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the Complete Review
the complete review - non-fiction

A Foreigner Carrying
in the Crook of his Arm
a Tiny Bomb

Amitava Kumar

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To purchase A Foreigner Carrying in the Crook of his Arm a Tiny Bomb

Title: A Foreigner Carrying in the Crook of his Arm a Tiny Bomb
Author: Amitava Kumar
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: 2010
Length: 190 pages
Availability: A Foreigner Carrying in the Crook of his Arm a Tiny Bomb - US
A Foreigner Carrying in the Crook of his Arm a Tiny Bomb - UK
A Foreigner Carrying in the Crook of his Arm a Tiny Bomb - Canada

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Our Assessment:

B : reasonably interesting look at aspects of the post-"9/11" world

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The NY Times . 6/8/2010 Dwight Garner

  From the Reviews:
  • "There are many small, tart observations in A Foreigner Carrying in the Crook of His Arm a Tiny Bomb. Mr. Kumar is particularly good on the literature that has emerged from America’s recent adventures in the Middle East. (...) Mr. Kumar’s book is eccentric, and thus human, on multiple levels. (...) If we’re to bridge the perilous divide that separates us from those poor and unnamed people who resent us, we first need to see them, to look into their eyes. We need, Mr. Kumar writes, "to acknowledge that they exist." This angry and artful book is a first step." - Dwight Garner, The New York Times

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The title of this book, A Foreigner Carrying in the Crook of his Arm a Tiny Bomb, refers directly to Edmond Jabès' book about outsiders, A Foreigner Carrying in the Crook of his Arm a Tiny Book; now, however, -- so Kumar -- in the world after the terrorist attacks in the US of 2001, the foreigner is suspect because he can be expected not only to be carrying subversion in the form of a book (and hence ideas and ideology (mainly, of course, Islam)) but in more directly explosive form as well.
        Kumar's book centers on two men tried and convicted in this post-2001 world, Hemant Lakhani and Shahawar Matin Siraj. Both were convicted of what amounted to trying to facilitate terrorist attacks; both were clearly also prodded to take the (criminal) actions they did by well-paid informants (indeed, as Kumar shows, these both look uncomfortably close to cases of entrapment). Kumar reports on their trials, as well providing background information. He spoke to Lakhani, and to both men's families (he was not able to meet Siraj), and also describes his personal reactions to his interaction with these people. Both cases seem to him clearly dictated by circumstances: neither man was a born or particularly convinced terrorist (or aider-and-abettor), but they allowed themselves to be nudged into these positions, made into 'terrorists' (fortunately, neither got very close to becoming an actual terrorist) by a government that was so determined to fight terror that it would go so far as to shape its own enemies when there weren't enough actual ones to hunt down.
       The trials, too, are like theater -- and farce, at that, at times. So, for example:

But the Lakhani trial from the very beginning had seemed to be about who he was rather than what he had done. He had been indicted for providing material aid to terrorists, unlawful brokering, and money laundering, but, because much of the wrongdoing had been at the suggestion of an undercover government agent, the real argument was that he had the immoral nature of someone who might be a terrorist. Even when it came to the slightly farcical matter of his diet, there was no doubt that what was being scrutinized was the defendant's character. In effect, the prosecution was saying, "Look, this person is irresponsible. He lies. He complains about the food in prison and then tucks away several bags of buffalo chips. You can't trust him."
       Kumar also bring in numerous other examples, especially from India, which has suffered its own terrorist attacks and reacted similarly strongly (and blindly). The post-2001 world, Kumar, suggests, gives cover to a great deal of government action that should be beyond the pale -- but is widely tolerated by the public (and certainly jurors, who have no problem buying these stories).
       Kumar also looks at some artistic reactions to the changed world, from fiction about the Islamic world (for example, Mohsin Hamid's The Reluctant Fundamentalist) to artists addressing the surveillance-state.
       Kumar repeatedly notes an America (and, more generally, Western) unawareness bordering on willful blindness to its own role, historical and current, in creating current conditions. The undercover agents who lead Lakhani and Siraj to plan their anti-American actions are only one manifestation of this; more generally he finds, for example:
Muslim immigrant communities are at the moment seen as a whole separate entity existing outside the boundaries of a more authentically Western culture. The intimacy of enemies, for some reason, eludes our ideologues. We see the East and the West as self-contained, distinct civilizations that do not overlap and do not share complicated histories of mutual engagement and influence.
       A Foreigner Carrying in the Crook of his Arm a Tiny Bomb is an odd mix of personal ruminations and factual accounts, relying on relatively few and limited examples, specifically in the US and India. Kumar's thoughts -- and some of his disturbing examples -- are certainly thought-provoking and a reminder (or, perhaps for some, eye-opener) as to what the state can get away with in these times (though, again, the selective nature of his examples -- and the fact that much of this kind of torture was as common before 2001 as it is afterwards in places such as Egypt (albeit not with quite the same cover) -- make it more difficult to take any sort of larger lesson from it).
       A disturbing look, in a somewhat meandering but consistently engaging tour, at part of the 'war on terror', in the US and abroad, A Foreigner Carrying in the Crook of his Arm a Tiny Bomb is a useful reminder of how wrong things have gone (and continue to go wrong) and if only in making readers aware of some of these issues already serves a useful purpose.

- M.A.Orthofer, 10 June 2010

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A Foreigner Carrying in the Crook of his Arm a Tiny Bomb: Amitava Kumar: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Amitava Kumar was born in 1963. He teaches at Vassar.

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© 2010 the complete review

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