Moussaoui Remembers Fire
In court, he could not care less about the woman who was unable to make amends with her husband, and who weekly drapes herself across his grave and claws at the earth, fills her fingernails with sod. He does not care about the bereaved father’s desire to inscribe his own tombstone, “He died of a broken heart.” Or about the woman whose will to fight her cancer shriveled. He does not care about the way she awakens each morning, one hand covering her missing breast, the other flung over a cool pillow.
But when another woman reports from the eighty-third floor, via tape recording, that she can feel the heat beneath her—when she says more than asks, “I’m going to die, aren’t I?”—Moussaoui remembers fire.
1971. Three years old and they had just moved to Dordogne, the summer before the fall his mother dropped off his brother and sisters and him at the orphanage in Alsace. Those few months, his mother cleaned the central post office each night, and left his older sister, Nadia, in charge.
The night of the fire, Nadia sliced bread for them, and cheese, and Moussaoui’s younger sister, Jamila, played with a scarf she had found that day in the street. The scarf was bright red, and stained by tire grime and trash. Jamila didn’t seem to mind. She wore the scarf around her neck, and posed like a movie star. Later, she pulled back her hair and tied it up with the dirty scarf. Moussaoui played along; he imagined the scarf, in her hair, bejeweled.
A few hours later, his mother was wiping down the customer counters, she was sweeping and mopping the post office’s floors, and Moussaoui, his brother, and his sisters, went to bed. Jamila, as soon as the room was dark, got up and turned on the floor lamp. She draped her scarf over its shade, and pink light filled the room. Moussaoui pulled the blanket up to his neck and inhaled deeply. He exhaled and then again breathed in through his nose. The room was so pink, so pretty, he kept expecting it to smell like flowers.
Moussaoui woke up first. He smelled smoke and saw flames from the scarf listing toward the wall.
He cried out not fire, but burn. Nadia got up right away. She ran to the kitchen for water, her bare feet slapping the wood floor.
Moussaoui shook Jamila awake, shouting up, fast, and now, fire. Jamila swiped at her eyes with the backs of her hands. Once she was up, she and Moussaoui pulled on Abd Samad’s arms until he rose from bed, muttering. The three of them tottered out the bedroom door together beneath a low ceiling of smoke, just as Nadia returned carrying a pail of water. Nadia said, “Outside. Go.” And Moussaoui and his brother and sister went out into the night and stared back at the apartment building, waiting for Nadia to join them.
Moussaoui tries to remember Nadia’s soot-streaked face when she finally made it outside, how the grit was visible even by moonlight. He tries to remember how he and Jamila clung to their sister’s legs, and how, while smoke leaked from an open window, Abd Samad sat on the curb and began to doze off.
He tries, even, to think of Nadia slicing the baguette earlier that night. Of Jamila posing like Marilyn Monroe. And Abd Samad, waking, muttering something about the sky.
But the thing he can’t get out of his mind is the moment when he stood outside the apartment and looked at the building. He can’t get out of his mind how right before Nadia came out, he looked at the barely burning building and imagined a wall of flame, billowing smoke. He imagined the whole thing about to come down.
AUTHOR’S NOTE: I wrote this story five years ago. While you might think I would have completely forgotten by now everything having to do with its genesis, that is not at all the case, which I’ll admit is unusual for me. Often, I can’t remember on any given afternoon how or why what I have written that very morning. Nonetheless:
In the spring of 2006, I drove thirty minutes four days a week to teach an 8:00 a.m. composition class to first-year college students. I listened to a lot of NPR that spring, my pickup lumbering down US 34, the cornfields attached to the road going from shorn and snow-covered to mud-black and newly planted.
I hadn’t heard much about Zacarias Moussaoui prior to NPR’s coverage of his sentencing trial, but I quickly became obsessed with the story. I was obsessed with his erratic behavior in court, his outbursts, his previous desire to represent himself in a case that could lead to the death penalty. There were accusations of witness tampering, and there was this: the very prevalent notion that Moussaoui’s sentencing trial was actually about much more than sentencing Zacarias Moussaoui.
Though the prosecution never really directly linked Moussaoui to the September 11th attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City, they showed graphic footage of the attacks during the sentencing trial. Later, they brought to the stand people who’d lost family members in the attacks.
It had been almost five years since these men and women had lost people they loved, and the stories these victims told were heart-wrenching. Completely devastating. At the heart of their testimony, it seemed to me, beat something unspoken: This was a tragedy for which there would be no easy remedy.
Moussaoui, meanwhile, continued to act insensitively in the courtroom. He seemed not to care at all about these victims and what they had lost.
Still, I realized that I was becoming sympathetic to him. The entire proceedings—and the trial itself—had begun to remind me of the odd and sometimes terrible ways we as a country reacted to the events of 9/11 under the leadership of George W. Bush. Though the country initially came together in ways that were both moving and profound, soon, instead of focusing on our grief, our loss, we turned our attention to revenge, to attempting to find justice where justice was most likely unattainable.
I believed that Moussaoui was probably guilty of terrible crimes, crimes for which he should receive a lot of time in a federal prison, but I disliked the way his sentencing trial was playing out. He was not, it seemed to me, guilty of this. I even considered at various times how Moussaoui might be playing monster for our benefit, acting out the evil we expected from him.
So these are the kinds of things I was thinking about during my morning commute, and then in the afternoon, I would return to Galesburg and teach fiction writing classes at a different college. I was still pretty new to teaching fiction, and I found myself spending a lot of time thinking about why we teach creative writing classes to undergraduates.
There are practical reasons, of course, related to honing students’ abilities to work with language and thought, and to read closely and critically. But there are less practical—though no less important—reasons as well. We teach creative writing because it’s worthwhile to write, to make art. We teach it because it involves a kind of creative problem solving, applicable not just to story-making but to all sorts of real-world problems. And we teach it because reading closely and writing well increases our capacity for empathy.
This is no small thing, an increased capacity for empathy, but at the time, though I frequently found the words spilling from my mouth, I still wasn’t sure what they meant.
I began to formulate some ideas: An increased capacity for empathy meant the ability to see something from someone else’s point of view. It meant the ability to appreciate nuance and ambiguity. It meant, sometimes, holding off on being right, and appreciating the delicate yet powerful position of being uncertain, open-minded.
While I believed—and still do—in the importance of empathy when it comes to reading and writing fiction, I still typically sat down to write mostly to explore some image or emotion, hoping in the end that I might stir some potential reader who winds up with my story in her hands. I never wrote—and still don’t, not really—hoping to make readers better, more compassionate human beings.
Yet, when I sat down to write this story, I had the voices of those victims in my head. And I had Moussaoui. And I wanted to humanize him, to make him more than the monster he had been in court.
I had an idea, a hypothesis. I’m not so sure I can put it into words, but it had something to do with how a desire for revenge might actually stunt a person’s ability to grieve, to heal. I was thinking about empathy, and about what it might mean to feel compassion rather than only hatred toward those who have wronged us. And I was thinking about stories, about whether or not it might be possible for them to help us to do this.