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Robin Yassin-Kassab

Interview with Mohsin Hamid

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mohsin-hamidIt was a pleasure to interview Mohsin Hamid, author of ‘The Reluctant Fundamentalist’ and ‘Exit West’, for the National. This here is the less edited version.

How did you become a writer? Put another way, why do you write?

I’ve always been a fantasist. Like many children, I used to play make-believe, and I still spend several hours a day living in my imagination. Why didn’t I grow out of it? Most people do, or at least are happy for their imaginings to be guided – they enter worlds made by others, in books or films.

I suspect it’s because I’m uncomfortable with the world as it is. I am mixed and mongrelised. I’ve lived my life between Pakistan, the UK and the US, so I’m foreign everywhere. Then, as I get older, my parents’ generation is passing away. Like everyone, I can’t provide the level of security for my children I’d like to. I experience the vulnerability that we all share.

I’m the type of person who requires unreal activity in order to function. If I don’t write fiction for extended periods I become unsettled, anxious, uncertain. I’m less of a pain to be around when I’m writing.

Your writing is distinguished by its clarity. The prose seems effortless, and the volumes are fairly thin. Yet once you told me a novel takes seven years to write. So how much rewriting is necessary?

My first two novels took seven years each. The third took six, and the fourth only four. I start with some ideas. I explore and build them up. I write an outline and fill notebooks. I even write a draft. Oftentimes these ideas don’t work, or they lead to a dead end. Then I may write a draft which shares no words with the first but is nevertheless influenced by it. The first draft of “Exit West” looked like the final product – the first time it happened – though many ideas from the draft were abandoned. I start with something that demands engagement. As I deal with it, my thoughts begin to clarify.

I’m fortunate in having honest readers – my wife first, but also my agent, and editors. And I write for an imaginary reader, not Pakistani or American, not male or female. In other words, I write novels that I’d like to read, that leave a lot open. I write half-novels if you like, not very long, which leave space for the reader to react and imagine.

Your writing, though very accessible, is often formally adventurous. What does form mean to you?

Form is the starting point. I use it in the same way poets used to use metre and rhyme, not as a restriction but as a set of rules to produce inspiration. Form makes possible the kind of story that readers can relate to intuitively. Form brings with it rhythms and patterns. Even if these are not evident, the way the mind works means they are helpful. Form provides vital architecture. The correct form depends on the nature of the story. This is what I must figure out: what’s the story about? What form suits it? What language fits the form?

You see, I don’t accept the notion that there is a stable thing called reality which the novel simply reflects. Humans are complex bio-chemical machines, and reality blurs quickly. What parts of me are talking to what parts of you? My construct of myself is a fiction. I often behave in ways that contradict this fiction. Through form, the novel can reveal the way in which reality is constructed, and how our selves themselves are constructed. Form allows writer and reader to enter a shared domain. We are aware it’s made up, so it can be still more potent than what we call reality.

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

September 3, 2017 at 11:19 pm

Posted in book review, Interview, Pakistan

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A Syrianized World

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fascistsAlongside the chants of ‘Blood and Soil’, ‘You Will Not Replace Us’, ‘White Lives Matter’ and ‘Fuck You Faggots’, some of the privileged fascists rallying at Charlottesville, Virginia gave their opinions on the Syrian issue. “Support the Syrian Arab Army,” they said. “Fight the globalists. Assad did nothing wrong. Replacing Qaddafi was a fucking mistake.”

It’s worth noting that these talking points – support for Assad and the conspiracy theories which absolve him of blame for mass murder and ethnic cleansing, the Islamophobia which underpins these theories, the notion that ‘globalists’ staged the Arab Revolutions, and the idea that the Libyan revolution was entirely a foreign plot – are shared to some extent or other by most of what remains of the left.

In 2011 I expected that Syria’s predominantly working-class uprising against a sadistic regime that is both neo-liberal and fascist would receive the staunch support of leftists around the world. I was wrong. Britain’s Stop the War coalition marched furiously when it seemed America might bomb the regime’s military assets, but ignored America’s bombing of Jihadist groups and Syrian civilians, as well as Assad’s conventional and chemical attacks on defenceless people, and Russian and Iranian war crimes. Key figures in Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party followed the StW line. Diane Abbott called the police when Syrians attempted to speak at a StW event. During the final assault on liberated Aleppo last winter, Emily Thornberry suggested to Channel 4 News that Assad protected Christians, that the problem would be solved if ‘jihadists’ left, and that the Assadist occupation of Homs was an example to be emulated – never mind that liberated Aleppo contained democratic councils, that its revolutionaries included people of all religions and sects, or that 80% of Assad’s troops in that battle were foreign Shia jihadists organised by Iran – nor that the vast majority of Homs’s people remain in refugee camps, too terrified to return. John McDonnell gave a speech in Trafalgar Square on May Day under a Stalinist flag and the Baathist flag – that’s the flag of a previous genocide and the flag of a genocide still continuing. It wasn’t him who put the flags up, but he didn’t ask for them to be taken down.

In 2011 I should have known better. Leftists had long made excuses for the Soviet occupation of eastern Europe and the genocidal occupation of Afghanistan. Noam Chomsky, to pick one, made excuses for Pol Pot and Milosevic (today, of course, he rehearses the conspiracy theories which claim Assad’s innocence of sarin gas attacks, and channels like Democracy Now  repeatedly offer him and others a platform to do so).

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

August 12, 2017 at 4:57 pm

Posted in Syria, the Left, UK, USA

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We Crossed A Bridge and it Trembled

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This review first appeared at the Guardian. (I would recommend my and Leila’s book Burning Country as the best social, political, historical and cultural contextualiser of the Syrian Revolution, and Yassin al-Haj Saleh’s The Impossible Revolution as the best analysis – and one of the best political books you’ll ever read about any topic – but I would certainly recommend this remarkable book for its method. The entire story is told through the voices of Syrians themselves.)

bridgeEveryone talks about Syrians, but very few are actually talk to them. Perhaps that’s why Syria’s revolution and war have been so badly misunderstood in the West – variously as a US-led regime-change plot, or an ancient Sunni-Shia conflict, or a struggle between secularism and Jihadism.

“We Crossed a Bridge and It Trembled” bucks the trend. Here the story is told entirely through the mouths of Wendy Pearlman’s Syrian interviewees, hundreds of them, from all social backgrounds, Christians and Muslims, Ismailis and Druze, rural and urban, middle-class and poor. These best of all possible informants – the people who made the events, and who suffer the consequences – provide not only gripping eyewitness accounts but erudite analysis and sober reflection.

The introduction, alongside a concise overview of developments from 1970 to the present, describes Pearlman’s method. She interviewed refugees (who are therefore overwhelmingly anti-regime) in locations stretching from Jordan to Germany. And she interviewed in Arabic, enabling “a connection that would have been impossible had I relied on an interpreter.” The result is testament both to Syrian expressive powers and the translation’s high literary standard.

These heart-stopping tales of torment and triumph are perfectly enchained, chronologically and thematically, to reflect the course of the crisis. They begin with life under Hafez al-Assad’s regime, “not a government but a mafia”, when children were trained to lie for their families’ security. “It was a state of terror,” says Ilyas, a dentist. “Every citizen was terrified. The regime was also terrified.”

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

August 12, 2017 at 8:41 am

Posted in book review, Syria

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The City Always Wins

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City Cover ExtraAn edited version of this review appeared first at the Guardian.

“The City Always Wins”, the astounding debut novel by British-Egyptian film-maker Omar Robert Hamilton, opens after the seeming triumph of the Egyptian revolution’s early stage has passed, though it is remembered, cinematically, as “an explosion of light, sound and epic consequence with no room for ego or doubt.”

Now the revolutionaries are flailing in various tides of counter-revolution. The new Muslim Brotherhood government forces through a constitution which ignores key revolutionary demands. Brotherhood ‘security’ and a revived police force torture and murder at will. The army kills too, and prepares to seize total control. To emphasise these reversals, parts one, two and three of the novel – though the story moves forward chronologically – are titled respectively Tomorrow, Today and Yesterday.

Crowds are evoked through disputatious voices. A large and striking cast of characters struggles in night-time streets, chokes in traffic or on tear gas, argues in bars, and waits in hospitals and morgues. They are brought together through the figure of Khalil. Palestinian-Egyptian, and American born, Khalil’s problematised nationality, and people’s responses to it, is one way in which the novel questions the nature of community. Khalil’s partner Mariam is a medical worker seeking a life worthy enough to “conquer death with memory”, and a feminist in the way she lives and loves, though she never mentions the word.

Khalil co-founds Chaos, a magazine, website and podcast (in the real world, Hamilton co-founded a media collective called Mosireen). The office “becomes a cerebral cortex at the centre of the information war.” Significantly, the novel begins at the massacre of (mainly Christian) protestors outside Maspero, the state media HQ. Later, Khalil will have reason to repeat: “I wish we had taken Maspero.”

The revolutionaries set up illegal radio transmissions, write manifestos, crowd-source, make public art. Increasingly they also tend the wounded, comfort the bereaved, and find lawyers for the detained. Some of the people here are real, like the imprisoned activist Alaa Abd el-Fattah, Hamilton’s cousin, to whom he dedicates the book.

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

August 4, 2017 at 7:59 am

Posted in book review, Egypt

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‘Sectarianization’

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Felipe DanaAP

The remains of the Nuri mosque amidst the remains of the ancient city of Mosul, Iraq. photo by Felipe Dana/ AP

An edited version of this article was published in Newsweek.

In his January 20 Inaugural Address, President Trump promised to “unite the civilised world against radical Islamic terrorism which we will eradicate completely from the face of the earth.”

To be fair, he’s only had six months, but already the project is proving a little more complicated than hoped. First, ISIS has been putting up a surprisingly hard fight against its myriad enemies (some of whom are also radical Islamic terrorists). The battle for Mosul, Iraq’s third-largest city, is almost concluded, but at enormous cost to Mosul’s civilians and the Iraqi army. Second, and more importantly, there is no agreement as to what will follow ISIS, particularly in eastern Syria. Here a new Great Game for post-ISIS control is being played out with increasing violence between the United States and Iran. Russia and a Kurdish-led militia are also key actors. If Iran and Russia win out (and at this point they are far more committed than the US), President Bashar al-Assad, whose repression and scorched earth paved the way for the ISIS takeover in the first place, may in the end be handed back the territories he lost, now burnt and depopulated. The Syrian people, who rose in democratic revolution six years ago, are not being consulted.

The battle to drive ISIS from Raqqa – its Syrian stronghold – is underway. The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), supported by American advisors, are leading the fight. Civilians, as ever, are paying the price. UN investigators lament a “staggering loss of life” caused by US-led airstrikes on the city.

Though it’s a multi-ethnic force, the SDF is dominated by the armed wing of the Democratic Union Party, or PYD, whose parent organisation is the Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK. The PKK is listed as a terrorist organisation by the United States (but of the leftist-nationalist rather than Islamist variety), and is currently at war with Turkey, America’s NATO ally. The United States has nevertheless made the SDF its preferred local partner, supplying weapons and providing air cover, much to the chagrin of Turkey’s President Erdogan.

Now add another layer of complexity. Russia also provides air cover to the SDF, not to fight ISIS, but when the mainly Kurdish force is seizing Arab-majority towns from the non-jihadist anti-Assad opposition. The SDF capture of Tel Rifaat and other opposition-held towns in 2016 helped Russia and the Assad regime to impose the final siege on Aleppo.

Eighty per cent of Assad’s ground troops encircling Aleppo last December were not Syrian, but Shia militiamen from Lebanon, Iraq and Afghanistan, all armed, funded and trained by Iran. That put the American-backed SDF and Iran in undeclared alliance.

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

July 19, 2017 at 8:55 pm

A Good Country

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goodcountryThis review was first published at the National.

Rez (or Alireza) is growing up in comfortable Orange County, California, where high school students drive their own cars and can afford to stay in hotels. His parents are Kurdish immigrants from Iran, though Rez considers himself, at first at least, to be thoroughly American. America, as his father says, is “a good country”, one deserving of its citizens’ gratitude.

The environment is multicultural, but there is also the issue of ‘turf’. The Mexicans stick with the Mexicans, the Vietnamese with the Vietnamese, and so on. Rez hangs out with white friends – all of them called Pete – until a disastrous road trip causes him to be ostracised. Then he befriends Arash, a Syrian-American boy, and continues his old pursuits – smoking dope, listening to hip-hop, and chasing girls.

His ethnic ‘identity’ is therefore already an issue, but it becomes much more urgent when a fellow student’s brother is injured in the 2013 Boston marathon bombing. Unable to reach the Chechen brothers who perpetrated the atrocity, this student galvanises a harassment campaign against Rez and other Muslim-origin students. In the wider society beyond school too, Rez’s name and appearance lay him open to suspicion and hostility.

When Arash’s academic prospects are abruptly blighted, he turns to Islam for solace. Rez and his girlfriend Fatima try to understand. They visit a mosque where, although Rez doesn’t know how to pray, he finds kindness, dignity and – something related to ‘turf’ – brotherhood.

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

June 16, 2017 at 7:17 pm

Posted in book review

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Pais En Llamas

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paisI’m very happy to say that “Burning Country” has been published in Spanish by Capitan Swing. It’s designed beautifully too.

Leila and I visited Barcelona, Zaragoza and Madrid to give talks and interviews. Here, for instance, is a long radio interview with RTVE, and here is an interview in El Nacional of Catalunia. And here’s an article in El Periodico.

The audiences were fairly small (the largest in Zaragoza), and there was an online campaign against Leila for being an ‘imperialist’ and a ‘Salafi rat’. But those who did turn up were very engaged indeed (many of them libertarian leftists, the sort who actually deserve the label). We met some great Syrians, some of whom had escaped to Spain decades ago in the era of Hafez al-Assad, Bashaar’s father. We met a young and determined revolutionary from Idlib who has shrapnel in his body and is only partially-sighted since a sarin attack. Our wonderful friend Elisa, and her wonderful parents, fed and hosted us in Zaragoza. And in Lavapies in Madrid, where we have really good friends, we were looked after by Leila Nachawati Rego, one of the best. I’m really hoping for an English translation of her novel of the Syrian Revolution, “Cuando La Revolucion Termine.”

Update: Here is a recording of the Zaragoza event, me and Leila al-Shami with Leila Nachawati Rego, with translation by the valiant Elisa Marvena.

O, and another newspaper interview.

Plus, we’re on this radio show, starting at around 37 minutes.

And… another print interview.

Plus, esglobal chose the book as one of ten to read over the holidays.

Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

June 14, 2017 at 11:44 am

Posted in Spain