To be a Chechen is crime enough, sir, I assure you. We Chechen are born extremely guilty. Ever since czarist times, our noses have been culpably flat and our hair and skin criminally dark. This is an enduring offense to public order, sir….I am a Chechen black-arse. Why do I have to have a reason to go to prison?
– Issa Karpov to the banker Tommy Brue in John Le Carre’s A Most Wanted Man, P.78, P.82
Chechens are not exactly a popular group these days.
The two Boston bombers who inflicted terrible suffering last month during the annual marathon were of Chechen origin.
Plus, the successful Russian military and media campaigns over the last decade have turned Chechens into a dreaded, hated group in the West.
To be sure, the Chechens have not helped their reputation with violent attacks in Chechnya, Moscow and in the Middle East.
So to the average citizen in the West, the word Chechen is but a synonym for Taliban – A bunch of Islamic fanatics wreaking destruction in the name of their religion.
Fair or Unfair Portrayal?
But we live in times where disinformation and misinformation are increasingly the norm.
Facts are no longer sacred!
People, newspapers, blogs, groups, shadowy intelligence organizations and nations routinely strive to distort reality, and often succeed.
In long ethnic wars such as the Chechen-Russian clash, it’s impossible to pin responsibility for the repeated instances of carnage.
The original grievances have long faded into the background as attack and counterattack are the mantras of both sides.
In such clashes, who’s the Victim and who’s the Aggressor? Who’s the Cursed one and who’s Curseworthy?
Your answer depends on your ignorance, whose side you are on or from where you get your ‘facts.’
John Le Carre’s Chechen Hero
I recently read spy novelist John Le Carre’s A Most Wanted Man.
Despite the author’s vaunted reputation as the master of spy stories, A Most Wanted Man is not a typical spy thriller.
The spy stuff forms but one aspect of A Most Wanted Man. I suppose that is true of a lot of Le Carre’s recent books (unlike his Cold War era novels like Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy).
I wouldn’t rate A Most Wanted Man as an exceptional book.
But it’s a nuanced look at the terrible world we live in where there’s no safe haven from the reach of a bullet or a pressure cooker bomb.
With lots of gray shades, the book eschews the easy temptation of looking at the world as us (good/spies) vs them (bad/terrorists).
The central focus and character of the book is Issa Karpov, a recent Chechen illegal immigrant in Hamburg and a wanted person by the security forces of many countries.
John Le Carre is not a fan of American policies in the current “War on Terror” and contemptuously portrays Americans in the post 9-11 era as militant yahoos practicing “justice from the fucking hip.”
Le Carre is not favorably disposed toward the Russians either, who are at war with Chechens.
Only toward certain elements of the German intelligence service does the author bestow some approval.
A Most Wanted Man views Chechens in a more favorable light than most stories that depict the ethnic group as nothing more than rabid Muslim fundamentalists out to bomb the non-believers into smithereens.
Issa, the principal protagonist of the novel, is not a full Chechen. On his mother’s side, he’s Chechen. But the father is a brutal, corrupt Russian Colonel posted in the Chechen territory who ‘defiled’ Issa’s 15-year-old mother.
Such are Issa’s origins.
Le Carre imbues his protagonist Issa with a complex amalgam of traits.
A conservative Muslim in spirit but not in practice, a tortured soul literally and figuratively, a compassionate man with a deep well of humanity, and half Chechen and half Russian but identifing himself with the losers (Chechen) side, Issa is a strange specimen and certainly not one who can be easily pigeon-holed into a category.
But the world no longer tolerates, and has little patience, for even benign eccentrics. If they’re not like us, or with us, then they must be the enemy.
So you get the ominous feeling that notwithstanding the devoted efforts of his lawyer Annabel, the banker Brue and the German intelligence officer Gunther Bachmann, Issa is doomed!
The ending of A Most Wanted Man is poignant.
Issa is kidnapped by Americans with German help with the intention of delivering “non-crap justice” despite little evidence of his complicity in any of the heinous crimes he’s charged with by many nations around the world.
Perhaps, the Turkish widow Leyla, who initially sheltered Issa, was right when she says early in the book:
Chechens are hated everywhere….Everyone persecutes Chechens except us…It is normal all over Russia and the world. Not only Chechens, but Russian Muslims everywhere. Putin persecutes them and Mr.Bush encourages him. As long as Putin calls it his war on terror, he can do with the Chechens whatever he wishes, and nobody will stop him. Is that not so, Issa? [P.9-10]
Issa was a humane soul in an inhuman world but that wasn’t enough for him to escape his inevitable Chechen destiny.