There is a certain happiness sighted when your bus comes along. It is of course a small specialized form of happiness and will never be a great thing.

-Richard Brautigan, The Old Bus

Sunday, August 26, 2007

A Mighty Heart on the bus

Finished reading Mariane Pearl's "A Mighty Heart: The Brave Life and Death of My Husband Danny Pearl" while riding the bus. This a powerful, well-written account. If you cry easily, this is not the book to read in public.

This is a classic tragedy. You know how it ends for Daniel Pearl, Wall Street Journal Mideast correspondent, kidnapped in Karachi, Pakistan, while researching a story on terrorists, and eventually horribly murdered. What holds the reader's attention is the story of the effort to rescue Pearl and, most important, how Danny Pearl's wife, pregnant with their first child, will survive the ordeal.

Mariane is a journalist in her own right. At the time of her husband's kidnap she was working for French public radio. She has won awards for her documentary work. But she and her husband were not "war" correspondents.

"War held no appeal for Danny or for me. What interested us was the challenge presented by peace. People often see peace as the simple absence of war, but it is instead the result of courageous actions taken to initiate a dialogue between civilizations. Both Danny and I saw our profession as a way to contribute to the dialogue, to allow voices on all sides to be heard, and to bear witness."
This idealism about the role of journalism suffuses the book. Danny, and by extension Mariane, are victimized because of the threat journalism poses to tyrants.
"This is how we end up in a world where people talk not to communicate but to subjugate; where ignorance keeps people hostage; where those in power simplify complexity so as not to be questioned. This why those same people hate journalists, at least those who reject black-and-white views of the world, because by exploring the gray zones, journalists can shed new light on issues like Arab-Israeli relations, American foreign relations, or Islamic fundamentalism. We have the tools and the language to reveal truths. We believe we can change the world by changing the way people think about one another. We can even create links, frail as they may be, between peoples. Thus, for those who promote hatred, we are the most hateable of all."

It is Mariane's struggle to keep faith with these ideals in the midst of savagery that I found most compelling. After Danny's death, Mariane met with President Bush and several of his top Cabinet officers.
"[What Bush] really wanted to understand from me was, 'How come you're not bitter?' I told him that if I let bitterness overcome me, I would lose my soul, and if I lost my soul, I also would lose Danny's. 'This,' I told the President of the United States, 'is my biggest battle.' "
Danny Pearl was a Jew, although not a practicing one. Danny's father was born in Israel, the child of Zionists who had moved to Israel in 1924. His mother was born in Baghdad and emigrated to Israel. Danny's parents moved to the United States, where Danny was born in 1963.

Mariane Pearl is a Buddhist, a follower of the Japanese sect founded by Nichiren. One of the reasons I was first attracted to this book was because I too am a Buddhist with the same sect. In fact, right now as I write this in my home office, the local youth division of Soka Gakkai International, a Buddhist lay organization, is holding a pool party in my backyard.

Mariane's father was a Dutch Jew, a wannabe revolutionary who met his future wife in Havana just after the revolution. Mariane's mother was born in Havana with Spanish and African heritage, with a Chinese grandfather added to the mix. Mariane and her brother were raised by her mother in Paris. Mariane writes about her life in Paris in an essay contained in "The Buddha Next Door," a collection of stories about daily Buddhism compiled by Zan Gaudioso and Greg Martin.

"A Mighty Heart" is divided into two parts. The first covers the time from the day of Danny's kidnap to the birth of his son after his death. The second part of the book contains 37 pages of letters she received after Danny's death.
"After this excruciating ordeal, there was nothing I needed more than to be reassured about human nature. I had just experienced how barbaric human beings can be, and I was about to bring a child into the world. Living through the nightmare was like falling down a well. Those letters -- your letters -- have been the rope that, word by word, allowed me to raise my hopes again and see the light at last. ... I am convinced that if we ultimately overcome terrorism and the spread of hatred, it will be because there are millions more on this earth like those who wrote to me.

"We call them ordinary people. To me, each one is extraordinary."
And she is not kidding when she says these are ordinary people. Mixed in with the letters from George Bush and Vladimir Putin and various Arab potentates are letters from the customers of Deegan's liquor store in Woodhaven, N.Y., the Wal-Mart associates from Store No. 2281 in West Mifflin, Pa., the 26 students from Mrs. Rudolf's fifth-grade reading class at East Hampton Middle School, East Hampton, N.Y. and "Ten Useful Baby Tips" offered by Mrs. Brosius's fifth-grade class, Laurin Middle School, Vancouver, Wa. ("Try not to give them too many small round foods. They stick them up their nose.") One Pakistani gentleman from Karachi apologized on behalf of his countrymen and offered to have her live with him. "I am ready and willing to support you and share your sorrow including the esteemed matronial relationship if you desire so."

In the end, the fact that Mariane was pregnant at the time of the kidnap was very important. This is underlined with a letter to her unborn son:
"Dear Adam,

"This is the first time I am writing to you. So far, we have communicated in a different way and I have asked you to just be with us. And you have done exactly that.

"In a few days, I will merge both, life and death.

"These will be joy and pain as you come to the world. But please always remember how your birth granted me a future and granted your dad eternity. . . ."
I wanted to read the book and then see the movie, but by the time I got around to the book, the movie was no longer playing locally. I'm now looking forward to seeing the movie when the DVD is available. In the interim, I strongly recommend this book.


Queen of Dysfunction said...

This book sounds extraordinary. I couldn't fathom going through what Mariane went through (nor Danny for that matter).

It is very encouraging to hear that a woman who was pregnant at the time of her husband's execution has been able to build such an outlook after the fact.

John said...

I really think the outlook preceded the ordeal, at least that's the impression I get from the book. But clearly the pregnancy provided a hope that defeated the terrorists' aim.