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Robin Yassin-Kassab

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The Bamboo Stalk

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bamboostalkThis review was published at The National.

“A man,” wrote the poet Shelley, “to be greatly good, must imagine intensely and comprehensively; he must put himself in the place of another.” The novel, if well-achieved, is the form offering the greatest opportunity to experience the world through another’s eyes, to escape the self by shifting perspective; a novelist could perhaps be defined as a person able to see his home as freshly as a foreigner would, someone unable therefore to take anything for granted. This is Saud Alsanousi’s successful conceit in “The Bamboo Stalk” – a plea for tolerance and 2013 winner of the prestigious International Prize for Arabic Fiction – a text supposedly translated from Filipino to Arabic, now really (and wonderfully) translated to English by Jonathan Wright.

When he’s in Manila, our narrator is called José, and sometimes ‘the Arab’. In Kuwait, he’s called Isa, and sometimes ‘the Filipino’. José/Isa is the product of a brief marriage between a migrant housemaid and a Kuwaiti of good family. He looks Filipino but has his father’s voice. It’s to him that the title refers – “a bamboo plant, which doesn’t belong anywhere in particular … the stalk will grow new roots if replanted.”

So Alsanousi, with great wit and lightness of touch, portrays the inner dynamics of not one but two families, and of at least two cultures. Half the book takes place in the Philippines, a tropical and entirely credible setting, redolent of mangoes and diesel fumes. Amongst the vividly drawn characters are a roguish, broken grandfather and Isa’s mixed-race cousin Merla, who has good reason to resent both men and Europeans. She looks to an unconventional love for solace, as well as to the “purely Filipino religion” of Rizalism, a deification of independence hero José Rizal.

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

April 18, 2015 at 9:52 am

Posted in book review, Gulf

Arab Jazz

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arabjazzThis review was published at the Guardian.

“Arab Jazz” – already the winner of the English PEN award – is a brilliant debut, both from Karim Miské and the very capable translator Sam Gordon.

The setting – “between the Lubavitch school complex, the Salafist prayer room and the evangelical church” in north east Paris, home turf of the Charlie Hebdo and kosher supermarket killers – couldn’t be more topical.

And Ahmed Taroudant, the novel’s main protagonist, is in some respects a typical French Arab – religiously non-observant, confused about his identity, haunted by the past, and now set up to take the blame for murder.

Immensely likeable despite his neuroses, Ahmed aims “to lose himself by devouring the whole world in a single, uninterrupted story written by others.” The metaphor fits fundamentalists perfectly, but in Ahmed’s case it’s more literal: he’s a crime fiction fanatic who tries to buffer himself from reality with a wall of books. He’s reading on his balcony when blood drips down from the corpse of his upstairs neighbour Laura, whose love he might have reciprocated had he been clear-headed enough to notice.

Ahmed, of course, wants to understand what’s happening. He’s the book’s third detective; the first two are Lieutenants Rachel Kupferstein and Jean Hamelot, an atheist Ashkenazi Jew from the neighbourhood and a Breton of Communist heritage; both, like Ahmad, are well versed in crime fiction, and both are “intellectual, cinephile types”. Karim Miské, the French-Mauritanian author, is a film-maker himself; his book is crammed with genre, literary and film references. One scene is set in ‘Chaim Potok high school’, for instance; the title alludes to James Ellroy’s novel “White Jazz”; and – as if the book were already a film – there’s a playlist of songs at the back.

The characters are strong and various, from the young, second-generation Muslim and Jewish north African immigrants – the girls generally better adjusted than the boys – through such predictable figures as a Turkish kebab-shop proprieter and a Portuguese concierge, to the more surprising – an Armenian anarchist, for instance, or a Hasidic Rastafarian who produces a messianically-sanctioned MDMA-variant called Godzwill.

There’s an implicit commentary here on the new phenomenon of gangster-Salafism: “craving the validation of others … they were frequently tempted to reverse the feeling of stigma, to brand themselves proudly with the very religion which brought them such relentless contempt.” But the implicit critique of religion itself – of “those who clog up their depths, their inner space, with the concrete of certainty” – extends to political and social certainties too. Everyone’s been damaged by their heritage; everyone’s vulnerable to inner darkness and the explanatory narcotic of grand narrative.

“Arab Jazz” is a genre novel in the same way that “Pulp Fiction” is a genre film – superceding the form even as it pays homage. It’s a trans-continental identity novel, dramatising the painful contradictions and fertile syntheses of contemporary multicultural life, focussing on racial discrimination in Morocco as well as Paris. And it’s certainly a well-achieved literary novel, detailed with colours, tastes and flavours, sustaining a light and energetic comic tone even when the material is unrelentingly grim.

The settings are particularly rich, as Miské journeys confidently from his prime location as far as Crown Heights, Brooklyn, or to New York’s Watchtower, global HQ of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, and back and forth in time.

The dialogue can be somewhat clumsy, occasionally rendering the plot machinery too visible and the characters too obviously functional. In general there’s a little too much telling rather than showing – in the improbably self-revealing monologues of the police’s interviewees, for example, or the perfectly overheard street sermonising. Perhaps, as a detective story, the novel suffers a glut of too-easily-flowing information. This may irritate some genre readers, but it should be forgiven. “Arab Jazz” should be read charitably as a pushing beyond realism rather than a failure to achieve it. There’s something theatrical in Miské’s world; it’s as if the detective-readers witness performances, or discover texts, instead of teasing out meaning from an inscrutable and intransigent reality. Miské is a writer enjoying himself, playing on his scales, improvising sometimes, his subplots and walk-on acts fed deftly into the whole. The monologues are instrumental solos; the rhythms are propulsive. Like jazz, it’s complicated, but sounds beautifully simple.

Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

February 7, 2015 at 3:56 pm

Posted in book review, France

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The Road to Iraq

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A slightly shorter version of my review of Pulse editor Idrees Ahmad’s devastating dissection of the neoconservatives and their deeds appeared at the National.

roadtoiraqMeticulously researched and fluently written, Muhammad Idrees Ahmad’s “The Road to Iraq: The Making of a Neoconservative War” is the comprehensive guide to the neoconservatives and their works. The book’s larger story is of the enormous influence wielded by unelected lobbyists and officials over the foreign policies of supposed democracies, their task facilitated by the privatisation and outsourcing of more and more governmental functions in the neoliberal era. (Similar questions are provoked by the state-controlled or corporate media in general, as it frames, highlights or ignores information.) The more specific story is of how a small network of like-minded colleagues (Ahmad provides a list of 24 key figures), working against other unelected officials in the State Department, military and intelligence services, first conceived and then enabled America’s 2003 invasion and occupation of Iraq, a disaster which continues to overshadow regional and global relations today.

The first crop of neoconservatives emerged from a Trotskyist-tinged 1930s New York Jewish intellectual scene; they and their descendants operated across the political-cultural spectrum, in media and academia, think tanks and pressure groups. Hovering first around the Democratic Party, then around the Republicans, they moved steadily rightwards, and sought to form a shadow defence establishment. During the Cold War they were fiercely anti-Soviet. Under George Bush Jr. they shifted from the lobbies into office.

The neoconservative worldview is characterised by militarism, unilateralism, and a firm commitment to Zionism. Even the Israel-friendly British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said of neocon Irving Libby: “It’s a toss-up whether Libby is working for the Israelis or the Americans on any given day.” The neoconservatives aimed for an Israelisation of American policy, conflating Israeli and American enemies, and adopting their doctrine of ‘pre-emptive war’ from Israel’s 1967 war on the Arabs.

Lest we slip into antisemitic tropes (hidden cabals conspiring on international Jewry’s behalf), let’s remember that the neoconservatives form a tiny minority within a generally much more liberal American Jewish community. (The Israel lobby as a whole is much more hawkish than American Jewish opinion – the former aggressively lobbied for war against Iraq while the latter was much more opposed than the American mainstream).

And the neoconservatives weren’t the only factor. Ahmad recognises the military industrial complex is always enthusiastic for war, and writes “The neoconservatives succeeded because they operate within a political consensus that sees US global dominance as the desired end and military force as the necessary, if not preferred, means.” Nevertheless, the fact that neoconservatives were placed well enough to exploit the terrorist attacks of September 11th 2001 was the crucial element in the decision to invade.

The neoconservatives wanted (through ‘creative chaos’) to remake not only Iraq but also Iran, Syria, Lebanon, and even such crucial American allies as Saudi Arabia. Yet their messianic vision didn’t dominate administration ‘realists’ (Colin Powell and Richard Armitage were working on ‘smarter’ sanctions to contain the Iraqi regime) until the ‘catalysing event’ of 9/11.

They immediately seized the opportunity to establish a link between al-Qaida and Saddam Hussain, promoting claims made by Laurie Mylroie, who had also, improbably, held Iraq responsible for the 1995 Oklahoma bombing and the 1993 World Trade Centre attack. This misinformation sold the war to the public. A 2004 poll showed 74% of Americans believed the Iraq al-Qaida link; 85% of American soldiers polled in 2006 believed their role in Iraq was to retaliate for 9/11.

Within the administration, Dick Cheney, a ‘robust nationalist’ and probably the most powerful vice president in American history, championed neoconservative perspectives and propaganda. Supposed evidence of Iraq’s WMD programmes was entirely furnished by the neoconservatives and their allies. The Pentagon’s Office of Special Plans, for instance, set up by neocon Douglas Feith, relayed questionable Israeli intelligence to the White House and played up the ‘imminent threat’ posed by Saddam. That unfounded allegations were presented as casus belli to the United Nations was not an ‘intelligence failure’ but, Ahmad proves, the result of a very successful process of suppressing, spinning or promoting information for the sake of invasion.

Cheney was motivated not by neoconservative ideology but by a hardnosed (and unrealistic) realism. 9/11 for him was an opportunity to make an example of an easy target (North Korea and Iran, the other members of the ‘axis of evil’, were too difficult). But he was greatly influenced by neoconservative orientalist and popular historian Bernard Lewis, who held Arab rage against the West to be purely cultural, not political, and believed Arabs only understood the language of force. These assumptions played a part in ‘shock and awe’ over Baghdad; orientalist theories – in this case of Arab masculinity, straight from Israeli torture guides – were applied again in the sexual humiliations at Abu Ghraib.

Against Cheney’s hopes, Iraq proved America’s weakness rather than its strength. The American public was briefly awed; the rest of the world was only shocked by American recklessness. More Iraqi post-war oil contracts were awarded to states which hadn’t intervened than to those which had, while Sunni and Shia insurgencies steadily bled American lives and morale, and the region plummeted to greater depths of polarisation and instability.

Neoconservatives had hoped Saddam’s deposal would be followed by regime change in Iran, or at least a radical weakening of the Iranian theocracy, but this was their most dramatic miscalculation. Strengthened by the removal of hostile regimes in both Iraq and Afghanistan, Iran took advantage of the new sectarian order to embed itself in Iraqi politics. In Syria today, Iranian-backed sectarian militias from Lebanon, Iraq and Afghanistan are fighting on Assad’s frontlines. Iran has not been challenged on this policy, despite it constituting a major factor in the rise of Sunni sectarianism and groups such as ISIS.

By the end of Bush’s presidency, the ‘realist’ realisation that Arab democracies would produce economically nationalist and anti-Zionist governments (as the Palestinians voted for Hamas) was reasserted, and so therefore was the traditional dictator-friendly policy. Stung by Iraq and economically weak, the US under Obama attempted and failed to disengage from the region. Obama set ‘red lines’ and ignored their crossing; he let his Sunni regional allies arm Syrian resistance groups ineffectually and in mutual competition; he blocked them from providing the heavy weapons necessary to resist Assad’s scorched earth and the consequent refugee crisis.

Eleven years after the invasion, ‘realist’ folly has compounded neoconservative madness. One common thread between the schools is an abiding refusal to deal with the people at the grassroots struggling to improve their situation. After the 1991 Gulf War, America permitted Saddam’s defeated military to use helicopter gunships to put down the intifada in the south – the mass graves of this period incubated the later sectarian breakdown. In 2003 the neoconservatives pinned their hopes on Ahmad Chalabi’s Iraqi National Congress, an exile organisation as irrelevant on the ground as the Syrian National Coalition is today (the SNC enjoys tepid and purely rhetorical American support; the grassroots Local Coordination Committees enjoy no recognition whatsoever). And now, rather than providing effective weaponry to the Free Syrian Army which has been fighting ISIS all year, America loses hearts and minds by bombing Syria’s grain silos and oil installations.

If the region is to ever recover, imperial democracies as well as Arab tyrannies require further democratisation and greater accountability. This is one unspoken lesson of Ahmad’s very useful account.

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

December 23, 2014 at 12:56 am

Posted in book review, History, Iraq

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Syria Speaks on Tour

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Khalil, Khaled, and me (pic by Khalil)

Khalil, Khaled, and me (pic by Khalil)

This was published at the National

For a week in June, Syrian writers and artists toured England, giving readings and workshops to promote “Syria Speaks: Art and Culture From the Frontline”, a book reflecting the country’s new revolutionary culture. British-Syrian novelist Robin Yassin-Kassab describes the experience.

*

In Bradford we met a woman who had tried as hard as she could to forget she was Syrian. We didn’t discover her original trauma, but we heard its symptoms over a British-Pakistani curry. She hadn’t spoken Arabic for years, and never told anyone where she was from. Once a policeman detained her for an hour because she refused to tell him her origin.

In Bristol, on the other hand, we met a little old woman who, with her red hair and flowery dress, we might have mistaken for English. But she was a Damascene, and she wept when I read a description of her city. Afterwards she came to introduce herself. “I’ve lived in England for thirty years, and I didn’t realise until the revolution that I had a fear barrier inside. Then I noticed I’d never talked about Syria. I’d tried not to even think about it. But those brave youths gave me courage; they gave me back my identity and my freedom.”

So the Syrian revolution is alive and well in Bristol if not in Bradford, for this is where the revolution happens first, before the guns and the political calculations, before even the demonstrations – in individual hearts, in the form of new thoughts and newly unfettered words. Syria was once known as a ‘kingdom of silence’ in which public discourse was irretrievably devalued by enforced lip-service to the regime and its propaganda pieties. As a result, many Syrians describe their first protest as an ecstatic event, a kind of rebirth. In “Syria Speaks”, Ossama Mohammed’s story “The Thieves’s Market” concerns a woman who attends the state’s official demonstrations, until her friend is murdered for participating in an oppositional one. “I grew up,” she says, “came of age, abandoned someone and was abandoned, on a march that finished yesterday.” When that coerced march ended and a thousand new ones began, Syrians found unprecedented liberation simply by expressing honest opinions in the presence of their neighbours, by breaking the barriers of fear.

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

July 18, 2014 at 9:20 am

Dubious Wisdom

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monsterI wrote this review of Bente Scheller’s book for al-Jazeera.

Syrian poet Rasha Omran once told me that Bashaar al-Assad is “not a dictator, just a gangster boss.” But really he’s not even that. What he is, is what his father looked like in all those statues – one element in the managerial class, a (dysfunctional) functionary. Syria is a dictatorship which lacks an efficient dictator.

Hafez al-Assad – the father – was an entirely different matter. Born in a dirt-floor shack, he clawed his way to the top by brute cunning, deft flexibility, and strategic intelligence. The careful manipulation of sectarian tensions in order to divide and rule was one of his key strategies, yet he was also attentive to building alliances with rural Sunnis and the urban bourgeoisie – both constituencies now alienated by his son. Bashaar’s great innovation was supposedly economic reform. In practice this meant an unpleasant marriage of neoliberalism with crony capitalism. It succeeded in making his cousin Rami Makhlouf the richest man in the country. The poor, meanwhile, became much poorer, the social infrastructure crumbled, and unemployment continued to climb.

The thesis of former German diplomat Bente Scheller’s book “The Wisdom of the Waiting Game” is that the Syrian regime’s approach to its current existential crisis follows a “narrow path consistent with previous experience,” and she focuses on foreign policy to make this point. When the regime found itself isolated on Iraq after the 2003 invasion, for instance, or then on Lebanon in 2005 after the assassination of Rafiq Hariri and the Syrian army’s precipitous withdrawal, it waited, refusing to change its policy, until conditions changed, its opponents were humbled, and it was brought in from the cold. In his book “The Fall of the House of Assad”, David Lesch points out that Bashaar al-Assad felt personally vindicated by these perceived policy victories, and grew in arrogance as a result. Today, with the West handing the Syrian file over to Russia, and seemingly coming round to Bashaar’s argument that Islamism poses a greater threat than his genocidal dictatorship, it looks (for now at least) as if the refusal to budge is again paying off.

The most interesting parts of Scheller’s book are not actually dedicated to foreign policy, but describe – accurately and with balance – the causes of the revolution and the nature of the regime’s response. The most direct link she’s able to posit between domestic and foreign policy is that, in both, the regime’s only abiding interest has been self-preservation. In Scheller’s words, “regime survival … defines what is perceived as a security threat.” This chimes well with the shabeeha graffiti gracing Syrian walls – “Either Assad or we burn the country.” In regime priorities, Assad always stood far above the people, the economy, the infrastructure, and even the integrity of the national territory.

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

December 3, 2013 at 6:02 pm

Qaddafi’s Harem

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qaddafi-2This review of Annick Cojean’s book was published at NOW.

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Today is the beginning of the end of the era of harems and slaves and the beginning of women’s liberation within the Arab nation.” Muammar Qaddafi. September 1981.

The Arab world is still crammed full of tyrannies self-labelling with terms such as ‘popular’ and ‘democratic’, sectarian regimes pretending to be secular, reactionary regimes describing themselves as progressive, and ‘resistance’ regimes which resist nothing but their subjects’ life and freedom.

The current post-revolutionary chaos in Libya provokes two orientalist responses: the crude (statist-leftist) version, that the uprising was a foreign conspiracy; and the subtler (because it’s never quite made explicit), that the Libyans made a terrible mistake by rising, because their fractious ‘tribal’ society can only be held together by a strong man of Qaddafi’s calibre. After him, goes the implicit argument, the inevitable deluge.

“Gaddafi’s Harem” by French journalist Annick Cojean provides a fact-based corrective to those fooled by Qaddafi’s illusions, specifically those impressed by the radical feminist image evoked by his once highly visible – and sexily transgressive – corps of ‘Amazon’ body guards. It will change the minds too of those who saw the dictator from a distance as a lovable buffoon.

His regime was capricious, yes, at times even darkly comedic, but it was based on undiluted sadism. The cramping stagnation it imposed for 42 years, and the fact that it refused to budge except by force of arms, are the prime causes of today’s anarchy. The means of domination it employed – psycho-social as much as physical – tell us a great deal about the universal megalomaniac personality, as well as certain cultural weaknesses in the Arab world and beyond.

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

November 9, 2013 at 11:49 am

A Curse on Dostoevsky

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Andrey Volkov's Dostoevsky

Andrey Volkov’s Dostoevsky

This review was published at the Guardian. As so often, in places it’s been edited so it makes little sense and becomes clumsy. (Not a Guardian-specific problem, but a general problem with subeditors. I’ve never worked out why writers are paid to write, then non-writers are paid to mess up the writer’s writing.) Anyway, the unedited version is below.

As its title suggests, Atiq Rahimi’s “A Curse on Dostoevsky” puts itself in conversation with the great Russian writer, specifically with “Crime and Punishment”. Instead of Saint Petersburg, the action unfolds in Kabul. In place of Raskolnivok, Rassoul (though in his solipsism and misanthropy he may bear more resemblance to Dostoevsky’s underground man); in place of Sonia, Rassoul’s fiancee Sophia, a character who never quite comes into focus; and in place of the detective Porfiry, a series of commanders and militiamen. The murderee is, like Dostoevsky’s, a pawnbroker, also a landlady and a madam. Rassoul doesn’t know why he kills her, but potential motives include saving Sophia from her clutches, theft, and justice.

The text justifies its relationship with Dostoevsky’s novel thus: “This book is best read in Afghanistan, a land previously steeped in mysticism, where people have lost their sense of responsibility.” The murder of the pawnbroker sparks an investigation of crime and punishment (and law and lawlessness, sacrifice and vengeance) in Afghan society. Dostoevsky claimed that if God didn’t exist, everything would be permitted. Yet in Afghanistan God exists not to prevent sins but to justify them. Sophia’s father poisoned the director of the National Archives with counterfeit alcohol, a punishment for selling documents to the Russians. “These days,” he says, “any idiot thinks he can take the law into his own hands, with no investigation and trial. As I did then.” (The setting seems to be the period after the Russians and before the Taliban, when Islamist warlords struggled for power.)

According to the novel’s logic, Rassoul’s motto – “I’d rather be a murderer than a traitor” – could just as well be Afghanistan’s: “You can kill, rape, steal… the important thing is not to betray. Not to betray Allah, your clan, your country, your friend.” Yet the pages brim with real or perceived traitors, those who desert their friends for ideology or material gain.

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

August 25, 2013 at 10:38 am

Posted in afghanistan, book review

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