What causes our epiphyseal plates close up in our late teens or early twenties?
I realize that one's genetics plays the main role in this. I assume there is a gene that controls the epiphyseal plates in our long bones. I guess there would be genes dedicated to every single epiphyseal plate found in our body too. So to rephrase the question:
Why does the gene for our epiphyseal plates turn off in our lates teens or early twenties?
During Endochondral ossification chondrocytes in the plate are rapidly dividing, newer daughter cells stack facing the epiphysis while the older cells are pushed towards the diaphysis. As the older chondrocytes degenerate, osteoblasts ossify the remains to form new bone.
In puberty increasing levels of estrogen, in both females and males, leads to increased apoptosis of chondrocytes in the epiphyseal plate. Depletion of chondrocytes due to apoptosis leads to less ossification and growth slows down and later stops when the entire cartilage have become replaced by bone, leaving only a thin epiphyseal scar which later disappears. Once the adult stage is reached, maximum height is reached.
Your question addresses the genetics of this process however it is more so regulated by the endocrine system. There has not been a single gene assigned to growth plates, or its regulation, and I find it unlikely that there ever will be.
Rather, endochondrial ossification takes place because of hundreds of genes interacting with each other. If you start to look at genes involved in apoptosis and the estrogen receptor pathway, you will begin to appreciate more the complexity behind the physiology.
I have a hunch you were looking for a gene, that with age just shuts off, or turns on. Recent evidence has show this does in fact happen as methylation may be a candidate mechanism of mediating not only environmental, but also genetic effects on age-related phenotypes.
Difference Between Human Growth & Development
Human growth is based on biological events that cause you to grow physically that naturally occur during the early stages of your life. Developmental growth, however, is the product of psychological and social growth, emphasized by environmental and individual behavioral factors, sometimes more simply referred to as maturity. While both of these natural processes are vastly different, both growth and development are closely related steps in producing healthy adults.
What bone age do the growth plates completely close?
We can give you the ossification of few of the important bones. It is difficult to write about primary, secondary and the total ossification of all the bones.
The 3 epiphyses/growth plates at upper end fuse at 18years
The 1 epiphysis/growth plate at lower end fuse at 20 years
Upper end fuses at 16-18 years
Lower end fuses at 15-17 years
Upper end during 20th year
Lower end at about 16 years
Upper end during 18th year
Lower end at 20 years
You can grow as i have given you all the bone ossification ages. You have couple of years and for this you have to do cycling, skipping, swimming & jogging.
Eat enought calories according to your BMI, Proteins will also help.
Well, but everything is genetically related also and your height will grow only to the desired level, try all the different methods and also discuss with an Orthopaedician for some steroids/hormones if they can be given to you without any harm. Take care!
Then if that is true then why did i stop growing around age 19 at 5.9"
at age 24 through 26 i grew again an topped out at 6.2" can anyone answer that i would like to know why
P.S. I am a Body Builder all natural could that be why from years of heavy lifting it made my test go up an igf1 levels higher?.
When i was about 4 years old the Doctor did tell my parents i would be 6.6"
not sure why i never made it to 6.6"
Then if that is true then why did i stop growing around age 19 at 5.9"
at age 24 through 26 i grew again an topped out at 6.2" can anyone answer that i would like to know why
P.S. I am a Body Builder all natural could that be why from years of heavy lifting it made my test go up an igf1 levels higher?.
When i was about 4 years old the Doctor did tell my parents i would be 6.6"
not sure why i never made it to 6.6"
hello!! i am 14 yrs old female. m slightly taller than 5Ɗ" and my mom is 5Ƈ" and my dad is 5' 6". so are there any chances that i can grow up to 5' 7" or at least 5' 6" without any artificial methods such as surgery or HGH injections?? i don't know if my platelets are still open or closed! please tell me if i can grow taller and ill be utterly grateful to you.
thank you hope you will do the needful!
Doc i need to ask if this case really happening growth after 21 ?
Nov 30, 2013
Then if that is true then why did i stop growing around age 19 at 5.9"
at age 24 through 26 i grew again an topped out at 6.2" can anyone answer that i would like to know why
P.S. I am a Body Builder all natural could that be why from years of heavy lifting it made my test go up an igf1 levels higher?.
When i was about 4 years old the Doctor did tell my parents i would be 6.6"
not sure why i never made it to 6.6"
My adopted daughter is 12 yrs old and 4ft 9.6 inhes tall, I took her to an pediatric endocrinologist and it was revealed that her wrist growth plates have fused and that she would not grow any more.
How predictiable are these tests. Do the growth plates in the legs at a different pace
I am worried she will remain the same height. I would hoep she would atleast get to 5ft
The process of ossification as determined postnatally clinically has been divided into a series of stages. Γ]
- Stage 1 - non-ossified epiphysis
- Stage 2 - discernible ossification centre
- Stage 3 - partial fusion
- Stage 4 - total fusion
- Stage 5 - an additional stage recently added is the disappearance of the epiphyseal scar after total fusion.
The hormone factor
One possible contributor to sarcopenia is the natural decline of testosterone, the hormone that stimulates protein synthesis and muscle growth. Think of testosterone as the fuel for your muscle-building fire.
Some research has shown that supplemental testosterone can add lean body mass—that is, muscle—in older men, but there can be adverse effects. Plus, the FDA has not approved these supplements specifically for increasing muscle mass in men.
Therefore, the best means to build muscle mass, no matter your age, is progressive resistance training (PRT), says Dr. Storer. With PRT, you gradually amp up your workout volume—weight, reps, and sets—as your strength and endurance improve.
This constant challenging builds muscle and keeps you away from plateaus where you stop making gains. (See "Working on a PRT program.") In fact, a recent meta-analysis published in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise reviewed 49 studies of men ages 50 to 83 who did PRT and found that subjects averaged a 2.4-pound increase in lean body mass.
The Children of ISIS
Why did three American kids from the suburbs of Chicago try to run away to the Islamic state, and should the Feds treat them as terrorists?
Janet Reitman's Most Recent Stories
O n the day he planned to make his sacred journey, or hijra, to the Islamic State, 19-year-old Mohammed Hamzah Khan woke up before dawn at his house in the Chicago suburb of Bolingbrook, Illinois, and walked to the nearby mosque to pray. It was Saturday, October 4th, 2014, an unusually cold morning, though Hamzah, a slender young man with a trimmed black beard, was dressed for warmer weather in jeans, boots and a gray sweatshirt. By sunset, he’d be gone for good: leaving his parents, his friends, his country and all he knew for an unknown future in the “blessed land of Shaam,” as he called Syria. He would be taking his teenage brother and sister with him. Allahu Akbar, he prayed with the men in his family, and tried to banish his doubts: “God is great.”
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Upstairs in her bedroom in the Khans’ small two-story house, Hamzah’s 17&ndashyear-old sister, Mariyam*, finished her own prayers. Ameen. Then, dressed in a long tunic and flowing pants, she wrapped a dark head scarf around her wavy black hair and waited for her brothers to come home. A delicate girl, Mariyam has flashing dark eyes, perfect skin and a radiant smile that, as a niqabi, a woman who veils her face, almost no one other than her family ever sees. Soon, if all went according to plan, Mariyam would likely be married to a jihadi. She inspected her skin for any sign of a stray pimple. What would her husband be like? She hoped he was handsome and bearded, like Hamzah.
When the men returned from the mosque just before 6 a.m., Mariyam waited until she heard her father go back to bed. Then, with just a small window of time before her parents woke up, she stuffed some pillows under the covers to make it look like she was still asleep and reviewed her mental checklist: clothes (five days’ worth), boots, warm socks, a toothbrush, a hairbrush, her niqab, hijab, Quran and two wands of Maybelline Great Lash mascara (just in case she ran out). She put on a black abaya, topped with her favorite leopard-print hoodie, and took a last look at her room. Then, grabbing her suitcase, she walked downstairs, slipped out the door with her brothers, and sped off toward the airport in a taxi.
The three Khan siblings (*Rolling Stone has agreed to change the names of the younger two, since they are minors) had been plotting their journey since the spring, communicating online with people they believed to be ISIS sympathizers in Syria. During that time, they’d secretly acquired passports, visas and, in just the past week, three airplane tickets to Istanbul, totaling more than $2,600, purchased with money Hamzah had saved from his job at a home-supply store. Once in Turkey, the plan was to make their way, by bus, from Istanbul to the city of Adana, a trip of some 12 hours. There, they’d call a number they had been given by an ISIS supporter they’d met online. “And then, uh, I don’t know,” Hamzah later admitted to the FBI.
What services Hamzah intended to offer ISIS were unclear, even to him. According to a rough transcript admitted at his detention hearing, Hamzah later told the FBI that he wanted to play a “public-service role” &mdash delivering food, perhaps, or being a policeman. Maybe “a combat role,” he said, uncertain what exactly he’d do in that capacity. Hamzah had never even held a gun, let alone fired one. His ideology was simple: He wanted to help the Muslims. He never intended to return to the U.S.
“An Islamic State has been established, and it is thus obligatory upon every able-bodied male and female to migrate,” Hamzah had written in a letter he left for his parents, explaining why he was leaving the comforts of suburbia for the khilafah, or caliphate. “I cannot live under a law in which I am afraid to speak my beliefs.”
His 16-year-old brother, Tarek*, took a more strident tone. “This nation is openly against Islam and Muslims,” he wrote in his own goodbye letter. “The evil of this country makes me sick.”
There was a sameness to the letters, as if they’d been copied from a script. All referenced America’s wars in the Muslim world and said they felt responsible for the suffering. “I simply cannot sit here and let my brothers and sisters get killed with my own hard-earned money,” Hamzah said.
“America is openly against Muslims,” one of the Khan siblings wrote his parents. “The evil of this country makes me sick.”
“Living in this land is haram [sinful],” said Tarek, who like his brother &mdash a pizza fanatic who loved Comedy Central and Lil Wayne &mdash complained about the immorality of Western society. All three wrote of eschewing the dunya, or material world (even though “what I love most is comfort,” Tarek admitted), and provided they made it safely, hoped their parents might even join them. True, the area was getting bombed, said Hamzah, “but let us not forget we weren’t put on this Earth for comfort.”
They begged their parents not to call the police. “All of us will be in really great danger if you do so,” Mariyam wrote in her own letter. “By the time you are reading this, we could be captured, or stranded, or possibly even killed,” she added. “I swear this is the hardest thing I’ve ever done.”
O n the afternoon of October 4th, federal authorities were on the lookout for the Khan teens as they passed through security screening at O’Hare International Airport. At the gate area for Austrian Airlines, the siblings were pulled aside and questioned by U.S. Customs officials, who then passed them over to the FBI. By that evening, Hamzah was put under arrest and charged with “knowingly attempting to provide material support and resources” to a foreign terrorist organization in the form of personnel &mdash namely, himself. If convicted, he faces up to 15 years in prison, and possibly more if other charges are added.
Hamzah’s prosecution comes at a time when countering the lure of groups like ISIS has become one of Washington’s top priorities. “We have investigations of people in various stages of radicalizing in all 50 states,” FBI director James Comey said recently. Though it is unknown precisely how federal authorities came to target the Khans, it’s no secret that government informants lurk online. Agents customarily make these cases by gathering intelligence and setting traps for unsuspecting targets, many of whom, like Hamzah, are arrested at the airport. According to Fordham Law School’s Center on National Security, 33 people in the United States have been detained or questioned in the past year for attempting to aid or join ISIS. Most of these cases have involved kids in their late teens and early twenties. In the case of three Denver-area high school girls, who managed to make it all the way to Frankfurt before being spotted by German authorities and returned to the U.S., the youngest was just 15. Twenty-four cases so far have resulted in federal charges, though, as juvenile records are sealed, it is possible that even more teenagers have been investigated without the public’s knowledge.
The Obama administration has acknowledged a key challenge is countering ISIS’s effective social-media messaging &mdash so much so, one Justice Department official recently conceded, that the DOJ is looking into ways it might prosecute those voicing support for ISIS on Twitter. “It’s a war of ideas &mdash we ought to be able to win,” Assistant Attorney General John Carlin noted during a recent talk. Yet he admitted the government doesn’t yet have a cohesive strategy. “How do we explain that an ideology that’s based on enslaving other people, killing women and children, and is fundamentally nihilistic is one you shouldn’t join?”
Though the government has put forth a number of so-called countering violent-extremism initiatives, the most effective tool at the moment seems to be the criminal justice system. Most of these cases, and nearly 200 more brought since 9/11, rest on a broad interpretation of a provision in the federal criminal code known as the material-support statutes. They criminalize a wide range of activities, from supplying weapons, money, personnel or training to providing things like humanitarian relief, conflict-resolution training, and other “expert advice or assistance.”
“All the material-support law requires is that the person supported a group or set of ideas the government doesn’t like,” explains David Cole, a professor at Georgetown University Law School and author of Less Safe, Less Free: Why America Is Losing the War on Terror. “It is an extremely broad statute, and prosecutors like broad statutes because it’s easier to make a case. The risk is you very likely will send a lot of people who would never have committed violence at all to prison for a long time.”
According to federal prosecutors, Hamzah Khan and his siblings felt a “religious obligation to join the Islamic State.&thinsp.&thinsp.&thinsp.&thinspwith the hopes of violent jihad.” At Hamzah’s detention hearing in November, Assistant U.S. Attorney Matthew Hiller argued that the teens’ “carefully calculated plan to abandon their family&thinsp.&thinsp.&thinsp.&thinspand abandon their country and join a foreign terrorist organization” showed, at minimum, their “radicalization.” Hiller also argued that Hamzah be kept in pretrial detention to “protect the safety of the community from the defendant and his intent on leaving Western society and joining ISIL.”
Nowhere in this statement is the assertion that Hamzah’s intent to join the Islamic State also means that he intended to commit harm in the United States. This fear, however, lies at the heart of both the Khan case and virtually all of the other ISIS-related prosecutions, though there is so far little evidence that those who have made it to Syria plan to come home. “What they’re doing is joining a civil war,” says Michael German, a former FBI agent and now a fellow at NYU’s Brennan Center for Justice. “And we have seen people do that through history &mdash whether it was the Spanish Civil War, whether it was American Jews going off to fight for Israel, or American Catholics wanting to join the IRA. But rather than understand the lure in context, we judge it as they’re going to go over and become a terrorist. And then, the next leap is they’re going to become a terrorist against the United States.”
Hamzah’s attorney, Tom Durkin, believes the government’s zeal to prosecute has more to do with the fear of “missing one,” as he puts it, than in a genuine belief that people like Hamzah are dangerous. “The fact is, these kids are not ‘terrorists’ by any criminal-justice definition,” says Durkin. “The problem is, it’s now part of the ‘war on terror,’ and as soon as you declare war on something, that means you have to defeat it.”
Mariyam’s attorney, Marlo Cadeddu, believes that if the Khan kids are guilty of anything, it’s a form of magical thinking. “They were naive, and they were sheltered, and they bought into a fantasy of a Muslim utopia,” she says. “It’s hard to be an observant Muslim teenager growing up in post-9/11 America, and ISIS plays on those insecurities in a very calculated way.”
C hicago’s Muslim community is one of the oldest and largest in the United States, with a significant portion hailing from the South Asian diaspora. Hamzah’s parents, Shafi and Zarine, naturalized American citizens, were born in Hyderabad, the fourth-largest city in India, and are followers of the Deobandi school of Islam, a fundamentalist Sunni strain that stresses strict adherence to Islamic law and has been influential in jihadist networks in Pakistan and Afghanistan. The Khans, however, follow a pacifist movement that preaches that Muslims’ true battle is a spiritual one.
An unassuming young man, Shafi was 20 when he arrived in Chicago with his parents, in 1986. In 1994, he returned to India for an arranged marriage with Zarine, then a 21-year-old student at Hyderabad’s main university. Back in Chicago, the couple settled on Devon Avenue, an area famous for being a landing point for immigrants from across the Indian subcontinent. In 1995, their first child, Hamzah, was born, followed by Mariyam in 1996, Tarek in 1998 and another sister in 2000. To support his brood, Shafi, who was still putting himself through college, worked as a customer-service representative at a bank. Zarine, who’d given up her scientific ambitions to marry and have children, worked part-time teaching primary school. By 2005, they joined the migration pattern of many other Indian and Pakistani Muslims and settled in the suburbs west of the city, first in Des Plaines, near O’Hare, and then, after their fifth and final child was born in 2011, in Bolingbrook.
Chicago’s western suburbs have a drab, workaday quality filled with featureless strip malls and equally nondescript homes. Once lily-white, the area’s demographics have followed national trends, and South Asians now comprise almost six percent of the population. In the past decade, at least 15 new mosques and Islamic cultural centers have sprung up throughout the area, quickly assimilating into the landscape: mosque, 7-Eleven, McDonald’s, church, Walmart, halal butcher, Taco Bell, synagogue, Planet Fitness.
Uninspiring though it might be, the Khans found much to appreciate in the suburbs. In America, you got what you paid for: a house, a car, clean streets, medical care. They appreciated the kindness of Americans and, as Zarine often noted, their “respect for hard work and human life.” And yet, neither she nor her husband was ever fully comfortable here. The violence of popular culture in particular bothered Zarine. When Hamzah was about eight, the television broke the Khans decided not to replace it. Though they had a computer with Internet access, Shafi and Zarine monitored their children’s online habits, allowing them to watch cartoons and read the news, but never to surf the Internet alone. “We wanted to preserve their innocence,” Zarine later noted to the Washington Post.
On September 11th, 2001, Zarine and Shafi had been living together in Chicago for seven years. Hamzah was six, Mariyam four the younger two siblings were toddlers. The Khans, who were horrified by the attacks, tried not to watch the news. Sometimes, Zarine would hear about women’s scarves getting pulled off in public, though it never happened to her. She did, however, get random stares while shopping. Given what happened on 9/11, that was “understandable,” she rationalized. But in Chicago, as in most cities across the country, there were more overt examples of discrimination. Everyone had heard the stories of people who had been hassled or detained at the airport, or whose immigration papers were mysteriously held up. Many Muslim families knew of at least one child who’d been teased and called “Osama” or “terrorist” on the playground. It was assumed, in an era of FBI stings (including several in Chicago), that if a stranger entered a mosque during Friday prayers and started spouting extremist rhetoric, he was likely an informant.
Instead of sending their kids to public schools, the Khans enrolled their children in an Islamic primary school, and later in the College Preparatory School of America (CPSA), a private Islamic day school that bills itself as providing “academic excellence in an Islamic environment.” Mohammad Chaudhry, a friend of the Khans and a former board member of their mosque, also sends his kids to CPSA, which he feels has helped instill in them the proper Islamic values. But it’s also a safety issue, he admits. “To be honest with you, I don’t want my kids being told they’re terrorists.”
“ISIS’s message is, ‘Come and help us build a utopia that will protect every single Muslim,'” says one expert. “This is very seductive.”
The problem with this approach, notes Ahmed Rehab, executive director of the Chicago branch of the Council on American Islamic Relations, is by “cocooning” one’s children in Islamic schools, parents run the risk of setting them up for profound isolation. When they emerge, he asks, “will the kids be prepared for what they see?”
By all accounts, the Khans enveloped their children in a tight and loving cocoon. Other parents would remark on the manners and obedience of the Khan kids, who got good grades, volunteered at the mosque religious school, day care and summer camp, and were relentlessly polite and helpful. Religion played a central role in their lives, and they made an effort to pray five times a day. But they were also regular American kids who grew up on a steady diet of cartoons, Marvel superhero comics and young-adult fiction: The Lightning Thief, the Maximum Ride series, the Legend trilogy. Mariyam, who as a child loved Muslim Scouts Adventures, a cartoon series broadcast on the Islamic-themed website MuslimVille.tv, was also partial to the very American animated hero Kim Possible. Hamzah loved Batman. Their brother Tarek idolized Wolverine. Anime fanatics, they were desperate to learn Japanese and, at one point, created their own fake Japanese language, which they used as a secret code.
When Hamzah was 10, he left school and enrolled in a local Islamic institute to memorize the Quran, a process known as becoming a hafiz. He spent roughly two and a half years learning the 600-page text in Arabic, until the phrases rolled off his tongue like poetry. It’s not uncommon in highly religious Muslim families, particularly those from the South Asian community, to put their kids through this program, which is both a sign of piety and great prestige. As Hamzah spoke only English and Urdu, however, he had little idea what the words, in Arabic, actually meant.
Of the Khan kids, Hamzah was probably the most sensitive, a dreamer. He loved to draw and had a particular soft spot for children, serving as treasurer of his school’s UNICEF chapter. The stories of refugee families in places like Syria, Gaza or Sudan moved him so much that he decided to become a pediatrician so he could work with Doctors Without Borders. But he quickly realized he couldn’t endure eight years of medical school, and after graduating from high school in 2013 and enrolling at Benedictine University, he decided to study engineering and computer science. By October of his freshman year, it seemed that he was already feeling the pressure. “Calc and Chem exams, back-to-back,” he tweeted one day. “Need duas [prayers]!!”
One of Hamzah’s teachers at CPSA, who spoke to Rolling Stone anonymously (the school has refused to comment on the Khans and has instructed its faculty to do the same), doubts Hamzah had the skills needed for a scientific career. “He wasn’t cut out for engineering,” he says. “He always came across as really naive, just kind of simple.” Sexual innuendos went over his head. Though he had a circle of friends, he lacked the go-along-to-get-along sensibility that others took in stride. According to the teacher, cheating has occasionally been a problem at CPSA, where tremendous pressure is put on kids to excel in the sciences, but Hamzah never took part. “That’s part of that innocence,” he says. “The rest of the kids are like, ‘Look, you can’t always be this goody-two-shoes.’&thinsp”
Hamzah saw in Islam a world of infinite wisdom whose rules and ancient history intrigued him. Steeped in the stories of Muhammad, his companions, and the sultans and caliphs who came after them, Hamzah viewed those days as a “simpler” era when Islam flourished across a vast empire, or Caliphate, and the Muslim ummah, or global community, was united. By college, though he still enjoyed making funny videos with friends and listening to rappers like Waka Flocka Flame, he’d begun to see those pursuits as shallow, lacking the honor and romance of being a true champion of the ummah. In 2014, he created a Tumblr page he called “Torchbearers of Tawheed,” dedicated to “posts about important events and people from Islam dating from the period of Muhammad [peace be upon him],” though he sometimes posted his own poetry, too. On Twitter, he dubbed himself @lionofthe-d3s3rt &ndash a take on his name, which means “lion,” and a reference to historical freedom fighters in the Middle East. He trimmed his beard in the manner of an Arabian prince, and then, because it looked so good, he posted a picture on his Google+ page, standing in front of a suburban home, his black hair wrapped in a Saudi-style headdress, chin raised, eyes fixed on some distant point. Mecca? Chicago? Burger King? Who knew?
M ariyam, while equally invested in her dreams, was more focused. A voracious reader, she made her way through most of the young-adult novels on The New York Times Best Sellers list, and spent hours making plans. She was going to be an astronaut. Then she decided she’d rather be a paleontologist, or a surgeon. Like her brother, she also became a hafiz, which in her case took three years, as she was meticulous about the Quran, memorizing each phrase and passage backward and forward until she could recite it without error. “I like things to be perfect, and I like to be the best at them,” she says. This was obvious by simply looking at her, if she’d have allowed it.
Though wearing the niqab isn’t generally required in Islam, Mariyam, like her mother, chose to cover all but her forehead and her eyes. In public, Mariyam, a tiny five feet two, appeared as a mute appendage to Zarine, to whom she is fiercely attached. But at home, where she covered only her hair, she was a different, more dynamic girl: intellectually curious, chatty, sometimes angst-ridden and moody. She was concerned about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. She worried about the suffering of Muslims &mdash especially the children &mdash wherever they were. She also worried about the usual teenage things: her hair, her skin, her weight. Embarrassingly, she now admits, she was obsessed for a while &mdash OK, for about three years &mdash with Linkin Park, whose lyrics she memorized and wrote everywhere. There were also the boys-suck ballads of Taylor Swift, more of a secret passion. Boys themselves were strictly off-limits in the hyperconservative interpretation of Islam imparted by her parents. She could still laugh, joke, ride bikes and climb trees with her brothers, but once she hit puberty, strange boys were to be avoided unless she needed to ask someone for directions.
This, for the most part, was OK, because more than anything, Mariyam was painfully shy. Her niqab was her shield, and behind the veil she could observe, which she did, keenly, but didn’t have to engage. This shyness, combined with her innate perfectionism, created a deep well of anxiety that struck her immediately after she finished memorizing the Quran. She’d missed the entirety of middle school, though she’d tried to keep up through home-schooling. As a result, all the torment of those awkward early-teenage years, the best-friendships, rivalries and petty jealousies &mdash all of that had passed her by. So she told her mother she didn’t want to go back to school. Zarine begged her to change her mind. “I used to tell her every single day, ‘You’re going to regret this when you’re in college,’&thinsp” Zarine recalls. “&thinsp’You’re going to say, “I missed high school life.”&thinsp’&thinsp” Mariyam insisted she’d be better off being home-schooled and enrolled in a correspondence program. And so, ninth grade passed and then 10th.
Apart from her studies, her outlets were baking, drawing and watching YouTube videos. She developed a passion for elaborate Arabic eye makeup, which she’d experiment with in her room, trying the Indian-princess look one day, a sultry Arabian look the next, always making sure to take it off before anyone could see. Though she never admitted it, the loneliness was excruciating. After a while, even a trip with her mother to Walmart was exciting.
And then, at 16, Mariyam began to change. She stopped listening to music, stopped watching anime and reading novels. She no longer missed her friends or worried about whether she should return to high school &mdash she knew there was no point. The only thing that mattered to her was religion. While her brothers and sister were off at school and working on projects for the next science fair, she would rush through her lessons in order to curl up in a corner and read the hadiths, the second-hand accounts of the teachings and proverbs of Muhammad, as well as books by many other Islamic scholars.
Her favorite heroes were men like Muhammad al-Fatih, Muhammad bin Qasim and Saladin &mdash all famous Muslim warriors who waged valiant jihad in defense of Islam and its expansion. The term “jihad” refers to two distinct Islamic concepts &mdash the greater jihad, or the daily struggle to live a godly life, and the lesser jihad, which most scholars agree refers to war, and not just a spiritual or existential one.
Mariyam envisioned herself as less a warrior than a protector. In her private musings, she could take on a fierce edge, frustrated by the refusal of American Muslims to even mention jihad for fear of being misunderstood. “When talk of jihad comes up, [the men] turn their faces away, or look down and avoid your eyes, or attack you,” she wrote in an undated note, referring to the men of her community as “cowards” and the women as “selfish.” The righteous path was clear to her why would none of them see it? “They don’t want to believe,” she said. “They lash out at you, mock you, and ridicule what the best people on the face of this Earth loved and carried out with passion flaming in their hearts. Will they say the same when it is their children whose skulls are being crushed, their husbands who are being tortured, their fathers who are slaughtered, and their mothers who are raped?”
For, if that level of violence seemed far-fetched in America, it wasn’t the case in Syria, or Iraq. And maybe it wasn’t even that far off in Chicago. In 2012, there had been a hate crime at CPSA, when a 7-Up bottle filled with acid was hurled at the building during Ramadan prayers. That same year, the area’s U.S. congressman, Republican Joe Walsh, noted while campaigning for re-election that Muslims were “trying to kill Americans every week” in the United States. A few days later, a man terrorized an area mosque with a pellet gun.
For some Muslim kids, the prejudice, discrimination and violence only reinforced what they may have felt all along. “If you’re a Muslim-American teenager, America has been at war with the Muslims for as long as you’ve been conscious,” says Omer Mozaffar, an Islamic scholar and Muslim chaplain at Loyola University in Chicago. “That’s just the frame around how they see the world. It’s on the news, it’s online, it’s on your Xbox &mdash I mean, just look at Call of Duty, where they are fighting the Muslims in Iraq and Afghanistan. It’s just in the air.”
And yet, what could Mariyam, or Hamzah, or any other disaffected Muslim teenager do about it? There were thousands just like them on Twitter and Facebook, a whole universe of kids who debated the hadiths, and talked about anime, and agonized over the latest atrocity in Syria, and also shared pictures of lions, or dinosaurs, or baby tigers, or their baby sisters. They came from the same drab sort of wastelands as Bolingbrook: from Perth, and Cardiff, and Manchester, and Portsmouth, and the immigrant ghettos of London, as well as those in cities like Paris, Berlin, Brussels, Minneapolis, Denver &mdash and many of them were born in these cities, too. And yet they never felt fully American, or British, or Australian, or French (even though they were), but they also didn’t feel totally “Muslim” either, or at least not like the lions and lionesses of Islam they thought they should be.
“Brothers and sisters, the pain is real,” one supposed witness to Syrian bloodshed wrote on his widely read blog, issuing a siren call to all the akhis and ukhtis, or brothers and sisters, in the dar al-kufr, or land of disbelief, who yearned to be in the dar al-Islam, or land of Islam &mdash wherever that was. “News of atrocities no longer reach us by the week or by the day. Instead, we hear of new massacres, transgressions and oppression against our brothers and sisters in faith, every couple of hours of every day. If you are tired of and cannot bear seeing, reading, hearing of and witnessing those atrocities anymore, then, undeniably, the time has come for you to act.”
An unprecedented number of young Muslims heeded the call. “I swear by the one who holds my soul in his hands, I will not give this up even if the entire world turns against me,” Mariyam wrote, with all the passion her 17-year-old heart could muster.
M ariyam Khan spent most of every day alone, “thinking,” she wrote on her Ask.fm page. While perusing Islamic forums, she discovered Kalamullah.com, a British-based Islamic website that aggregates a wide range of Islamic material. Those looking to read or listen to the speeches of American-born cleric Anwar al-Awlaki can do so there, but Kalamullah also posts information from various human rights groups, and, perhaps of particular resonance for Mariyam, a link to daily video updates from Syria.
By 2013, Mariyam had become immersed in the crisis in Syria, or Shaam, as she now called it, which is also what the Islamic State called the territory &mdash encompassing large swaths of Syria and Iraq &mdash that it would later dub the caliphate. Taking the cause as her own, she joined in a hashtag campaign for a Muslim prisoner and retweeted photos of victims of violence in the Middle East. She was influenced by Islamic forums that promoted a stridently anti-Western view &mdash all non-Muslims were “kuffars,” all Shias “apostates,” and all mainstream imams, Islamic scholars and virtually any Muslims who “watered down their religion” were “coconuts”: brown on the outside, but white at the heart.
Though ISIS promoted a hitherto unknown pageant of cinematic brutality to the world, believers like Hamzah and Mariyam were hearing a different message. By declaring the “caliphate,” ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was fulfilling a dream cherished by generations of Muslims and Islamic leaders, including Osama bin Laden, who saw it as a long-term goal, albeit one that might take generations to realize. In his first video appearance as self-annointed caliph, Baghdadi issued a direct call to not just fighters, but also doctors, judges, engineers and experts in Islamic law to help build the new “Islamic State,” where all Muslims were now obligated to go. This is a vastly different message from what previous iterations of jihadis have promoted, noted Loretta Napoleani, author of a new book on ISIS, The Islamist Phoenix. “In the old days, Al Qaeda was sending a negative message, which was ‘Come be suicide bombers and live in paradise with 72 virgins,’&thinsp” Napoleani said at a recent talk in New York. “This time, the message is ‘Come and help us build a new state, your state&thinsp.&thinsp.&thinsp.&thinspa Sunni political utopia&thinsp.&thinsp.&thinsp.&thinspthat will protect every single Muslim.&thinsp.&thinsp.&thinsp.’ &thinspThis is a very, very seductive message, and it’s also a positive message.”
All of the Khan kids were active on social media, but for Mariyam, it was more than just an outlet &mdash it was her voice. Mariyam’s life was full of rules, but online she could be anyone she wanted to be: a good Muslim girl, an advocate for the oppressed, even, in a way, an honorary boy who, veiled in the anonymity of the Internet, was free to engage with a bubbling new subculture of people, mostly young men, who she’d never have been able to look at, let alone speak to, in real life.
She found them on Twitter, sometimes identified by the black jihadist flag they used as their avatar and their noms de guerre that began with “Abu,” for men, and “Umm,” for women, occasionally with their nationality tacked to the end of their names: al-Amriki, for Americans al-Britani, for the Brits. As Mariyam observed, and later took part in, they engaged in lengthy conversations with their followers, debating the value of various jihadist groups, promoting the latest ISIS video or heroic nasheed, and, if you were lucky, the most influential of this group, who served as unofficial recruiters, might send you their personal Kik or Surespot handles so you could continue the conversation more securely.
Getting to that point required that one show loyalty to the cause, which Mariyam did, tweeting her love for videos like “Saleel al-Sawarim IV” [“The Clanging of the Swords IV”], which heralded ISIS’s operations in Iraq and featured scenes of foreign fighters burning their passports, as well as executions and a beheading. During her brother’s detention hearing, federal prosecutors noted Mariyam’s “twisted delight” at the ending of “Saleel al-Sawarim,” which she tweeted about with emoticons of a heart and a smiley face.
To converse with ISIS jihadis, Mariyam also had to understand their language. According to the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Dr. Amanda Rogers, who studies ISIS propaganda, the English-speaking ISIS network has its own vernacular of Arabic buzzwords that followers use, interspersed with Western terms, as a sort of in-group code. Those who made it to Syria were “on the haqq,” or living the truth. They might also be “on the deen,” a term, referencing a person’s faith, that meant embracing it fully, with body and soul, as Muslims did during the days of the Prophet. To travel to Syria was to make hijra, or migration, referring to the original journey of Muhammad and his followers to Medina and inextricably tied to the idea of persecution indeed, one of the conditions that makes hijra mandatory for Muslims is oppression by the country or system under which they live. Hence, a decision to make hijra and join the other emigrants, or muhajireen, was not just a decision: It was a sacred and liberating duty. Shaam (or Sham, as it’s often written) referred to greater Syria, but also to so much more: It was not just a place, Mariyam learned, it was the place, and only the very best people &mdash the true muhajireen &mdash would gather in Shaam.
The most famous of the Western, English-speaking jihadis, and a rock star to homebound girls like Mariyam, was Abu Abdulrahman al-Britani, otherwise known as Ifthekar Jaman, a British 22-year-old of Bengali descent who migrated to Syria in 2013 from his home in working-class Portsmouth. Jaman was the first of a group of young men that dubbed themselves the Bangladeshi Bad Boys Brigade who decided to make hijra, and he was also the first one of them to die. But before he did, indeed before he’d even left England, he amassed a fairly large Twitter following, putting out what often seemed like an endless stream of photos and videos of himself answering questions about Islam and applying black kohl around his eyes, which made him look like Aladdin. He grew his beard long, in the manner of Osama bin Laden, who, he once said, struck him as “a really nice guy.” In his most famous video, he offered a 90-minute tutorial, full of digressions onto virtually every subject, on how to tie a turban.
Jaman, for those looking back now, offers an object lesson in what could have befallen the Khans, had they made it to Syria. Desperate to become a jihadi and motivated to help the suffering, he’d bought a one-way ticket to Turkey, finding his way to Aleppo, where, after being rejected by another rebel group for not having the appropriate contacts, he met an Algerian fighter from ISIS. “I hadn’t even heard of them,” he told Shiraz Maher of the New Statesman, “but I checked them out and they were great.” Because of his good looks and his utter lack of military training, he was snatched up by ISIS’s propaganda wing, if not to be an actual jihadi, then to play one on Twitter.
Before long, Jaman, with his hundreds of Twitter followers, became ISIS’s most charismatic English-language salesman: taking selfies with his AK-47 (though he had never used it in combat) and promoting the chilled-out side of the caliphate, which he called “five-star jihad,” full of stolen war booty, or ghaneema, cuddly kittens and villas with swimming pools. A host of wannabe Ifthekar Jamans began to stream into Syria, and even more began to contemplate it. And he kept the encouragement coming. “The reason why I share so much is to show you how it is, the kittens, the landscape, etc, hoping to make you see the beauty of it & come,” he wrote. True, the Western jihadis weren’t of much use on the battlefield, having “no skills,” as he admitted. But even if ISIS didn’t need them, he reminded his followers, “You need this.”
Mariyam had followed Jaman on Twitter even before he went to Syria, and she paid careful attention to his progress, as well as to his friends’, who in a virtual context became her friends, too. “What are you waiting for?” these jihadis would write to the kids in the West. “Come to the land of honor. You are needed here.”
Jaman’s sojourn in the land of honor ended abruptly on December 15th, 2013, when having finally been granted his wish to take part in an “operation,” he was killed during the first minutes of his very first battle.
On Twitter, Jaman’s fans exploded in exhortations of joy, for the most part &mdash for he had become a shaheed. Then, two months later, one of Jaman’s newfound “brothers,” a Briton named Anil Khalil Raoufi, a.k.a. Abu Layth al Khorasani, was also killed. Mariyam by now felt a part of the group. “Inna lillah Wa Inna ilayhi Raji’oon” &mdash To Allah we belong, and to Him we shall return &mdash she tweeted. “Abu Layth has been martyred.”
But he wasn’t really dead, Mariyam believed, because that is what she’d read and what Jaman and his friends reminded people constantly. Martyrs, unlike ordinary people, lived and breathed in Jannah, the highest plateau in heaven, not as young men with 72 virgins &mdash this concept, in fact, seemed to figure very little into anyone’s thinking &mdash but as beautiful green birds (or #greenbirds as it went on Twitter) that, according to some hadiths, would fly through the trees, eating from the fruits of paradise, and live in golden lamps hanging from a divine throne, before Allah returned their souls to them on the day of Resurrection.
That, among other reasons, was why all the martyrs died smiling.
This was the message making its way across social media, and there was even photographic proof of this phenomenon: dozens of pictures of newly dead young men, all wearing beatific smiles. Sometimes these photos were tweeted with captions noting how the smell of musk emanated from their bodies, or how their wounds continued to bleed for days, even weeks, after they had died. Martyrs’ bodies, some said, didn’t decompose. And there were more miracles in Syria: orchards sprouting endless quantities of fruit, mortar shells that, in ISIS-held territory, would fall and leave no damage. One jihadi wrote that, despite a lack of water and hygiene products, neither his clothes nor his hair nor his body ever smelled.
Many of these amazing tales were compiled in an e-book, Miracles in Syria, that told the story of the British jihadis during the early days of the war. A prominent figure in the book’s narrative was Abu Qaqa, one of a group of young men from Manchester who, inspired by Jaman’s stories, had come to Syria in September 2013. Ostensibly a gifted communicator with a feel for the deen, Qaqa &mdash or whoever might have been using his account &mdash maintained a presence on Twitter, Tumblr and Ask.fm. After injuring his leg in the same battle that claimed Jaman’s life, he decided to build a brand of his own. By the spring of 2014, Abu Qaqa and another British jihadi, Abu Fariss, were ISIS’s unofficial English-language scribes, reporting on the steady influx of pilgrims (“on average each month around 2-3 hundred and that’s not including the women,” Qaqa noted), answering questions from would-be recruits &mdash yes, Qaqa told one young man, it was possible to buy “quality hair products” in Syria &mdash and generally serving as witnesses and cheerleaders for hijra, which they reminded all who wrote, was incumbent upon every Muslim, male and female.
Hamzah and Mariyam were both in private Kik communication with Abu Qaqa, their main contact in Syria. Mariyam also followed and exchanged tweets with another English-speaking jihadi, Abu Hud, otherwise known as “Paladin of Jihad.” Unlike Qaqa, a somewhat remote figure who presented hijra as a sacred obligation, Abu Hud came across as a friendly bro, who was shameless in trying to enlist Western akhis and ukhtis for what he promised would be the greatest experience of their lives. His astonishingly detailed Tumblr series, #DustyFeet, was almost a Lonely Planet guide to hijra, giving kids who might never have roughed it instructions about what kind of backpack or pocket knife to bring, how to get physically fit, even how to squat &mdash the last of particular relevance, he noted, because the Prophet, who didn’t have the luxury of “high-rise, ‘European’ sit-down flush toilets,” had teachings on this particular biological need. Travel light, he advised, while also providing a comprehensive list of packing do’s and don’ts &mdash yes to warm socks, solar chargers and camelback water carriers, no to laptops, which could be “more incriminating than tablets and phones.”
His followers, invited to “ask me anything,” deluged him with questions, often using code words like “going on holiday” for their intention to come to Syria. “Is having glasses too much of a disadvantage,” one asked, “or is it a must to do lasik?” (Abu Hud advised him to skip the surgery and “buy prescription goggles.”) Another was curious if the medical marijuana he smoked for his chronic anxiety would be a problem. (Abu Hud, though not entirely sure, doubted ISIS’s leadership would condone weed &mdash though he offered to ask.)
A particularly skilled manipulator, Abu Hud always reminded his fellow brothers and sisters that he, most of all, needed to heed his own advice, while at the same time nudging them toward a decision to “get your feet dusty,” a code for hijra. “You might be shedding tears thinking that you are sacrificing a great deal, but remember, your brothers and sisters are shedding blood,” he said, and later quoting the Prophet: “Whoever dies in a state whereby he never participated in jihad, nor did his soul ever desire this, then he has died on one of the branches of hypocrisy.”
Certainly, Mariyam’s soul desired jihad, though she knew she’d never be allowed to fight. Her role, she understood, would be as a wife who would help raise the next generation of mujahideen. She’d be restricted in her movements &mdash ISIS women do not leave their homes without a mahram, a male family member who acts as their guardian, or without permission from their husbands, in which case they travel in groups &mdash but that wasn’t so different from how she lived now. She never went anywhere alone. In fact, in some ways, life in a city like Raqqa might be better. She’d have a whole community of sisters, a group of ready-made friends, just waiting. And everyone, it seemed &mdash at least everyone she talked to &mdash was under 25.
The recruitment of women into ISIS is particularly complex, says Humera Khan, executive director of Muflehun, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank specializing in preventing and countering violent extremism. “It’s not that the women who are going there aren’t smart,” she says. “Some of them are extremely driven” &mdash one ISIS wife is a doctor &mdash “but somehow they’re convinced that this life is a calling. Most of these women are expecting when they get to Syria that they will be able to live as the ‘perfect Muslim woman’ as described by ISIS, which is very clear on their expectation about women: They will be married early, they will be serving the fighters, they will be helping to establish the state. And these girls are fine with it. They’re going to be part of the generation that builds the caliphate brick by brick.”
This impression has been relentlessly promoted by a select number of highly influential female recruiters who, like Abu Qaqa or Abu Hud, write extensively online about how to make hijra to Syria. Mariyam followed several of these women and was particularly enamored of the writings of a 20-year-old Scottish woman named Aqsa Mahmood, who blogs under the handle Umm Layth. Umm Layth is believed to have been instrumental in helping a number of Western girls get to “the lands of Jihad,” as she calls it, and her advice was both detailed and practical, advising them to bring their own makeup and jewelry (“Trust me, there is absolutely nothing here”), as well as an abundance of clothes and shoes, which contradicted Abu Hud’s advice. But Umm Layth was, after all, an ukhti. “There are clothes here, but Wallahi [I swear] the quality is really bad,” she said. “It’s a miracle if you find a top or trousers which last longer than a month.&thinsp.&thinsp.&thinsp.&thinspThe shoes here are also bad quality, in addition they only seem to have 3 sizes here.”
Umm Layth also explained their living conditions: Once in Syria, they’d be given a house, though as there was a waiting list for homes, they might be temporarily relegated to the “sister’s makar,” or headquarters, while their husbands lived with the men. There was no housing for single women, she reminded them, emphasizing the necessity of marriage simply to exist in ISIS society. And there was no way a woman could take part in combative jihad, she added. But hijra wasn’t just for fighting. In fact, their role was “even more important as women in Islam,” for if there weren’t women willing to “sacrifice all their desires and give up their families and lives in the West in order to make Hijrah and please Allah, then who will raise the next generation of Lions?”
These comments were written during the six months after Umm Layth first arrived in Syria, in November 2013. By September 2014, her missives had veered away from the practical to something more resembling fantasy. “There is something so pleasurable to know that what you have has been taken from the Kuffar and handed to you personally by Allah&thinsp.&thinsp.&thinsp.&thinspas a gift,” she noted on her Tumblr, and then went on to list the war booty: refrigerators, ovens, microwaves, milkshake machines, “and most importantly a house with free electricity and water provided to you due to the Khilafah, and no rent included. Sounds great, right?”
It did, to Mariyam. And she became convinced that, just as Umm Layth said, “all those who have left their luxuries behind and made sincere hijra&thinsp.&thinsp.&thinsp.&thinspwill be taken care of.” In fact, Umm Layth promised, whatever they had in the dar al-kufr, “[Allah] will replace it with something even better.” It would be an amazing world of brothers and sisters, and she shouldn’t have too many regrets, for as Umm Layth, using techniques common to all religious cults, reminded the girls the family they’d get in exchange for leaving their other family behind “are like the pearl in comparison to the shell you threw away into the foam of the sea which is the Ummah.”
Mariyam wasn’t so worried about leaving her family &mdash well, except her parents. Her brothers would come with her. As the oldest, Hamzah would likely be responsible for serving as his sister’s guardian, and he would also quite possibly be responsible for selecting her husband. He was of two minds on all of this. On the one hand, as he wrote his parents, he was motivated “to take as much of my family to live in the land of Islam.” And yet he wavered, wondering if hijra was really necessary. Hamzah might be willing to swear allegiance to ISIS, but even as he’d applied for passports and visas, he seems to have had his doubts. Did he actually have to go to Syria, he asked a British advocate of jihad named Abu Baraa, or could he just pledge and stay at home? Abu Baraa (who does not admit to pledging allegiance to the Islamic State) assured him that hijra wasn’t an absolute requirement, though, referencing the teachings of the Prophet, he added it was better to live a single day in obedience to the caliph than “to live and die in [ignorance].”
“I get questions like that from people all over the world,” Abu Baraa, who is 31, tells me from London recently, when we spoke on the phone. “Under certain conditions, living in an Islamic State is compulsory. For instance, if you’re not able to express your own beliefs in opposition to the beliefs of the people you’re living amongst, you’re obligated to go somewhere else. If you can’t fulfill your duties [as Muslims], if you are tempted to sin &mdash all of these are circumstances where someone would be obliged. And for many Muslims living in America, one or all of these would apply to them.”
Abu Baraa is a former member of Al Muhajiroun (the Emigrants), a now-banned Islamist group led by the radical Anjem Choudary. Baraa has been arrested multiple times in England and is currently on bail on suspicion of supporting terrorism, resulting in his passport being rescinded by British authorities. Were that not the case, he too might have moved to the caliphate. Instead, as America prepared to begin airstrikes last summer, Abu Baraa reminded his YouTube followers that the world was divided into two camps. “Make sure you’re on the side of the Muslims,” he said. “You shouldn’t be on the side of the kuffar, nor should you be on the fence, neutral, saying, ‘This has nothing to do with me.’ You have to defend the Muslims.”
Hamzah decided he had to be on the side of the Muslims. “Me, living in comfort with my family while my other family are getting killed is plain selfish of me,” he’d later write to his family. “I want to be ruled by the shariah, the best law for all mankind.”
The Khans are a close-knit family, and leaving their parents was an agonizing thought. Umm Layth had an answer for this. “There is no way you can make this easier for your parents,” she wrote on her blog. “Your parents will be hurt, you will be judged and viewed by society and it will not matter an inch.&thinsp.&thinsp.&thinsp.&thinspThe say of Allah is greater than that of all mankind put together.”
Day after day, wholly unknown to their parents, the Khans devoured steady streams of encouragement from the likes of Abu Qaqa, Abu Fariss, Umm Layth and their other new friends. “Don’t tweet about dawlah [the Islamic nation state] or jihad don’t tell all your friends don’t tell your family,” advised Abu Fariss on his Ask.fm page. Be careful online, he said, but also be careful in real life: “Don’t act suspicious. Don’t let your attitude change you because people will notice a change in you.”
And don’t worry if you don’t want to fight, a number of jihadists made clear, echoing Baghdadi’s own June 2014 call to Muslims to help build the Islamic State. “There’s a role for everybody,” one Canadian jihadist named Andre Poulin, a.k.a. Abu Muslim al-Canadi, was filmed saying in an ISIS recruitment video released in July, perhaps a year after Poulin was believed to have died in battle. “Mujahideen are regular people,” he said, who, if they couldn’t fight, could give money, or assist in technology, or “use some other skills.” This message was also conveyed to a degree in a five-part Vice documentary on the Islamic State that Hamzah, who subscribed to the Vice News channel on YouTube, didn’t like. “Man, I thought these Vice documentaries about IS will be good, but they suuucckk,” he tweeted on August 8th.
Right up until he left for his hijrah, Hamzah seemed to be ambivalent about the brutality of the new caliphate. “ISIS’s actions are just going to make our lives harder,” he wrote on September 2nd, 2014, the day the video showing the beheading of journalist Steven Sotloff was released. A month later, just two days before they were scheduled to leave, he wrote, “Sometimes I wish I could just go to the desert to Mauritania, live under a sheik, study the Quran and be a shepherd, a simple life away from all this craziness.”
But for one reason or another &mdash religious conviction, empathy, passion, naiveté, idealism, adventurism, maybe all of these &mdash they decided to go. And so, just as Umm Layth and Abu Qaqa, and all the other muhajireen had advised, the Khan siblings quietly gathered their sleeping bags, some snacks and other gear, said nothing to their parents about their plans, and then the night before they left, sat down to write them letters.
Because of Mariyam’s perfectionism, she wrote two. “I didn’t realize how hard it is to leave your family, especially your parents and even more especially, your mother, behind,” she wrote in the most honest of the notes. “My heart is crying with the thought that I left you and that I will probably never see you again.&thinsp.&thinsp.&thinsp.&thinspI love you more than the world, I swear I do.”
O n January 13th, 2015, about a week after the Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris, Hamzah Khan was formally arraigned at the Dirksen federal courthouse in Chicago, and pleaded not guilty to attempting to provide material support to ISIS. After the brief 10-minute hearing, the Khans’ lawyer, Tom Durkin, introduced Hamzah’s mother, Zarine, a tiny woman dressed in a dark coat and a paisley head scarf, her face uncovered in public for the first time in 20 years. “As parents, we feel compelled to speak out about the recent events in Paris, where we saw unspeakable acts of horror perpetrated by the recruiters for jihadist groups in the name of Islam,” she said shakily, and then denounced the violence as well as the “brainwashing and recruiting of children through the use of social media and the Internet.” She concluded with a message to ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and his recruiters: “Leave our children alone!”
To say that the past few months have been a nightmare for the Khans would be an understatement. When I meet them for the first time, in the fall, at Durkin’s office, they seem almost mystified by the recent events, as if someone had snuck into their home and stolen their children’s brains. “We tried to raise them the best way we could: best education, best morals,” Zarine tells me as her husband, a quiet man, began to unload the contents of a large shopping bag on Durkin’s conference table: Hamzah’s science-fair medals, his trophy for memorizing the Quran, his first-place finish in the regional Muslim Interscholastic Tournament. They show me beautiful drawings of flowers that Mariyam made, and talk about Tarek’s love for the Chicago Bulls. How had this happened? Had they seen a change in behavior? Noticed them becoming more secretive? More fervent? Had they seen any changes in their kids?
Other than spending more time alone on the computer, “No,” they answer.
In fact, Zarine says, she was barely aware of ISIS prior to the fall of 2014. Its lure &mdash for her and her husband, and for the majority of Muslim parents just like them &mdash took them completely by surprise. It shouldn’t have, notes Dr. Yasir Qadhi, a well-known Muslim cleric in the United States and a professor at Rhodes College in Memphis. “Unfortunately, the type of Islam that most parents are comfortable with is a quieter Islam that tends to shy away from controversial matters, such as American foreign policy in Muslim lands,” he says. This fundamental breakdown in communication, combined with technological advances that many parents find hard to keep up with, has created an almost unbridgeable gap between the generations. “One of the biggest misunderstandings is that radicalization occurs in the mosques, in the open,” Qadhi says. “Radicalization occurs online, in secret. We want these kids to bring their grievances out in the open. But in the absence of genuine dialogue that could be tempered with some elderly wisdom, young men and women, frustrated at what they perceive as the increasing injustices of our foreign policy, gravitate to clerics with more black-and-white views on Islam and the West. There is a real narrative out there that the West is at war with Islam, and now, there’s this romantic, utopian naiveté about the caliphate &mdash and these kids are naive.” Qadhi questions whether “criminalizing naiveté” is the right way to deal with kids like the Khans. “Like it or not, when kids find out that their peers are getting 15 years for what looks a lot like a thought crime, it makes them more secretive because it reinforces the idea that the government is out to get them.”
As of now, Hamzah Khan faces a choice. He could change his plea to guilty and receive perhaps a shorter sentence, or he could stay true to his idea of hijra and try his luck in court. Either way, he will likely spend time in prison as, even his lawyer admits, no one has won a lasting acquittal in a terrorism-related case since 9/11.
A few nights after Hamzah’s arraignment, I visit the Khans at their home in Bolingbrook. Shafi, a soft-spoken man dressed in simple blue trousers and a long tunic, answers the door and shows me into the sitting room, where Zarine, hair shrouded in a black-and-white hijab, has set a coffee table with a plate of fried chicken, potato chips, a carton of orange juice and a few cups. Shafi, who worked for years as an event planner for Islamic charities, lost his job not long ago, apparently over his children’s case, and since then the family has been struggling to get by. Neighbors and friends, while supportive, says Zarine, keep their distance. “They’re scared &mdash like, if these good kids could be brainwashed, we don’t know what’s going to happen to our children.”
The room feels lived in but also welcoming and kid-friendly: worn couches marked with crayon stains, a small plastic tricycle, Fisher-Price toys and picture books. A heavy bookcase is lined with Islamic texts as well as schoolbooks belonging to the older children: English, economics, biology. Tucked in the corner of the bottom shelf is a tiny &mdash and new &mdash TV.
An ethereal-looking girl, Mariyam sits on the couch wearing a flowing purple leopard-print shalwar kameez, the pajama-type pant-and-tunic outfit that is worn by men and women in South Asia. Mariyam loves purple (as well as leopards) and speaks in the softest of voices, telling me about a few of the other things she used to love: movies, ice-skating, shopping &mdash all things she replaced with religion, which still seems to consume most of her thoughts. “I can sit in a corner and just read and read about it, and I can just study it, day in, day out,” she says.
Unlike her brother, Mariyam has not yet been charged with a crime, as is also true for her little brother, but she likely will be, says her lawyer, Marlo Cadeddu, who keeps close watch on her client to make sure she doesn’t veer off into talk about the case. Though the government might argue that providing one’s body to a terrorist group can be considered “material support,” Cadeddu challenges this idea, arguing that ISIS recruits in much the same way that online sexual predators groom their victims. “They tell them that nobody else understands them and that they’ll be appreciated and loved by the Islamic State, which is classic grooming,” she says. “These girls are intended as wives &mdash as sexual prizes, pure and simple. They have no idea what they’re getting into.”
In the hope that the government will not recommend prison time if Mariyam is charged, Cadeddu has been working for months to integrate her client back into the human, rather than virtual, world. This includes insisting Mariyam get her GED, which she has so far passed with honors, and attend regular counseling sessions with a Muslim female psychologist. In January, she began community college, hoping to work toward a degree in early-childhood education. Mariyam is also taking art classes and volunteering at a local Muslim relief organization. Perhaps most important, Cadeddu, with backing from a number of psychologists, has insisted that Mariyam meet with a Chicago-based Islamic scholar who has challenged her reading of the Quran and ISIS’s interpretation of Islam. Recently, she began speaking with a family acquaintance who has done relief work in Syria and who explained, in grotesque detail, the realities on the ground. After all of this, “I’ve been able to look at things from different points of view,” Mariyam tells me. “It’s really opened my mind.”
All of this sounds good, and maybe a bit too good. On February 26th, the FBI raided the Khans’ house for a second time, leaving with boxes of “communications devices” likely belonging to Mariyam and her younger brother. Though the bureau didn’t comment on what it was looking for, a quick search for Mariyam’s former Twitter handle, @deathisvnear, turns up a comment on Ask.fm to a well-known Somali-American jihadi asking if he knew Umm Bara, her online alter ego. The anonymous post was made at least three months ago, before Cadeddu began her deradicalization effort, but after the kids were stopped at O’Hare.
After more than a year of indoctrination, it would be surprising if a teen like Mariyam didn’t have lingering questions, and loyalties. “Even in the best-case scenario, it might take a while,” says Muflehun’s Humera Khan. She believes that long-term intervention and rehabilitation, with both the kids and their parents, is necessary. “Getting into it wasn’t an overnight process. It’s not a quick process to get them out of it, either. But it has to happen. If you just send them to prison, that will only harden their views.”
There has been extraordinary silence from the local Islamic community about Hamzah Khan and his siblings. Virtually the only friend of the Khans who agreed to speak with me was Mohammad Chaudhry, who has known the family for four or five years. “There is a lot of fear,” Chaudhry, who is originally from Pakistan, concedes over coffee at a Bolingbrook McDonald’s. “America is good, that’s why we’re here. This is our home. And yet, they stop us at the airport, they make us feel like we did wrong.” A heavily bearded man in a knitted skullcap, he takes a sip of his coffee. “These are American kids,” he says. Though ostensibly speaking about the Khans and their treatment by the criminal-justice system, he could just as well be referring to any one of the would-be muhajireen, who, from their bedrooms in cities throughout the United States, were unsuspecting targets, seduced by the magical land of Shaam, and now, as Americans, face the consequences.
B ecause of the nature of the Khan case, which is considered an ongoing investigation, the government has presented no information about how the teens were first identified and tracked, though in arguing their determination to commit “violent jihad,” they cited tweets, Internet searches and even, in Hamzah’s case, some of his doodles, including one drawing of the ISIS flag. Dr. Marc Sageman, a psychiatrist and national-security expert, has consulted on more than a dozen of these types of cases, and notes that from the government’s perspective, “the idea is whatever is on your hard drive is also in your mind, which, when you’re talking about teenagers, is fundamentally unreliable.” Given the context, which in many cases revolves around a government informant posing as someone else online, perhaps even someone that teenagers might think they know, the consequences can be severe. “These cases have nothing to do with a ‘terrorist narrative,’&thinsp” Sageman says. “They’re about identity. And everyone sees the world through the prism of who you are. These kids identify as Muslims. And what they see are young Muslims in the tens of thousands being killed in Syria by barrel bombs &mdash and the Western press doesn’t report this. We report on the killers. They see the victims. We’re talking about two different perspectives, and dialogue is almost impossible.”
Not surprisingly, the Justice Department has a very different take on these cases. “It is our responsibility to stop people from going over to join ISIL,” says a senior DOJ official. “How can you say that any of these individuals who were stopped wouldn’t be the next Jihadi John? And how could you live with yourself if you could have stopped them and didn’t? Anyone who tried to join ISIS in the last 18 months knows exactly what kind of organization they were joining.”
When she was detained at O’Hare, Mariyam endured questioning over the course of eight hours. As illustrated in a draft transcript of Mariyam’s FBI interview admitted at Hamzah’s detention hearing, the interrogation underscored ISIS’s powerful conditioning as well as Mariyam’s own unwavering belief. All her shyness faded in the face of the FBI, whose questions she repeatedly refused to answer.
“Why would you talk to these people? They’re monsters,” one of the agents said.
“But they’re cutting off people’s heads!” the agent said a bit later.
“Yeah, why do you think they’re doing that?” she asked.
And little by little, Mariyam laid out her grievances: that the U.S. and its allies were killing innocent children in places like Syria or Afghanistan that it seemed unfair that these acts were excused, when crimes by Muslims &mdash who in her mind were defending themselves &mdash were denounced. “You’re loyal to your country no matter what, even if it does bad things,” she said.
“This isn’t a discussion about me and my country,” one of them replied. “It’s about you.” And Mariyam, he said at one point, was turning this into an interrogation &mdash of them.
“You’re interrogating me!” she said.
Oh, no, they assured her. A real interrogation would be much worse. “People would be screaming really loudly, throwing stuff around. It would be&thinsp.&thinsp.&thinsp.&thinspscary.”
“Yeah, that’s what you do to some people,” she told them.
“We’re not here to do that to you.”
“You still do it to people.&thinsp.&thinsp.&thinsp.&thinspThere’s so many stories about it.”
“OK,” the agent finally admitted. “Yes, that goes on. I agree with you.”
“Yeah, you will probably do that to me,” she said. “If not now, then you will in the future.”
Why do our epiphyseal plates close up in our late teens or early twenties? - Biology
“Experts debunk study that found Holocaust trauma is inherited,” reads a Chicago Tribune headline, referring to a now-infamous study by Dr. Rachel Yehuda that attempted to prove a genetic change caused by trauma that may be passed along to offspring. My eyes well up. Every nerve in me wants to hurt, to scream, but I won’t knowingly or purposefully do harm to anyone other than myself. The skin of my stomach still bears the faint scars of former outbursts of frustration. I bite my nails and try to calm the roiling anger inside me, a powerful rage born of not being able to understand, to pin down, why I am the way I am, why I feel the way I do.
I email my therapist the article with the subject line “ . . . debunked?” I mean it to be passive-aggressive, but really I’m crushed, and she knows it. I thought I had found an answer, an explanation, only to feel invalidated yet again.
She sends me a link to a book : Granddaughters of the Holocaust: Never Forgetting What They Didn’t Experience. I recoil at the title. How ridiculous, how self-indulgent. I tell her that I’m disappointed that Dr. Yehuda’s methods and conclusion have been called into question. I tell her, “It's hard for me to swallow it being just a narrative-based thing.” It being the trauma experienced by the granddaughters in the title it being my own relationship to trauma.
She writes back two days later, “I’d say ‘just a narrative-based thing’ would be a false oppositeness.”
In our next session, she elaborates. Trauma has been scientifically found to have adverse effects on our biology, a fact accepted by the American Academy of Pediatrics. Whether that trauma is genetically passed along or not, the narrative of trauma often is, through the actions of a family member or through the stories they tell. We inherit so many things from our families that aren’t provably genetic: the way we move our arms when we talk, the noises of satisfaction we make while eating a favorite food. My therapist asks why I distrust the narratives of the granddaughters in the book after all, one of the things I most struggle with is how I can’t point to a particular, graspable, tangible incident that would cause me to feel the kind of guilt I experience, that underlies everything I do. As a writer, especially, my therapist points out, shouldn’t I accept that narratives serve as evidence of our experiences?
This is the narrative I know.
My paternal grandparents, my saba Zvi and savta Helen , separately and unaware of each other, both fled Poland during the early days of what would become World War II. Zvi’s mother essentially kicked him out of the house and told him to run, run far, and run alone. His siblings were all married with children, and as the only single and untethered person in the family, he had the best chance of survival. He crossed the Russian border and might have ended up relatively unscathed if he hadn’t made the decision to turn back, which was when he was caught. I imagine he was lonely and terrified, that he missed his family and worried about them. Perhaps he felt like a coward for running. Maybe he was already experiencing a dreadful guilt, which must have become so much worse when he survived the war while the rest of his family were exterminated.
Savta Helen also ran, with her mother and older sister. Zvi was in his late teens as far as I can tell Helen was in her early twenties, though she lied about her age later to make it less scandalous when she married a younger man. Even after her death we never found out when exactly she was born.
Both Zvi and Helen and her family, having come from Poland, now German-occupied, were accused of being German spies—a terrible irony—and placed in labor camps in Siberia. Both of them worked as tree cutters there for years, with no shoes, little clothing and food, in that impossible, impenetrable cold. Once, when Helen was in the Russian labor camps, her crew was given meat, which hardly ever happened. A friend of hers, having so enjoyed the rare bounty, asked one of the Russian soldiers who watched over them what kind of meat it was. He told her, “One of the horses died.”
When she caught his meaning, Helen’s friend threw up her meager meal. “Stupid,” Helen told her. “Food is food.”
Helen and Zvi both survived under conditions that were as bad as those in many Nazi camps. When Germany fell and the war ended, they were sent to Samarkand in what is today Uzbekistan. There, a Jewish matchmaker hitched them. They married because that’s what you did when you were an Orthodox Jew, which they both were, though Helen, despite being the daughter of a rabbi, lost all faith in god during her ordeal, and only went along with religious traditions and strictures for her new husband’s sake.
After they married, Helen and Zvi were sent to a Displaced Persons camp in Ulm, in Germany, which was where my father was born, and where Helen’s health problems started in earnest. She was found to have osteomyelitis, a bone infection. A nurse, Albert Einstein’s niece, in fact, took a shine to my infant father and helped care for him during Helen’s long recuperation. Eventually, with surgeries both in Germany and later in Israel, Helen ended up with one leg shorter than the other, forever needing to use canes and wear specially cobbled shoes to make up for the difference.
In the newly-instated Israel, a Jewish state meant to house the survivors, there was new stigma. The very souls whose survival caused the UN to affirm Israel’s statehood—alongside a Palestinian nation, which has yet to be formally recognized—were, in the fledgling Israel, viewed with suspicion. The sabra s , those Jews already native to the land by virtue of their birth, and those who emigrated before the war began, couldn’t understand. Why didn’t the Jews fight back harder? How did they let themselves be exterminated? And how dare they complain, now that they arrived in a state they’d done nothing to help establish? Survivor’s guilt set in for many, and it took years before the Holocaust was discussed. It was somehow shameful to have survived it. The immigrant experience wasn’t made easier by a lack of jobs and infrastructure, as well as a lack of family support for those—my grandparents included—whose clans had perished.
Helen was ill much of the time, developed an addiction to painkillers after her surgeries, and couldn’t work. Zvi took on back-to-back shifts as a typesetter and later proofreader for Haaretz, one of the oldest Hebrew-language newspapers. Helen’s sister, who had one daughter herself, refused to take in my father, a two-year-old toddler, during this time, claiming her resources were tapped out Helen never forgave her for this. My father spent his earliest years in and out of children’s homes that housed orphans and those kids whose parents couldn’t care for them.
As if that weren’t enough, members of Helen and Zvi’s community and the distant relatives they found spoke to my father as if he were to blame for his mother’s illness, for the fact that she was now disabled. It wasn’t the labor camps that broke her, after all it was my father being born. It wasn’t an accident of fate and bacteria and an imperfect hospital in postwar conditions it was my father’s existence as a newborn. For years, he was made to feel guilty for being.
He claimed that he learned from this experience that guilt was a useless emotion, that it didn’t solve or change anything, and that he subsequently refused to feel it.
I believed him for a long time, and felt guilty for my own guilt, until I realized that his refusal to acknowledge the feeling must have been his response to having so much of it. Where he covered his pit of guilt with a sturdy manhole, I jumped down it and discovered that there was no bottom.
Here is another narrative:
I am white, had a pretty good childhood, and was raised in a mostly secure middle-class household. I pass for straight if I need to. I am apparently in good health, my vitals within normal range. I have maintained good relationships for much of my life. I’m close to the family I have left. I’m in a PhD program. I’m doing well. I’m fine. Really.
There was a time when my parents impressed upon me that we couldn’t afford extraneous expenses, which convinced me that we were, for a while, poor, and I have never treated money with anything but the utmost respect and conservation since then. I was bullied in elementary school, and ostracized, and made fun of for my bilingualism and bookishness. Some teachers truly had it in for me for reasons unknown. I was uprooted at age three from my home in LA and moved across oceans to Israel. My saba Zvi died, and then my maternal grandmother was ill and died, then my maternal grandfather, then my father, then my savta Helen. All before I turned seventeen. I developed an eating disorder. I recovered. I went to college. I relapsed. I left college. I recovered, sort of. I have arthritis in my lower back, my hands ache more often than not, I have shooting pains throughout my body at inopportune and mysterious times. My fatigue is becoming untenable. I’ve had migraines since I was six, possibly earlier. I’ve had a constant, shifting headache every single day of my life that I can remember. I have no satisfactory diagnosis. Doctors tend to dismiss me. I feel awful much of the time.
If, indeed, I suffer from intergenerational trauma, then it’s clear where this guilt comes from: my grandparents, guilty for surviving oft unsurvivable ordeals my father, guilty for being born and harming his mother in the process, guilty for later shucking off the religion and god he was raised with and choosing a different path. I feel guilty for entertaining this possibility in the first place, struggle with its possible reality how dare I, I think, complain about my own life, let alone take on the burden of traumas I never experienced first hand? And, on the other hand, why else does my body ache when I am seemingly healthy? Why does my depression continue to overcome every drug thrown at it? Why do I go through life both wishing to be seen and simultaneously treading as lightly as possible so as never step on anyone’s toes?
Still—I have no right to complain.
My father was a classic second-generation Holocaust survivor . He ate everything on his plate. If bread was going bad, he’d scrape off the mold and eat the rest. If he didn’t like his food, he ate it anyway. He kept things, small and useful things like spare string, tools even after they’d begun rusting, paper clips and twist-ties, every kind of tape you could think of, from duct to electric to masking, shoelaces, any and all spare change, coat hangers, and plastic bags. He wasn’t a hoarder, exactly, because he kept these collections organized, neat, and contained. He wasn’t a survivalist, because he didn’t stockpile excessively or obsess about an apocalypse. No, he was simply prepared for every eventuality, for every meal to possibly be his last.
He didn’t make my brother and I lick our plates clean and didn’t make us save stuff. He understood his neuroses and didn’t want to inflict them on us. But I find myself keeping little piles of extra twist-ties, which prove useful as impromptu cat toys. I don’t throw food out at home unless it is revolting, I drink milk until it’s clearly gone bad, and at restaurants I can’t not finish my meal because I know they will throw the food out if I don’t.
Of course, I inherited all sorts of things from my father. His chin. His on-point eyebrow game. His ability, and desire, to drink coffee when it’s hot-hot-hot. Palms as able as his to hold those hot-hot-hot mugs without flinching. Also, his magnetism for people who are hurt and traumatized, his ability to serve as their hearth and home and give them warmth even when he was himself freezing. I am both grateful and resentful of this magnetism. It’s made me a good friend, able to listen to any number of horrors without being fazed yet I’ve also been dismissed, dropped, distanced by folks who decided I got too close, or once they didn’t need me to be there for them anymore. I wasn’t, in other words, worth much more than the role of a therapist or confidante. It wasn’t me these people cared about it was my capacity to soak up pain like a sponge.
I also inherited, though my dad would likely dispute this, his great, echoing chasm of guilt. The same guilt his mother must have felt when she found that she, her sister, and her mother survived what the rest of their Polish village did not. The same guilt his father must have felt when he realized he was completely alone, that everyone else was dead. My father did nothing so terrible in his life to account for his guilt—he was just born. My grandparents didn’t do anything so awful to merit their guilt—except that they survived when others didn’t. I certainly can’t credit myself with having such a profound effect on the world or on those I’ve loved to merit the kind of guilt I carry around. Instead, I bear the scars of my father’s guilt, my grandparents’ guilt, on my body, where I’ve punished myself for being. I bear that survivor’s guilt in my middle name, Yehudit, which is for my saba Zvi’s favorite brother, Yehuda.
In one of my only memories of my saba Zvi, who died when I was four, he is teaching me how to draw a pearl necklace. The human shape on the page is very basic—a few lines to denote a face and a shirt with buttons. There is barely any neck, but along it, my saba draws little circles to denote pearls. Pearls are composed of calcium carbonate, a substance mainly found in rocks, that has built itself in concentric layers. Pearls are considered precious only when they hold a perfect spherical form, but there are other kinds, called baroque pearls, whose shapes are not so neat. I find them more beautiful for their imperfections, and wonder what it is about the perfect circle that we find so precious. A couple years ago, my brother gave my sister-in-law the pale pink pearl necklace—made of those perfect orbs—that belonged to my savta. I don’t know who gave it to her, but perhaps it was Zvi himself. Maybe that’s why he taught me to draw pearls.
One of the first memories I have of my savta is, oddly, also a drawing lesson, though neither she nor Zvi were artists. Still, she taught me about visual perspective. “You don’t draw a path like this,” she said, drawing two parallel lines down the page from top to bottom and adding simple tree trunks with an orb signifying their foliage. She flipped the page over—it’s wasteful to use only one side of the page, I learned.
“No, you draw a path like this, ” she explained, and drew two diagonal lines upwards from the two bottom corners of the page, so that they bent towards each other and almost met but stopped just short. Then she added trees, big ones at the bottom of the lines, smaller ones in the middle, and tiny ones near where the lines almost touched. The path looked like it was moving into the page. This is how perspective works the things closest to you loom large, the things farther away look smaller, even if they’re technically all the same size.
“Why do you think that narrative accounts of trauma are less important than scientific data?” my therapist asks me. The reason, I think, is that I doubt my own narrative so deeply that I want empirical science to see me, to convince me I’m allowed to feel as I do, that my experience is legitimate. But science has failed me in every other realm so far—I have no satisfactory physical diagnosis I am increasingly resistant to psychiatric drugs—and so perhaps it’s time to trust the narrative. To trust that what my grandparents went through was real. That what my father suffered was real. And that, as a result, my pain is real too, even if it isn’t due to something I can tangibly point to as being mine.
The death of Tutankhamun: accident, disease, or murder?
Around the year 1343 BCE a young boy came to the throne of Egypt. He was the last male heir in a long and powerful line of kings we today call the Tuthmosids, but he was only around eight years old. He followed on the heels of almost twenty years of social upheaval at the hands of Akhenaten, a king uniformly reviled by the pharaohs who succeeded him. Akhenaten had tried to install something akin to a henotheism or even monotheism in a culture that had been solidly polytheistic for millennia. Given that this young king, a boy called Tutankhaten, was too young to exercise real power or leadership, his powerful advisors and officials found themselves in a very convenient situation: they could use the little king to restore tradition and bring back the enormous cult of the proscribed deity Amun. And that’s exactly what they did.
One of the first things these officials did was change the boy-king’s name to Tutankhamun, “Living Image of Amun,” to help establish the fact that Amun was back. They married him to an older half-sister named Ankhesenpaaten, whose name was changed to Ankhesenamun, “She Lives for Amun.” They moved the nation’s capital from Akhenaten’s purpose-built city of Akhetaten back to Waset, the traditional religious capital of pharaonic Egypt. It is better known today as Thebes. (The modern place name is Luxor.) The god Akhenaten had venerated and whom he had forced upon Egypt as the new state deity, the Aten, was not proscribed but instead was returned to its former status as a minor aspect of the great sun deity Re. As for Akhenaten himself, the old king was branded a heretic and his name was not to be mentioned again henceforth he was to be called “the criminal of Akhetaten.” The city of Akhetaten itself swiftly waned and fell into ruin, most of its stone temples and monuments disassembled down to their foundations by later kings and used as fill within the walls of massive temple pylons in the vast temple complex of Amun.
So came the reign of Tutankhamun, the boy-king. In our modern world he is synonymous with ancient Egypt. Most everyone has heard of him. To most people Tutankhamun is the most famous pharaoh of that long-ago civilization. He was certainly not the only one to come to the throne as a child in ancient Egypt, but the average modern person is not likely to be as aware of other boy-kings such as Pepi II.
The irony is, Tutankhamun was a minor king. He was something of a footnote in the history of ancient Egypt. He was likely forgotten within several generations of his own lifetime. This is largely due to two facts: he reigned for only around a decade and died at about eighteen years of age, and he was, after all, from the royal line of the reviled “criminal of Akhetaten” and was subsequently erased from their own history. Tutankhamun does not appear on any of the ancient kings lists of that great civilization. He was meant to be forgotten. We are not certain exactly how Tutankhamun was related to Akhenaten: many if not most historians used to believe he was the son of the heretic, but recent genetic testing has thrown that into significant doubt. That’s perhaps another story, but the point is, he was from the line of the heretic, so his fate was to be damned to eternal obscurity.
Until, that is, Tutankhamun’s tomb was found in 1922. Designated KV62 (Kings Valley Tomb 62), it was the first royal tomb to be found almost intact. Not completely intact, mind you, because it had been raided at least twice, but great quantities of burial goods were found in KV62: almost 5,400 objects packed into a rather ignominious little tomb the size of the average modern garage. No royal tomb unearthed to that point in time had been anywhere near as spectacular.
This is what has made Tutankhamun—King Tut—so famous in our own time. KV62 is one of the greatest archaeological discoveries in history and the event made its discoverer, a rather surly Brit named Howard Carter, a household name. He and Tut are forever linked in the annals of Egyptology.
But why did Tutankhamun reign for only ten years? What felled this king at such a young age? This is a question that has persisted in archaeology and the wider scientific community since the day the mummy was first unwrapped. And it is what we’re going to explore here.
I should caution before proceeding that to this day there is no universal agreement on any single explanation for the cause of death of this young king. It continues to be debated. I’ll share my own belief, but it is only one of many. They range from scientifically astute to absurd. Few ancient bodies have been as poked and prodded as the mummy of King Tut, but it does provide clues. So, first I think it best to go back to the beginning, to the first time the mummy was examined.
The Original Autopsy in 1925
Three years passed after Howard Carter discovered KV62 before his team got around to unwrapping and examining the mummy itself. The autopsy was led by an anatomist named Douglass Derry, who had considerable experience working with Egyptian mummies. The irony is, as meticulous as Carter was in painstakingly clearing the artifacts from the tomb, the autopsy was botched. Significant damage was done to the mummy of Tutankhamun. The mummy had been so thickly coated with resins and unguents when placed in its nested coffins 3,300 years ago that it was stuck fast when Derry, Carter, and the others tried to remove it. They ended up disassembling the mummy into numerous pieces. The head came off after a myriad of attempts to pry off the king’s iconic gold burial mask.
The mummy itself was in sorry shape even before Carter came along. As he notes in his publications, both the wrappings and body were heavily carbonized (Carter 2003 ed: 174, 198). This was evidently a chemical reaction due to the layers of resins and unguents that had been applied to the body in the mummification process, and was not associated with any antemortem condition or injury. It contributed to the fragmentation of the mummy during the rough handling in the autopsy.
Carter immediately observed that the mummy was that of a young man but there was no obvious sign of cause of death during the examination (ibid 198). Derry noted a fracture to the left distal femur, to the extent that the left patella (knee cap) was quite loose. It was placed in the mummy’s left hand when the autopsy was completed. The poor condition of the body presented many cracks and fractures, but given the limitations of the time it wasn’t clear if the fracture to the left leg happened before or at the time of death, or if it was the result of rough handling on the part of the embalmers 3,300 years ago.
Carter had hoped to X-ray the mummy of Tutankhamun, but the radiographer died on his way to Egypt.
The team built a tray, filled it with sand, and carefully reassembled the mummy within the sand. This was placed back into one of the coffins and finally into the quartzite sarcophagus, evidently with the hope that no one would notice the fragmented condition of the body.
The First X-rays: Evidence for Murder?
The first X-rays of King Tut were shot in 1968. This was conducted by a team from the University of Liverpool, and led by R.G. Harrison. Further X-rays were shot in 1978 by the University of Michigan, led by James E. Harris. In both cases the X-ray machine was brought to the tomb itself. That said, Harrison’s project was the first time the mummy had been viewed since Carter’s excavation over forty years earlier. Understandably Harrison was surprised to find the mummy in such poor condition Carter’s little secret was out.
The series of X-rays revealed a number of things, including the oddity that the king’s sternum and frontal ribs were missing. This is a significant and often misunderstood point to which we will be returning. But it was the radiographs of the king’s skull that drew the most attention—at least later on. Neither Harrison nor Harris posited a clear cause of death but images of the skull showed an unusual difference in density to the base of the occipital bone (the bulge at the back of the skull) and a couple of loose bone fragments rattling around in there.
X-ray of King Tut’s skull. Note the loose bone fragment within. The arrow points to the base of the occipital bone.
In March 1999 a researcher named Bob Brier published a book entitled The Murder of Tutankhamen. Brier is not strictly an Egyptologist but is nonetheless a noted leader in the field of paleopathological studies of Egyptian mummies. He is also the first person to have mummified a human body since ancient times, for the sake of a scientific experiment. The experiment was highly successful and earned Brier the nickname of Mr. Mummy.
Brier had observed and studied the X-rays from 1968 and 1978, and wondered at the possibility of assassination. He is hardly the first to posit the idea of Tut’s having been murdered—the idea surfaced almost as quickly as the 1925 autopsy, given how young Tut was when he died. This coupled with the heretical line from which Tutankhamun came, has long made the idea plausible. Brier explored the idea in his book to a depth never before attempted (see Brier 1999). Was it Aye, the shrewd and old official who in fact succeeded Tut on the throne? Or was it Horemheb, the general of the army and thus a very powerful man?
Brier enlisted the aid of an expert investigator who suggested the difference in density to the base of the occipital bone might indicate a subdural hematoma, the result of a vicious blow to the head that resulted in coma and death. Then there are the loose bone fragments—more evidence of a blow to the head.
The idea of subdural hematoma struck me as somewhat plausible. What didn’t, however, was the bone fragments rattling around in the skull. When Tut was mummified late in Dynasty 18 the embalmers removed his brain through his nose, as was commonly done in elite mummifications. Then two courses of resin were poured into the cranial vault, another technique commonly used by ancient embalmers. This is evident in radiographs as opaque masses that solidified at the back as well as the top of the cranial vault.
X-ray showing the courses of hardened resin as a white, opaque mass at the back and top of the cranial vault.
What struck me as decidedly odd is, if the loose bone fragments resulted from a vicious blow to the head, why were the fragments not well embedded into the resin? So back then, while I personally considered assassination as a possibility, I myself was not completely certain of the scenario.
Raging Hippo, Panicked Horse?
A physician named R.W. Harer presented two odd explanations for Tut’s death. The first, in 2006, involved a hippo crushing Tut’s chest in its powerful jaws. The second, in 2011, posited that a horse kicked Tut, collapsing the chest cavity with fatal results (Rühli & Ikram 2013: 8). Both theories were presented at conferences of ARCE (American Research Center in Egypt). Neither theory is impossible. To this day the hippopotamus is one of the most dangerous animals in Africa, and its jaws could easily crush a man. And who knows how many people down through time have been killed by panicked horses?
Harer based his theories on the odd nature of the chest of Tut’s mummy. As I mentioned when describing the original X-ray imaging, the sternum and frontal ribs were missing when the body was examined in 1968. Carter never mentions this condition in his thorough notes, so that has been left unexplained. Harer wasn’t the first to focus on the damaged chest another researcher explained it as possibly the result of a horrendous chariot accident. The chest was so crushed that the embalmers 3,300 years ago had no choice but to remove and discard the shattered sternum and ribs.
Here is a CT scan image showing the condition of the chest:
CT scan showing missing sternum and ribs, as well as other damage (adapted from Kmt magazine).
The frontal ribs were clearly cut away with a saw. Was this the result of “cleaning-up” work of ancient embalmers, or something else? Also notable is the absence of clavicles (collar bones). Moreover, there appears to be no evidence for the remains of Tut’s heart. The embalmers usually made every attempt to leave the heart in the thoracic cavity (for religious reasons), and though they weren’t always successful, every attempt would be made for a king, certainly.
In my opinion this mystery has been successfully solved, thanks primarily to a careful examination of archival photos conducted in 2007 (see Forbes, Ikram, and Kamrin, 51-56).
Howard Carter’s excavation photographer was Harry Burton, who was one of the finest archaeological photographers of his day. As Carter painstakingly cleared the king’s tomb in the 1920s, Burton photographed everything. This includes the mummy during the autopsy process. Below is a closeup of one of Burton’s photos of the unwrapped mummy prior to reinterment in KV62:
Original photo (1926) of the king’s mummy (adapted from Kmt magazine).
Compare this image with the previous one. In 1926 the chest was still intact. The clavicles were still in place. Note also the beaded cap on the mummified head, which is entirely absent in the previous CT scan image. Over the chest are several necklaces which Carter records in his notes as deliberately left in place because they were stuck firm within the resins coating the body. Perhaps the same was true for the beaded cap. Lastly, note the remains of eyelids. Compare this with a modern photo of Tut’s head:
Head of Tutankhamun as it is today.
In sum total, theories for ancient damage to the chest are probably best abandoned. Something must have happened between 1926, when the mummy was reinterred, and 1968, when it was next officially studied for the purpose of X-raying. In the interim was an event that involved nearly the entire planet: World War II. The theory is that during the war, when in fact the ancient tombs of Egypt were left largely unguarded, modern raiders entered the tomb to retrieve the embedded necklaces and beaded cap from the mummy. They cut through the chest to keep the necklaces intact, causing great damage, and roughly handled the head to remove the beaded cap (thus the frail eyelids disintegrated).
I agree with this theory. It best fists the available evidence thanks to Burton’s photos in 1926 and Harrison’s in 1968. On another note, Burton’s photos show that the king’s penis is intact, while the 1968 photos show it went missing, having broken off the body. It was later found within the bed of sand on which the mummy lies.
A recent paper has thoroughly summarized the myriad of diseases different researchers through the years have suggested for Tut’s demise (Rühli & Ikram 2013). We needn’t delve into all of them, but a brief summary is in order. Through the years a number of researchers have posited all manner of ailments, including Marfan syndrome. This one was primarily due to the decidedly odd appearance of artwork in the Amarna Period, the period to which Akhenaten belongs:
Amarna Period stela of Akhenaten and Nefertiti
Akhenaten, his queen Nefertiti, and their daughters (as well as nobility in many cases) are shown with spindly limbs, long digits, drooping faces, overly full lips, wide hips, and pendulous breasts. Some of these characteristics do tend to fit Marfan. However, analysis of royal mummies from the Amarna Period have never shown indications of Marfan syndrome, so this is unlikely. It is more the consensus today that the odd human forms in the bodies of Amarna figures is a religious-artistic expression based on Akhenaten’s religious reforms, in a manner to express androgyny in the human form.
Some researchers have posited Klinefelter’s syndrome, Froehlich’s syndrome, or other disorders of the sort. The main problem here is that such disorders tend to cause infertility, and we know Akhenaten had six daughters (ibid 10). This cannot be the case for Akhenaten, but what if his line passed one of these disorders along to Tut? This also is implausible. Genetic studies of Amarna mummies conducted from 2007 to 2010 have fairly well confirmed that the two still-born infant girls found in KV62 in the 1920s are in fact Tut’s daughters (Hawass et al 2010: 641).
The same genetic tests revealed some interesting things about Tutankhamun, however. Macroscopic studies as well as genetic material have revealed traces of malaria tropica in the boy-king. This may not be what killed him, but it certainly would have weakened him and led to troubled health. On the other hand, in ancient times malaria often would have been fatal, if advanced enough. Also, CT scans during these examinations revealed two metatarsals in the king’s left foot with clear signs of deformation consistent with osteonecrosis (bone death) (ibid 642-643). This infection might also not have caused the king’s death, but there would have been no way in the Late Bronze Age to stop such infection and eventually it might have proved fatal had the king lived long enough. I’ll come back to that, but suffice it to say, by the time Tutankhamun died, he was already evidently weakened and ill.
The Original CT Scans: Questions Answered
Tutankhamun’s mummy was CT scanned for the first time in 2005. As with the X-rays and subsequent CT scanning, the device was brought to the tomb. The CT scanner kept overheating and there were jokes about the curse of King Tut, but several cheap fans aimed at the machine circumvented the curse.
Tut’s age at death has been variously estimated down through the years as anywhere between seventeen to twenty-seven years (Hawass 2005: 33). The CT scans in 2005 placed the estimate at eighteen or nineteen years of age at death, on which most researchers agree today.
The original CT scans is where the osteonecrosis of the left foot was first noticed. The king’s left foot was somewhat deformed and must have been painful. Telling is the fact that a great many walking sticks were found in the tomb when Carter cleared it in the 1920s. I was one, I must admit, who always pooh-poohed this as relevant to the king’s health because kings and noblemen were often buried with walking sticks. They were symbols of authority in pharaonic times. I should have known better. Tut’s tomb contained an overabundance of them. Subsequent analysis of these walking sticks show wear and tear to the tips of many of them, so clearly Tut needed them in life. His left foot was unstable.
The CT scans were very important in other ways. They were able to disprove a blow to the head as cause of death. Recall Bob Brier’s theory I mentioned earlier. The CT scans proved the difference in density at the base of the occipital bone was not related to any sort of injury. And the bone fragments rattling around in the cranial vault were identified as broken pieces of a cervical vertebra and part of the foramen magnum (ibid 34), the hole at the base of the skull through which the spinal cord passes. These fragments were more than likely broken loose in 1925 when Douglass Derry, Howard Carter, and the rest of the team were vigorously prying the gold burial mask off the mummy’s head.
As I mentioned earlier, during the original autopsy in 1925 Derry noticed a broken left leg. The fracture was at the epiphysis (growth plate) right above the left knee. The following images show the location of the fracture on the king’s leg:
Details of the king’s distal left femur. The arrow in the image at left points to the site of the fracture.
Now, the king’s body is covered with cracks and fractures, most hairline in nature. The mummy was found to be in poor shape in 1925. The carbonization that occurred naturally to the body down through time did a lot of damage. However, in this case, most of the scientists and researchers who examined the fracture were in agreement that the resins the embalmers had applied to the body during mummification, seeped into the wound itself. This means the wound must have been there prior to the mummification process.
This in turn indicates it must have been an injury sustained at or around the time of death.
What, Then, Killed King Tut?
I must stress again as I bring this to a close that there is no universal agreement on the cause of death of the famous boy-king. My article should make this much clear. However, I personally find much to agree with in the theory reached by Hawass and his team following the 2005 CT scans.
Tut was buried with six disassembled chariots in his tomb. He was clearly a typical teenager with a need for speed. Remember the left foot with the osteonecrosis, which is tied into this. A popular theory is that one day in the eighteenth year of Tutankhamun’s life, he was out riding one of his chariots when he hit a nasty bump. He was tossed upwards in the chariot, and came down on his unstable left foot, which couldn’t support his weight. He toppled out of the rapidly moving chariot and landed on his left leg, which shattered at the epiphyseal plate above the left knee. The damage was such that the kneecap was torn loose.
This would not have been survivable in the Late Bronze Age. While ancient Egyptian physicians were adept at treating many kinds of fractures, as is evident in human remains from that time, a compound fracture with such devastating injury would’ve been fatal. The fracture itself wasn’t the mechanism of death, but inevitable infection would have been. Tut more than likely died from gangrene.
Can we be sure it was a chariot accident? To this point in time no ancient Egyptian newspaper has been found reporting Tut’s lethal accident, but kidding aside, we can never be sure. It’s just a popular theory. Such an injury could just as easily been sustained in battle, perhaps from a Hittite battle axe, and there is evidence to suggest Tut himself led his army into battle at least once. But that, too, can only be a theory.
We will never know for certain how it happened, but I for one agree Tutankhamun died from infection after shattering his left leg 3,300 years ago.
I thank you for your time and attention. As always, I welcome comments and questions.
Brier, Bob. The Murder of Tutankhamen. 1999.
Carter, Howard. The Tomb of Tutankhamen. 2003 edition.
Forbes, Dennis, Salima Ikram, and Janice Kamrin. “Tutankhamun’s Missing Ribs.” Kmt: A Modern Journal of Ancient Egypt. Vol. 18, No. 1, 2007.
Hawass, Zahi, et al. “Ancestry and Pathology in King Tutankhamun’s Family.” JAMA. 2010.
Hawass, Zahi. “Special Report: Scanning Tutankhamun.” Kmt: A Modern Journal of Ancient Egypt. Vol. 16, No. 2, 2005.
Anabolic Steroids (AAS)
“Anabolic means use of something that causes a building up of tissue. The term anabolism refers more generally to an increase in lean tissue in particular muscle tissue”.
Anabolic steroids or more precisely anabolic androgenic steroids (AAS) are a class of synthetic drugs that are designed to mimic the effects of the hormone testosterone. Testosterone is derived in the body from cholesterol, and like other steroid hormones, testosterone has its main effect on tissues. Testosterone enters a body cell and attaches to a receptor which crosses into the cell nucleus where it activates the synthesis of protein. Protein synthesis leads to tissue repair and growth. If we are able to increase protein synthesis it would lead to quicker regeneration of the body, and to give faster recovery from illness and injuries.
A steroid used in the treatment of medical conditions usually involves the use of only one type of steroid and medical patients are closely monitored and the doses used are approximately that which would be produced naturally by the human body. In the case of steroid use in sports, people tend to take mega dosages sometimes 10-100 times the dosage that would be administered for some medical conditions and often involving more than one type at a time. Most steroid users, and especially novice users, get their dosage instructions from the seller or from friends who take the drugs, more often without any questions as to the drugs effects, or correct dosages. Many steroids available on the black market are even of dubious quality and often only contain small amounts of the drug. Some of these drugs have even been reported to contain only water and a dye, or contain only normal peanut oil.
Most men only want to be a parent when it works for them!
We have a true 50/ 50 custody schedule but my ex doesn’t take his custody time. Maybe one weekend a month when it’s convenient for him. The kids need taken care of 24/7. Even when you’re busy. Most men if given the choice between parenting or freedom, Choose freedom. Well those kids still need to eat, Still need a roof, Still need shoes. It’s a trade off, We both made the kids, We were both awarded equal time, But if you choose to use your time not with the kids, And I’m doing the heavy lifting and my job and yours you, You pay for it.