The Mirage — the origins of the story

The Mirage began as an overly optimistic TV series pitch. Late in 2006, I had coffee with a representative of Fox Television Studios who was interested in doing an adaptation of my previous novel, Bad Monkeys, and she also wanted to know if I had any ideas for an original TV show—something “edgy” and different. And I told her I’d think about it.

One thing I’d been wanting to do was a story about 9/11 and the War on Terror. I’d dealt with the subject tangentially in Bad Monkeys, but I felt like I had something more to say. At the same time, I didn’t just want to do a minor variation on the kinds of 9/11 stories other people were already telling.

It seemed to me that there were two basic narrative templates that people were gravitating towards. One, which you could call the right-wing template, had a group of patriotic Americans squaring off against evil Muslim terrorists. The other, which you could call the left-wing template, had a group of patriotic Americans squaring off against evil Muslim terrorists… and feeling ambivalent about it.

Both of these templates had their virtues. I can definitely get into a good white hat versus black hat story, with lots of action and not too much deep thinking. I also enjoy stories with more moral complexity, where the heroes come to question their own motives and those of the government they serve.

One area where both these templates tend to fall short, though, is in their handling of the people who actually bear the brunt of the War on Terror—the innocent Muslims, caught up in the violence in Iraq and Afghanistan and here in America, whose only crime is being the wrong kind of person at the wrong moment in history. Those folks tend to get pushed to the margins of the story, or left out entirely.

Partly this is a function of present-day casting conventions. The (often unstated) belief in Hollywood is that if you’re going to invest millions of dollars in a movie or a TV show, you need to protect that investment by making the star either a white person or Denzel Washington. More progressive directors and screenwriters recognize the box this puts them in and try to compensate by injecting a little more diversity into the supporting cast. But the difficulty you run into there is that there are 1.5 billion Muslims in the world, and after you subtract out the tiny, tiny minority who are members of Al Qaeda, you’re still talking about a fifth of the human race, which is a lot of diversity to pack into one or two sidekicks. Not even Tony Shaloub is that good an actor.

So what I thought might be interesting to do would be to find a way to take these characters who would ordinarily be marginalized and make them the center of the story. And likewise, find a way to treat Islam, not as an alien religion or a problem to be dealt with, but as an unremarkable part of the fabric of daily life, which it is for hundreds of millions of people.

Now like all novelists I have a mental attic where I keep story ideas and bits of business that I haven’t found a proper use for yet. So I went rummaging in there, and came up with what was actually a very old concept. Back in the 1990s I had toyed with the idea of writing a spy novel set in a post-Mandela South Africa, and the hook was going to be that this was a future in which the nations of southern and SubSaharan Africa had ascended to become the new first world, while America and Europe had declined and become the new third world.

And this had never quite gelled into a book, but now I thought, what if took the geopolitical trading-places concept and applied it to America and the Middle East? What if I set my story in an alternate reality where the Arab states of the Gulf and North Africa were united in a liberal, democratic superpower—the UAS—while America was broken up into weak, mostly third-world dictatorships and theocracies? What if September 11 happened in reverse, with American Christian fundamentalists hijacking the planes, flying them into buildings in downtown Baghdad and Riyadh? What if the young president who responded to these attacks by declaring a War on Terror wasn’t George W. Bush, but Bandar al Saud? And what if the Green Zone was located, not in Baghdad, but in an Arab-occupied Washington, D.C.?

The world-building possibilities of this idea captivated me immediately. I decided that while many things would be turned upside-down in this alternate reality, other things—like the moral character of the men and women who lived in it—would remain fundamentally unchanged. So for example, Saddam Hussein, a villain in our world, would still be a villain in this world—but a different kind of villain. If Iraq was a state in a democratic union, he obviously couldn’t be a dictator. But he could be a mobster—a labor racketeer, smuggler, and bootlegger who ran Baghdad’s underworld.

As for Osama bin Laden—a rich man’s son with connections in Riyadh—I pictured him as a corrupt politician, a war hero-turned-senator who was secretly plotting against his own government. And Al Qaeda would be a government anti-terror group that had gone rogue and was now working as Bin Laden’s personal goon squad.

So that was the setting. The actual story would focus on a trio of Iraqis who worked for Arab Homeland Security: Mustafa al Baghdadi, the senior agent, who would serve as the series’ moral center; his best friend, Samir; and a new recruit, a woman named Amal bint Shamal, whose father was a martyred policeman and whose mother had been mayor of Baghdad during the 11/9 attacks. And the show would be about these patriotic Arabians squaring off against evil Christian terrorists… and feeling ambivalent about it.

And I could have stopped there, but I decided to throw in one more twist, the twist that would give the series its name. In the pilot episode, my protagonists would interrogate a captured suicide bomber, who would tell them this crazy story about how the world they were living in was a mirage, imposed by God as a punishment for the Americans’ lack of faith. In the real world, this guy would claim, America was the superpower, and Arab Muslims, the terrorists.

Of course Mustafa and his colleagues wouldn’t believe this, but as their investigation continued they would turn up evidence, in the form of physical artifacts from that other reality, that would suggest that this was more than just a madman’s delusion. And then they would find out that other captured terrorists had been telling this same story, and that other artifacts had been recovered, and that members of the Arab government—including Senator Bin Laden—had been trying to cover this up.

And so that was the real story: This group of ordinary Arab Muslims, caught up in a holy war between Osama bin Laden and a bunch of homicidal Americans, trying to stay alive long enough to solve this mystery of a world turned upside-down.

I thought it would make a pretty good TV show.

So I wrote up an 11-page treatment of this, and I showed it to my wife, who asked if I was insane. It was 2006, remember, and the notion that any American network would put on a show like this in the middle of the Iraq War seemed completely nuts to her.

And I knew she was right. But I also knew it was a great idea, and the way I chose to think about it was that to get any TV show on the air is a long shot, so if you’re going to play the lottery anyway you might as well play for a really good prize. Plus, as a novelist, I had another option if they said no.

So I sent my treatment to Fox TV Studios, and they said no. They were very nice about it. They acknowledged that The Mirage was a cool concept, and they didn’t call me insane; the harshest phrase uttered was “This needs another layer of metaphor.” But they passed on it, and so did everybody else my CAA agent showed the treatment to.

So I said fine, I’ll do it as a novel. At first I was very excited. The rejection had not been unexpected, and it struck me that it might even be a blessing, because TV is a team sport, and if The Mirage had become a show that would have inevitably involved compromises that could have turned my cool concept into something unrecognizable. Whereas with a novel, I’d have complete creative control.

This initial burst of elation lasted until remembered the other half of the equation, which was that in addition to having total control, I was also going to have to do all the work. And that raised the question of whether I could do it. Whether I was qualified to do it.

To answer the question, “Can I write this novel?” you first have ask, “What novel am I trying to write?” With The Mirage, there were a couple of different ways I could have gone. It would be perfectly possible to create a realistic alternate history in which Arabia rather than America served as the cradle of modern democracy. To do that, and do it properly, would take a great depth of knowledge—more than I possessed, or was likely to acquire in a reasonable amount of time.

But that really wasn’t the story I was interested in telling. The story I wanted to tell wasn’t about the Arabian democracy that could have been, or about the Arabian democracy that might one day still be; it was about the Arabian democracy that we were promised by the Bush administration as an enticement for invading Iraq, the democracy that was going to bloom magically in the desert with only minimal effort and sacrifice on our part. It was about the mirage.

And that was an alternate reality I felt I could do justice to, one that played to my strengths as a fiction writer. It would still involve a fair amount of research, and a lot of hard work, but it was manageable.