--Thus Spoke Zarathustra, "On Free Death" (trans. Walter Kaufmann)
Spoiler Alert: Desultory Eclecticism saw "The Oath" last weekend. The documentary focuses on Abu Jandal, the Yemeni equivalent of a grown up high school football star. Jandal drives a cab around Sana'a, struggling to keep his young family clothed. Customers sometimes recognize him, and groups of young men listen wide-eyed to his tales of the glory days. Sitting in his cab reflecting, eschewing the documentarian's questions, dressing his son for school, Jandal's eyes too often remember and lament that the best times of his life are past.
Abu Jandal--obviously--was not a football star. Not a guitar hero. Not even a soccer player. In the mid-90s, at age 16, Jandal ran away from home to join the Bosnian resistance. After that war, he moved on to Afghanistan and became a bodyguard to "Sheikh" Osama bin Laden. In 2000, shortly before al-Qaeda (unbeknownst to him) was to attack the USS Cole in the Yemeni port of Aden, Jandal abandoned the lesser jihad to start a family back home. As a well-known al-Qaeda member, he was arrested and held for over a year. He learned of 9/11 three days late when, standing at the window of his jail cell and straining to hear the sermon from a nearby Mosque during Friday prayers, an Imam praised the attack.
Ali Soufan soon came to Yemen. He gave Jandal, a diabetic, sugar-free snacks. A few days later Soufan gave him photographs. Jandal recognized 19 of the men pictured. Soufan thanked him for tying the 19 hijackers to Osama bin Laden's Afghan camps. Jandal cried.
Jandal then revealed much more useful intelligence, was thanked for his forthcomingness, completed a "Dialogue" program designed to rehabilitate jihadists, signed a pledge to forsake violence, accepted government seed money, bought a taxi, and began a new life as a constantly-monitored former holy warrior. He may still despise Western hypocrisy, but his beverage of choice is Coca-Cola.
Blasphemy Alert: Jandal, unlike Nietzsche's Jesus, did not die too soon. He must sometimes look down at his soda belly, at his cheap taxi, at his son's red undershirt, and wish that he too had died a martyr. He scolds the new generation for abandoning the old ways--in his day, al-Qaeda used violence as a tool; today, you kids just want to blow s**t up. He is intelligent, charismatic, reflective, lonely. He has lived long enough to understand the futility of the lesser struggle.
Former "Manson Family" analyst Michael Scheuer would prefer that he be "taken out," or at least captured and tortured. What's the point? Jandal counsels aspiring jihadists against going to Iraq, against using violence. He remains loyal to his memory of al-Qaeda, but laments that his al-Qaeda has disappeared. He is an ex-hero whose past divulgence and current banality serve as a far better deterrent to the young than predator drones or enhanced interrogations.
After the film, director Laura Poitras fielded questions from the audience (Desultory Eclecticism <3 NY!!!). She updated us on the status of Jandal and his recently-freed brother-in-law Salim Hamdan. She discussed the challenges of filming in the Middle East and of returning home to the States.
She talked about the prospective jihadists who consult Jandal. As he was, they are--frustrated, idealistic, well-read kids--Peace Corps types. They were amazed--and changed--to learn that Poitras did not conform to their stereotype of a colonizing infidel. A little positive contact can go a long way.
Autobiographical Aside Alert: While traveling in Egypt, Desultory Eclecticism paid the tourist price (nearly 80 cents) for a bag of tamarind juice after an older vendor corrected his younger business partner's initial quote. Desultory Eclecticism continued on to a small square, sat, ate, got up, looked around, and, after well over an hour, finally returned the way he had come. Waiting for an opportunity to tail a woman in a niqab and thus avoid being hit by a reckless driver on Cairo's busy, loosely-regulated streets, Desulotry Eclecticism felt a tap on his shoulder. He turned around; a young man handed him the equivalent of thirty-five cents, made a gesture expressing his desire to avoid any argument, and ran back to his tamarind juice stand. Should Jesus of Nazareth one day return to Earth on a chariot of fire, Desultory Eclecticism will petition that Cairo be spared for the sake of its one righteous inhabitant.