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Robin Yassin-Kassab

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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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The Wall

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wallThis review was published at the Independent.

Joshua lives in a brand new town called Amarias. He shares his brand new house with his mother who, since his father’s death in battle, has been “like a pane of glass riddled with cracks that was still somehow sitting there in the frame,” and also with tree-killing Liev, the “anti-father” whose cloying unpleasantness is a great pleasure to read.

One day, chasing a lost football and propelled by an overbearing curiosity, Joshua discovers a tunnel which leads under a wall to an entirely different world – one containing both danger and kindness, and a beguiling young girl. As storytellers from CS Lewis to Philip Pullman know, there’s something archetypal about holes in walls opening onto entirely unexpected realms; and tunnels to wonderland have been evoking rebirth since ancient cave painters squeezed through crevices to make their sacred art. William Sutcliffe employs all this rites-of-passage symbolism with a very light touch, and crafts his novel with sustained suspense.

The new world is not named (not until page 80 is it called “the Occupied Zone”; and the words ‘Israel’ and ‘Palestine’ are never mentioned) – in this way the book avoids being self-professedly ‘political’ – yet the place is described with great accuracy and atmospheric precision. An “aftertaste of violence is hanging in the air, like a bad smell.” The houses are close-packed, unpainted, unfinished. The shops spill onto cracked streets which are “both enticingly alive and strangely depressing.” Those who know will recognise “the mournful wail of a solo voice backed by violins” as the Egyptian diva Um Kalthoum, but Joshua doesn’t know. He doesn’t even speak the language, though the inhabitants speak his.

Amarias, on his side of the wall, with its lawns and pools and rows of identical houses, is clean and fresh “as if a magic spell has conjured it up out of thin air.” Once Joshua has tasted forbidden knowledge, the town, and the fact that no-one around Joshua seems to recognise the absurd ephemerality of its situation, become darkly surreal.

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

April 27, 2013 at 10:31 am

Posted in book review, Palestine

The Silence and the Roar

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sireesA version of this review was published at the Independent.

“The Silence and the Roar” by Syrian novelist and screenwriter Nihad Sirees was written in 2004, long before the roar of revolutionary crowds, and the countervailing roar of gunfire and warplanes, filled Syrian skies.

The pre-revolutionary roar of the title is that of the (capitalised) Leader speaking, and of the crowd celebrating the Leader speaking, and of those being beaten because they aren’t celebrating loudly enough; a roar relentlessly repeated by radios and televisions throughout the city, accompanying the protagonist almost everywhere he goes.

Counterposed to the roar there are two forms of silence: of imprisonment and of the grave. The first holds an ironic allure, for “the most beautiful thing in the entire universe is the silence that allows us to hear soft and distant sounds.”

The narrator is Fathi Sheen, a writer fallen out of favour with the regime, silenced only to the extent that he doesn’t write any more. He’s very pleasant company, amusing and straightforward, his digressions into Aristotle and Hannah Arendt notwithstanding. Over the course of a day Fathi struggles against the flow of celebrant crowds and regime thugs to visit first his mother and then his lover. He’s been content thus far to continue not to write in return for being left alone, but it becomes clear as the hours pass that the Leader’s friends plan to drive a different sort of bargain. The novella is in part a parable of the artist surviving under dictatorship. How does he make space for creation between silent and roaring states of mind? How does he avoid the regime’s Faustian temptations? More generally, how should one resist?

One answer for Fathi and his lover Lama, as for Winston Smith and his Julia, is through sex, which they find to be “a form of speech, indeed, a form of shouting in the face of the silence.”

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

March 23, 2013 at 12:44 pm

Posted in book review, Syria

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The Iraqi Christ

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Blasim

Blasim

A slightly edited version of this review was published at the Guardian.

Hassan Blasim, author of the acclaimed debut collection “The Madman of Freedom Square”, returns with fourteen more stories of profane lyricism, skewed symbolism and macabre romanticism. The qualities which distinguished the “Madman” are all here again in the opening pages of “The Iraqi Christ”: the sly self-referentiality of the frame – a story-telling competition hosted by a Baghdad radio station – the black comedy, the unexpected twists, and the sharp, disturbing images (a man “with no arms and a beard that almost reached his waist… deep in thought, like a decrepit Greek statue.”)

Like the “Madman”, this collection contains tales of war and migration, but these are more abstract, more difficult than the first, if possible stranger still. Treating casual cruelty, rape and murder, and common insanity, these sour cries from a land of generalised trauma don’t make easy bedtime reading. The processing of trauma, or the impossibility of such processing, is the collection’s central theme. Not only are stories dedicated to the dead, they are also narrated by the dead, concerned with death and the echoes of death in the souls of the living.

The subject matter is not exclusively Iraqi. Europe’s forests – with echoes of Grimm – loom as large as Baghdad’s broken streets. The title story, grimly ironic, is about a Christian soldier possessing uncanny powers of prediction who sacrifices himself so his mother may live. An extremist leader marches through with Purge The Earth of Devils tatooed on his forehead. Elsewhere, a narrator falls into a hole alongside a flesh-eating jinn who used to teach poetry in Baghdad. Another helps his brother bury a stranger alive. Characters slip into criminal perversity unwittingly, almost by accident, as spontaneously as the poisonous trees which, in “Sarsara’s Tree”, sprout from a bereaved woman’s gaze.

Blasim’s work is so unusual it’s hard to place. “A Thousand and One Knives”, as the title suggests, owes something to the heritage of the Nights and the ancient fantastic tradition of Arabic writing, now revived by the pains of Arab modernity, particularly in post-invasion Iraq. But “The Iraqi Christ” also seems to belong with the literature of Latin America, likewise struggling with contesting cultures, political violence and overbearing religion. Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

March 20, 2013 at 1:54 pm

Posted in book review, Iraq

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