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Posted February 9, 2003
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Everybody Has a Mother




Wicha el-Wafi, mother of the accused terrorist Zacarias Moussaoui, has just finished a creme caramel and is on her way out of a restaurant in Narbonne, France, when a waiter stops her. ''I saw your son the other day on television,'' he says. ''He was very good -- very interesting.'' He's not referring to Zacarias, who is being held in isolation in Virginia, charged with conspiracy in the Sept. 11 attacks. The waiter is talking about her other son, Abd-Samad Moussaoui, author of ''Zacarias, My Brother: The Making of a Terrorist,'' an account of his younger brother's life until 1995, when Zacarias was 27, after which the two fell permanently out of touch. Neither Abd-Samad nor the boys' mother knew what had become of Zacarias until Sept. 12, 2001, when the television news started flashing a mug shot of the man thought to be the ''20th hijacker.'' His head was shaved, and his face had gotten beefier, but the Moussaoui family knew it was Zacarias. 

''You think it was very interesting?'' el-Wafi says with an engaging smile. Dressed in a camel's hair coat and leopard-print scarf, she shifts her weight to a more comfortable stance; she might be there awhile. Her tone shifts as well, taking on an edge. ''You think it was very impressive? You think it was 'tres bien'? Let me ask you something: Is that what you would do if your brother was in jail? Would you write a book telling the world your brother is a racist, an extremist, denouncing your brother, complaining about your mother? Is that what you would do?''

The waiter, baby-faced in a uniform-tux, literally ducks his head as he shakes it. But it's too late; he's trapped. ''How old are you?'' el-Wafi wants to know, moving on. ''My son complained in his book I wanted to take their pocket money. But you make money. Do you help your mother out? Would you help her out if she was a single mother, working to bring up four children by herself?'' Now she's lost the waiter; he hasn't read the book, has no idea what age-old family quarrels it contains, small accusations tossed in with the grand. Another waiter, curious about the local celebrity, stops by to eavesdrop, and the first one seizes the opportunity to slink away. A few minutes later, satisfied that she has made her point about family, and a few others as well, el-Wafi relents and heads toward the Renault parked outside, the heels of her boots clicking authoritatively as she jangles her car keys.

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Photo Taryn Simon for The New York Times

Her Son, The Terrorist    

Aicha El-Wafi, the mother of the alleged terrorist, Zacarias Moussaoui, is fighting for her child's life.
Photo Taryn Simon for The New York Times
Aicha El-Wafi in the basement recreational room where son Zacarias Moussaoui, the accused terrorist, spent his time when he lived at home.
Photo Taryn Simon for The New York Times
Zaccarias' sister Nadia in the former neighborhood nightclub that barred Arabs. Nadia, who draws stars of David on herself because "in my heart, I am Jewish," said he would be happy to see that the club had been destroyed.

A divorced 56-year-old born in Morocco, el-Wafi has lived in France for close to 40 years. Having spent two and a half decades working for France Telecom, she now lives in a comfortable home, complete with deck, grill, sea view and a dog named Tango. One of her sons has admitted in court to being a member of Al Qaeda and will be tried for conspiracy in the Sept. 11 attacks. The other has written a tell-all condemning her for what he recalls as her unloving, harsh ways. It's unclear who has disappointed her more.

Aicha el-Wafi is famous in her adopted country for being the mother of the accused French terrorist -- the sole person charged in an American court in connection with the World Trade Center attacks. She is also famous for the televised images of her early grief, her keening and weeping, a figure heartbreaking to some, histrionic to others. Over time, as the shock wore off, she became, as the French say, more mediatique: a sober, articulate opponent of the death penalty, which Attorney General John Ashcroft has asked the prosecution to seek in Moussaoui's case. A cleaning woman who worked her way up to the company mail room, she now speaks frequently with the press, consults with French lawyers and lobbies government ministers on behalf of her son.

When el-Wafi walks around Narbonne, the ancient town in the South of France where she reared her children, people greet her by name, call her ''La Pauvre'' -- poor thing -- and ask sympathetically how the defense is going. In Paris, strangers call out ''Bon courage, Madame'' when they pass on the street. Walking from her car toward her home, she points to some neighbors' houses. ''I never really used to talk to them, except to occasionally say hello,'' she says. ''Now we have coffee, we talk. We get together. They've been very supportive.''

A mother fighting for her son's life: an inherently sympathetic figure, iconic even. Given France's opposition to the death penalty and suspicion of the Bush administration, el-Wafi might have found strong public support for her legal struggle no matter how solid the case against Moussaoui was. As it is, however, even in the United States legal critics have pointed out that the government has provided little hard evidence linking Moussaoui to the attacks, or proving that he even knew the specifics of the hijackers' plan. What's more, Judge Leonie Brinkema granted Moussaoui's request to defend himself, despite his disjointed ravings and paranoid behavior. In addition to announcing his loyalty to Osama bin Laden, his membership in Al Qaeda and his wish for the destruction of the United States and Israel, he has told the court that his lawyers were trying to kill him. His court filings refer not to the World Trade Center but to the ''World Top Circus.'' The demands he has made include the return of Spain to the Moors. 

Last year, el-Wafi requested a new psychiatric examination for her son, arguing that his mental state was inadequate to the requirements of self-representation. The move apparently enraged Moussaoui, who took offense that she would question his sanity and who is said to believe, in any case, that women should stay out of the public sphere. Fearful that he would cut her off altogether, she has since switched tacks. She tries instead to persuade him that the American legal system is too complicated to navigate without help. ''He's always telling me, 'Maman, stop worrying, I'm fine, I'll manage,''' she says. She could be talking about any son who wants his mother to stop meddling in his affairs. Nonetheless, she has continued to work closely with his court-appointed attorneys, helping them document the family's troubled history and trace Moussaoui's path during the years since he left the family.

Even from a mother's forgiving point of view, Moussaoui's history suggests dangerous intentions. He is perhaps best known as the student who told his flight instructor that he had no interest in learning to take off or land. That detail has since come under question, but other details -- some circumstantial, some concrete -- have provided clues to his inclinations. Like the hijackers themselves, in the months leading up to the attacks he had joined a gym, he had been bulking up, he had enrolled in a flight school. More significant, according to published reports, he met with at least one senior Qaeda operative and accepted money transfers from Ramzi bin al-Shibh, supposedly a mastermind of the attacks.

Al-Shibh, who was arrested last fall in Karachi, reportedly said that Moussaoui was too unstable to be trusted as a hijacker. (In fact, his behavior was odd enough to alarm his flight instructor, who tipped off the F.B.I.; Moussaoui was arrested for overstaying his visa about a month before the attacks.) Still, to win a conspiracy conviction, the government must prove only that he knew planes would be used to attack buildings in the United States and that he agreed to assist the plan.

For someone with no legal training, no help from American lawyers and a shaky grasp of reality, Moussaoui has managed to maneuver the prosecution into an uncomfortable position: he has insisted on his right to call al-Shibh as a witness. Rather than cross that bridge, or risk a mistrial, the prosecution may well shift the whole case over to a military tribunal, which would operate in secret and independent of the protections of standard federal judicial procedure.

Moussaoui's image in the American media has shifted over time, from that of a powerful, menacing conspirator to a muddling, deluded courtroom clown, a figure of ridicule. One New York paper compared his interjections to the utterances of Inspector Clouseau, while The Legal Times said that more than a few observers find him ''crazy as a loon.'' Beyond that, Americans have little context in which to place Moussaoui, other than the general category of dangerous disenfranchised Muslim. If the French have more sympathy for Moussaoui than he finds here, it may be in part because in France his family's faces have become as familiar as his own. He has a context -- his story is specific, bound up not just with dangerous trends in the Muslim world but also with problematic strains the French recognize in their culturre.

''My Brother,'' the book that purports to explain how a French citizen from a middle-class home could develop such destructive rage, was a best seller in France when it came out in September. (Abd-Samad Moussaoui, its author, declined to comment for this article.) Despite the book's commercial track record, and its obvious connection to the United States, only one American publishing house, a small liberal press called Seven Stories, opted to publish the memoir, which will appear in the United States in June to coincide with Moussaoui's expected trial date.

Some publishers may have rejected the book because of its stylistic shortcomings: clumsily written, at times self-serving, it digresses into long exegeses on the alienation of French Arab youth, hardly best-selling material for American readers. But Seven Stories's publisher, Dan Simon, says that his own initial misgivings about the book stemmed from its premise, not its marketability. It's a book that tries to account for the genesis of a terrorist, relying not just on familiar, sweeping geopolitical terms but on the language of pop psychology, referring to the specifics of a dysfunctional family -- a vocabulary irresistible to some but inherently untrustworthy to others. Politics versus psychotherapy: one seems to explain, while the other can seem to excuse, or even victimize, the wayward. ''We're scared about this book, and we don't scare easily,'' Simon says. ''If it had a hard time finding a publisher here, it's because people like Moussaoui are untouchable. It's leprosy.'' Publishers assume, in other words, that Americans don't want to see an accused hijacker humanized. ''But we thought it was important to point out that this is not 'Lord of the Rings, Part II,' with evil characters coming out of the mud,'' Simon says. 

Aicha El-Wafi married in Morocco at 14 and moved, with her husband and two babies, to France five years later. By the time she was 22, she had four children, the youngest being Zacarias. After 10 years of making excuses about her children's bruises, as well as her own, she finally managed to leave her husband, putting the kids in an orphanage for a year while she stayed in a shelter. She worked a series of menial jobs -- in a factory, as a seamstress -- before starting work as a cleaning woman for France Telecom. She may have been sweeping floors, but she had secured that particularly prized French status of fonctionnaire, a government employee, with superior benefits, virtually guaranteed employment and reliable housing. When Zacarias was 12, she moved the family across the country from their town on the German border to Narbonne, in the sunnier south, where they lived in a modest apartment complex. (She recalls it as decent and clean; her son Abd-Samad describes it as a dangerous neighborhood.) Still working for France Telecom, now in the mail room, she also ran a halal butcher shop with her live-in boyfriend.

When Zacarias turned 14, they moved again, this time to the comfortable house where el-Wafi still lives, in an up-and-coming neighborhood of architects, engineers and government employees. The area, called Roche Grise, has a well-groomed suburban feel, practically silent except for the dogs that bark any time someone walks by. A block from the house there's a small park with benches and walking paths; a few blocks in the other direction there's a boarded-up nightclub, once the local hot spot.

Although the boys knew their father had been in jail (something to do with money, Abd-Samad recalls vaguely), they kept that secret from the neighborhood kids. Zacarias was always good-looking and outgoing, his brother says, with as many French-born as immigrant friends, mixing easily with the children of C.E.O.'s, dating for close to a decade a blond girl who lived a few houses down. Muslim, but hardly observant, el-Wafi and her sons spoke French, rather than Arabic, at home. ''I kind of arranged it so they didn't hang out with other Arabs,'' el-Wafi told Le Monde; she herself says, a little proudly, that most of her own friends are Francais de souche -- of French origin.

Zacarias was a strong tennis player, a cutup, and he fit in easily. But he kept his family problems to himself. Before they moved to Roche Grise, his sister Jamila had tried to commit suicide and never quite recovered psychologically. Although el-Wafi's boyfriend moved with her to the neighborhood, she eventually asked him to leave when she realized that she didn't trust him alone with Jamila. (To date, el-Wafi has been successful in secluding her from the press.) The boys themselves were somewhat unruly, with enough serious discipline problems that they were kicked out of one school and transferred to another.

They were popular partyers, as Abd-Samad describes it. But a strong current of racism constantly undercut their social ease. The nearby family who wouldn't let their children play with them, the neighborhood nightclub that wouldn't admit Arabs, the school counselors who funneled them into vocational career tracks. In one of his book's more disturbing scenes, Abd-Samad describes being assaulted by a gang of white kids as he strolled along Narbonne's picturesque canal. When he ran to the police for help, they responded by showering him with tear gas, assuming him the aggressor. Confronted with his brother's humiliations, or the ones he himself encountered, Zacarias ''reacted differently than I,'' Abd-Samad says. ''He locked himself away in his suffering, he nurtured it. It gnawed away at him quietly.'' 

Although the specific ethnic tensions are paradigmatically French, the basic narrative is familiar enough: faced with comparable circumstances in the United States, a second-generation immigrant of similar temperament might join a gang; 60 years ago, he might have turned to the Mafia. For Zacarias, things took a different turn. In 1991, unable to find a job, he picked up and moved to London, where at age 23, he became, as his brother observes, a perfect target for well-financed, dangerous Muslim extremists who prey on disillusioned young men. Abd-Samad's book devotes a chapter to the ways that fringe extremists -- especially the more violent factions of the Wahhabi strain -- recruit young foundering Muslim men, giving them imflammatory religious texts, offering them free meals, relying on a language of exclusivity that would apply to the vanity of ambitious, but thwarted, searchers. ''I am convinced of one thing,'' Abd-Samad writes. ''If it worked with my brother, it can work with plenty of other young people.'' Moussaoui started attending lectures by radical clerics like Abu Qatada and Sheik Abu Hamza al-Masri and became a regular at the Finsbury Park mosque. (Finsbury Park is the same mosque that Richard Reid, the so-called shoe-bomber, attended; last month, British police officers raided it, arrested several terror suspects and discovered several bioweapon-protection suits.)

During Zacarias's first years in London, while working toward a master's in business, he returned frequently to France to see his high-school sweetheart as well as some of his relatives. According to his brother, by the time Zacarias was 27, he had changed, grown secretive and closed off -- didactic and reactionary about women, paranoid about Jewish conspiracies. (Abd-Samad, a teacher, also developed a strong interest in religion; his reportedly led him to the Habash strain of Islam, a sect long at odds with the Wahhabite.)

As for Zacarias and his mother, they had a charged relationship, close but combative. He moved out at age 22, after a fight about money. Both too proud to reconcile, they saw little of each other for close to seven years. ''He adores his mother,'' his oldest sister, Nadia, says. ''But I think he didn't want to see her until he'd made it, until he had money.'' The two had almost no contact until 1997, when he came to visit her, falling on his knees, she says, and crying for forgiveness. He stayed with her for two weeks but said nothing about where he had been in recent years, and when he left he refused to leave his number. He called every so often for the next few months, then eventually stopped. Later the family learned that by the time of that visit, he had already gone to Chechnya to fight with Muslim separatists. In 1998, he was at a Qaeda training camp in Afghanistan.

As Abd-Samad looks back over those years, there's something sad about his desperate efforts to impose a pattern on all the small missteps that led his brother astray. Picking and choosing the blameworthy, he points his finger at times in pathetic, haphazard directions. One of the first chapters ends with a fond memory of his brother's early talent as a handball player, a game he dropped when the family moved to the South of France. ''With hindsight, I think . . . that move to Narbonne was wrenching for him,'' Abd-Samad writes. ''It meant the end of his dream of becoming a professional handball player and then, perhaps, a coach.'' 

Abd-Samad describes his father as benighted, even vagrant, but possibly well intentioned, kept from his children because of el-Wafi's shrewd maneuverings. In contrast, the woman at the center of his book is a heartless, cold schemer, an uncaring person who mocked her children, deprived them of a proper Muslim education and a properly functioning home. ''It would have been misguided to expect the slightest tender word from her,'' he writes at an especially plaintive moment. He mixes laments like that one with others that seem almost embarrassingly petty: her insistence on keeping electricity bills low, her excessive pride in her new home. On the one hand, it makes sense that he would try to understand how his upbringing could have contributed to his brother's deviancy. And in the absence of a father, perhaps, Abd-Samad simply went after his mother. On the other hand, the intensity with which he does so is disconcerting. Is it fair to try to connect her human excesses and shortcomings with international catastrophe? The qualities that make outsiders valorize el-Wafi -- her singleminded focus, her refusal to back down or mince words -- are the same ones that make her son resent her. A mother can never win.

In person, Aicha el-Wafi can be charming and warm, easy to like, with a low, confiding laugh. At the chain restaurant where we're both eating magret de canard, she insists that I try a glass of the local specialty, a muscat. Now, or perhaps always, her moods swing with jarring speed. Easygoing and chatty one moment, the next she's dissolving into tears about her son's living conditions or, just as quickly, laughing about the wiretaps she says have been placed on her phone. The sole person, other than his lawyers and jailers, who has any contact with Moussaoui, el-Wafi calls him once a month. She has visited him five times in Virginia. After each visit, ''for a month,'' she says, throwing her hands up over her ears, ''I hear nothing but the horrible sound of those doors closing, one after the other. Horrible. Horrible.''

Abd-Samad never weighs in on whether his brother might be guilty or innocent; el-Wafi, in contrast, says she firmly believes that her son had nothing to do with the attacks. She is not convinced that he was a member of Al Qaeda, points out that he admitted to that allegiance only ''after he broke down,'' having spent nine months in solitary confinement. But then, like any good lawyer, she'll also argue in alternis: if he was seduced, it's only because power-hungry Muslims saw that he was a dreamer, a lost soul, and so they preyed on him. She'll even concede that he may have had dangerous intentions, but points out that a person can't be sent to his death for simply wishing. ''He didn't murder anybody,'' she says. ''Where's the proof?'' She allows for very little ambiguity in her explanation of how he ended up on the side of the extremists. ''He was a victim,'' she says. ''First because he had no father. Second because of the racism. I saw it. I was there.''

On those two points, she agrees with Abd-Samad. On all others, she admits nothing but contempt for his analysis of his brother's downfall. She and Abd-Samad had fallen out when he married his cousin, with whom el-Wafi was on poor terms; the family crisis, and how they each handled it, has only deepened the rift.

El-Wafi is particularly offended that Abd-Samad neglects to mention the physical abuse that the oldest three children (but not Zacarias, who was still a baby) suffered at their father's hands, and that hospital records document. Never in more than sporadic contact with his children, el-Wafi's estranged husband hasn't been in touch with his family since the news of Zacarias's imprisonment broke. (He couldn't be reached for comment.) But she remembers him vividly as a petty criminal, a pathological liar, a violent man. ''This is what their father did,'' el-Wafi says, pulling back the side of her mouth to show where she has gold teeth to replace the ones he knocked out; she pulls down her right eye to show the damage he did a tear duct. ''He doesn't say in the book that when his father went like this to his daughter Nadia'' -- she beckons with her finger -- she used to wet her pants from fear.'' She says that Abd-Samad deliberately protects his absent parent because of Muslim convictions demanding paternal respect.

El-Wafi and her best-selling son have spoken only once since the book was published, when she called him to tell him what she thought about it. ''I told him, 'It's only Zacarias who gave you the opportunity to have a voice,''' she says, leaning across the table, her plate of duck now cold. ''Without Zacarias,' I told him,'' and here her voice drops and her eyes narrow, ''you wouldn't exist. Zacarias is always the star, and you are always the one following behind. It's Zacarias's name who sold your book. Without his name, your name would be nothing.'''

It's hard to know what to make of this odd expression of pride, a mother's loyalty chilled into something hard and opaque. The day she first saw her son's face on the news, she will tell me later, ''I fell on the floor, crying -- I was hitting myself. I thought: It can't be. It can't be.'' There is no part of el-Wafi that supports Zacarias's murderous proclamations. And yet weeks later, this earlier conversation weighing on me, I call her up to ask, Is some part of you proud of your son's fame? There's a moment of rare silence on the other end of the phone. ''The way you love a child has nothing to do with proud,'' she says finally. ''But I'm neither happy nor proud. I wouldn't wish my situation on any other mother, because I'm completely destroyed inside.''

Trying to respond to the horror of their family member's intentions, el-Wafi and Abd-Samad chose entirely different paths. Abd-Samad spent a year looking backward, trying to understand the history of Zacarias's anger; el-Wafi, on the other hand, seems primarily focused on her future task -- defending his life. How to respond to a family crisis of this order? El-Wafi has strong opinions on the subject. You don't write a tell-all exposing your family's failings, obviously, but neither do you hide in shame. ''It's been hard for Jamila,'' she tells me, referring to her younger daughter, ''because she's not strong.'' Mentally ill, divorced, with two children she can see only in the company of a guardian, Jamila still lives near her mother. ''People say to Jamila, 'Your brother's a terrorist,' and she runs away crying. I told her,'' el-Wafi says, her voice rising, ''just tell them: 'He's my brother. I love him. That's it.' It has nothing to do with you, I tell her. If someone says to me, 'Your son is a terrorist,' I say, 'If he's a terrorist, that's because he fell into the hands of Islamic extremists, because he's naive, an idealist.'''

Speeding along in her Renault, her pulse clearly elevated, el-Wafi bears little relation to the broken woman who used to show up so often on TV. She shows an attack-dog intensity, frustrated by weakness, uninterested in guilt by association. Abused, divorced, a single mother, an immigrant, she's toughed it out her whole life; she has waning patience for the sensitivities of people like her fragile younger daughter and has no intentions of slowing down. Often as she is devolving into tears about the suffering of one son, she will suddenly switch gears and start attacking the other, as if using the anger to give her the energy to protect the first, the resolve to take her grief public. If she's tired or particularly frustrated, her tirades cross a line: she floods her listener with her self-pity, reciting over and over again the litany of miseries she has suffered, the betrayals, the tortures, her pleas for sympathy suddenly sounding more like a harangue. The rant has an odd push-pull force: deliberately helpless and yet aggressive, it's something that anchors, even soothes, her when she feels overwhelmed.

In private, her friends say, she is capable of painful reflection, wondering to what extent the choices she made might have cost her her sons -- both of whom she deems equally wayward, equally lost to her. ''She ruminates about all these questions deep into the night,'' says Sandrine Ageorges, a translator who works closely with Moussaoui's French defense attorneys. El-Wafi has confided that she wonders whether she missed any signs along the way, tiny fissures that a mother might notice before they break wide open. ''She asks herself,'' Ageorges says, ''Was I naive? I've done nothing but help my family, so what is it? What should I have done differently?''' El-Wafi can be raw and open about her grief, but reserves self-doubt as a deeply private sentiment.

In her home, a cramped but comfortable space decorated with pictures of her children and grandchildren, el-Wafi shows me a video of a French news program that was broadcast shortly after Moussaoui's arraignment. In typical cinema verite fashion, not very much happens: mostly, the news consists of footage depicting el-Wafi in her hotel room watching the news covering her son's arraignment. Periodically, the video shows her picking up a video camera herself and fixing it on the television in the hotel room to preserve the information being disseminated, the mug shot of her son that keeps flashing. Fixing her camera on the TV news: it's clumsy and amateurish, but at the same time it seems to give her something to do, provide a sense of control. It's the gesture of a woman just beginning to understand, for better, or for worse, that the media is power and that she had better learn how to use it.

Narbonne at Christmastime is particularly picturesque, its clean white cathedral outlined in glittering lights, its town square packed with booths offering hot crepes, wooden flowers, seasonal specialties like foie gras and oysters. I wander down a side street and poke into a boutique where the owner, a friendly man with a Maurice Chevalier twinkle, strikes up a conversation, teases me about my accent and professes love for New York. His demeanor changes altogether when he learns why I'm in town. ''Her?'' he says, his face contorted with contempt. ''That family's not worth one word of print. She used to be one of those disgusting, dirty Arabs, with that daughter of hers. Now her son ends up in jail, and she's sitting pretty -- new clothing, and the daughter, she lost all that weight.''

''Excuse me,'' I ask, unsure of whether he's railing against media celebrity in general or his neighbor in particular. ''Did you just describe Mme. el-Wafi as a dirty Arab?''

''Not at all,'' he replies. ''I called her an Arab who's dirty. It's totally different.''

It wasn't supposed to be Zacarias who would show up on the network news and in glossy magazine spreads, or his brother, or his mother for that matter; it was Nadia, the oldest daughter, a talented actress whom everyone expected to become a star. Twice, while calling Nadia, el-Wafi put the phone on speaker so I could hear their conversation. She may have been trying to demonstrate a strong rapport with at least one of her children, but she didn't tell Nadia that their intimate conversation was being broadcast for a stranger. The two giggled fondly, and Nadia handed the phone to someone who sounded like a boyfriend. From her voice on the phone, I pictured a single girl in the city, scraping by but having fun, smoking with her friends in cafes, a chic Parisian with a regular date. I knew she hadn't yet spoken to the press; maybe she told her friends she was no relation to the Moussaoui in the news.

El-Wafi arranged for us to meet in Paris, and when I arrive at a Moroccan cafe in her neighborhood, Nadia runs out to greet my cab as I'm getting out. ''Hello, I'm so happy to meet you,'' she says in stilted English, taking my hand and smiling broadly. ''I love America.'' She leads me to the back of the cafe, where we pass a few men drinking and smoking, speaking in Arabic. Her mother is already there.

Nadia is wearing jeans, a green fleece under her windbreaker and no makeup; by Parisian standards she looks like someone who has stayed home for a sick day, which is basically the case. Nadia's life has been a series of sick days since around 1985, when, as she says, ''the craziness came,'' triggered by a bad breakup. She has since suffered through depression and four suicide attempts. Like her younger sister, Jamila, she has been told she is schizophrenic. Her life has frozen since her first illness. Although she is clearly bright and strikingly articulate, there's something disconcertingly adolescent about the eagerness of her smile, the high pitch of her voice, even the look of her face, which belongs to a woman much younger than 39. She has had odd jobs here and there, but in the months since the 11th, she has barely been able to leave her small, state-subsidized apartment. ''I like solitude, and I tend to hide myself in sleep,'' she tells me. ''I love to sleep. Sleeping, that's my sport.'' If her life is lonely, she has partly engineered it that way. ''I was afraid to repeat my mother's history, having all those kids, marrying a man who was abusive,'' she says. ''Jamila herself says she did just that.'' (Jamila eventually divorced her husband; now when el-Wafi is not laboring on behalf of Zacarias, she's going to court to fight for her daughter's visitation rights.) 

If her mother unblinkingly defends Zacarias, and her brother coldly analyzes him, Nadia seems to waver, unsure in her isolation. At one point, she asks me to write that she's ashamed to have such a brother, to convey that to America, and she drifts off, trying to imagine how he could have had such terrifying intentions. At other times, she seems equally dismayed by the thought of him suffering alone in jail, her poor Zacarias, the baby of the family she adored and spoiled when only a young girl herself.

Zacarias and Nadia, following a family pattern, drifted out of touch when she was in her early 20's. She saw him only rarely, most recently in 1995, when he was in Narbonne for a visit. His head shaved, his beard long, he had already become radicalized, and he tried to press on her books of Muslim literature, written in English. ''When I told him I didn't want his books, he got very angry and told me I was a kafir, a heathen. When he left, I thought: We're enemies now. He told me I was going to hell.'' She tells me that she felt afraid when he left. Afraid he would hurt her? She shakes her head no. ''I was afraid he was right,'' she says solemnly.

Like her brothers, Nadia has a complicated relation to her religious background. Unlike her brothers, she speaks Arabic fluently and spent many summers as a child with her mother's family in Morocco. But if her brothers left mostly secular homes to devote themselves to Islam, Nadia looked altogether elsewhere, developing, when she was in her 20's, an abiding devotion to Judaism. ''In my heart,'' she tells me, ''in my heart, I am Jewish.'' What's more, she loves Israel, would go tomorrow if she could, without blinking; her dream is to see the Brooklyn Bridge, to go to Brooklyn, ''because that's where all the Jews are in America.'' If you mention Palestine, she'll point out sternly that no such nation has been recognized; she returns frequently to the subject of Israel with a passion that cannot be circumnavigated. She regularly listens to Radio Shalom or Radio Communaute Juive, reads books like ''Jewish Thought'' and ''Bibliotherapy.'' She has written her brother to say that she loves him but says that even if she could fly to the United States to visit him, he would refuse to see her.

El-Wafi frequently interrupts her daughter, or talks over her, particularly on the subject of Zacarias, whose side his mother reflexively takes even on insignificant subjects -- some unkind words spoken during a petty fight between brother and sister. Her relationship with her mother, Nadia would later tell me, has not always been warm; years went by when they barely spoke. At some point, el-Wafi washed her hands of Nadia's inability to cope, her decades-long obsession with a failed relationship, in short, the intractability of her illness. In turn, Nadia couldn't entirely forgive her mother for some of the same maternal failings her brother details in his book, the verbal cruelty all the children endured. Even now, when she's around her mother, Nadia grows meek and deferential. Catch her alone, and she's opinionated and outgoing, eager to talk about writers and art, showing more signs of the star student she had once been.

When Nadia saw her brother's face on the news, her first call was not to her mother but to her psychiatrist (who must have taken more than a moment to realize that his patient's wild story -- about the brother who was trying to blow up the world -- was not a delusion). Only weeks later, when she saw her mother on the news, broken and weeping, did she call, for the first time in more than a year. ''What could I do?'' Nadia tells me. ''I love her. It's my mother.''

Now el-Wafi, so rarely silent, lets Nadia speak freely on the subject of her adopted faith. I keep glancing over to see how she feels about having this unexpected family wrinkle exposed. The look on her face isn't relaxed or neutral, but nor is it embarrassed or angry. She looks annoyed, but resigned, like a woman who has long given up on trying to talk sense into her daughter, and when we make eye contact, she shrugs: What do you want from me? She can't be expected to explain the mysteries of her children.

Everybody Has a Mother (Page 9 of 9) Nadia, who is disenchanted with France, calls it a country of ''anti-Semites'' and ''collaborationists,'' the opposite of Zacarias's complaints but with an echo of his stridency. I'm thinking about Nadia a week or so later, when a taxi driver is taking me toward her neighborhood, which is not far from the city's Orthodox community. The cabdriver, a Haitian man who has lived in France for 15 years, seizes the opportunity to expound on why he doesn't like the Jews: they think they're better than everyone else; they look down their noses; it's because they have too much money. We drive along in silence for a few moments before he volunteers that, come to think of it, he doesn't like the French much either. Why not? ''Well, you know the French,'' he says. ''They're all racist.''

After a while, el-Wafi starts looking nervously toward the front of the cafe, where the men's Arabic voices have gotten progressively louder. ''It's time to go,'' she says. ''They're asking about us. They want to know what we're doing here. Good Muslim women,'' she says pointedly, mocking their sexism, ''don't belong in the back of a bar in the middle of the day.'' It's sunny but frigid in Paris, and we go in search of hot chocolate, finally landing on a more cheerful Moroccan cafe a few streets over. After friendly exchanges with the owner, el-Wafi notices the woman behind the counter talking about her, Moussaoui's mother, the one you've seen on television, and she smiles at her graciously, nodding her head, Yes, it's me. Everyone's mood picks up, and when the cafe radio starts playing a popular Israeli singer, Nadia lights up. ''It's my favorite song,'' she says, and then Zacarias Moussaoui's oldest sister starts singing along, loudly, to a rocked-up version of ''Hava Nagila.''

''You never really know your children,'' el-Wafi wants me to understand. ''Certainly not. Any mother who thinks otherwise is kidding herself.'' She is talking about Zacarias now. ''I'm sorry, but he was 22 years old when he left my house, and he wasn't then what he became, whatever that is,'' she says. ''He was a grown man. I can't be responsible for what he does when he leaves home.''

El-Wafi says that her two daughters might have inherited a mental fragility from their father, but she won't go so far as to say that Zacarias might share the same family condition. After all, she points out, wouldn't anyone, even the strongest man, crack after all those months in solitary confinement, with the light shining 24 hours a day and no human contact? Nor, she insists, is there anything clinically paranoid about his belief that his lawyers were trying to kill him: aren't they employed by the United States government? And isn't the United States government, in fact, pressing for his execution?

Given their family history, it's particularly hard to separate out the real horrors from the imagined. Nadia now says that her father sexually abused her (el-Wafi wasn't aware of it), but for a long time she didn't know what to think, all too aware of her own tendency to confuse reality and imagination. Is that tragedy beyond the realm of the possible, given the tragedies she knows to be true? Is it so far-fetched for el-Wafi to believe that her phone is tapped? At least half the Moussaoui children seem neurochemically rigged to believe that their lives would be a series of enormous catastrophes waiting to unfold. So far, they haven't been proved wrong.

The conversation turns to the terrorists who just that morning were arrested in one of the big housing projects outside Paris, the makings of a powerful bomb in their apartment. The papers that day quote politicians making all-vague yet somehow all-knowing pronouncements about the possibility of an attack in France. El-Wafi can't understand why anyone would attack France, which hasn't hurt anybody. She herself has seen too much violence in her own life, she says, and her heart goes out to the suffering Chechens and Palestinians.

Nadia, ever touchy on the subject of Israel, jumps in with something of a non sequitur: ''And what would you say to Osama bin Laden, who has called for death to all Jews?''

El-Wafi looks hard at her daughter, and when she speaks, her voice is sure. ''Don't ask me questions like that,'' she says. ''I'm not Osama bin Laden's mother.''

Susan Dominus is a contributing writer for the magazine. She last wrote about an Afghan girl's first semester at school.

Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company 

This text was reproduced from The New York Times Sunday Magazine of February 9, 2003.

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