9/11 Trauma, Islamophobia, and Amy Waldman’s The Submission

The Submission was written by Amy Waldman and was first published in 2011, right around the tenth anniversary of 9/11. The novel focuses on a jury that has to decide on a memorial that will be placed on the site of the attack. However, there is a disagreement between the jury, which is assembled of experts on art, New York citizens, and a family member of one of the victims. Claire Burwell, who represents the families of the victims, chooses ‘the Garden’ while most other jurors choose ‘the Void’ as “[t]hey believe that it recreates the destruction of the attacks in its design, and have suggested anger in response, whereas the Garden…indicates America’s deep longing for healing by introducing joy instead” (Jabarouti and Mani 34). Eventually, Claire persuades the jury to vote for the Garden. However, all submissions are anonymous and the jury, in choosing the Garden, ends up voting for a design made by the American Muslim Mohammad Khan. When the news of this controversial selection leaks to the press, many people are outraged and the jury finds itself under pressure and unable to decide how to proceed. While the selection outrages many family members of the victims, the talk about withdrawing the design angers the Muslim characters in the novel, implying that a monument that is satisfying for all people suffering from the collective trauma is impossible. Hence, the 9/11 trauma in this novel is represented by focusing on the memorial, collective versus personal trauma as irreconcilable oppositions, the aftermath of 9/11 for the Muslim community, and the resolution of the trauma.

In the beginning of the novel the jury is still debating which design to choose, as both the Void and the Garden are still in the running. It should be noted, however, that the Void as described in the novel bears a remarkable resemblance to the actual memorial, ‘Reflecting Absence,’ by Michael Arad. Lindsay Tuggle explains that

Michael Arad’s architectural design permanently inscribes the twin tower’s ‘footprints’ as ‘voids’ in the landscape, creating vacant monuments to the fallen structures…Arad’s anthropomorphic understanding of the tower’s ghostly footprints recalls Freud’s assertion that melancholia ‘behaves like an open wound’ that seeks to fill itself entirely with absence…the 9/11 Memorial mimics the magnetic void of melancholia on a national scale. (132)

In the novel, the Void is described as a memorial that is “visceral, angry, dark, raw, because there was no joy on that day. You can’t tell if that slab is rising or falling, which is honest – it speaks exactly to this moment in history. It’s created destruction, which robs the real destruction of its power, dialectically speaking” (Waldman 6). Hence, the two memorials, the actual historical one and the fictional one, closely resemble one another as they are both described as voids reflecting on the open wound and destruction that 9/11 left behind.

The Garden, however, is Claire Burwell’s first choice. She explains that “’[t]he Void is too dark for us,’ …Us: the families of the dead. Only she, on the jury, stood for Us. She loathed the Void…and Claire was sure the other families would, too” (Waldman 5). Thus, she believes that the Void only reflects on the negative feelings, instead of depicting the 9/11 grief in a more positive way, stimulating healing. She continues by saying that “’[t]he Garden,’…’will be a place where we – where the widows, their children, anyone – can stumble on joy” (Waldman 6). On the other hand, Ariana, another juror, disagrees with this way of healing, as she believes that healing trauma should be brought about by confronting the pain and wallowing in grief (Waldman 6). The jury’s concern with picking the right memorial, that reflects the right emotions and persuades the people to heal, implies that ten years after the event, the trauma still seems very immediate. The people have not yet found closure, and taking a step back and looking at the event, or the way in which it should be memorialised objectively, still seems impossible. This is also underscored by Paul, the jury’s chairman, who voices the concerns and says “that it was too soon for a memorial, the ground barely cleared; that the country hadn’t yet won or lost the war, couldn’t even agree, exactly, on who or what it was fighting” (Waldman 10). However, waiting for society to choose rationally instead of emotionally is not an option as “[t]he longer that space stayed clear, the more it became a symbol of defeat, of surrender, something for ‘them,’ whoever they were, to mock. A memorial only to America’s diminished greatness, its new vulnerability to attack by a fanatic band, mediocrities in all but murder…the blank space was embarrassing” (Waldman 10).

As can be seen from the passages quoted in the previous paragraph, the collective and the personal traumas are presented as total opposites and as irreconcilable. Whereas the jury is assembled of people with political and artistic backgrounds, Claire is a victim’s family member, and their ideas of and wishes for the memorial are so different that reaching a consensus proves to be very difficult. The jury is, in fact, impersonating society on a microlevel, because, once the news of the selected design and its designer gets out, the public faces the same binary oppositions resulting in a polarised society with no sense of communality. As a collective, everybody wants a memorial that is satisfying, but the personal opinions are greatly different. This is proven by the way in which the novel represents the aftermath of the selection. Margarita Estévez-Saá and Noemí Pereira-Ares explain that

The problems arise when the members of the jury as well as many American citizens discover the identity of the author behind the chosen project, an alleged Muslim named Mohammad Khan. The jury as well as the society of New York is immediately divided between those who favor the rights of the winner and those who consider his Muslim ascendancy to represent an affront to the victims. In this way, The Submission reflects the difficulty of even knowing who the enemy is. (270)

Hence, the designer, Mohammad Khan, represents Islam, and thus the enemy for many people, and his design is therefore deemed disrespectful to the victims and survivors of 9/11. Even though Mohammad is born and raised in America, and more agnostic than Muslim, his name and outer features resemble the Other, or the Terrorist for many people.


Mohammad’s identity is formed by other people on the basis of his name, which is the most obviously Muslim name, and in the minds of the people, is “connected to a religion of violence, of the sword” (Waldman 294). Peter Ferry notes that not only Mohammad’s name is problematic, but that

it is Waldman’s shrewd engagement with the beard, as well as her protagonist’s awareness of the sensibilities and sensitivities surrounding the beard in the public and private performances of his masculinity, that underlines the continuing importance of the beard in the literary exploration of the incongruities in the ideas of identity, masculinity, and individuality in a globalized and globalizing American society. (15)

The fear that Mohammad’s beard evokes in white American society is depicted in a scene where Paul Rubin meets Mohammad Khan in a bistro and it is said that

he spotted a dark-bearded man watching him from a table at the back…Khan stood. He had a good three inches on Paul. He had taken the seat with the view of the restaurant and the door, which was Paul’s preferred seat; sitting with his back to a room unsettled him. Once they sat, Paul sipped water, hoping to imbibe a sense of equilibrium. (Waldman 77-8)

From this passage, it becomes clear that society is on edge after 9/11 and that even ten years after the fact, people with a Muslim appearance are still believed to be threatening to white American people. Mohammad Khan is here presented as a predator, as someone whose face is obscured by his beard. Moreover, he is tall and he is believed to show his upper hand or dominance by taking the seat in which he can observe the whole room, leaving Paul vulnerable and unsettled with his back to the room.

Mohammad proves to have difficulties with his identity as well and he begins to split or double himself. It is said that

Mo began to put psychological distance between himself and the Mohammad Khan who was written and talked about, as if that were another man altogether. It often was. Facts were not found but made, alive, defying anyone to tell them from truth. Strangers analysed, judged, and invented him…By training his face not to show feeling, he could receive the attention of the strangers who stopped him on the street… (Waldman 161-2)

The pressure of white American society and the firestorm of the media takes his toll and becomes a traumatic experience for Mohammad. As he only entered the competition to contribute to the healing of the trauma and to find “the right balance between remembering and recovering,” he never seemed to have thought about the reaction of the public when he would win (Waldman 79). The negativity that the design evokes clearly has an influence on Mohammad and the media, and the strangers that he meets seem to have the same effect on him as his presence and words have on the public. While he feels threatened by the public because they analyse, judge, and invent him; the public feels threatened by him because of his Muslim identity, whether this identity is invented or not. The vicious cycle or repetition that is closely related to trauma is thus also applicable in this case.

Moreover, the other Muslim characters in the novel are threatened by white American society as well, which becomes clear when the novel mentions the violence against Muslim women. During a protest rally against the monument, a few Muslim women attend with signs saying that they had also lost people that day and that they are also Americans (Waldman 195). Sean, who is against building the Garden, gets into a heated discussion with one of the Muslim women, which angers him so much that he pulls her headscarf off her head. Later on in the novel it is said that “[t]he second headscarf pulling occurred less than a week after the rally…The next took place in Boston…More men copied him, and copycats copied the copycats, so within a week there had been more than a dozen incidents around the country” (Waldman 209-210). Moreover, the fear of and anger towards Muslims forces them to react with violence too, as they are threatened and Muslim women are scared to leave their house or their neighbourhoods. When Asma, a Muslim woman who has lost her husband in the attack, gets out of the house, she is followed by a group of Bangladeshi boys carrying sticks so that they can beat up anyone coming close to her (Waldman 218). Asma comments that “[s]he no longer knew who was imprisoning her, only that the prison was well sealed” (Waldman 219). Hence, the vicious cycle of being scared of one another resulting in violence against one another is clearly established.

Mohammad Khan himself, however, is not the only person who is threatening to white American society. Khan’s design, the Garden, also forms a threat, as it is connected to the Islam as well. People claim that the garden has Islamic features that are believed to represent paradise. Debbie Dawson, a character in the novel, who is a member of Save America from Islam, claims that

’[t]wo decades of multicultural appeasement have led to this: we’ve invited the enemy into our home to decorate.’…’Look at the history: Muslims build mosques wherever they’ve conquered. They could never get away with putting a mosque at this site, so they’ve come up with something sneakier: an Islamic garden, this martyr’s paradise, it’s like a code to jihadis. And they’ve smuggled it in our memorial – it’s the Trojan horse’ (Waldman 149).

The crisis in multiculturalism is a hot topic after 9/11, as people with an Islamic background are now watched with suspicion. This passage underscores the traumatised white American’s reaction to Muslims and to the memorial design, as the Garden is believed to encourage more terrorist attacks instead of the mourning of 9/11. The characters that are members of Save America from Islam believe that the Garden resembles the promised paradise. It is said that “Islamic extremists would fatten their fantasies of eternity beneath the same trees, along the same paths, that she and other family members walked for consolation” (Waldman 150).

As the group against Mohammad Khan and his design gains more body, and the information that is spread about Khan and the Garden turns more sour, Claire’s values and beliefs start to crumble. While Claire vouched for Khan’s design, she starts to doubt her own integrity and morals once the press comes up with more dirt. She had wanted to focus on the design and to leave the designer out of the matter; however, this turns out to be problematic. In the novel, the editor of The New Yorker writes that

Khan’s opponents judge him by his fellow Muslims – not just those who brought down the towers but the significant number who believe that America brought the attack on itself, or that it was an inside job by the American government. This is unfair, even reprehensible. We should judge him only by his design. But this is where matters get tricky. In venturing into public space, the private imagination contracts to serve the nation and should necessarily abandon its own ideologies and beliefs. This memorial is not an exercise in self-expression, nor should it be a display of religious symbolism, however benign. (Waldman 159). Hence, only judging Khan’s design proves to be impossible, because the collective and personal cannot be separated. The collective should stand above the personal, but the people’s own beliefs and ideologies, as well as the beliefs and the ideologies of Khan, cannot be rooted out. In this sense it becomes impossible to make the memorial, or any memorial for that matter, work; the collective is simply too diverse.

The character of Claire even proves that the convictions of one person can become unstable in the chaos of choosing the memorial and the aftermath of the selection. While Claire starts off by defending the design, not knowing who the architect is, she simply chooses it because it is the design that she thinks all family members of the victims would like. Moreover, when the jury finds out that the designer is an American Muslim, she stands by her decision, believing that tolerance is important and one of the pillars of American society. Claire claims that a 9/11-memorial designed by a Muslim “will send a message, a good message, that in America, it doesn’t matter what your name is…that your name is no bar to entering a competition like this, or winning it” (Waldman 22). However, later on in the novel she starts to doubt her morals and the defence of the design. Still, she does not have problems with Khan’s beliefs, but her own morals and ideologies are problematic. Amir Khadem says that “[i]n this post-9/11 chaos, the discrepancy between what Claire as the civil defender of social values wants and what the grieving widow of a 9/11 victim is obliged to want marks the inadequacy of the ideological discourse in the midst of grief, panic, and hatred” (75). Hence, once again, the personal traumas and the collective trauma are strongly connected. Claire’s personal trauma of losing her husband relates to strongly to the trauma of the many widows that have lost their husband or wife in the attacks, making it impossible for Claire to make a decision or follow the path that is truly hers.

An organisation that also tries to defend Khan and his design is the Muslim American Coordinating Council. Its abbreviation MACC, according to Amir Khadem, serves as a wordplay on Mac, as in one of the most American businesses, McDonald’s, but also subtly refers to Mecca, thereby combining the two cultures (70). As the corporation tries to unite the American and Islamic culture, they will help to defend Khan’s design in exchange for Khan’s support and promotion of the American Muslim. When he refuses to do so, however, he gets into a heated argument about his beard with the lawyer that is appointed to him by the MACC. This again relates to the struggle that Khan has with his own identity, and the sensitivity of the American public concerning Muslim features. In the beginning of the novel, Khan already mentions that he changed after 9/11. As he says “he realised that the difference wasn’t in how he was being treated but in how he was behaving…He didn’t like this new, more cautious avatar, whose efforts at accommodation hinted at some feeling of guilt” (Waldman 30). His behaviour, however, is still maintained many years later, as he submitted his memorial design with a picture of him without a beard, even though at the time of the submission he had a beard. Clearly he has made an effort to be seen as a ‘safe Muslim’ by avoiding features that might scare the public or that might harm or work against him in any way. This also shows that the personal and the collective cannot be seen as two separate entities; however, there is no way to unite them either. Claire’s situation, the MACC’s situation, and Khan’s behaviour all prove that it is impossible to unite the binary oppositions that they face: Claire cannot reconcile her personal feelings with those of the public; the MACC cannot unite Americans and Muslims; and Khan cannot resolve the conflict between the way in which he is seen by the public and the way in which he wants the public to see him.

The different backgrounds of the people that suffer from the terrorist attacks and their struggles with their identity are not only personified by Mohammad Khan, but also by numerous other characters in the novel; the most important one being Asma. Amir Khadem claims that the novel

is among the first politically engaging post-9/11 novels that not only avoid the faulty head-on approach in the depiction of the Muslim terrorists but also counter the general reduction of public life to private affairs by creating a narrative of the American moral panic in the encounter with its Muslim minority. (68)

Her struggles after the attack are significant as she is an illegal immigrant, and therefore she has no voice in American society and remains invisible during the larger part of the novel. However, near the end of the novel, Asma breaks the silence and decides to speak up for all the people with a Muslim background that have lost a loved one when the towers were hit. At the hearing, she listens to the people, and after hearing only from Muslims and sympathisers supporting Khan’s design or family members of the victims who oppose the design, she says:

My husband was a man of peace because he was a Muslim. That is our tradition. That is what our prophet, peace be upon him, taught…You have mixed up these bad Muslims, these bad people, and Islam…There are so many more Muslims who would never think of taking a life. You talk about paradise as a place for bad people. But that is not what we believe. That is not what the garden is for. The gardens of paradise are for men like my husband, who never hurt anyone…How can you pretend we and our traditions are not part of this place? Does my husband matter less than all of your relatives? (Waldman 296)

Her outrage during the hearing reflects on the panic of the white American people, who are so threatened by American Muslims that they feel as if they should not be part of society anymore unless they adhere to all the rules and traditions of white American society. The white Americans see the losses that the American Muslims suffer as a secular problem, one that is not as important or significant as their own losses and traumas. Asma’s story in this sense, reprimands white American society and provides a counter narrative to 9/11 and its aftermath.

Asma’s counter narrative does not stop at her finding her voice and proclaiming her experiences and view on the treatment of the American Muslims. Khadem mentions that “Asma’s appearance does not resolve the problem and, in fact, extents it to another level” (76). By speaking at the hearing and denouncing herself as an illegal immigrant, she inadvertently sets in motion her own deportation as well as the deportation of many other illegal immigrants. At the end of the novel it is said that

[i]t was her choice to go, and yet not. In the days since her exposure as an alien, politicians had whipped the public into a frenzy of fear over the thousands of untracked Bangladeshi Muslims in New York, starting with Asma’s own husband…[The governor] demanded that the federal government comb the Bangladeshi community for illegals and for terrorist links. (Waldman 322)

Asma decides that if it was her doing that so many immigrants would be deported, she herself could not stay. On her way back to Bangladesh, she is met by hundreds of people wanting to say goodbye. However, an anonymous person makes use of the chaos and the many faces present and stabs Asma. She dies on the pavement, and her assassin remains unknown; the case unsolved. Khadem then claims that “[h]er death, instead of her public defense, provides a resolution for the story, as Mo, heartbroken by the news, decides to voluntarily withdraw from the competition to simply end the calamitous chain of events that has progressed much too far” (76).

8c48784b-d823-493b-b108-c52a522c9d2bAsma’s death indeed sets in motion the resolution of the story, and in many ways also the resolution of the 9/11-trauma. In the epilogue of the novel, all storylines come together and the characters once again try to atone for, apologise for, and explain their acts. Mohammad left America and went to the country of his roots, India, after he withdrew his design. In this last chapter he meets with a young documentary maker, Molly, and her cameraman, William. Molly believes that “the process of creating a memorial [is] itself part of the memorial,” and she wants to revisit the process and the people involved in the process to see how they think about the memorial design twenty years later (Waldman 368). Mohammad says that America “had moved on, self-corrected, as it always did, that feverish time mostly forgotten,” implying that the people have progressed, that white Americans and Muslims live together in peace thirty years after 9/11 and that most Americans would now have agreed with Mohammad’s memorial design. Mohammad claims that he has also moved on, that “[f]rom catastrophe – from failure – had come his true path, his life calling, as if all was meant to happen this way” (Waldman 377). The traumatic experience of 9/11 and the debacle of the memorial have thus had a great influence on his life, but eventually changed it for the better. His memorial became built, not as the 9/11 memorial in New York City, but as a private garden in India.

Claire, on the other hand, seems to have regretted the memorial debacle greatly, and believes that she should never have turned on the design like she did. When she’s asked if she ever went to see the memorial that was built instead of the Garden, she says:

Never. I went to the dedication, then never returned. A Garden of Flags? Hideous. As ugly as the whole process…by the time it got built I’m not sure anyone cared. I was sick of the whole thing, and it was my husband’s memorial! And so many more Americans ended up dying in the wars the attack prompted than in the attack itself that by the time they finished the memorial it seemed wrong to have expended so much effort and money. But it’s almost like we fight over what we can’t settle in real life through these symbols. They’re our nation’s afterlife. (Waldman 380)

Hence, she claims that the aftermath and afterlife of the attack and the people that were lost that day and the days following, are just as important as the event itself was. The memorial that was eventually built, according to Claire, never grasped the full concept of the trauma; it only commemorated the attacks, while the trauma of 9/11, that sustained much longer, was forgotten.

The symbolic memorial that comes closer to the trauma is then created by her son William, the cameraman of the documentary. As he goes to see the garden in India, he manages to make a signpost out of pebbles. In the beginning of the novel William is still a little boy and he suffers from nightmares in which his father, who has died on 9/11, cannot find his way home. Claire remembers her husband teaching their children to make cairns on their hikes so that they would always find their way back home. She decides to make a similar kind of trail with the children, so that their father might find his way home (Waldman 105- 106). Now that William is grown up and in India interviewing and filming Mohammad Khan and his garden, he decides to honour their own self-designed memorial by making a cairn in Khan’s garden. In the last lines of the novel, William shows the footage of the garden and cairn to his mother. It is said that “[t]hat day flooded back, the shade of every stone, the shape of every mound they left for Cal to find his way, even as she lost hers. In Khan’s garden, her son had laid his hand. With a pile of stones, he had written a name” (Waldman 385). Hence, thirty years after 9/11, Claire, as well as Mohammad, can find their closure. Mohammad has found his way and has received an apology from Claire for her behaviour, and Claire has finally found the right memorial for her husband, not in New York but in India. As her son has placed his personal memorial in the original design of the public memorial, the novel comes full circle and Claire’s traumas seem to have healed in the process. Hence, in the end, the novel seems to suggest that different ideologies or private versus public ideas about memorialisation will forever remain separate, but can come together to resolve the trauma.


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Categories: 9/11 Literature, Literary Criticism, Literary Theory, Trauma Theory

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