The Cheltenham Literature Festival – 5th to 14th October 2018
Spy thriller set in the US and the Middle East – plus interview with author, Yusuf Toropov
12th March 2016
Jihadi by Yusuf Toropov – spy thriller set in the US and the Middle East.
Jihadi is a book that really challenges perspectives – and makes you think. The quality of the writing is exceptional… We start with our review of the book and follow this on with an exclusive interview with the author, Yusuf Toropov.
On one level Jihadi is a conventional spy thriller. Thelonius Liddell is a US intelligence agent engaged in covert operations in the ‘Islamic Republic’. He is caught and interrogated and, eventually, falls in love with Fatima, his interpreter, as his marriage to Becky crumbles. Fatima’s life is then endangered by regime change with personal consequences for her family members… Thelonius (now a convert to Islam) is transferred out of the ‘Islamic State’ and held without charge in a secret overseas prison.
So far, so conventional. But Jihadi is much more than this… The book challenges the reader to declare who he believes. Are we looking at a Big American Satan challenging a religion it doesn’t understand – or are we looking at a vicious and duplicitous regime (Islamic in name only…) intent on embarrassing the US? None of the main characters is entirely believable… (as in you can believe them…). The story is murky. Both Thelonius and Becky have mental health issues, and both may sometimes be deluded and irrational. Fatima is also conniving and, perhaps, not as innocent as we might imagine. Thelonius writes his story while in detention – with home made ink on smuggled paper. It is discovered after his presumed death and heavily annotated by the psychologist who was interviewing him. Her notes paint a much darker picture… but do they come from ‘fact’ or her own agenda? She listens to music and finds meaning in the lyrics to support her views. [Incidentally, music is Yusuf’s other passion – he has the psychologist quoting from the lyrics of Beatle songs – having himself published ‘Who was Eleanor Rigby: and 908 more Questions and Answers About The Beatles’ in 1996!]
No doubt at all the Jihadi is a great and thought provoking book – and that we will be hearing a lot more about and from Yusuf.
Now for the interview:
TF: Jihadi is a very powerful and moving work that travels between the US and the Middle East. The locations in which a book is set are TripFiction’s reason for being… and the descriptions of yours all ring pretty true. How did you achieve this? Are they places with which you are familiar – or did you research them in other ways?
YT: It was important not to have the Islamic Republic equate to any specific country, because I didn’t want people to be able to pigeonhole the story and say, “Oh, it’s about Iraq” or “Oh, it’s about Pakistan.” To me, that’s much less interesting than a country you’ve never been to and know nothing about. So I decided early on, even before I had a plot to speak of, that this shouldn’t be a place that could be found on a real map. I decided not to specify any particular language spoken by the people who lived there. (If you check the book, you’ll see it’s always “the native tongue.”) Even so, I wanted Islamic City and its environs to evoke the contemporary Middle East. So I took bits of Saudi Arabia and Dubai, which I visited on business over a decade ago and remembered quite well, and I padded them out with generous helpings of details I made up from my own imaginings about places like Islamabad, Lahore, Kabul, Bagram Air Force Base, and Bright Light – all real places that I was happy to read about online, but did not feel like visiting. That’s how I built the Islamic Republic: from both fact and fiction. The US settings were a lot easier: Salem, Massachusetts and Langley, Virginia, and the highways linking them. That all came from personal experience, though I’ve only passed through Langley.
TF: Jihadi revolves around an intricate and complex plot. To what extent did you plan the book in detail before you started writing? Or did you just sketch out the bare bones, and then let the detail ‘write itself’ as you went along? I realise, of course, that the book took you eight years to write…so maybe some interuptions along the way.
YT: There were more false starts than I can count. I had a beginning without any plotline at all for the longest time. Then I heard about the Raymond Davis case, which involved a US intelligence contractor who shot and killed two people on the streets of Lahore. That was a major news story, and it gave me something for my protagonist to do while on a mission in the Islamic Republic: kill two people in cold blood and cause an international incident. I set up a broad outline after that, but there were all kinds of strange turns and dead ends in the story that I couldn’t have predicted ahead of time. It was a lot of work.
TF: With Thelonius, Becky, Fatima, and Mike Mazzoni you have created four very strong characters – all flawed in many ways, but all very focused on what they need to do to survive. Are they all from your imagination – or are any based (even loosely) on real life people you have encountered?
YT: Each of those characters you mention have multiple real people in the background, acquaintances of mine who served as a kind of inspiration for various parts of a character. And each those four characters also emerged as an individual, as someone with a distinct point of view and a unique personal agenda, someone more important to the story than the people I knew in real life. In the end I think it was more a question of who I became as a result of listening to them talk to me for as long as I did. I like to think I became a little more compassionate. They’re a troubled group.
TF: In the book you at one stage mention that the Prophet believed that ‘even a tyrannical government is preferable to no government’. Is this a comment on the vacuum left after the West moved out of Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya?
YT: That’s actually a classic position of Islamic jurisprudence, one that is certainly relevant to any number of contemporary situations.
TF: Mental illness features prominently in Jihadi. Why is this a particularly rich subject for you to explore?
YT: It made sense to me thematically for a lot of reasons, the most obvious being that large chunks of the globe started going insane in newer and more exciting ways in the decade following the invasion of Iraq in 2003. That’s not just in the Middle East, although insanity on a very large scale is certainly in evidence there. It’s all over. I do think there are signs that the body politic in the United States is suffering from a major collective trauma of some kind. And on the level of the individual, we now have a whole generation of veterans in America who are dealing with major psychological problems, including, but not limited to, post-traumatic stress disorder. And the level of prescription drug abuse in America is just absurd, with all kinds of attendant mental and quality of life issues. So it seemed to fit, given the countries and people I was writing about.
TF: What do you think it currently feels like to be a Muslim in the States? Are people scared of the Trump rhetoric?
YT: I haven’t been in the US for a while. I’m living in Ireland now. But it was definitely scary to be a Muslim when I left last year, and it can only have gotten scarier now. I don’t know what’s more terrifying, the vitriol that is coming out of Trump’s mouth on a daily basis, or the reality that very large numbers of people are listening to him and saying, “Yep, more please, you’re our guy. You’re the one we should trust with the nuclear codes.” Probably the latter. When a major presidential candidate can talk approvingly about shooting Muslims with bullets soaked in pig’s blood, and when he win enthusiastic ovations from huge crowds for doing so, that’s not just a problem with one guy. That’s a problem with the country. And yes, it is very scary to Muslims, but I think it ought to be scaring everyone.
TF: You have written many non fiction books – and yet Jihadi is your first venture into fiction. Why is this?
YT: It’s not that I didn’t try. It took me a while to get some bad stories under my belt. Jihadi wasn’t really my first venture into fiction. It was just the first venture into fiction that I dared to show anyone.
TF: How do you organise your writing day? Do you have fixed times at which you are at your most productive?
YT: I’m a morning writer. If I can hit my word count before lunch, I’m happy.
TF: What, if you can tell us, are you now working on – and will locale be important?
YT: Right now it looks like the next novel is set in Salem, Massachusetts. I’m still figuring out what it’s about.
A big thank you to Yusuf for answering all our questions so comprehensively…
Tony for the TripFiction team