multi-storied #3: Bombings. Sri Lanka.
On Sunday, the New York Times Magazine published a monster of a piece I’d reported ten months ago, in Colombo: on two wealthy brothers, from a moderate Muslim family, who took part in the Easter Sunday bombings last year. The photo, above, is of the family home, in a tony pocket of Colombo. Having had all that, and families with little children, they nonetheless decided to strap themselves into knapsacks full of explosives and play a role in killing nearly 270 people. I was just mystified when I first read about the Ibrahim brothers, soon after the bombings; a week later, coincidentally, my editor at the Times Magazine suggested I write about them. So I flew to Colombo in August.
This is, I think, the most difficult piece I’ve ever worked on. For one, there was no real answer to be found for the question: “Why did they do it?” There rarely is. To admit that is epistemologically accurate but journalistically unsatisfying. For another, people were scared to talk — back then, in August, but even more a few months later:
…the country was dangerous for anyone who admitted to knowing any of the bombers, or indeed for any Muslim at all. Nearly 300 people were arrested, among them Muslims who owned a suspicious number of SIM cards, or had a Quran, or wore a caftan printed with what looked like the sacred wheel of Buddhism. It wasn’t just the state that lashed out. Not far from Colombo, Muslims were attacked by vigilante mobs. In November, Sri Lanka elected as president a former defense chief named Gotabaya Rajapaksa, whose ruthlessness against minorities and dissidents prompted his own family to call him the Terminator. Under Rajapaska, a spate of new arrests ensued — including, in April, that of Hejaaz Hizbullah, a lawyer who has represented Mohamed Ibrahim in some of his business affairs.
One story of an arrest, which I didn’t put into the piece, involved a Muslim karate teacher. Someone had told me that the brothers had learned karate from him, and that he’d been detained for months and questioned. I met him just a week after his release, and he told me, in great puzzlement, that he’d never met or known the brothers.
So why do you think they picked you up, then? I asked.
Because once earlier, he said, a Muslim karate instructor from Sri Lanka had travelled to join ISIS in Syria. After Easter Sunday, he reckoned, the government took in other Muslim karate instructors, just in case. I don’t know if this was right, but this was certainly what he believed.
The other difficult thing about such pieces is the moral quandary of whether to write them at all. We live deep in an age of terrorism, but we haven’t learned how to write about terrorists: how much to humanize them, how much to demonize them, how much to psychoanalyze them. One fear is of giving them oxygen, and of immortalizing their deeds. “Don’t make them out to be heroes,” someone told me in Sri Lanka. He wasn’t suggesting that I would read valor into their lives; he was worried that even casting them as protagonists was to gild their infamy. But another fear is of what we will find out. The prospects, really, are binary. Either we sound the depths and still come away with no sense of their motivations — which gives us, as a society, small chance of spotting or preventing the next class of shooters and bombers. Or we gain the kind of understanding that explains inexplicable violence, and that renders inhuman acts human. It is difficult to say which is worse.
Even the saddest reporting trips have moments of absurdity.
I was sitting in a cafe, talking to a former government official about the bombers. While describing how men got radicalized into terrorism, he said: “Poetry is the main business that they use as a cover.”
At first, I was mesmerized by this: the idea of bombers pretending to be poets, the idea of poetry being described as a business, the idea of poetry providing cover to violence. Then I realized that he’d said “Poultry” — the habit that radicalized terrorists apparently have, in Sri Lanka, of buying land, dressing it up as a poultry farm, and using it as a base instead. But the idea of poetry as cover has still not left me.
If you have an hour or so to spare: I spoke to Pico Iyer recently, for a Bangalore Literature Festival session online, about his two new books, about Japan and writing, about solitude and loneliness. Pico is a splendid speaker, very thoughtful in the things he says, and very generous in conversation. Both of these books are lovely, although my favorite remains “The Man Within My Head,” which I reviewed many years ago for the Guardian. Listening to him is calming in itself. The full session is below:
My friend Siddhartha Vaidyanathan (@sidvee) has a new book out for pre-order: a slim, warmly written novel about boyhood in the India of the 1990s. It’s a rabbit-hole of nostalgia for anyone who grew up in that decade, but it’s also a lovely young-adult tale for the young adults of today. Buy it!
So many people of the Ibrahim family were unreachable, when I was in Colombo, that I figured that my chances of reaching any of them were non-existent, and I despaired of being able to put together a portrait of the two bombers. Then I found out where one of the other brothers lived. The first time, I went and rang the bell. The gate remained shut, but a woman’s voice called out to ask who I was. I explained, and she said she’d take my number to pass on to him. But he never called me.
Then I spoke to a couple of people who had known the father (himself still in detention), and they promised to talk to the brother on my behalf. Still no call.
Finally, in longhand, I wrote a letter setting out, in great detail, the kind of piece I wanted to write, and the kind of interview I hoped to conduct with him. Late one evening, I went back to his house and — from behind a shut gate again — handed the letter over. Two days later, he called and asked me to come over.
He was such a soft-spoken man, and clearly still so excruciated by what had happened, that it felt like an intrusion even to be there. For journalists, that’s a familiar feeling; even at the best of times, you’re an intruder. But I thought there was something here alongside just grief: a kind of horrible, and horribly misplaced, sense of responsibility. He had nothing to do with the attacks. But these were his brothers; they were of his blood, and he was both angry with them and shameful on their behalf. It was all he could do to sit there and talk about the boys he’d known so well, and the complete strangers they’d grown up to be.
Last month, I wrote here about the robust ecosystem that supports journalists in some of the biggest publications, and how that’s impossible to replicate if you’re just putting your journalism into your own newsletter. Quite by chance, an example of this was brought to bear upon this New York Times Magazine piece. It was a delicate story, and we wanted to fact-check it again and again to be sure of every detail. The Magazine put three people on the job, one of whom spoke Tamil and lives in Sri Lanka. Sources were worried, rightly enough, because they didn’t want to get into trouble in any way. For one source’s quotes, we had to exercise so much caution that, just a day before we closed the story, I got on a half-hour video call with five New York Times editors and fact-checkers to discuss how best to handle the material and protect the source. You don’t quite realize the infinite worth of that kind of support until you’ve experienced it and seen how it improves your work beyond measure. I was very, very fortunate to have this team by my side.