’s frame, burning over the small cliffs and the low-hanging clouds that encircle the mountain’s peak, and a bridge strung across a pass through the mountains will take you to any point that you need to arrive at, because behind that mountain is a highway and along that highway are billboards with answers on them—who, what, where, when, why—and I’m falling forward but also moving up toward the mountain, my shadow looming against its jagged peaks, and I’m surging forward, ascending, sailing through dark clouds, rising up, a fiery wind propelling me, and soon it’s it’s night and stars hang in the sky above the mountain, revolving as they burn.

The stars are real.

The future is that mountain.

Negative epiphany (1): Houellebecq on self-negation

On 21 June, around seven, I get up, have my breakfast and leave by bike for the Forest of Mazan. Yesterday’s hearty dinner has had the effect of giving me renewed strength; I ride supply, effortlessly, through the pines.

The weather is wonderfully fine, pleasant, springlike. The Forest of Mazan is very pretty and also profoundly reassuring. It is a real country forest. There are gently rising paths, clearings, a sun which penetrates everywhere. The meadows are covered in daffodils. One feels content, happy; there are no people. Something seems possible, here. One has the impression of being present at a new departure.

And of a sudden all this evaporates. A great mental shock restores me to the deepest part of myself. And I take stock, and I ironize, but at the same time I have respect for myself. What a capacity I have for grandiose mental images, and of seeing them through! How clear, once more, is the image I have of the world! The richness of what is dying inside me is absolutely prodigious; I needn’t feel ashamed of myself; I shall have tried.

I stretch out in a meadow, in the sun. And now it hurts, lying down in this softest of meadows, in the midst of this most amiable and reassuring of landscapes. Everything which might have been a source of pleasure, of participation, of innocent sensual harmony, has become a source of suffering and unhappiness. At the same time I feel, and with impressive violence, the possibility of joy. For years I have been walking alongside a phantom who looks like me, and who lives in a theoretical paradise strictly related to the world. I’ve long believed that it was up to me to become one with this phantom. That’s done with.

I cycle still further into the forest. On the other side of that hill is the source of the River Ardèche, the map says. The fact no longer interests me; I continue nevertheless. And I no longer even know where the source is; at present, everything looks the same. The landscape is more and more gentle, amiable, joyous; my skin hurts. I am at the heart of the abyss. I feel my skin again as a frontier, and the external world as a crushing weight. The impression of separation is total; from now on I am imprisoned within myself. It will not take place, the sublime fusion; the goal of life is missed. It is two in the afternoon.

Michel Houellebecq, Whatever