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Anthropological Quarterly 75.1 (2002) 117-128

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"My Son—A Terrorist?"
(He was such a gentle boy)

Unni Wikan
University of Oslo


My first thought, on seeing the picture of Mohammed Atta, the pilot who crashed the first plane into the World Trade Center, was that I had seen this man before. His features seemed familiar, his expression likewise. In short, he looked like an ordinary man, one of the many I had met on my journeys and stays in the Middle East; some I had come to know, like, and befriend.

Or had I seen him before? As the story of his life unfolds, I realize that our paths may have crossed. He grew up on the outskirts of an area where I did fieldwork over thirty years in Cairo. His family lived in what used to be called a foreign area (hitta afrangi), a posh area, whereas my friends lived in a popular quarter, a folk area (hitta baladi). But people of all levels came together in the market streets that wound their way from the place where the Atta family lived, into my area. On waiting for buses to take my friends and me on visits to relatives in larger Cairo, we would stand, for what seemed like hours sometimes, on the pavements adjacent to the building that housed, as we know now, a future terrorist. But who would have believed at the time? Certainly not my friends and I. Nor would Atta's neighbours who regarded the boy as a well-behaved and pleasant young man.

My sense of recognition stems also from hearing the father of Mohammed Atta, an elderly lawyer, talk. In words reminiscent of utterances I have heard numerous [End Page 117] times from other parents defending their children, he protests that his son could not possibly be an evil-doer. His son was a kind boy, a shy boy, so tender-hearted. He never mixed with the neighbours, but kept to himself and his studies. Indeed, so gentle was he that the father used to tell him, toughen up, boy! (MacFarguhar 2001).

The neighbors confirm the story: the Atta family used to keep their door closed. It means they were decent people, respectable people who set their store on avoiding trouble. "Don't mix with the people, nothing but bad friends used to tell each other and me, over and over" (Wikan 1980; 1996). The responsible parent is one who keeps her child inside, except for goings to and from school and other necessesary activities. The responsible parent teaches the child politeness and to avoid the street, the crowds, even the neighbours beyond extending greetings and help in times of need. Mohammed Atta's father, as I hear him, was a responsible parent, as was the mother who was in daily control of the children's upbringing. (There were three of them, two elder sisters and the boy). His exclamation: "we keep our doors closed!" is a plea—to those who would understand (and Egyptians will)—for recognition for having executed his task as parent with merit (ibid.).

The shy boy, the tender-hearted boy, is also a theme that creates resonance in me, as in the hearts and minds of many of those the elderly Atta seeks to reach. To be haniyyan—tenderhearted—is, in my experience, the epitome of the good son; ordinarily, the mother is spoken of as haniyyan; the mother is by definition haniyyan—in counterpoint to the father who should enact more masculine qualitites like high-principledness, authority, and force. But a son who is haniyyan is not thought of as un-masculine. A tender-hearted son is kind, generous, helpful—qualities endorsed by the parents. Now the father says he advised his son, toughen up, boy! the elder would know that tender-heartedness can be exploited, that it serves a man to be street-wise. But now, when the tragedy has happened, what better way to cry out one's protests against all those who would target one's son as a terrorist...


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pp. 117-128
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