Genital Anxiety

By Borneman, John | Anthropological Quarterly, Winter 2001 | Go to article overview

Genital Anxiety


Borneman, John, Anthropological Quarterly


Ever since the events of September 11, I have been anxious, dogged by a diffuse and alarming fear, and I think that those responsible for those events are also provoked-and motivated-by anxiety. My fear and their fear. Despite radically different etiologies, our fears share the search for a focus-an agent, cause, antidote, a relief from ignorance.

To what do we attribute the anxiety of Mohamed Atta, the suspected coordinator for the events of September 11? His transformation, from shy and polite Egyptian boy to international terrorist, appears to have happened while he was in exile, a student of urban planning, in Hamburg, a very prosperous port city in northern Germany. A short biography of Atta published in the New York Times found that his mother "pampered him" while his ambitious father was disapproving, even accusing Atta's mother of "raising him as a girl." in other words, even after death, Atta could not measure up to his father. His parents were middle class and not particularly active in either religion or politics.

Their neighbors report that Atta's father was an arrogant man who considered them, as well as his son, to be "inferior." The neighborhood in which Atta grew up was not the "slums of Egypt," the conditions often invoked as cause to explain the terror, but a middle-class area of Cairo where, throughout the 1980s, many residents were experiencing downward mobility. To avoid this fate-the great fear of all middle-class parents-Atta's father to sent his son abroad for more education. Of his life in Germany, we have little information other than that it was only in Hamburg where he became a devout follower of Islam, adhering to dietary restrictions and abstaining from alcohol and shunning women during his stay. In Germany, a country with a weak tradition of Republican integration, an Arab tends to be marked as Muslim. Left to cavort with other Arab immigrants, Atta began to sympathize openly with Islamic fundamentalism and to concentrate a developing anger on the West, with America as the symbolic center.

In 1996, while still in Hamburg, Atta left a handwritten will with meticulous instructions-18 detailed injunctions-on how to deal with his body after death. Published initially by the German magazine Der Spiegel after the attacks, the will was subsequently reprinted or cited in part by most American newspapers. Apparently, Atta knew at that time he was going to die but neither when nor how. In any event, he thought his dead body would still be intact, and hence insisted that the person assigned to wash his body (as required by Islamic law) take care to wear gloves "so he won't touch my genitals" (not required by Islamic law), and that pregnant women not be allowed to mourn him (also not required by Islamic law). Finally, he wrote, "I don't want anyone to visit me who didn't get along with me while I was alive or to kiss me or say goodbye when I die." Most of these wishes are specific and idiosyncratic, neither in accord with Sunni Muslim practices to which he generally ascribed nor those of the Saudi Wahhabi sect from whose prescriptions he apparently also drew. Curiously, he makes no mention of the supposed ideological factors and ideals-identification with the poor in the slums of Egypt, resentment at the decadent West and Modernity, hatred of Israel and America, the honor of Islam, justice-that many commentators assume (unless one pathologizes him as inherently evil) motivated his terror.

What strikes me is the tremendous anxiety about his body, specifically his genitals. What, when thinking about death, was Atta afraid of? He does not circumlocute: he wants to be certain that pregnant women-in other words, women about to give life-are not there to mourn him, that men do not physically touch his genitals, and that only those men whom he got along with in life were to kiss him in death. Atta foregrounds what appears to be a very troubled relationship with his genitals, which seem to have no function-no sex, no pleasure, no life-except in death, at which moment, he specifies, the human touch is to be mediated by gloves.

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