Robin Yassin-Kassab

Archive for March 2010


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This review was published in the Independent.

Abdulrahman Zeitoun was born in Jebleh, on Syria’s Mediterranean coast. Decades later and thousand of miles away he awakes from dreaming of a fishing expedition out of his childhood home: “Beside him he could hear his wife Kathy breathing, her exhalations not unlike the shushing of water against the hull of a wooden boat.” As so often in Dave Eggers’s latest novel, the docudrama “Zeitoun”, a caught image opens a window on an ocean of memory and a state of mind.

Zeitoun now lives in New Orleans, where he runs a painting and building company and owns several buildings. He’s a dedicated businessman, father, husband, and Muslim. His painter’s van is emblazoned with a rainbow, which Zeitoun soon discovers has gay associations for Americans. But he doesn’t change it. “Anyone who had a problem with rainbows, he said, would surely have trouble with Islam.”

Kathy, practical and strong-willed, was brought up a Baptist in Baton Rouge. Attracted by “the doubt sown into the faith” and “the sense of dignity embodied by the Muslim women she knew,” she converted to Islam after her failed first marriage. Some years later she married the much older Zeitoun. Eggers describes their domestic bustle and warmth, and their personal irritations. For Zeitoun, these include his children’s wastefulness and obsession with pop music, and his alienation in a family of women. Kathy is bothered by Zeitoun’s stubbornness and her own family’s Islamophobic nagging.

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

March 29, 2010 at 9:04 pm

Oman Again

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To break up the winter I spent most of January visiting my brother-in-law and friends in Oman, where I used to live, and my sisters in Doha, Qatar.

Since Hamad bin Khalifa Aal Thani deposed his corrupt father, Qatar’s powerful oil and gas economy has expanded and diversified. The state follows an interesting and idiosyncratic foreign policy. It hosts the largest American miltary base in the Gulf, and it also hosts – against American and Arab objections – al-Jazeera. In terms of the regional ‘Resistance Front versus US-client’ dialectic, Qatar stands in the middle, and in 2008 it helped negotiate a Lebanese compromise between the two sides. Wahhabism is influential (my five-year-old niece wants to attend ballet classes, but ballet classes are banned because the costume is considered unIslamic – even for five-year-old girls in a man-free environment), yet women can vote and drive.

Overall, I don’t much like the place. I had a good time with my family, ate some fine meals, went to a book fair. But there’s a bad power game going on in Qatar. Nobody is smiling. I met some very pleasant Qataris – the staff in the excellent Islamic Art Museum, some men in a bowling alley, a retired pearl diver – but I also noticed many refusing to descend from their cars at the grocery shop. (Arabs often expect take-away food to be brought to the car, but not groceries.) Expatriates form a majority of the population. As elsewhere in the Gulf, expatriate wage and class status can be mapped reasonably smoothly onto ethnicity, with white Westerners on top, followed by Lebanese, then other Arabs, then Indonesians, Pakistanis and Indians. Expatriates don’t have citizenship rights, although the infrastructure depends on them. Many contemporary Qataris, in contrast to their proud grandfathers, are obese. The city is one of close walls. The surrounding desert is flat, pale, and begrimed by industry.

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

March 15, 2010 at 2:41 pm

Posted in Oman, Qatar, Travel

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A Struggler in Context

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An edited version of this review appeared at the Electronic Intifada.

“From afar,” writes Ramzy Baroud (founder of the indispensable Palestine Chronicle), “Gaza’s reality, like that of all of Palestine, is often presented without cohesion, without proper context; accounts of real life in Gaza are marred with tired assumptions and misrepresentations that deprive the depicted humans of their names, identities and very dignity.”

Baroud’s “My Father was a Freedom Fighter” is an antidote to the media’s decontextualisation and dehumanisation of Palestinians. It’s also an instant classic, one of the very best books to have examined the Palestinian tragedy.

As the title suggests, Baroud relates the life of his father, Mohammed Baroud. Each step in the story is located in a larger familial, social, economic and political context, one distinguished by eyewitness accounts and made concrete by an almost encyclopedic wealth of detail. But neither the book’s detail nor its deep reflection conflict with its compulsive readability. It’s quite an achievement.

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

March 3, 2010 at 11:34 pm

The Unnamed

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Blake's Nebuchadnezzar

An edited version of this review appeared in the New Statesman.

When death is distant and life is taken for granted our culture forgets God – meaning the God problem – and focuses on bitching instead. This was the focus of Joshua Ferris’s first novel “Then We Came to the End”, an office comedy asking what ultimately is valuable in our bureaucratised existence.

Now Ferris’s eagerly-awaited second novel “The Unnamed” imagines a man forced from a world in which even soap emanates complacency into death’s proximity, where nothing can be taken for granted. God bares his teeth.

Philosopher John Gray describes an experiment which shows, “the electrical impulse that initiates action occurs half a second before we take the conscious decision to act.” The ramifications for our assumptions of agency are unsettling, to say the least. Reading “The Unnamed” is a companion experience.

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

March 1, 2010 at 5:23 pm

Posted in book review

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