On Sept. 21, 2001, Raisuddin Bhuiyan was working an extended shift at a gas station on the outskirts of Dallas when a heavily tattooed man wearing wrap-around sunglasses approached the counter, put a gun to Bhuiyan’s head and asked, “Where are you from?”
Trained as an air force fighter pilot in his native Bangladesh, accustomed to the rhythms of armed robberies from working nights at the Buckner Food Mart, Bhuiyan got the sense that the man in front of him was not there for the $150 Bhuiyan had taken out of the cash register. He stepped back and turned his head, and then he experienced what felt like a million bees stinging the side of his face.
The gunman, Mark Stroman, took Sept. 11, 2001, personally. He falsely claimed that he had lost a sister in the World Trade Center attack and started calling himself an “allied combatant.” Somehow he imagined a connection between the people working in the food marts in his area and the terrorists. Out “hunting Arabs” in the days immediately following 9/11, Stroman shot three South Asian food mart attendants. Bhuiyan was the only one who lived.
So begins Anand Giridharadas’s fine new book, “The True American.” The premise is simple — Bhuiyan forgives his attacker in the name of Islam and then wages a campaign to save Stroman from execution. An inspiring enough story, surely worthy of the flurry of news coverage it received around the 10th anniversary of 9/11. But a book-length treatment, especially with a title like “The True American,” runs the risk of being taken for a middle-school morality tale.
Simply put, it’s not. This is a haunting book, one that penetrates deep into the lives of two complex individuals and reveals the worlds that made them.
Giridharadas traces Bhuiyan’s story from the elite academies he attended in Bangladesh through the many eye surgeries he required after the shooting, then on to when he decided to forgive Stroman, and finally to his new life as a successful technology professional and an internationally sought-after speaker. He does the same for Stroman, stitching together the various pieces from his prison letters plus interviews with family members, a former boss and the Israeli filmmaker who befriended him.
Here and there a sentence sags, but mostly the story moves quickly and the writing sparkles. A chapter that alternates between scenes of Bhuiyan’s legal team racing to block Stroman’s execution and Stroman’s supporters waiting at the execution site, listening for the ring that signifies the beginning of the end, ranks among the most riveting nonfiction I have read in a long time.
Here is Giridharadas describing the mood among Stroman’s friends on the night of the execution, praying that it would be canceled or postponed. “As 6 p.m. ripened into 7, for once there was hope. Ziv’s [the filmmaker who had befriended Stroman] guard friend now told him that it was unusual to have such a delay. If it went on much longer, given the extensive protocols involved, they would likely have to withdraw the death warrant: the whole business had to be complete before midnight. . . . The consensus in the cafeteria shifted its weight toward optimism.”
And when the final moment comes, Giridharadas gives us an image of Stroman that captures his contradictions, quoting his last words: “I am at peace. Hate is going on in this world, and it has to stop. One second of hate will cause a lifetime of pain. Even though I lay on this gurney, seconds away from my death, I am at total peace. I’m still a proud American — Texas loud, Texas proud. God bless America. God bless everyone. Let’s do this damn thing.”
The individual stories are certainly compelling, but what sets this book apart is when it zooms out and illuminates the broader social context of the lives at the center. We get Bhuiyan’s immigrant eyes on America: his gratitude for the upward opportunities provided to the resourceful and industrious; his despair for those who have fallen into what he calls the SAD life, beholden to empty sex, alcohol and drugs; and above all his confusion at how so many Americans seem abandoned, unable to find family members to co-sign for car loans or take them in when they have no place to go.
Giridharadas writes, “What Rais was perhaps discovering was the liberty and selfhood that America gave, that had called to him from across the oceans, could, if carried to their extremes, fail people as much as the strictures of a society like Bangladesh.”
Poverty in Bangladesh, Bhuiyan observes, brings people together. Many Americans, on the other hand, live and die alone.
Remarkably, Giridharadas paints a fully human portrait of Stroman’s world as well. It would be easy to dismiss Stroman, with his Aryan Nation friends and swastika tattoo, as simply a murderous white supremacist. But Giridharadas spends time with Stroman’s kids, visiting his son Robert in the maximum-security area of a maximum-security prison, and hanging out in a halfway house with Stroman’s first wife and their daughters as they try to beat addictions and hold down fast-food jobs. The Stromans’ problems are replicated throughout lower-class America: the uncertain parentages and anarchic families, the ubiquity of meth, the race-gang-dominated prisons, the sex that begins at the turn of puberty.
Bhuiyan, in his seemingly bottomless mercy, reaches out to help. He could not save Stroman’s life, but he hopes to stop the cycle by helping Stroman’s kids. “You may have lost a father, but you’ve gained an uncle,” he tells them, and sends money when they call.
My one quibble with this book is that Giridharadas, while plumbing the depths of Bhuiyan’s Muslim heart, misses a wide-open opportunity to get to the heart of Islam. There are a few beautiful pages about hajj, a reference to the prophet Muhammad’s example of mercy and some interesting insights about forgiveness in Muslim law. But there’s very little to indicate that mercy is considered the central value of the faith by many scholars of Islam, and that Bhuiyan’s decision to forgive Stroman and fight for his life goes right to the core of the tradition.
But that’s my personal proclivity. This is a book about the many dimensions of America, not the many interpretations of Islam. “The True American” gives you new eyes on your nation, makes you wonder about both the recent South Asian immigrant behind the counter at the food mart and the tattooed white man behind you in line. It reminds you that there are some Americas where mercy flows freely, and other Americas where it has turned to ice.
THE TRUE AMERICAN
Murder and Mercy in Texas
By Anand Giridharadas
Norton. 319 pp. $27.95