Can a Muslim architect design a 9/11 memorial?
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What do public memorials represent in the face of a multitude of private losses? Claire's debate with Ariana frames the book, but also provides a foil to it, because after the committee votes to choose the verdant garden, the committee opens the envelope that has held the name of its until-then-anonymous architect. That name: Mohammed Kahn. The chaos that ensues from the announcement of Kahn's name and from the committee's selection is far from academic. Although the stunned committee adjourns "to think," an ensuing press leak (to the New York Post, no less) and the high-level public frenzy around the decision occupy the rest of the book.Skip to next paragraph
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Waldman, who has her finger on the pulse of news, captures the ensuing tumult – in Claire's life, in Mohammed Kahn's life, and in the lives of several other keenly observed parties. The driving insight here is that we seem to belong to stories, perhaps more than stories belong to us. With a reporter's keen eye for how stories spin and are spun, Waldman dramatizes the press's machinations as perhaps only a journalist might. The leak to a tabloid, the rush at the story, the blaze of ignorant reaction ("I don't want a Muslim building my memorial,") the rash of elite liberal art criticism: All these whirl around Mohammed, Claire and the city in clouds of toxic dust. But just as the fight over a memorial seems poised to eclipse the act of remembering, Waldman leaves her opening questions hovering in the potently absent air: Does a memorial need to recreate hurt on its way towards healing? What, in the end, does it mean to "remember"?
As attempts to regulate public memory intrude on and overlap over the privacy of grief which each character still feels, the process of grieving is itself altered. We may have all healed somewhat from the trauma of those early days, but as recent plans to build a Muslim cultural center near ground zero attest, what is sited where and by whom can still be a lightning rod, ready to scorch. In the end, as the both the firestorm and its dust settles, something different than anyone imagined emerges. What does it mean to memorialize, when our memories change and will keep changing.
Perhaps, Waldman reminds us, this moment – when we have each forgotten enough of the complex shock of those days, when both time and intervening years have made our vision complex, we have begun to understand that no single remembrance will be enough. Realizing that memory is in flux, we may finally be ready for the act of memorial to begin.
Tess Taylor is a book critic for The Barnes & Noble Review.