Robin Yassin-Kassab

Archive for the ‘Palestine’ Category

Bitter Almonds

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bitteralmondsAn edited version of this review appeared at the National.

This story starts with a birth and a departure, in Jerusalem in 1948. The birth is Omar Bakry’s, and it orphans him. The departure, alongside three quarters of a million others, is his forced expulsion from Palestine. “We’ll be back in a couple of weeks,” one fatefully quips.

Omar, now in the care of a neighbouring family, relocates to Damascus, where the novel unfolds through the fifties and sixties, both an engaging romance and a convincing period drama.

Lilas Taha writes in American English. My British-English ear found it difficult at first to believe in old-fashioned Arabs saving each others’ asses and getting in each others’ faces. The effect was exacerbated by occasionally clumsy dialogue. Real Palestinian-Syrians would see no need to specify, for example, “the ruling Baath Party” or “the actress Souad Hosni”. Realism is lost at moments such as these when the novel, veering into explanatory overstatement, seems too obviously an act of cultural translation. It might have been better to write a preface, or to add footnotes.

But as the pages turn, slowly but surely, the characters come entirely credibly to life. We learn a great deal about them by observing their negotiations of etiquette and social ritual as they traverse a domestic danger zone marked by deaths, difficult births, precarious marriages, and looming scandals.

The cast is close-knit. Mustafa is a farmer denied his land whose lungs are broken in a wool factory. The book’s title comes from his mouth, and provides a wisdom for the drama: “The bitter almonds make you savour the sweet ones more.” His wife Subhia, their son Shareef and daughters Huda and Nadia, make up Omar’s surrogate family.

Taha depicts them trying to make ends meet, their life in cramped quarters, male and female sleeping areas demarcated by a blanket, and the profound familiarities and festering resentments which grow in such conditions.

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

August 22, 2015 at 6:53 pm

Posted in book review, Palestine, Syria

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The Drone Eats With Me

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droneThis appeared first at The National.

Plenty of news flows out from Gaza, but very little human information. This emotional blackout bothered Ra Page, founder of Comma Press, a Manchester-based publisher producing groundbreaking short story collections. It was Comma that gave the astounding Iraqi surrealist writer Hassan Blasim his first break. Comma has published a high-quality series of literary responses to scientific innovations as well as several collections based around cities such as Tokyo, Istanbul and Liverpool. Why not Gaza too?

“My rather naive idea with The Book of Gaza,” writes Page, “was to try to inch the city ever so slightly closer to a state of familiarity, to establish it as a place and not just a name, through the simple details that a city’s literature brings with it – the referencing of street names, the name-dropping of landmarks and districts.”

The book was by no means the first literary project to aim in some way to normalise Palestinian life. Since 2008 the Palestinian Festival of Literature (Palfest), brainchild of novelist Ahdaf Soueif, has tried to reaffirm, in Edward Said’s phrase, “the power of culture over the culture of power”. In practical terms, this means transforming a literature festival into a roadshow – Jerusalem one night, Bethlehem another, Ramallah on a third… Though these places are only a few miles apart, checkpoints prevent Palestinians from travelling between them. So the guest writers travel to their audience, and at the same time learn something of Palestine’s enormous creativity. This stateless nation has boasted many great literary talents, most notably Mahmoud Darwish and Mourid Barghouti in poetry and Ghassan Kanafani in prose. Meanwhile there are burgeoning film and music (especially hip hop) scenes.

For decades writers had to smuggle their manuscripts out of Gaza to presses in Jerusalem, Cairo or Beirut. The shorter the text, the more likely it was to be published. As a result, the Strip became an “exporter of oranges and short stories.” Edited by novelist and journalist Atef Abu Saif, The Book of Gaza contains stories from three generations. It achieves both the sense of place that Page hoped for and ‘familiarity’ through its treatment of universal themes. The stories are as likely to deal with women “besieged by preconceptions” (in Najlaa Ataallah’s words) as the seige imposed by Israel. The project succeeded in ‘depoliticising’ Gaza, at least to some extent.

But then, immediately after publication, Israel launched Operation Protective Edge. Story contributors were directly affected by the assault. Writer Asmaa al-Ghoul, for instance, lost nine members of her extended family. Page was driven to this bleak conclusion: “There is no stability in Gaza on which to build a reader-familiarity.”

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

July 2, 2015 at 4:06 pm

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

Hypocrisy, As Usual

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Omar al-Masharawi, son of a BBC cameraman in Gaza, murdered by Zionist bombs.

Israel has launched yet another attack against the Gaza Strip, striking the densely-populated and besieged territory from the air and the sea, and as usual the United States, Canada and Britain have lined up in support of Zionist terrorism.

Speaking from a system poisoned by the Israel lobby, State Department spokesman Mark Toner says: “There is no justification for the violence that Hamas and other terrorist organizations are employing against the people of Israel. We call on those responsible to stop these cowardly acts immediately. We support Israel’s right to defend itself.” Confusing Zionist settlers for ‘the Jewish people’, confusing perpetrator with victim, and then parroting outmoded ‘war on terror’ propaganda, Canadian foreign minister John Baird vomits the following: “Far too often, the Jewish people find themselves on the front lines in the struggle against terrorism, the great struggle of our generation.” Then Britain’s foreign minister William Hague makes the following immoral and illogical comment: “I utterly condemn rocket attacks from Gaza into southern Israel by Hamas and other armed groups. This creates an intolerable situation for Israeli civilians in southern Israel, who have the right to live without fear of attack from Gaza.”

Two things must be said. First, this round of escalation, like the 2008/2009 slaughter, was started by Israel. It is totally mendacious to pretend otherwise. The Hamas government in Gaza refrained from stopping other groups from firing missiles as a result of Israel’s murder of a disabled man and of a twelve-year-old boy in Gaza. Here is a timeline of events. Second, the settlers of southern Israel do not have the right to live without fear of attack while the original inhabitants of ‘southern Israel’ are herded into refugee camps. Eighty percent of people in Gaza are descendants of refugees ethnically cleansed from their villages and towns by Zionist militias in 1947 and 1948.

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

November 15, 2012 at 2:16 pm

Posted in Palestine, Syria, Zionism

Terrorist and Hostages

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Nael Barghouti

Congratulations are due to the Hamas movement for the successful conclusion of the process set in motion when its operatives captured a soldier of the Zionist occupation in June 2006. On October 18th 2011 the enemy soldier was returned to his commanders after Israeli authorities agreed to release 1027 Palestinian hostages.

It wasn’t easy to arrive at this point. Over 400 Palestinians were killed by Zionist rampages in Gaza shortly after the capture of the terrorist (and thousands more have been murdered since). In July 2006 Hizbullah sought to take the heat off Gaza and at the same time to ensure the release of Lebanese hostages by capturing Israeli terrorists on the Lebanese border. Israel responded by launching a full scale assault on the civilians of Lebanon. Over 1000 Lebanese were killed – but Israel received an unexpected bloody nose. It aimed to finish Hizbullah off; instead Israeli cities and military installations came under rocket attack, Israeli soldiers failed to move beyond the Lebanese border villages, and Hizbullah was strengthened. In 2008 the Lebanese hostages were exchanged for the captured Israeli terrorists. Israel’s defeat in 2006 shifted the balance of power, and the current prisoner deal also shifts the balance, albeit in a smaller way. It comes after years of Zionist siege of the already impoverished refugees in Gaza, after Israeli-American-Mubarak sponsorship of a bitter split in Palestinian ranks, and after the massacre of 1400 Palestinians in the winter of 2008/2009. It comes in large part as a result of the momentous changes occurring in a revolutionary Arab world and the wider region, because of the decline of American power, and Israel’s increasing isolation. Israel was forced to break its own taboos, not only to deal with Hamas but also to release Palestinian prisoners from Jerusalem and from the lands occupied in 1948.

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

October 20, 2011 at 12:12 am

Posted in Palestine, Zionism

Tagged with ,

Terror and Hypocrisy

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children in 'Ain Qenya

An irate PULSE reader, a Zionist immigrant to Israel from Britain, has written to ask why I haven’t condemned the murder of a family living in the illegal colony of Itamar near Nablus. The reader, by the by, describes himself as a ‘lefty.’ It’s always interesting to see how political terminology entirely loses its meaning when employed by Zionists. Choosing to migrate from a safe, free country to join the side of the masters in an aggressive ethnocracy is not what would normally be called ‘lefty’ behaviour. Here’s another example – a “left-leaning youth movement” is establishing a new settlement in the illegally occupied and ethnically-cleansed Jordan valley. Hooray for the Zionist left.

As it happens, I think the attack on the Itamar family was repulsive. I have no idea how anyone could stab young children to death, even the children of racists and thieves. These murders were immoral and politically counter-productive. They gave Israel an excuse to whine about the bloodthirstiness of the natives and a pretext for building hundreds more homes in the West Bank (although Israel does these things without pretexts too).

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

March 13, 2011 at 3:06 pm

Posted in Palestine

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Zionism’s Fear of Arab Movement

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making the middle east safe for zionism. AP photo

Tony Blair, with the blood of Iraq, Lebanon and Palestine dripping from his fingers, says Egyptian dictator Husni Mubarak is “immensely courageous and a force for good.” The opinion is based on working “with him on the Middle East peace process.” Mubarak’s record on the pacification process involves helping the Palestinian Authority transform itself into a (stateless) police state apparatus, obstructing Fatah-Hamas reconciliation, and constructing, in concert with US army engineers, a metal wall underneath the Gaza border.

Under Nasser’s police state Egypt had no popular sovereignty, but it did have national independence. This was lost at Camp David in 1979, when Sadat signed peace with Israel, retrieved the occupied Sinai peninsula, and received the promise of billions of dollars of annual American aid. After Israel, Egypt is the second largest recipient of US aid. American funding of the military is the reason why top officers remain loyal to the regime despite all the humiliations (for Egypt lost its Arab leadership role long ago) and committed to the peace treaty, although Israel has reneged on its Camp David undertaking to provide a just solution to the Palestinian problem.

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

February 4, 2011 at 2:48 am


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