Robin Yassin-Kassab

Maltese Interviews

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© 2011 Joseph A Borg

I was invited to the Malta Mediterranean Literature Festival. Malta is a fascinating place, with a fascinating Arabic-origin language, and I met many fascinating writers there. I’ll write about it soon. In the meantime, here are a couple of interviews with me from the Maltese press.

First, from the Times of Malta.

Albert Gatt discusses hedgehogs, dictators and parricide with author Robin Yassin Kassab.

As the crackdown in Syria continues, and the revolution in Libya inches towards resolution, another blow is dealt to the grand narrative of the Arab nation which various dictators – self-styled fathers to their people – used to justify their rule. Can literature offer a nuanced view that counters this narrative’s deadly simplicity?

This year, the Malta Mediterranean Literature Festival, organised by Iniżjamed and Literature Across Frontiers, will focus on the Arab Spring.

One of the guest writers is Robin Yassin Kassab, who appears courtesy of the British Council (Malta). Born in West London of Syrian descent, Yassin Kassab is a regular contributor to the press and blogs on http://qunfuz.com – qunfuz is Arabic for hedgehog or porcupine.

In his first novel, The Road from Damascus (Penguin, 2009), Sami, the son of Syrian migrants in London, struggles to carry the mantle bequeathed to him by his father, a staunchly secular Arab intellectual.

But the turmoil of his own private life and the havoc wreaked by 9/11 force him to challenge the worldview he has inherited, in whose name his father committed the ultimate betrayal.

I’m intrigued by the name of your blog – Qunfuz. In what sense is the writer a hedgehog?

The hedgehog has a spiky exterior and a soft warm interior, and as such it’s one metaphor for a writer. A writer should provoke, unsettle, even offend, and at the same time he should pay attention to the heart.

To what extent are the Arab uprisings we are witnessing about ‘killing the father’, rather as Sami, in your novel, struggles to come to terms with his own? Are we witnessing a form of parricide?

The point in the novel was that even characters who consider themselves to be secular are, in fact, religious. Sami’s father rejected Islam but made a religion out of nationalism. A mythic idea of the Arabs and their destiny was his grand narrative.

So his was a false secularism; and the dictators in the Arab world are false fathers. They certainly cast themselves as fathers – in one of his last speeches Mubarak described the Egyptian people as his children. But they failed to fulfil any of the roles played by fathers.

Fathers are supposed to protect their children; the dictators exposed their subjects to Western and Zionist attacks, even collaborated in these attacks. Fathers are supposed to inculcate morality and fair discipline; the dictators valorised corruption, terrorised the innocent and rewarded the guilty.

Fathers should nurture and educate; under dictators poverty increased and education systems collapsed. Fathers should reconcile the conflicts which erupt among their children; under dictators sectarianism and class hatreds have worsened.

There is a generational aspect to what is happening now. The young are removing the structures established by a failed older generation, so there is an element of parricide. But these were bad fathers, illusory fathers, more like child-abusing stepfathers.

Think of Hamza al-Khateeb, tortured to death at the age of 13. The Syrian regime thugs who killed him filled his body full of bullets and mutilated his penis before he died. These sadists, presumably, are paid a wage for their work.

In a recent blog about Ali Farzat, the Syrian political cartoonist tortured by the regime, you described the regime’s torture techniques as a mere assertion of brute strength, of its ability to shock and outrage. Faced by this pornography of power, you maintain that art will supersede filth. How can you be so confident?

Perhaps my confidence is misplaced. I still don’t know how or when or at what cost the Syrian regime will fall. It’s true that so far it shows little sign of cracking from within. But it’s also true that it has lost credibility and legitimacy among vast swathes of the population. People all over the country have lost their fear and have burnt their bridges with the regime.

For all the people whose faces have been seen on Youtube videos, there’s no going back. As time passes, more people, from a wider range of backgrounds, come into opposition. The economy is in a parlous state. The regime doesn’t have vast oil wealth or a foreign threat to keep it going.

Fundamentally, unlike Hafez al-Asad (who was as canny and intelligent as he was ruthless), Bashaar and his friends don’t have any intelligence either. Everything they’ve done in the past six months has been stupid. They are too stupid to rule Syria for very long. It may be that once a tipping point is reached the regime will crumble quite quickly.

In your novel, there’s a scene in which Rashid Iqbal, a writer with scathingly anti-religious views, argues that literature can replace religion. Can the writer play the role of prophet?

Rashid Iqbal is in part a parody of Salman Rushdie, who has suggested literature as an alternative to religion. I have some sympathy for this notion – religion at its best, like art, asks more questions than it answers, and both religion and art originate in the sensation of awe – but I still think it’s far too simplistic. I don’t think art and religion are opposites; nor are they the same thing. Art certainly doesn’t remove my fear of death, although it can help me to come to terms with it.

A writer can be a prophet in the limited sense that he offers a new way of seeing. But today’s writers (in our shrunken world) can’t claim to offer truth. Perhaps the closest our society comes to prophethood is in the figure of the scientist. But that’s a poor compensation too. We don’t have prophets any more, only madmen.

Women in the novel are more religious than their men, and also more stable. To what extent is this a reflection on the historical role of women, past and present?

At the risk of being accused of sexist stereotyping, I do think that women tend to be more stable and balanced than men, perhaps particularly in Arab families (this is what I have observed, in any case). And I suppose I was engineering reality somewhat too, for political reasons: I wanted to write against the popular notion in the West that Muslim women are weak, passive, and do what their men tell them.

My sisters decided to wear the hijab against the wishes of my father. My wife decided to wear the hijab against my wishes.

The Arab women I know personally are usually the strong point of their families. And women are very often the connectors between individuals, those who make families and communities cohere. This is closely linked to ‘religion’ in the Latin sense, as ‘relinking’.

And then in Malta Today:

English-Syrian author and blogger Robin Yassin-Kassab on his critically acclaimed debut novel, and the vibrant, mongrel milieu that inspired it, and continues to inspire his output

English-Syrian author Robin Yassin-Kassab claims he “never wrote… except for maybe a couple of sentences, maybe a paragraph,” when he was younger but then, something horrific happened.

“The catalysing moment, for me, came while I was living in Oman, and was on holiday in Sri Lanka with my son. All of a sudden I got this thing – this bacteria – that started eating away at my leg. I was in a lot of pain, and the doctors nearly had to amputate my leg…”

Luckily it never came to that, and instead of losing a leg, Kassab – born in London to a Syrian father and an English mother – came out of the experience with a newfound vocation.

“As I spent two weeks lying in hospital, thinking about death as my body rotted,” he smiles, “I read a lot of Saul Bellow. And although I find the man politically disgusting, he was a great influence on me. And where before I never thought I had much of a story to tell, I decided that ‘this is it – I’m going to write’. So I started writing every day, and my life immediately became better because I knew that this is what I should be doing,” Kassab tells me as we sip espresso in front of the St John’s Co-Cathedral.

The 42-year-old author of the critically-acclaimed novel The Road to Damascus (2008) visited the island as part of the Malta Mediterranean Literature Festival, organised by Inizjamed over September 8-10 at the Garden of Rest, in Floriana, in a special edition of the festival that focused on The Arab Spring.

After graduating in English Literature from Oxford University (“I was a lazy student, but I did enjoy the books”), Kassab travelled extensively across the Arab world, coasting on that ever-convenient temp job: teaching English to foreigners. He taught in four different Arab countries, and even worked as a journalist in Pakistan.

During his travels he not only made an effort to improve his Arabic, but also fell in love with the region’s poetry, and realised just how keenly different their approach to literature and culture is to our own.

“Anglo-Saxons tend to laugh at you for saying you’re going to read a book… they’ll go ‘what are you going to do that for? You gay or something?!’ – there’s that really ignorant streak. Whereas in Arab countries, poetry is public property – you’ll find taxi drivers who’ll quote long lines of poetry to you. It’s a folk thing, it’s a political thing, and it has a direct relevance to people’s lives. In fact, during the revolutions in Tunisia, people were singing a poem that was then taken up by the Egyptians.”

Kassab also recounts the horrific fate of Ibrahim Kashoush, a Syrian protest singer responsible for revolutionary verse, who was found with his vocal chords ripped out.

“Very direct symbolism from the regime there…”

But Kassab’s formative literary education goes way back, and has far more of a ‘western’ streak.

“My (English) grandfather was a bookseller. He worked at a bookshop all his life, making the tea and running messages, until he eventually started to run the place, by which time he read all the books in the shop. He was a self-educated, working class man, and I got my love of books from him, as well as this quite romantic idea of a writer as a culture hero…”

Kassab’s novel is very much a tale of these two worlds. Born to Syrian parents but raised in London, Sami Traifi is having trouble finishing his PhD thesis. To further compound his crisis, his Iraqi wife Muntaha – naturalised to the English way of life as much as Sami – has decided to don the hijab… a fact that unsettles Sami’s liberal worldview.

Told through vignettes and episodes related to the characters’ lives (often expanding into back stories about relatives and shining a light on their countries of origin and the conflicts found within), the immensely quotable novel is written with verve and intelligence, and paints a refreshing picture of some of the tensions that have characterised the last decade.

It is also, crucially, set during the summer leading up to 9/11, with Kassab clearly taking a stab at trying to locate and pinpoint the roots and causes of the cataclysmic event, sometimes employing larger-than-life characters. Sami’s own woes are often depicted in exaggerated, deliberately hyperbolic brushstrokes, and characters like Muntaha’s ‘hip-hop Islamist’ brother are both hilarious to experience and ominous to consider.

But while Kassab claims that the “dominant genre” of The Road to Damascus is satire, the novel also deals with intimate, as well as sociological truths… chief of which is the aforementioned ‘hijab conundrum’.

When Muntaha reveals to Sami that she has made a decision to wear the headscarf, Sami finds himself in an amusing double-bind. Angered and baffled by his wife’s decision, he claims that she has ‘betrayed’ him and the liberal ideology he assumed they had both decided to follow… all of which, of course, sounds like a religious argument.

And while the satire may look polished, Kassab confesses to being surprised with what he finds in the novel, some years on. “Whenever I read it – which is something I try not to do – I find a lot of stuff in there, especially stuff about fathers and sons, that just jumps at me… I didn’t know it was there until I wrote it down.”

He claims that his next novel will build on this theme further and, also, that he aims to rein in the satire this time around.

“Sometimes I think it can be a little too easy,” he says with a smile.

Our conversation takes place on the eve of the 10th anniversary of 9/11, and I can’t resist asking Kassab what he thinks of its ripple effect, a decade on. He is cautiously optimistic.

“For the first time since it happened, it finally feels a part of history. The stereotypical ‘crowd scene’ in New York has now been effaced by Tahrir Square. The ‘war on terror’ has obviously failed, but anybody with half a brain can now clearly see that it was a stupid response. But it’s been a very distressing decade. If the crime of 9/11 put America and the west to the test, then it has definitely failed that test, and it’s paying for it now… and it was really upsetting. It showed you that the west was really a lot less sophisticated than it seemed.”

Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

September 19, 2011 at 3:13 pm

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