Imam Anwar Awlaki, the jihadi superstar, is a big fan of Charles Dickens, but he hates Shakespeare.
The US-born Awlaki was forced to read English classics during his 18 months behind bars in a prison in Sana’a, Yemen. I say forced because a guard had forbidden him from reading the Islamic literature he preferred, so he asked his family to bring him whatever English novels he had lying around.
Awlaki’s taste in books reveals much about him. Consider his reaction to the first English-language novel he read in prison: Herman Melville’s Moby Dick.
I cannot say that it was a good novel; but in jail, anything is good.
Now that Awlaki is being hunted like the white whale by U.S. forces, I wonder if he has given second thought to his brusque dismissal of Melville’s masterpiece.
It doesn’t take much imagination to see this highly symbolic tale of obsession and revenge as an allegory for post Sept. 11 America. Literary critic Edward Said sees bin Laden as our modern white whale hunted to the ends of the earth; journalist Stephen Kinzer sees in Captain Ahab the figure of George Bush, lashing out blindly at the force that has wounded him. Another parallel: The Pequod is hunting for the whale oil that lit 19th century New England homes.
How could Awlaki have failed to grasp these symbols of good and evil?
After that, the burgeoning jihadist read Shakespeare’s King Lear.
Shakespeare was the worst thing I read during my entire stay in prison. I never liked him to start with. Probably the only reason he became so famous is because he was English and had the backing and promotion of the speakers of a global language.
Still, Awlaki pressed on. He turned next to Charles Dickens. Here he fell in love.
I read Hard Times thrice. So, I ordered more Charles Dickens and read Tale of Two Cities, Great Expectations, Oliver Twist, and his masterpiece: David Copperfield. I read this one twice.
What fascinated me with these novels were the amazing characters Dickens created and the similarity of some of them to some people today. That made them very interesting. For example: the thick and boastful Mr. Josiah Bounderby of Coketown was similar to George W. Bush; Lucy’s father, Mr. Gradgrind, was similar to some Muslim parents who are programmed to think that only Medicine and Engineering are worthy professions for their children; the amazing cruelness of Stephen Blackpool was similar to some people who appear on the surface to be decent and kind human beings; and Uriah Heep was similar to some pitiful Muslims today.
Not to take anything away from Dickens, but he’s a very different writer than either Melville or Shakespeare. A journalist by training, Dickens used his considerable storytelling gifts to call attention to the less fortunate with the goal of social reform in mind. But Dickens, unlike Melville and Shakespeare, wasn’t wrestling with God and the nature of human existence.
Although clearly bright, Awlaki’s taste in books reveals him as a man lacking in imagination — the true sign of genius.