Saturday, September 3, 2011

Prisoner of Zion: "I needed a story, not satori"

 $6.99, I wrote in the previous post. Scott Carrier's "Prisoner of Zion" will be cheap as an e-book.

So I bought it. Unfortunately, I wasn't smart enough to make my mac's old operating system work with a free downloaded Kindle application from Amazon.

So I bought a Kindle: $139.

$139 + $6.99 = $145.99.

And now that I have read the book, it was well worth it.

"She was looking for enlightenment, prone to losing herself in the moment and falling in love with whomever we met, but I had a deadline and expenses and I needed a story, not satori."

"How can you live there?" [my friends] say, meaning, How can you live surrounded by religious fanatics? This makes me defend the Mormons, as they are much like people everywhere else -- some are bad, some are good. It doesn't bother me that Mormons believe God grew up as a human being on a planet curcling a sun called Kolob. I'm not upset when they tell me He came to Earth in a physical body and had sex with the Virgin Mary. These beliefs, as Jefferson said, neither pick my pocket nor break my bones."

". . . and now I was locked in jail with criminals, cells stacked three stories high in a semi-circle so that one guard, a woman, could sit at an elevated control panel in the center of the circle and see into every cell. . . . It was completely fucked up and I hated it, and I thought for sure the Hindu Kush would be better than this even if they killed me. I took solace knowing I was the only prisoner with a visa to Uzbekistan."

"'What do you you think about America?' 'It looks like a very nice place in the movies, but will you talk to someone and get us some medical help. My backbone is broken.'"

"They all have beards and wear pajamas, shalwar kameez, with a white pill box hat. They are Pastun, Afghans. . . . I've come to Pakistan to write a story for a men's fashion magazine. . . . I have a map and a backpack."

"The first time we saw Iron Cross it was kind of the same thing. We were in a [Burmese] coffee shop for tourists and they were on the television in a live performance. The sound was off, but it was clear they were into something loud and fast. The singer had a shaved head and was screaming into the microphone, the drummer was in a frenzy, and Chit San Maung -- who looked like a friendly head hunter -- was ripping through something dangerous on his guitar. We didn't need to hear the sound to know what the song was about -- sticking it to the man. It seemed very strange these guys were not in jail."

"I figured if he could show a competency in writing then I could argue, or suggest, that he didn't need a high school diploma. And yet I knew he'd learned English from watching American movies -- 'Rush Hour' and 'Rambo' -- and probably didn't have much experience reading and writing the langguage, so I expected that it would take a while to get him up to speed. But I knew he could do it because writing is mainly about the movement of the mind, and Najib's mind moved like a Ferrari."

Scott Carrier's mind moves like a striking rattlesnake, guided by the heat of the prey.

And the prey is the story.

There are lots of stories in this book, the first and the last in the form of haiku, the second and penultimate stories identical retellings of what I take to be an experience in Scott's youth where after church and and a lunch debating God's existence Scott's father is checking a restaurant bill while a man outside the window catches fire. In between are a fond introduction to Salt Lake's MOMOSPHERE that has been Scott's home since he was a child (you'll never see the Joseph Smith statue standing in Salt Lake's Joseph Smith Building the same way after reading this), tales of Elizabeth Smart and Brian David Mitchell, of belief in Pakistan and Afghanistan, of sex trafficking in Cambodia and rock and roll in Burma.

The stories are about very different topics, but they are threaded together by repeated motifs (the panopticon Scott finds himself in Salt Lake and the one he finds in Burma, the Afghan translator Najib who appears late in the book in an essay about his college experiences at UVU in Orem, Utah, etc.) and by the overarching theme of people held prisoner by their beliefs in Zion, a belief Scott describes as having to do with believing you are God's chosen people and that He gave your land to you.

The Taliban are Zionists by this definition, as are the Mormons. And so, for God's sake, is Scott Carrier himself, at least when fear of losing his girlfriend makes him try to control her or when he risks his life in an avalanche to prove he is right. The essay called "The Source of the Spell" is about Scott's own struggles to settle down, to buy a house, to make his girlfriend join him there. It's told in the context of Captain John Gunnison's attempt to force Utes to bow to European-American power and the Captain's opposite impulse to let the Mormons continue on what he thought was a crazy path because he thought persecuting them would make them stronger. "So, I ask you," Scott writes, "what would happen if we left the terrorists alone? What if we pull our troops from their holy land and let them live like in the days of Mohammed? . . . If we're not afraid of terrorists, then they lose."

Who else in America can write like this?

I keep a print of this photo Scott took in the basement of a prison in Afghanistan on the wall of my office. 

[for more the sights and sounds that accompany Scott's essay that originally appeared in Harpers, click here:]

It is beautiful until you look closely and realize you're seeing a waterlogged corpse. This man and the men who attacked him, this reader and the writer Scott Carrier -- we're all prisoners of Zion. It's important for me to remember this daily. And where is the prison? Scott answers the question with an epigraph drawn from the Book of Luke, 17:21: "The Kingdom of God is within you."

This is a profound book, profound because of its simplicity, profound because of its humor, profound because of the Mormons and Afghans and Cambodians whose words and stories live here, profound because of the raw wound that is Scott Carrier's tender soul, profound because of the supple sentences with which he tends that wound.

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