Archive for June 2008
(This was published in the National newspaper)
There are two kinds of Arab country. On the one hand, those with a vast and living history and a social life that makes London feel cold and dead, but where the people contend with too much political and economic pressure to be more than occasionally happy. And on the other, those countries with the comforts and ease provided by the oil economy, but so culturally dislocated, so alienated from themselves, that you feel Year Zero was declared when the oil started flowing. The kind of place where expats drink too much.
Oman, which I left last week, has in some measure the advantages of both kinds of country, perhaps just the right measure, and I love it. I call it my favourite Arab country, which is a high honour with me.
My close associate Robin Yassin-Kassab has written a novel called The Road from Damascus. It was published by Hamish Hamilton on June 5th.
You are strongly advised to invest heavily in this book. Buy Buy Buy! Good for house insulation and firestarting as well as reading.
Clearly it is a great honour to have a book published. The exciting moment was on souq al-Khoud one hot evening more than a year ago, when my agent called to say the book was sold. But the publication itself, seeing the book in the bookshops, has softened the trauma of moving from Oman to rural Scotland.
I was in London for a publication lunch at al-Waha on Westbourne Grove. There was agent, publisher and publicist, good people all, and my friend Giles Coren, and the lovely Melissa Katsoulis. There was the writer Diran Adebayo, who was talking about ‘post-black’ universalism in relation to Obama and a girl who left Diran because she thought he was too preoccupied with black issues. Too old-fashioned. He called a friend and told him: “I’ve just been post-blacked.” There was the very intelligent Boyd Tonkin, literary editor of the Independent, and my brother Ahmad who’s in this country doing a medical attachment. There was my son Ibrahim, who easily won his eating competition with Giles.
The food in al-Waha is excellent, but I didn’t much notice it because I was excited and all was fragmentary.
After the meal I went round bookshops with Penguin people signing books so that the sellers would put ‘author-signed’ stickers on them and display them where people might buy them. Amelia told me how publishers have to pay bookshops to put books on display. Even those staff recommendations you see in some shops are not really staff recommendations at all but books the publisher has paid the seller to display. It wasn’t this way when independent bookshops still ruled.
I was interviewed by Tina Jackson for Metro:
and by David Mattin for the National (a paper recently set up by British journalists in Abu Dhabi):
I met Wassim of the Maysaloon blog (see the link above left), and went to the Revenger’s Tragedy with him. I took Ibrahim to the Dr Who exhibition at Earl’s Court, where we were both scared by a dalek. We went to the British Museum, the Natural History Museum, the IMAX 3-D cinema, and Hampstead Heath. I took him to Scotland, stayed a few days, returned to London, where I met some old friends and a new one: Muhammad Idrees of the Fanonite (see link above left), full of ideas.
The book was reviewed by Maya Jaggi in the Guardian:
Then by Tim Teeman in the Times:
And by Aamer Hussein in the Independent:
And in the evil Daily Mail, but I can’t find it online.
Allan Massie in the Scotsman:
Abu Kareem has been very kind: http://levantdream.blogspot.com/2008/07/on-qunfuzs-road-from-damascus.html
They are good reviews. They contain two main criticisms: the didactic way in which some of the ideas are presented, and having too much crammed in. Fair enough. For the first, I’d say mine is a novel of ideas (I know the term sounds pretentious), and ideas are not that popular. (I mean, Dostoyevsky got away with endless staged fights between religion and anarchism, so why not me? Is it because I is Anglo-Arab?) Beyond that, I tried not to adopt a didactic tone – I tried to banish it to Qunfuzland – but probably did some of the time, due to lack of experience. Sorry. For the second criticism, the overpacked unwieldiness of plot, perhaps I like the massiveness of my novel and the tenousness of some of its plotting. I’m not sure yet. I can’t reread the novel now – to be honest I hate the sight of it. Having written it, having reread it tens of times, having done a final edit and then a proof read, I feel a kind of nausea when I look at it. I suppose I love it, and my nausea is temporary. But it is obviously a first novel, and the novel I’m writing now has started life much more structured. I’ve learnt a lot and I’m still learning. Alan Massie said cut pages, and that’s what I think whenever I read a contemporary novel.
He also said some of the characters are stereotypes. Maya Jaggi called Gabor “a straw man set up to embody a predatory Orientalism.” I hope that Gabor was more than this, although I admit that’s how he ended up. Because of my opposition to stereotype, and because I thought I was working against stereotype when I was writing, I was at first confused by Allan Massie’s comment. But then I saw that it too was fair enough, because behind the central drama of my two main charcters, the backdrop is satiric. This means that the backdrop characters are stereotypical, or at least try to be. So fair enough, again. Nothing wrong with satire, but it is an immature form. If I’m capable of it I would like to get away from it one day. But it’s a lot easier to write satire, at least some of the time, than to write anything else.
My favourite review is the comment someone left after the previous post.
Meanwhile, for those awaiting more opinionated Middle Eastern ranting: fear not. Normal service will be resumed shortly.