Robin Yassin-Kassab

Archive for December 2017

Thank You for the Cancer

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20170510_184516Writerly wisdom states that the best possible outcome of a writing course is to find a person who will become a critical reader of your work in its early stages, someone on your wavelength. I found that person in Adrian Barnes, while we were doing an online MA in Creative Writing. He lived in British Columbia, I was living in the Sultanate of Oman, but we became closer than the screen.

Adrian had already written several self-published novels and a volume of poetry. His “Satan a la Mode” – a Carrollian book of word-play, farce and philosophy – was completed and would later (in 2012) be published with illustrations by Yuliya Kashapova. While our course lasted he was working on a wonderful (sadly still-unpublished) novel called “Neverhasbeen.” He also parented his sons, taught college students, started several local newspapers, wrote songs, and sang and played the guitar.

In 2012 he published “Nod”, which is literary science fiction, an intellectual treatment of a sleepless apocalypse. Readers recognised its strength, and the book took off. There’s even talk of a TV version. Adrian’s writing career seemed truly underway.

Then one day he was driving to visit a friend in the US, listening to James Brown on the stereo, and realised he could only hear the great man’s voice, not the backing music. He went for tests, and was told he had a brain tumour, or more precisely, a Glioblastoma Multiforme, with a kill rate of over 99%.

He underwent an operation to cut the thing out. He woke up in pain and confusion to be told the operation had been unsuccessful. Thereafter he was unable to read and found writing almost impossible. Time bewildered him.

I’m having trouble with words and numbers – and getting more and more heavy. But, weird though this may sound, I am beginning to wonder if it’s actually a good thing.

I can’t believe in words and numbers. Instead I am in the midst of reality, and what I see is love. Now that sounds kind of hippie-like, but it’s true (the hippies got a lot right, though we love to mock them). I see love and joy, and things I want to do – or not do – and they don’t have a lot to do with words and numbers.

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

December 20, 2017 at 6:19 pm

Posted in Meditation

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The Rohingya and Other Outsiders

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This was first published at the New Arab.

rohingyaI recently had my DNA analysed to illuminate my geographical ancestry. My mother is English and my father Syrian, so you’d expect at least two locations to show. As it happens, I contain Western European, Caucasian, Southern European, Middle Eastern, Irish and Iberian, with small amounts of Scandinavian, North African and South Asian. This demonstrates not only that I am a mixture, but that my parents are too, that everyone is. It reminds us that ethnic distinctions are accidents of cultural history rather than markers of race or even of family purity. It means very similarly mixed blood flows in the veins of those who consider themselves in nationalist terms, for instance, as distinct Arabs, Kurds or Turks.

Ethnicities are fluid, yet European empires and post-colonial states sought to name and thus delimit them from historical flux. When the British arrived in the state called Burma or Myanmar after the Bamar, the dominant group, they set about categorising cultures and races, considering the two categories to be almost interchangeable. In the 1931 census the British named 139 ethnic groups. By 1982, independent Burma’s military junta had reduced this to 135 ‘national races’ qualifying for citizenship.

The Rohingya Muslims of Rakhine state are not included, though they are the descendants of Indian and Persian traders who first arrived here over a thousand years ago. Their numbers increased when early Burmese kings raided Bengal for slaves, and during British rule when workers came from India. Today the Burmese state denies their existence as a community, considering them illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. In recent weeks at least 620,000 Rohingya have been driven from their homes. Villages have been torched, women gang-raped, untold numbers have been hacked or burnt to death. A United Nations official called it a textbook example of ethnic cleansing.

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

December 20, 2017 at 4:41 pm

Posted in Myanmar/ Burma

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Burning Country in the Guardian

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It’s great to find our book selected as one of the best on Syria (in Pushpinder Khaneka’s World Library, here) alongside a couple of contemporary classic novels, In Praise of Hatred and The Dark Side of Love. An excerpt from my introduction to Khaled Khalifa’s In Praise of Hatred is here, and my review of Rafik Schami’s The Dark Side of Love is here.

Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

December 19, 2017 at 12:44 pm

Posted in Syria