‘Terrorist’ by John Updike (2006)

Updated: Jan 27, 2021

Terrorist’ by author John Updike follows the dysfunctional life of a young man by the name of Ahmad Ashmawy Mulloy, who is trying to follow the ‘Divine Path’. Mulloy was born from a negligent Irish immigrant mother, Teresa Mulloy, and a migrant Egyptian father, Omar Mulloy, who has been absent from his life ever since he abandoned Ahmed and his mother when Ahmad was a young boy. We are immediately entangled in the proceedings or Ahmad as he goes to a mosque, ‘above a nail salon’, where he meets with Shaikh Rashid and reads the Quran. The Shaikh in this provocative prose is the temporary father figure for Ahmad and the young man regards him with very deep love in his heart. We are then entangled in the life of Jack Levy, the school counsellor. Born into a Jewish heritage, the man marries Beth and is expunged from familial relations. We follow his mundane affairs of life as a councillor until he meets the ‘exciting’ Ahmad, although the meeting with Ahmad’s mother is perhaps even more exuberant. We then find Ahmad interacting with the love interest Joryleen Grant, a devout Catholic who indulges in pre-marital relations with Ahmad’s enemy, Tylenol Jones. We are prompted swiftly into the direction Shaikh Rashid wishes for Ahmad. ‘Truck Driver’. Joining Excellency Home Furnishings, a furniture company, Ahmed's views start to flourish in the most deleterious manners where we wonder, what could possibly occur in the future?

Updike is critical, formulating a story to slight the attacks of terrorism in prior years, and he shows the innocence of all humans through Ahmad and the deceit and poison through Shaikh Rashid. He insinuates how members of society can easily be manipulated into ‘truck drivers’ when their potential is not realised and he also highlights the importance of familial relations in the development of humans. Shaikh Rashid, posing as the paternal figure, is a dangerous notion as we realise reading the novel, yet we hold a sense of sympathy for Ahmad as Shaikh Rashid is one of the only people he can confide in as opposed to his ‘infidel’ mother, who seemingly tries, but doesn’t help Ahmad in any way.

Updike also shows the common feelings of all teenagers through the construct of Joryleen. The ‘Devil’s Fruit’ as it were for Ahmad, yet Updike destroys Ahmad’s views with a meticulous encounter with Joryleen and we wonder if Ahmad is truly a believer of his religion. The novel plays on the evil and pernicious thoughts of many people and the damaging effects views and images portrayed of others can have on ordinary people - creating a dystopian world of mistrust and misdeed. However, Updike utilises the ‘Empty Vassal’ of Ahmad to portray a depiction of beguilement and deceit and we ask ourselves if Ahmad is, or was ever, truly a bad person and if whether his religion drove him to where he is or if the prompting by other figures did so. Perhaps, it could be questioned that the limited parenting of Teresa pushed him to where he is.

Should you read this book?

‘Terrorist’ explores rather controversial and difficult to discuss topics like terrorism and religion. It is heavily provocative, but the plot develops largely due to these factors so there is a sense of ease in reading it. However, that does not mean reading this will not lead you to question yourself a lot, in fact, it truly questions the basis of many religions and to some extent derides them. If you want to see a story that is very meticulous in the way it attacks terrorism and very careful in its steps to do so, then, this is for you. It is interesting how the novel plays on a variety of religions and the absence of religions as it shows the capability and possibility of them reacting or colliding in the way that they do in this book, yet the extent to which they are explored is very limited, apart from one of them which you can guess! Updike is very cautious about defining certain religions as tensions are still high after the late 9/11 attacks. He only wishes to show the possibilities that can perhaps highlight the reason behind the attacks and through his novel, wishes to show the bold truth behind terrorism and the roots behind it all.

By Yasir Ali (Year 12), Guest Writer for ‘Tottenham’s Our Canvas’, the arts sub-magazine of ‘The Tottenham Phoenix’

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