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Robin Yassin-Kassab

Aria

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AriaA sightly edited version of this review appeared at the Guardian.

Unwanted by her father so abandoned by her mother, a baby girl is found under a mulberry tree in wealthy north Tehran. Carrying her home to the impoverished tenements of the southern city, Behrouz – an army driver who, motherless as a boy, had once pretended to be a mother himself – names her Aria. Usually a boy’s name meaning “the Iranian race”, Behrouz intends the musical sense of the word – “little tales, cries in the night”. This ambiguity continues – as Aria grows, she wavers between opposed categories – rich or poor, educated or illiterate, orthodox Shia Muslim or something else. Years later Behrouz reflects on his charge: “she had somehow acquired the ability to be two things in one”.

His neighbours are generally hostile to this illegitimate child. “I bet with those blue eyes that girl’s a Jew or a jinn’s daughter,” says one. And Behrouz’s wife Zahra – the first in a line of false or flawed mother figures – beats and neglects the orphan, often locking her on the balcony. Her bad behaviour is glaring, but Zahra turns out to be a complex character. One of the many strengths of this strong debut by Iranian-Canadian novelist Nazanine Hozar is that every character is contextualised and therefore humanised by an explanatory back story.

And the balcony isn’t so bad. Here Aria is able to communicate with Kamran, the neighbour’s cleft-lipped son, who climbs a tree to deliver bracelets and sweets, whose love for Aria will develop through the years, and whose bitterness after rejection helps shape his later career.

Aria finally finds relief from Zahra, and makes an upward jump in class terms, when she is adopted by Fereshteh, childless heir of the Ferdowsi family, who are ex-Zoroastrians, and once silversmiths to the shahs. Aria calls her ‘Mana’, almost but not quite her Mama. The minor characters populating Fereshteh’s urban palace are distinct and memorable – the foul-mouthed old servant Massoomeh, Fereshteh’s brief husband Mahmoud, and uncle Jafar, a piano-tuning, coin-polishing, newspaper-washing obsessive-compulsive.

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

April 15, 2020 at 10:44 pm

Posted in book review, Iran

A Pure Heart

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I was very pleased to discover Rajia Hassib, an excellent writer. This review first appeared hassibat the Guardian.

“A Pure Heart”, Arab-American writer Rajia Hassib’s remarkable second novel, concerns the diverging lives of two sisters, middle-class Egyptian Muslims. Rose, an Egyptologist, marries Mark, an American journalist, and leaves Cairo for a postdoctoral fellowship in New York. She also works at the Met preparing an exhibit on ancient Egypt, curating the letters of the living to the dead.

Gameela, who bristles at Rose’s foreign marriage, is “the only covered woman in the entire family, rebellious in her conservatism”. But this is Rose’s perspective. In her own, Gameela enjoys “an anchored identification with all that surrounds her.” Until her death, apparently at random, in a suicide bombing.

As the novel opens Rose, assuring herself she’s “an archaeologist, not a grave robber”, is sifting through Gameela’s possessions, finding clues which might explain her murder. The reader expects a detective story, but what follows is richer, more complex than that – a deep dive into questions of race, gender, class, religion, and most crucially, into personality.

Gameela finds it “exhausting, to try to reinvent herself. To build a set of values so different from her parents.” Mark reacts against “the idea of a fixed narrative, the lie that is a predetermined destiny.” He finds within himself “different selves competing for attention”. In each character, these interior tensions are as finely drawn out as is the interpersonal drama between lovers, siblings, parents and children.

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

February 3, 2020 at 7:37 pm

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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

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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

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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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