Robin Yassin-Kassab

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My close associate Robin Yassin-Kassab has written a novel called The Road from Damascus. It was published by Hamish Hamilton on June 5th.

You are strongly advised to invest heavily in this book. Buy Buy Buy! Good for house insulation and firestarting as well as reading.

Clearly it is a great honour to have a book published. The exciting moment was on souq al-Khoud one hot evening more than a year ago, when my agent called to say the book was sold. But the publication itself, seeing the book in the bookshops, has softened the trauma of moving from Oman to rural Scotland.

I was in London for a publication lunch at al-Waha on Westbourne Grove. There was agent, publisher and publicist, good people all, and my friend Giles Coren, and the lovely Melissa Katsoulis. There was the writer Diran Adebayo, who was talking about ‘post-black’ universalism in relation to Obama and a girl who left Diran because she thought he was too preoccupied with black issues. Too old-fashioned. He called a friend and told him: “I’ve just been post-blacked.” There was the very intelligent Boyd Tonkin, literary editor of the Independent, and my brother Ahmad who’s in this country doing a medical attachment. There was my son Ibrahim, who easily won his eating competition with Giles.

The food in al-Waha is excellent, but I didn’t much notice it because I was excited and all was fragmentary.

After the meal I went round bookshops with Penguin people signing books so that the sellers would put ‘author-signed’ stickers on them and display them where people might buy them. Amelia told me how publishers have to pay bookshops to put books on display. Even those staff recommendations you see in some shops are not really staff recommendations at all but books the publisher has paid the seller to display. It wasn’t this way when independent bookshops still ruled.

I was interviewed by Tina Jackson for Metro:


and by David Mattin for the National (a paper recently set up by British journalists in Abu Dhabi):


I met Wassim of the Maysaloon blog (see the link above left), and went to the Revenger’s Tragedy with him. I took Ibrahim to the Dr Who exhibition at Earl’s Court, where we were both scared by a dalek. We went to the British Museum, the Natural History Museum, the IMAX 3-D cinema, and Hampstead Heath. I took him to Scotland, stayed a few days, returned to London, where I met some old friends and a new one: Muhammad Idrees of the Fanonite (see link above left), full of ideas.

The book was reviewed by Maya Jaggi in the Guardian:


Then by Tim Teeman in the Times:


And by Aamer Hussein in the Independent:


And in the evil Daily Mail, but I can’t find it online.

Allan Massie in the Scotsman:


Abu Kareem has been very kind: http://levantdream.blogspot.com/2008/07/on-qunfuzs-road-from-damascus.html

They are good reviews. They contain two main criticisms: the didactic way in which some of the ideas are presented, and having too much crammed in. Fair enough. For the first, I’d say mine is a novel of ideas (I know the term sounds pretentious), and ideas are not that popular. (I mean, Dostoyevsky got away with endless staged fights between religion and anarchism, so why not me? Is it because I is Anglo-Arab?) Beyond that, I tried not to adopt a didactic tone – I tried to banish it to Qunfuzland – but probably did some of the time, due to lack of experience. Sorry. For the second criticism, the overpacked unwieldiness of plot, perhaps I like the massiveness of my novel and the tenousness of some of its plotting. I’m not sure yet. I can’t reread the novel now – to be honest I hate the sight of it. Having written it, having reread it tens of times, having done a final edit and then a proof read, I feel a kind of nausea when I look at it. I suppose I love it, and my nausea is temporary. But it is obviously a first novel, and the novel I’m writing now has started life much more structured. I’ve learnt a lot and I’m still learning. Alan Massie said cut pages, and that’s what I think whenever I read a contemporary novel.

He also said some of the characters are stereotypes. Maya Jaggi called Gabor “a straw man set up to embody a predatory Orientalism.” I hope that Gabor was more than this, although I admit that’s how he ended up. Because of my opposition to stereotype, and because I thought I was working against stereotype when I was writing, I was at first confused by Allan Massie’s comment. But then I saw that it too was fair enough, because behind the central drama of my two main charcters, the backdrop is satiric. This means that the backdrop characters are stereotypical, or at least try to be. So fair enough, again. Nothing wrong with satire, but it is an immature form. If I’m capable of it I would like to get away from it one day. But it’s a lot easier to write satire, at least some of the time, than to write anything else.

My favourite review is the comment someone left after the previous post.

Meanwhile, for those awaiting more opinionated Middle Eastern ranting: fear not. Normal service will be resumed shortly.

Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

June 22, 2008 at 3:02 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

11 Responses

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  1. This book sounds amazing- well done! Alf alf mabrook! I am certainly following your advice and going out to buy it.
    Btw you mention that the British Muslim novel is coming of age…can you suggest a few titles and are there any mor specifically British Arab ones?
    It also mentions that you graduated from Oxford- which college were you at? I’m just about to leave Wadham and am still deliberating on my next move…praying for some answers to appear sometime soon 🙂


    June 22, 2008 at 3:57 pm

  2. Allah yubarik feeki, Arima. That was the journalist saying the British Muslim novel is coming of age, not me. erm.. I read and enjoyed Maps for Lost Lovers by Nadeem Aslam. I wrote about it on this blog. Mohsin Hamid is good, but more Pakistani than British.

    I was at Keble. Terry Eagleton taught at Wadham in those days.


    June 22, 2008 at 4:56 pm

  3. Congratulations Qunfuz. A fantastic achievement. I don’t really understand what some of these people mean by this ‘too much crammed in’ business? There is quite a bit of new information in here, or alot of fresh perspectives on these issues. However, I think the novel works very well in this sense, and your writing style is very pleasant to read. Well done.


    Jeff Wode

    Jeff Wode

    June 23, 2008 at 6:16 pm

  4. That’s brilliant news Qunfuz. Mabrook. It’s gone straight to the top of my reading list – I’m going to get it next week.

    And I agree with Arima – I need to know more British-Arab novels. In fact, it was Arima who introduced me to my first: Only in London by Hanan Ash-Sheikh.


    June 23, 2008 at 9:34 pm

  5. Welcome back to sunny Scotland!!! Welcome to the neighborhood!!!.

    Well done on your book. I took my time to read it, I know that!!. This was only due to my multiple mood swings.

    The book itself is great. I enjoyed reading it a lot. Sami can be easily anyone of us “i.e Syrians or Arabs in the West”. However, I am not sure the book will make me pray again as somebody wrote in his comment in the last post. It might actually push me further in the opposite direction, and that in my view is good!!.

    I am awaiting your second book, I hope you are working hard on writing it.

    Hope to see you soon!!


    A. Kaier

    June 25, 2008 at 12:59 am

  6. I am enjoying your book immensely – having reached page 101 in 24 hours. I shall review it on my website (positively) when I have finished it.


    Tom Cunliffe

    June 27, 2008 at 8:22 pm

  7. And what is your website, Tom?

    Ahmad – I’m trying to call you habibi, but the Glasgow number I have doesn’t reach you.


    June 27, 2008 at 9:48 pm

  8. Hi there, I’m Claire Chambers, a Senior Lecturer in English Literature at Leeds Metropolitan, with a particular interest in South Asian literatue and British Muslim fiction. My details can be found on http://www.lmu.ac.uk/as/cs/C3D62F95C1C64A0D93E3D1AC420F8923.htm

    I’ve just finished the novel and I absolutely loved it! I wouldn’t worry about the comments that it tries to cram too much in – I think it’s pretty clear it’s a novel of ideas, and the breadth of those ideas are what makes the novel so exciting. Maya Jaggi’s criticism of the character Gabor as an Orientalist stereotype is perhaps more valid – I did feel he turned into something of an ogre in the aborted seduction scene, which was a shame as I’d liked him up to then.

    Do you know Leila Aboulela’s writing? She’s an Arab writer with strong roots in Scotland, so there are some connections. She’s been described as the first ‘halal novelist’ (in The Muslim News). Would you see your own writing as halal? Perhaps not with all the sex and drugs, lol!

    If you’d be willing to talk to me about your work, I’d love to interview you some time for possible publication in a scholarly journal. I’ve quite a good track record, having published interviews with the Indian writers Amitav Ghosh and Vikram Chandra in the Journal of Postcolonial Writing and Wasafiri, respectively. I could send you offprints of these if you’re interested. Please let me know if you’d like to talk about your work, and maybe I could meet you in Scotland some time – perhaps during the Edinburgh Festival?

    Thanks again for a splendid read – I’m recommending you to all my friends and hope to teach the novel in the not-too-distant future.

    All best wishes, Claire


    July 3, 2008 at 12:03 pm

  9. Thanks for your comments, Claire. Yes, I’d be honoured to talk to you, at Edinburgh or elsewhere. I don’t want to put my email address here, but it isn’t very difficult to find on the internet. Otherwise, you could send a ‘comment’ with your email, which I won’t publish on the blog. Or, you could get in touch with me via Amelia Fairney, publicity director at penguin Books.


    July 3, 2008 at 1:12 pm

  10. amazing book-it truly is one ‘of ideas’and not pretentious to say so…

    in other matters: i’m separated by about 6 degrees from your mate diran adebayo.i’ve got some creative ideas about how he might be able to move beyond his post-blacking incident and progress to becoming’post-post-blacked’…alas, i’m unaware of his relationship status these days, and too shy to inquire of mutual friends…you’re an ‘idea’ man-assistance please!


    August 1, 2008 at 4:27 am

  11. artgirl – if you send me your email address (by writing a comment here, which I won’t publish) I can send you Diran’s.


    August 5, 2008 at 6:28 pm

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