What the future holds for the Middle East — much like the ending of Hoyt Hilsman’s novel ‘Nineteen Angels’ — is far from certain
By Lionel Rolfe 03/31/2011
Portions of screenwriter and former Democratic congressional candidate Hoyt Hilsman’s first novel, “Nineteen Angels,” might very well have been snatched from today’s newspaper headlines.
Hilsman, who ran against veteran Republican US Rep. David Dreier of San Dimas, wrote the political thriller featuring a rogue billionaire, an Indonesian who is ethnically Chinese whose whole motivation is about creating a cult built around some highly esoteric numerology from Islam. I won’t tell you much more, but suffice it to say Hilsman writes a lean yarn, tight and slickly taut enough to grab the imagination.
Before he tried to beat the long-time Republican incumbent, the Pasadena resident who among other things founded the Pasadena Writers Workshop, scripted “Foggy Bottom” for television, based on his own childhood memories growing up in the nation’s capital, as well as many other successful shows.
Hilsman’s father was an assistant secretary of state, high up in the nation’s intelligence community, and in his view “The rapid pace of events in the Middle East, while an encouraging sign for democracy movements, also has lots of dangers for both the people of the region and the world. In ‘Nineteen Angels,’ a novel I recently published after spending time in the Middle East, an American televangelist is kidnapped by an unknown terrorist cell that has infiltrated Hezbollah. In the book, the president of the United States remarks that it is the unexpected, random events that often set off the most dangerous conflicts. As an example, he cited the assassination in Sarajevo of Archduke Ferdinand of Austria, which although it was an isolated incident, set off a chain of events that led to World War I.”
Hilsman’s novel suggests that the real threats aren’t necessarily existing organizations like Hezbollah, Hamas and al Qaeda, but mysterious rogue forces that could move into the political vacuum likely to exist in Egypt and other countries in the region.
Hoyt’s billionaire is convinced that Islam has unlocked the secrets of the universe with the number 19. If you understood the significance of the number, then all the efforts by guys like Galileo, Newton and Einstein to make sense of this place pale by comparison. Everything springs from the number.
Islam is not unique in having an addiction to numerology. Jews created their Kabbalah in Gerona in the time of Maimonides, about 1,000 years ago. The Kabbalah supposedly tells the true secrets of Torah in terms of numbers.
How does all this apply to Egypt and other nations in the Middle East, where waves of democratic revolutions are cresting? More than you might think, said Hilsman.
“The idea of independent billionaires having a role in the region — good or bad— is already well established,” Hilsman said. “Rich Saudis have been funding the Wahhabi madrasahes for years, and Osama Bin Laden is unusual only in the fact that he became an active terrorist instead of simply a funder. In my view, the independent, wealthy Islamists are dangerous not only because of their vast wealth, but also because of their political influence in the region. In my book, the rich guy is Indonesian — we haven’t even begun to consider the implications of wealthy independent actors in Asia.”
You might think that the revolutionary democratic impulse now spreading across the Middle East is antithetical to such billionaires, he said. But just as in this country, where tea party types think they are protesting the status quo, they are in fact being manipulated by billionaires, he said.
Still, Hilsman says, “The surprise is the speed with which the unrest in Tunisia spread to Egypt and, more surprisingly, the rapid success of the protest.”
Hilsman said that the consensus at a conference he attended recently was “that the revolutionary wave could move in any number of directions, positive or negative, and depending upon the country. In other words, the future is quite uncertain.” Not unlike the unfolding plot line of “Nineteen Angels,” in which you don’t know until the last minute what’s going to happen.
Lionel Rolfe is the author of “Literary L.A.,” about which a documentary is in production, “The Uncommon Friendship of Yaltah Menuhin and Willa Cather,” “Fat Man on the Left: Four Decades in the Underground,” “The Menuhins: A Family Odyssey” and coauthor of “Bread and Hyacinths: The Rise and Fall of the Utopian Los Angeles,” available digitally through Amazon’s Kindle store and Google.