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Robin Yassin-Kassab

The Parisian

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This review first appeared at the Guardian.

parisian“The Parisian”, Isabella Hammad’s remarkably accomplished debut novel, very quickly binds the reader’s attention. Ranging from Nablus in the dying days of the Ottoman Empire via Istanbul and Cairo to Montpellier and Paris, and always connecting the personal and the political, our hero Midhat Kamal’s journey makes delightful reading.

The sensation of reality is intense, at various levels. Time and place are fully imagined, with constant attention to the details of dress, furniture, architecture, and attitude. With Midhat enrolled in medicine at Montpellier and the World War One dead stacking up, the ideas and prejudices of the French historical moment are rendered most successfully in extended party scenes – Midhat speaking “with the accidental definiteness of a person using a second language.”

Relationships between characters are very precisely noticed, and the characters themselves are brought to life by a fierce interiority. Midhat’s sense of himself, through his different ages and states of consciousness, is a sustained theme, from his discovery at Istanbul’s Lycée Impérial of “the electric feeling of aloneness, victorious and agonising, unearthly.” The physical correlative is consciousness of “the hard outline of his body”, which transforms when he falls in love: “the awareness of his limbs was an agony, he wanted to get out of them, to be elsewhere.”

As confidence deepens between Midhat and his host Dr Molineu’s daughter Jeanette, Midhat attempts to learn more about Jeanette’s mother, a suicide. He studies her diagnosis of “hystero-neurasthenia”, and the influence upon her of the mysterious Sylvain Leclair. But the pleasures of investigation are superseded by a crisis when Midhat learns he himself has been an object of study for Doctor Molineu, part of a project “linking philology and development”, to analyse “the Muslim as a deviation from the onward progression”.

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

April 22, 2019 at 7:50 am

Posted in book review

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Godsend

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This review was published at The Guardian.

godsendAden Grace Sawyer, eighteen years old, is “a serious girl, an asker of questions.” Alienated from her comfortable Californian suburban surroundings by family breakdown – her father has left home following an affair, and her mother has slipped into alcoholism – she turns to Islam for consolation.

Her choice appears guided in equal measure by a genuinely spiritual urge for submission to the transcendent, and a more prosaically youthful defiance. Still in the Bay Area, she dons Afghan-style shalwar kameez, and crops her hair rather than wear a hijab. Next she plans to migrate to a godly country. Because Decker, her blustering boyfriend and travelling companion, has Afghan roots and cousins in Karachi, they head for Pakistan.

Aden’s father – significantly, a professor of Islamic studies at Berkeley – has warned her of the limited “possibilities for a woman in that part of the world”. Aden has too much attitude to accept any sort of limitation and so reinvents herself, improbably but credibly, as a boy. With bandaged breasts, and “hidden by her clear and perfect strangeness”, she is restyled as Suleyman, Quranic student and potential holy warrior. Soon she’s attending an all-male madrasa in the tribal areas of the Pakistani-Afghan borderlands. “So far away,” she whispers triumphantly. Too far for unlucky Decker, who only planned an adventure holiday. To sustain her role, Aden refuses to continue sleeping with him.

The War on Terror theme can quickly reduce even great writers to cliche and worse. (John Updike’s lamentable “Terrorist” may be the worst of the genre.) “Godsend”, however – John Wray’s fifth novel – is entirely convincing, in part, no doubt, because Wray has done his research.

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

January 22, 2019 at 6:45 pm

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A Labyrinth of Suffering

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qusaii-side-nov2013

Kassem Eid in Moadamiya

(A slightly edited version of this article – which reviews books by Alia Malek, Rania Abouzeid, Kassem Eid, and Marwan Hisham and Molly Crabapple – was first published at Prospect Magazine. If you’re interested in more Syrian perspectives on the revolution and war, I recommend Wendy Pearlman’s oral history – my review here – Yassin al Haj Saleh’s brilliant political writing – my intro to the book is here, Samar Yazbek’s books – Woman in the Crossfire reviewed here, and The Crossing reviewed here – and of course our book Burning Country, which gives a grassroots account – information on that here.)

“Syrians. I hated the deceptive simplicity of that word. We were twenty-three million people. Soldiers and fighters. Revolutionaries and counter-revolutionaries. The torturer and the victim. How could one word encompass us all?” – Marwan Hisham

Escorted by Russian bombers and Iranian militia, the Assad regime has returned in recent months to key parts of the Syrian heartland. In its wake come deportations, mass arrests, torture and field executions. Secure in its impunity, the regime has begun issuing death notices for the tens of thousands murdered in detention since 2011. President Putin calls for the regime’s ‘normalisation’ against this backdrop, and in the run-up to the Helsinki summit, it seems he won Donald Trump and Benjamin Netanyahu’s acquiescence.

The democratic revolution is defeated, the country destroyed, and what follows will not resemble peace. Assad’s throne has been saved, but at the dual price of Syrian social cohesion and regional stability. From the originary counter-revolutionary violence, secondary and tertiary conflicts now bloom – Sunni-Shia, Turkish-Kurdish, Israeli-Iranian – while refugee flows and terror scares have infected our politics here. Syria will continue to demand our engagement, and not only for the sake of its vast human tragedy.

Of the expanding shelf of Syria books, the most explanatory (or least ideological) tend to start from the diverse experiences of Syrians themselves. Four recently published books do just that, in very different ways.

Both chronologically and socially, “The Home that was Our Country”, by Syrian-American journalist Alia Malek, has the widest focus. It begins at World War One, when half a million Syrians died of famine, and Armenian genocide-survivors arrived from Turkey. The author’s great-grandfather Abdeljawwad, a landowning ‘notable’ and entrepreneur, shelters one refugee before participating in the 1920s uprising against the French – whose mandate brought martial law, aerial bombardment, and an Alawi-dominated army. By turns generous host and manipulative patriarch, equally attached to tradition and modernity, Abdeljawwad is a Christian, school founder, and womaniser.

Every character in these densely populated pages is as complex. After grandmother Salma – a heavy smoker called ‘sister of men’ – moves to multicultural Damascus, the fates and interactions of her relatives and neighbours illustrate the declining fortunes of society-at-large, as the imperfect post-colonial democracy is succeeded by coups and counter-coups, then the Baath’s one-party state, and finally Hafez al-Assad’s one-man party. Now people (including Salma’s brother) disappear for the slightest dissidence. Their relatives fear asking too many questions. Religious coexistence, once a given, strains under the mutual fear and suspicion built into the new dispensation. Infrastructural stagnation accompanies seeping moral corruption: “If people disregarded anyone’s welfare but their own, it was in part because the state made Syrians feel that everyone was on his or her own; people were being pitted against one another.”

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

September 15, 2018 at 5:19 pm

Is Corbynism anti-Semitic?

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corbynIs Corbynism anti-Semitic? My answer won’t please many people.

It won’t please those who believe that criticism of Israel, and especially questioning Israel’s ‘right to exist’, is inherently anti-Semitic.

I think it’s important to recognise that Israel has existed for seven decades, and that therefore several generations of Israeli Jews exist. These people are no longer Poles, Germans, Russians or Iraqis. They are Israelis, and they have no other home than Israel. Any solution which involves driving them out is no solution. (But this is a straw man; a large majority of Palestinians recognise that Jews are staying in Israel – and even if they didn’t recognise it, they are in no position to drive the Jews out. What Palestinians are struggling for is either a small state of their own next to Israel, or equal rights within Israel-Palestine.)

But I don’t believe it is inherently anti-Semitic to question Israel’s right to exist. I don’t believe any state has an inherent ‘right to exist’. I believe rights belong to human beings, not to states. Anarchists, for instance, question (or simply oppose) the existence of all states without exception. I certainly question the existence of Israel as a ‘Jewish’ state, just as I question the existence of Syria as an ‘Arab’ republic, and of Iran as an ‘Islamic’ republic. If we must have states, I think they should belong to everyone who lives within them, not only to members of a particular religion, ethnicity or ideology. Israel is particularly open to criticism because it was founded less than a century ago on a massive ethnic cleansing, and because, under its apartheid-like dispensation, roughly half of its subjects are disenfranchised in some way or other.

So that alienates the Zionists. But my answer will also upset Corbynites, because it’s clear to me that Corbynism is indeed anti-Semitic. This is because Corbynism substitutes demonology for analysis; that is, it sees the world in terms of goody and baddy states. The USA, Israel and Saudi Arabia are baddies, and Iran and Russia are goodies. Once such a simplistic schema is operational, it becomes very easy to overgeneralise, and thus to erase reality. In this way the predominantly working-class revolution against fascism in Syria, a movement for democracy and social justice, was understood simply as a US-Zionist-Saudi plot against a glorious resistance regime. Syrian revolutionaries were cast as, at best, innocent children manipulated by the devilish white man, or, at worst, savage jihadist barbarians. This is how leftism (or at least the parody version which we see in the 21st Century) unconsciously applies racism in order to serve fascism and (Russian and Iranian) imperialism.

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

August 4, 2018 at 12:27 pm

Posted in leftism

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Disoriental

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disorientalMy review of this excellent novel was first published at the Guardian.

From a fertility clinic waiting room, a single woman seated between couples – Kimiâ – recounts her family history. She promises at the start to follow “the natural fits and starts” of memory, and her narrative jumps across a time scale from a grandmother’s birth in a late 19th Century harem at the foot of the Alborz mountains (the great-grandfather’s thirtieth child), through Kimiâ’s Tehran childhood, to her present incarnation as a twenty-five-year-old French-Iranian punk fan.

“Disoriental”, Négar Djavadi’s sophisticated debut novel, teems with fully-realised characters. Kimiâ ’s immediate relatives – her parents Darius and Sara (both political activists), her big sisters, and uncles numbered one to six – are the most closely observed.

Djavadi’s beguiling tale-telling, cynical and lyrical by turns, extends to an account of Iranian history. Imperialist assaults, coups, revolts, and waves of repression crash against the steady background of a “phallocratic society”. Before Khomeini and compulsory veiling there was Shah Reza Pahlavi, the “pauper-turned-king” who “used a special militia to tear the veils from women’s heads.”

Kimiâ  (meaning ‘alchemy’) grows up a tomboy in a country which doesn’t recognise the concept. Nor – though it tolerates transexuality – does official Iran accept the existence of homosexuality. President Ahmadinejad is quoted: “We don’t have this phenomenon.”

But for now sexuality is the least of Kimiâ ’s problems, as first the Shah’s police and then the mullahs target her parents. The family escapes, but there’s no happy ending. Kimiâ ’s father is broken in exile, avoiding the metro escalator because it’s “for them” (the French). Djavadi treats the immigrant condition with intelligence and compassion, exploring how to integrate into a culture “you have to disintegrate first”.

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

July 28, 2018 at 10:54 am

Posted in book review, France, Iran

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Introducing al-Haj Saleh’s Impossible Revolution

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Yassin and Samira

Yassin and Samira

It was an honour to write the foreword to Yassin al-Haj Saleh’s indispensable collection of essays “The Impossible Revolution”. If you haven’t read the book yet, you should. Yassin is perhaps Syria’s most important political dissident, and a thinker of global importance.

Here are some extracts from my foreword:

Yassin al-Haj Saleh is a burningly relevant political thinker. Unlike most of his counterparts, he speaks not only from theory but from a lived experience of repression, revolution, counterrevolution, and war. Objective but never neutral, he is engaged and in tune with the rapid shifts and turns of his tormented society, urgently seeking answers to the most wide-ranging and inclusive of questions, and unearthing more, previously unthought-of questions as he goes.

His context is Syria, where 12 million are homeless, perhaps half a million dead. Syria which, six years into the upheaval, has become a truly global issue. The war Assad unleashed to marginalise and destroy a democratic opposition has given rise to a series of increasingly complicated conflicts, often bearing ethnic or sectarian tones. Fanned by overlapping, sometimes competing foreign interventions, these conflicts have infected the region and the world in turn. Regional and international imperialisms are feasting on Syria. Battle lines and forced demographic changes are fueling a hunger to redraw the maps. The spectre of Syrian refugees and/or terrorists, meanwhile, is shaping America’s domestic politics and helping undo the European Union. As hopes for freedom and prosperity are crushed, new strains are injected into old authoritarianisms, and 21st Century forms of nativism are taking root, west and east.

Yassin speaks from the heart of this turmoil. Yet this in your hand is the first book-length English translation of his work.

It’s been a long time coming.

“They simply do not see us,” he laments. If we don’t see Syrian revolutionaries, if we don’t hear their voices when they talk of their experience, their motivations and hopes, then all we are left with are (inevitably orientalist) assumptions, constraining ideologies, and pre-existent grand narratives. These big stories, or totalising explanations, include a supposedly inevitable and ancient sectarian conflict underpinning events, and a jihadist-secularist binary, as well as the idea, running against all the evidence, that Syria is a re-run of Iraq, a Western-led regime-change plot. No need to attend to detail, runs the implication, nor to Syrian oppositional voices, for we already know what needs to be known.

Purveyors of such myths, the ideologues and regime-embedded journalists, the ‘experts’ who don’t speak more than a few words of Arabic, often seem to rely on each other to confirm and develop their theories. They brief politicians, they dominate opinion pages, learned journals and TV panels. And we the public, to a large extent, rely on them too. We see through their skewed lens, through a certain mythic framework which ‘covers’ the Syrian revolution only in the sense of hiding it from view. As a result we are unable either to offer solidarity to this most profound and thoroughgoing of contemporary social upheavals, or to learn any lessons from it.

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

July 20, 2018 at 12:35 pm

Arise! Again…

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I talked to Bill Fletcher on the Arise! show about the Assad-Russian assault on Deraa in south west Syria, the inevitable continuation of war, relations between the various occupying powers, the contradictions of US policy, the Israel-Iran clash, the collaboration of all states against the revolution … and so on.

You can listen to it here.

(I also talked to Bill in April. You can hear that here.)

Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

June 26, 2018 at 8:32 pm

Posted in Uncategorized