Muslim-influenced fantasy can take us everywhere from re-imagined versions of Al Andalus to Mars. And this week, Matt Ruff arrives with a new novel, The Mirage, that takes us somewhere else entirely: a world where the United Arab States is the dominant superpower, the state of Israel is located in Central Europe, and a devastating attack by Christian terrorists on Baghdad led the UAS to invade America and try to bring democracy to a country torn between warlords like Donald Rumsfeld, David Koresh, and a mysterious man known as the Quail Hunter. But something strange is happening: as Homeland Security agent Mustafa al Baghdadi and his team interrogate terrorist suspects, they tell a story about a world where everything is reversed. A Baghdad gangster named Saddam Hussein is buying up odd artifacts, including a pack of playing cards where he and his henchmen appear as government officials. And Senate Intelligence Committee chairman Osama bin Laden keeps sending out agents of the Al Qaeda security forces to intervene with everyone else’s work.
In other words, The Mirage is a provocative, timely, fascinating intervention in the way we think about not just the post-September 11 world but about American power and popular culture. The novel is full of funhouse mirror details like a television show with the tagline: “Shafiq: he’s Sunni. Hassan: he’s Shia. They fight crime,” where “episodes typically offered one or more moral lessons, the most common of which was ‘Respect the other People of the Book—even if you don’t like them very much.’” It’s an incredibly effective way of both exposing our debates and politics as ridiculous, and of forcing us to put ourselves in Muslims’ shoes by letting them stand in the footwear of the mostly white, mostly Christian cops, politicians and criminals we see on American television. And the magic, when it comes, is wonderfully lovely and inventive, the result of Ruff having researched not just geopolitics but fantastical belief.
I spoke to Ruff yesterday about breaking out of stereotypical images of Muslims in popular culture, how we decide which terrorist attacks to excuse and which to condemn, and how our beliefs about our ability to change history can lead us astray. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
I’d be curious how you decided which cultural phenomena would survive—or develop naturally—in your alternate history. Personally, I’m glad to hear that Oded Fehr’s still a huge star in the world of The Mirage.
For me, it wasn’t so much a matter of what to include but what to leave out. I’m a huge pop culture fan, so I had tons of ideas that I could have included. It was more a matter of picking and choosing things that were either short and clever and wouldn’t disrupt the plot, or would support it in some way. One obvious case was the Invasion of the Body Snatchers in an alternate version…it was a way of introducing the fact that Samir [one of the Homeland Security agents who works with Mustafa] is fighting his homosexuality…Another idea I had come up with that I didn’t use was the infamous Star Trek mirror world episode. I had thought to have that on TV in the background, the difference being that the Evil Spock would be clean-shaven.
I was also wondering if you could talk a bit about the decision to set the novel in Baghdad instead of, say, Saudi Arabia, and to marginalize oil politics in the novel. Are those resources democratized in the UAS?
There were a lot of specific nuts and bolts questions like that that I left unanswered becuase they didn’t fit what I was doing. The very first incarnation of the book, I had thought to set it in Riyadh. Riyadh became the federal district, it became the alternate Washington, DC, and to have it serve as New York didn’t work. What I wanted to do was offer central roles to people who suffered the real brunt of the War on Terror, so it made sense to make Baghdad Ground Zero because that is Ground Zero of the U.S. response to the War on Terror. These were the folks who I wanted to be in the center of the novel and have their turn on the other side of the looking glass…you’ve go the South representing the more religious vision of what Arabia should be, and then you’ve got Egypt as an alternate, more secular vision but they have lost out on the competition for where the capital should be.