Where were you when JFK was shot? Martin Luther King? Bobby Kennedy? Where were you when Neil Armstrong took “one small step for man?” When Nixon resigned? When the Soviet Union imploded For two generations, these essential “Where were you?” questions were eclipsed by, “Where were you at 9 AM on September 11, 2001?” For Amy Waldman, author of The Submission (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011) , she was building up the journalistic skills of a major reporter and the writing chops of the author that she becomes within these pages. As a bureau chief of the South Asia office for the New York Times, she found herself embedded in the conflicting cultures that led the story of the memorial design competition that led up to the tenth year anniversary. Waldman is enough of a New Yorker that she could capture the view through the eyes of demagogues, widows, and Muslims. The demagogues live behind pen and microphone. The widows have the conscience suit covered deep, and the Muslims? Both the winning designer and an unlikely spokeswoman arise from the American Muslim community, with the twist that this Muslim is also a 9/11 widow.
Claire Burwell holds the lone seat on the memorial selection jury reserved for families of the victims. An Ivy-educated woman of independent means, her husband was very wealthy from his work at Cantor Fitzgerald. The jury added her because she was presumed to serve as a barrier between the artistic taste of the jury and the raw emotion of the other survivors. At the other end of the spectrum is Sean Gallagher, a handyman living in the basement of his mother’s house in Brooklyn. Sean’s brother Patrick was a firefighter pulverized under the collapsing South Tower. Sean had build a small career being Patrick’s voice from beyond the grave. Mohammed (Mo) Khan, a prominent architect and a secular Muslim, won the anonymous competition with a garden that emerged geometrically from the irrigation canals up to the metal trees made from 9/11 rubble. When a grasping, aggressive journalist from a notorious tabloid discloses the religion of the competition winner, the city falls under another attack, this time from within.
Would the memorial garden ever be built at all? Gallagher plays his status as the brother of a fallen hero into a speaking career with minor celebrity status, all in the name of preventing a Musilm architect from building an “Islamic garden: as a “martyr’s paradise.” Claire struggles to balance her own integrity with the raging voices of the other families. Mo fights everyone’s attempts to vilify the design by attacking the designer, or more specifically, the religious heritage of the designer. At a crucial moment, Asma, an undocumented Bangladeshi Muslim widow of the attacks, risks all she has to speak her truth at an angry gathering of the families of victims.
Ten years and two wars later, Waldman’s novel, The Submission, tells the story of a nation struggling to affirm the principles that extremists love to hate. The Submission speaks to the morals of a people whose pluralism, tolerance, and understanding were pushed to the brink of collapse by attackers whose main objective was to make the country whose ideology they hate destroy itself from within.