Robin Yassin-Kassab


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I read at the Edinburgh Book Festival on August 12th. It was a double event, shared between me and Mohammed Hanif, author of the Booker-longlisted novel “A Case of Exploding Mangoes.” Mohammed’s book is a tragi-comic detective story which references Marquez’s “Chronicle of a Death Foretold”; and the murderee is General Zia ul-Haqq. (General Musharraf quivers between impeachment and exile as I type). It was great to meet Mohammed, not least because he knows several of the journalists I used to work with in Pakistan. One evening he cooked me a chilli-rich meal. I hope we meet again.

The death that has hung heaviest over the last week is not Zia’s but Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish’s. It was even a death foretold: the Palestine National Theatre was at Edinburgh performing a play based on the Darwish poem “Jiddariyya”, which concerns mortality and the extinction of identity, and which he wrote after heart surgery. It was a new bout of heart surgery which killed him. Such are the Edinburgh crowds that I failed to see the play. I did see Sabry Hafez give a talk on Darwish, and how the extinction of identity is for Palestinians an immediately concrete threat beyond the universal problem of physical death: Darwish was from a family of ‘mutaselaleen’, Palestinians who crept back across the border into ethnically-cleansed Israel in the months following their expulsion in 1948, and as a result his name could not appear on school registers. I wish I’d seen the play. Also sold out was a film on three screens by Iranian director Abbas Kiastorami. It showed, apparently, a Shia passion play, a taaziyeh for the martyrdom of Hussain, performed in an Iranian village.

On these rainy islands, meanwhile, one of the many vibrant religions is minor-celebritism, in whose honour I will now namecheck those I saw scurrying between the damp tents of the Book Festival. Steven Berkoff (seen, from a distance, struggling into the authors’ toilet) was there. Stimulated by my numinous brush with his presence, I later bought a ticket to see his most famous play, “Greek”, performed by EMER Productions. The play retells the Oedipus myth in London’s East End, and examines, in addition to the obvious sexual-psychological issues, the self-hatred of the working class and its twisted British patriotism. It’s very funny, very stirring, and was very well produced by EMER.

Celebrities. TV presenter Gavin Esler brooded imperially in the author’s yurt. I shook the writer-on-Islam Ziauddin Sardar’s hand. At one point my friend Idrees (of http://fanonite.org/) and I were discussing the corruption of the left when it was symbolically enacted before us: Tony Benn was approached by and then warmly shook hands with shaggy-haired patrician-nosed simplistic philosopher AC Grayling.

One minor celebrity that I saw isn’t a celebrity at all (doubtless to her infinite loss). I went to hear Agnes Owens read only because she was introduced by James Kelman, of whom more in a moment. I’d never heard of Agnes Owens in my life. But the three short stories she read were excellent: simply and elgantly told, well observed, funny, each creating from a single bare incident a breathing family or whole society in the hearer’s mind. Kelman’s introduction suggested that the reason I’d never heard of Owens may be related again to the silencing or denial of identity; her characters are Scottish and working class, and her subject matter is prosaic (meaning real). Kelman spoke of the invisible censorship and self-censorship imposed by institutional assumptions of what literature is, in which language it can be expressed, and what it is permitted to talk about. He felt that the problem for Scottish working class writers is most acute in Scotland itself.

And afterwards I shook James Kelman’s hand. I suppose he qualifies for the cult of celebritism because he won the Booker prize in 1994 but, not paying much attention to British arts pages, I hadn’t heard of him until three months ago. I read a review of “Kieron Smith, Boy”, and then read the novel, and was impressed by the consistency of the narrator’s voice. The narrator is a Glaswegian Protestant working class boy between eight and thirteen years old, sympathetic even as he internalises contradictory Scottish-British nationalism, racism, and sectarianism. He also questions what he learns, but not in an abstract way. He worries, because of his Fienian-sounding first name, that he might in fact be a Catholic, and then that God may be angry because he doesn’t cross himself. He worries about being Catholic in the way middle class English boys may worry about being homosexual. The politics in the novel is obvious but not once stated; it’s just life.

Then I read “How Late it Was, How Late”, the novel that won the Booker. It deserved to. The narrator here (although this isn’t simple, because there’s a strange and wonderful shifting between first and third person going on) wakes up blind and amnesiac after a beating by the police. He’s done plenty of time, is paranoid of all authority – very logically, hurts greatly in the most extreme of situations but is never sentimental. Not because Kelman isn’t sentimental but because the character has not an ounce of sentiment. It’s a bit like Kafka and quite a lot like some of Beckett, but for my money still more moving and much funnier. In the next few months I expect to read everything else he’s written. That happens every couple of years: you find a writer who you then must read all of. Tolstoy or Bellow or Kelman.

On my last night I went to a big theatre full of dressed-up people for music by Steve Reich and dancing choreographed by Anne De Keersmaeker. By the end I felt like running and jumping. It’s not often you get such a direct hit from art. Reich is one of the big minimalist composers. In the terms of traditional western classical music his is very repetitive indeed, but if you can learn how to listen you find all kinds of constantly changing rhythms and ideas. It’s like Moroccan drumming, and other African and Asian forms, and like the most intelligent drum and bass. I got lost in it. It had a very powerful but dual effect on the audience. Most were engrossed like me, and gave rapturous applause at the end. But many walked out angrily early on. Walk-outs are unusual in British high culture, are they not? And these walkers seemed the kind of people who, if you laugh in the right place during a Shakespeare play, shush you angrily, with tormented hyperculture expressions on their pale and drawn faces. The tickets were expensive. Did they not find out what they were going to see before they paid? Perhaps not. They clearly had very strong assumptions as to what kind of experience they could expect in the theatre. Which takes us back to Kelman’s point, and even to the attempted erasure of Darwish. Some experiences fit into ideological place; others don’t.

Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

August 19, 2008 at 12:13 am

One Response

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  1. Thanks Qunfuz for your insights into the Edinburgh Festival, and a nice description of A.C. Grayling. He has an article in the Guardian today. I really wonder what this guy’s angle is, although I have my suspicions. His articles look less like academic opinion than ‘black ops’. Today he is arguing that Miliband should be leader of the Labour party because (of all reasons):

    “Atheist leaders are not going to think they are getting messages from Beyond telling them to go to war.”

    and this gem:

    “Atheist leaders are more likely to take a literally down-to-earth view of the needs, interests and circumstances of people in the here and now”

    How the unsavoury political interests of an atheist are somehow better than a ‘believer’ is beyond me. Anyone with a brain would understand that political decisions are made on out of interests in the real world. Religious rhetoric is typically just a smokescreen for this. Bush uses religion in the same way he uses mindless flag-waving patriotism. A.C.’s presentation of the case for ‘atheism’ is simplistic and tricky. Is this political player really taken seriously as a philosopher by anyone?

    Jeff Wode

    August 21, 2008 at 9:21 am

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