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Robin Yassin-Kassab

Shortlisted for the Folio Prize

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My co-author Leila al-Shami and I are honoured that “Burning Country: Syrians in Revolution and War” has been shortlisted for this year’s Rathbones Folio Prize. But the true honour belongs to those Syrians whose stories we transmitted. We’re particularly happy with the shortlisting because the book may receive more attention, and because these remarkable people’s achievements need to be heard.

Here’s a short film of me (looking rather puffy) talking about the book. Film credits go to the camerawoman, Ayaat.

Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

May 19, 2017 at 6:26 pm

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Olivier Roy’s ‘Jihad and Death’

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jihad&deathThis review was first published at the National.

What motivates Westerners to become jihadists? What comes first, radicalism or religious text?

Olivier Roy, a French analyst of ‘globalised Islam’, begins “Jihad and Death: The Global Appeal of Islamic State” with empirical research on about 100 people involved in Jihadist terrorism in France and Belgium. Converts account for a staggering 25% of this sample. The rest tend to be lapsed Muslims, and return to strict religious practice, if at all, only months before they commit violence.

They are as likely to come from prosperous as poor families. They show a frequent history of delinquency, and very often of domestic violence. Crucially for Roy’s argument, they tend to be immersed in global youth culture: action movies, computer games, hip-hop and streetwear. “Combat sports clubs are more important than mosques in Jihadi socialisation.”

Terrorists don’t come from what the French right-wing calls ‘Salafised spaces’. Roy points out the irony of the ISIL-linked Abdeslam brothers running “a bar in a neighbourhood described as Salafised,” and usefully emphasises the distinction between Salafism and ISIL-style radicalism. The latter, unlike the former, permits punishment by fire and suicide attacks, for instance, and rejects parental and clerical authority.

“Jihadis do not descend into violence after poring over the sacred texts,” Roy writes. A self-serving, inconsistent and decontextualised manipulation of scripture is central to ISIL propaganda, but largely irrelevant, he argues, to the European radicals. These are not believers programmed for terror by religion, but “rebels who choose radicalism and then fit it into an Islamic paradigm.”

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

May 19, 2017 at 5:26 pm

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Strange Horizons

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iraqGautam Bhatia, for the sci-fi magazine Strange Horizons, hosted critic Marcia Lynx Qualey, writers Anoud and Ali Bader, and me, for a fascinating discussion on Arab sci-fi and other genre experiment. This was prompted by the short story collection “Iraq + 100”. You can read the discussion here.

Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

April 24, 2017 at 2:16 pm

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The President’s Gardens

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president's gardensThis review was published first at the Guardian.

Since 1980, Iraq has suffered almost continuous war, as well as uprisings, repressions, sanctions, and war-related cancers. “The President’s Gardens” by Muhsin al-Ramli –published in Arabic in 2012 and now masterfully translated by Luke Leafgren – at last provides us with an epic account of this experience from an Iraqi, and deeply human, perspective.

“If every victim had a book, Iraq in its entirety would become a huge library, impossible ever to catalogue.” This book must belong to Ibrahim, nicknamed ‘the Fated’, the discovery of whose head (in a banana crate) opens and closes the novel in 2006, and whose life until that decapitation is narrated in the most detail. Yet Ibrahim’s friends since childhood, Tariq ‘the Befuddled’ and Abdullah ‘Kafka’, are essential to the story.

Tariq is a schoolteacher, a perfumed, snappy dresser, and a grinning, earthy imam. As such he is spared military service, and prospers in the village, making necessary accomodations to the ruling system.

Abdullah, the “prince of pessimists” who describes contemporary events as “ancient, lost, dead history”, is already alienated by his illegitimacy when he is called up in 1988 for the war against Iran, captured, and incarcerated as a POW for the next 19 years, with almost 100,000 others. In Iran he is paraded, tortured, starved, and lectured on Khomeinism. Prisoners are separated by religious affiliation, but those ‘penitents’ who adopt the Islamic Republic’s ideology are raised up to rule over the unconverted.

There is no sectarianism at all in the narration. The main characters, from north of Baghdad, are probably Sunnis, but the reader must bring knowledge from beyond the text to make this assumption. Their travels through the country’s beautiful landscapes and terrible warscapes convey a clear sense of Iraqi nationhood alongside a sustained disdain for exclusionary and propagandistic nationalism. “When I look at the flag of any country,” says Abdullah on his release, “I see nothing more than a scrap of cloth devoid of any colour or meaning.”

If Abdullah’s chief mode is principled nihilism, Ibrahim’s is gentle resignation. “Everything is fate and decree” is his catchphrase, and he names his daughter Qisma, ‘fate’. Made sterile by poison gas in the Iran war, lamed during the invasion of Kuwait, he finds a job in the paradisal gardens of the title, secret expanses within Baghdad studded by Saddam Hussain’s palaces, where the fountain water is mixed with perfume, camels graze between rose beds, and crocodiles swim in the pools. Naturally, horrors lurk beneath this surface.

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

April 23, 2017 at 11:34 am

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Exit West

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exit westThis review was first published at the National.

Saeed works in an advertising agency, lives with his parents, and prays irregularly “as a gesture of love for what had gone and would go and could be loved in no other way.” Nadia, against the wishes of her family, chooses to live alone. She rides a motorbike and wears black robes to ward off predatory men. They meet at an evening class on corporate identity and product branding. They soon become friends, then something more.

Both are trying to build their lives in increasingly precarious circumstances. Saeed’s father is a university lecturer in a country which hasn’t done well by its professional class. He blames himself for not providing for his son: “The far more decent thing would have been to pursue wealth at all costs.”

They inhabit a city “teetering on the abyss”, filling up with refugees and prone to random violence. This could almost be Lahore, where Mohsin Hamid, the novel’s author, was born. But the war, when it arrives, feels like a tale from the Arab counter-revolutions. The encroaching militants behave like Daesh, outlawing music and staging public executions.

So Nadia and Saeed’s hometown could be many places, and this is part of the novel’s point. “Exit West” is formally adventurous despite the initial impression of realism. Set in the near future, or in an alternative and intensified present, the tale twists between magical realism and gentle science fiction.

At its centre is a magical image. Naturally, the war changes people’s relationship to windows, “the border through which death was possibly most likely to come”. But their relationship to doors changes too. Rumours spread of doors closely guarded in secret locations, infinitely dark doors which open onto random distant lands.

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

March 20, 2017 at 5:54 pm

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The Way of the Strangers

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wayA slightly edited version of this review was published at the National.

In “The Way of the Strangers: Encounters With The Islamic State”, journalist Graeme Wood aligns himself with the orientalist tradition of Bernard Lewis, who warned liberal students against projecting secular frameworks on contemporary Muslim politics. Lewis believed religion, not secular grievance, was the prime motivator of this politics.

This may or may not be true. In any case, the argument has limited explanatory power. It doesn’t explain why Islamism is more in vogue today than in the 1960s, for instance, or why contemporary extremists are destroying the ancient temples which previous generations left unharmed.

Does scripture account for ISIL’s crimes? It’s a fact that the Prophet’s Companions took slaves as war booty. The overwhelming majority of contemporary scholars, considering custom (’urf) and public interest (maslaha) as well as learned precedent, nevertheless see slavery as obsolete, no more relevant to modern warfare than bows and arrows. But ISIL, ignoring these considerations, has proudly revived the practice.

Wood rightly expresses exasperation with Muslim scholars who claim that ISIL’s behaviour has ‘nothing to do with Islam’. It would be equally wrong to claim that American slavery had nothing to do with Christianity (see, for example, 1 Peter 2:18: “Slaves, submit yourselves to your masters with all respect, not only to the good and gentle but also to the cruel.”) “It is the interpretation,” Wood writes, “not the historical fact itself, that is up for debate.”

His account lacks political (or ‘secular’) context, but still, with hard-boiled humour, it provides a sometimes fascinating journey through some varieties of Islamic interpretation, from hate preaching to gentle quietism.

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

March 7, 2017 at 7:33 pm

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The Raqqa Diaries

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samerAn edited version of this review was published at the Guardian.

In March 2013, Free Syrian Army fighters, alongside the al-Qaida-linked militia Jabhat al-Nusra, liberated Raqqa, a city in Syria’s east. Crowds assaulted the dictator’s statues. Detainees were set free. A hip-hop concert was held. Activists hotly debated the shape of the democracy to come. They set up a local council. Nusra set up a Sharia court.

Then ISIS, or Daesh, an Iraqi-led group, split from Nusra. It was contained for a while, until the Free Army in Raqqa was weakened, battered by airstrikes and “busy fighting the regime elsewhere”.

In January 2014 Daesh captured the city. “Snatching it away from the revolutionaries who had sacrificed everything to liberate it,” the jihadists immediately established rule by fear. Some people fled, some submitted, and some resisted as best they could.

samer1“The Raqqa Diaries” are as powerful and fast-paced as a thriller, but this is brutal non-fiction, plainly and urgently told. Their author, risking his life to break Daesh’s communications siege, goes by the pseudonym ‘Samer’. His group, al-Sharqiya 24, made contact with the BBC’s Mike Thomson, and a barebones version of the book was read on Radio 4’s Today programme.

Raqqa is a generally conservative but deeply civilised city, its roots stretching to the Babylonian period. Samer describes its people as “humble” and friendly.

Under Assad, Samer’s father was detained for muttering against corruption. The family was forced to exchange its wealth for his freedom.

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

February 23, 2017 at 8:42 pm

Posted in book review, Syria

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