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Robin Yassin-Kassab

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A Curse on Dostoevsky

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Andrey Volkov's Dostoevsky

Andrey Volkov’s Dostoevsky

This review was published at the Guardian. As so often, in places it’s been edited so it makes little sense and becomes clumsy. (Not a Guardian-specific problem, but a general problem with subeditors. I’ve never worked out why writers are paid to write, then non-writers are paid to mess up the writer’s writing.) Anyway, the unedited version is below.

As its title suggests, Atiq Rahimi’s “A Curse on Dostoevsky” puts itself in conversation with the great Russian writer, specifically with “Crime and Punishment”. Instead of Saint Petersburg, the action unfolds in Kabul. In place of Raskolnivok, Rassoul (though in his solipsism and misanthropy he may bear more resemblance to Dostoevsky’s underground man); in place of Sonia, Rassoul’s fiancee Sophia, a character who never quite comes into focus; and in place of the detective Porfiry, a series of commanders and militiamen. The murderee is, like Dostoevsky’s, a pawnbroker, also a landlady and a madam. Rassoul doesn’t know why he kills her, but potential motives include saving Sophia from her clutches, theft, and justice.

The text justifies its relationship with Dostoevsky’s novel thus: “This book is best read in Afghanistan, a land previously steeped in mysticism, where people have lost their sense of responsibility.” The murder of the pawnbroker sparks an investigation of crime and punishment (and law and lawlessness, sacrifice and vengeance) in Afghan society. Dostoevsky claimed that if God didn’t exist, everything would be permitted. Yet in Afghanistan God exists not to prevent sins but to justify them. Sophia’s father poisoned the director of the National Archives with counterfeit alcohol, a punishment for selling documents to the Russians. “These days,” he says, “any idiot thinks he can take the law into his own hands, with no investigation and trial. As I did then.” (The setting seems to be the period after the Russians and before the Taliban, when Islamist warlords struggled for power.)

According to the novel’s logic, Rassoul’s motto – “I’d rather be a murderer than a traitor” – could just as well be Afghanistan’s: “You can kill, rape, steal… the important thing is not to betray. Not to betray Allah, your clan, your country, your friend.” Yet the pages brim with real or perceived traitors, those who desert their friends for ideology or material gain.

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

August 25, 2013 at 10:38 am

Posted in afghanistan, book review

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Taliban Poetry

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A shaved version of this review appeared in the Guardian.

In the 1980s an artist friend of mine made a poster for Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s Hizb-e-Islami, a militia later allied with the Taliban. The poster depicted a fully-bearded Afghan mujahid clutching Quran and Kalashnikov and standing atop a slaughtered Russian bear. It was sent as a postcard to British journalists and politicians, without controversy.

In the same period I remember reading stories in the mainstream press about the Mujahideen’s poetic love of flowers and song. After the Russian rout, these Mujahideen committed excesses so extreme that it took Taliban puritanism to re-establish order. Then the Taliban committed their own excesses, of a different sort, and after 9/11 the West waged war on them for metonymic reasons. Nobody now celebrates the gentle, flowery qualities of these men who have burnt schools and lynched television sets.

“Poetry of the Taliban”, therefore, is a brave and very useful project. It offers the reader a perspective on the conflict through the Other’s eyes. It offers the human element, and as such is worth more than a library-full of cold analysis.

There are poems of love, battle, transience, grief, enthusiasm, material deprivation and mystical astonishment. The voices are diverse and often surprising. Faisal Devji’s preface points out that the poetry displayed here is not the official product of the Cultural Committee of the Islamic Emirate, not centrally-organised propaganda, but the efforts of men (and a woman) who fight for a variety of reasons, tribal, ethnic or nationalist, and particularly out of gut resistance to foreign occupiers, wherever they come from.

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

May 14, 2012 at 12:07 am

Defamation and Binary Idiocy

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by Ali Farzat

To summarise: I have been smeared by a Scottish newspaper. Most of the words they attribute to me I did indeed say, but they have decontextualised and selected to such an extent that they make me say things I do not believe – for instance that September 11th was a good thing, or that the Taliban should take over Afghanistan. What follows is a rather long description of meeting the man from the gutter press, which I hope will set the record a little straighter. Yesterday, meanwhile, 33 civilians were killed

by NATO bombs in Afghanistan.

I was doorstepped the other morning. A young man wearing a suit and an apologetic manner wanted to ask some questions on behalf of the Scottish Mail on Sunday.

What? Stumbling down the stairs in my thermal underwear, wild-haired and bestubbled, I dream for a passing moment that I’ve become as important to the world as Tiger Woods or Amy Winehouse. Perhaps even now press vermin are going through my rubbish bin. Perhaps paparazzi are crowding the front garden.

Alas, our aspiring hack, young Oliver Tree (for so he called himself), hasn’t yet graduated to the tabloid heights, and neither have I. It soon becomes clear that his mission is much more mundane, is indeed the everyday grind of papers like the Mail: to create outrage where there was none before, to smear, misrepresent and decontextualise, in order to strangle the possibility of real debate.

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

February 22, 2010 at 11:08 am

I Refuse to Buy a Poppy

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05_11_09-Steve-Bell

Steve Bell

Yesterday five British soldiers were shot dead by an Afghan policeman. Just as they keep promising that they’ve reached ‘decisive turning points’ in their battle with the Afghan resistance, British military officials immediately vowed that the ‘rogue’ policeman would be caught. Today the Taliban reports that the policeman is safe with them, and that he’s been greeted with flowers.

Our glorious patriotic press responds. Amusingly, the Daily Mail headline wrings its hands and squawks, “What kind of war IS this?” Because some people aren’t playing by the rules, you see. Instead of sitting quietly in their villages waiting for the drone attack, or perhaps sending their kids out to accept sweets and modernity from a rosy-cheeked English lad, some barbarians are actually shooting back at the invaders. How very unBritish. (To be fair to the Mail – which has never been fair to anyone – it does seem to be taking an anti-war stance today). Other sections of the media worry about the ‘loyalty’ of Afghan troops, as if love for foreign occupiers is a realistic standard of loyalty. Still others, even more clever, psychoanalyse the policeman, wondering if an argument with his commander pushed him to a moment of madness. But it really isn’t that complicated, as anybody who disabuses themselves of imperialist delusion can see. Very simply, people don’t like foreigners striding around their streets and fields with guns and assumptions of superiority. Afghans will kill British troops as surely as Britons would kill Afghan troops if they occupied this country.

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

November 5, 2009 at 6:12 pm

Glorifying Terror?

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afghan twoafghan oneA British artist (Robin Ade) made these impressive propaganda posters during the Afghan war against the Soviet occupation. They were also printed as postcards. The picture to the right was sent out as a christmas card by Agency Afghan Press in the UK, prompting London’s Evening Standard to wonder, jokingly, if the three figures represented Joseph, Mary and Jesus. The picture to the left was made for Gulbedeen Hekmatyar’s Hizb-i-Islami, which then had a London office. The pictures raised no horrified eyebrows in the UK – of course not: the Afghan people and the Thatcher and Reagan administrations were all on the same side, for freedom, against godless Soviet communism interfering with a traditional culture. Today, however, Hekmatyar is fighting the NATO occupation of his country, and were a British artist to dare paint an Afghan mujahid, with Qur’an in one hand and kalashnikov in the other, standing on an American flag, underneath a calligraphed ‘Allahu Akbar’, he would quite probably be charged under anti-terror legislation.

Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

August 25, 2009 at 5:21 pm

A Decisive Turning Point?

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The Guardian reports on British campaigning in Afghanistan, specifically an “operation” which ”took nearly 3,000 British troops, many engaged in gun battles, to capture an area the size of the Isle of Wight.” I do wonder what meaning the verb ‘capture’ has here.

The article relays stories told by “British officials” and a couple of named officers, stirring stories which involve “a risky air attack” and a “Taliban drugs bazaar.” Twenty two British soldiers have been killed in Helmand province this month alone, so I expect our officials are thinking very hard indeed about the stories they tell. The recent adventure is called ‘Operation Panther’s Claw’, and is hoped to be “a decisive turning point in the eight-year conflict.”

We shall see. In the meantime, what seems a potentially decisive sign is the language and direction of this Taliban ‘code of conduct’. It demonstrates not only a higher stage of organisation than at any time since the movement’s 2001 defeat, but also a leap forward in ethics and political understanding.

On suicide bombing, the code says

(These) attacks should only be used on high and important targets. A brave son of Islam should not be used for lower and useless targets. The utmost effort should be made to avoid civilian casualties.

And concerning relations with the Afghan people,

The Mujahideen have to behave well and show proper treatment to the nation, in order to bring the hearts of civilian Muslims closer to them. The mujahideen must avoid discrimination based on tribal roots, language or geographic background.

For obvious reasons it is difficult to know precisely how those under the Taliban umbrella think. But it’s certainly safe to say the movement is learning lessons very quickly. When the ‘old Taliban’ took Afghanistan over from the warlords in 1996, it had the open backing of the US-Saudi-Pakistani alliance. This time it will have to think, and change, and work much harder.

Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

July 27, 2009 at 11:02 pm

Posted in afghanistan

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Deconstructing the War on Terror

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Here’s a link to my talk on Afghanistan and Pakistan. Forgive the screwed-up face. It’s the fault of those Palestinians that took me dancing –
http://www.truveo.com/Deconstructing-the-war-on-terror-robin-yassin/id/3953073108

I wrote the following for a Norwegian newspaper to introduce “Deconstructing the War on Terror”, a seminar at Chateau Neuf (Storsalen), Slemdalsveien 11, Oslo, from 12-7pm Sunday 22nd February. George Galloway, Massoud Shadjareh, Yvonne Ridley and Dr Erik Fosse will speak. I’m giving a talk on Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Did the terrorist attacks of September 11th 2001 provoke an unprecedented rupture in American relations with the rest of the world, specifically the Muslim world? Was that day really the day everything changed, as much of the media tells us?

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

February 18, 2009 at 6:55 pm

Shoes and Bullets

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George Bush has had shoes thrown at him in Baghdad. As he threw the first, Muntadar az-Zaidi shouted, “This is a goodbye kiss from the Iraqi people, dog.” As he threw the second, he added, “This is for the widows and orphans and all those killed in Iraq.” It was gratifying to see the Iraqi journalist’s human response to one of the destroyers of his country, even if it was woefully inadequate. In a just world, Bush would be imprisoned for the rest of his life (I oppose capital punishment even in the most deserving of cases).

Meanwhile the empire’s top criminals continue to spout self-justifying vomit. What do you say about a Condoleezza Rice? In an interview with the Wall Street Journal she says her regime removed the Taliban, but doesn’t say that America helped bring the Taliban to power in the first place, nor that the new Taliban is now winning against the occupation and its warlord/ druglord Afghan allies. She doesn’t say that Pakistan’s previously peaceful borderlands are controlled by the Pakistani Taliban, that hundreds of thousands have been displaced from these areas, that there are regular bomb attacks in Pakistan’s major cities, or that Pakistan faces the real possibility of collapse.

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

December 15, 2008 at 11:52 am

Posted in afghanistan, imperialism, Iraq, USA

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Two Reviews

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Two reviews, one harsh and critical, one brief and bright.

I met Nadeem Aslam in Southampton, and spent an evening and a morning having wonderful conversations with him. When I told him I’d written a bad review of his latest book (half of it is bad) for the National (in Abu Dhabi) he was not in the least bitter, not even for a moment. I am not such a successful human being. I would have been convulsed with rage and venom for at least three hours, and then ill with it for weeks. He just wanted to know why I didn’t like the book. Well, it’s partly the politics, and quite a lot to do with characterisation. Then my review may be fierce precisely because I think he’s a major writer, and therefore fair game. (But I don’t think he’s fair game after meeting him, such a lovely man he is; I hang my head in shame). The negativity of the review may also have something to do with me responding to my own perceived failures as a writer.

And damn, they pay you to squeeze out an opinion, so opinionate is what you do.

The problem with writing a book review after you’ve had a book published is that it seems as if you’re suggesting you could outwrite the writer you’re criticising. Ironically, now that I should be more qualified to write about novels, I feel less qualified. Or at least worried that I’m setting myself up. Anyway.

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

September 23, 2008 at 12:08 am

Dysfunctional State – Dysfunctional World

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The assassination of Benazir Bhutto, although it happened across the Gulf of Oman, feels remarkably close, for both personal and public reasons. On a personal level, the event strikes up sparks of memory. As a very young man I worked for The News, an English-language paper, on the Murree Road in Rawalpindi. I loved that office and all the great people in it, the long late chaotic nights through which we typed and laughed and drank tea. I remember Liaquat Bagh just a little down the road, the park named after Pakistan’s first prime minister Liaquat Ali Khan, who was assassinated there, and where Benazir was killed last December 27th. I remember People’s Party supporters firing shots into the sky outside the office on the night when Benazir was appointed prime minister, for the second time, in 1993. When I read about bombs and sectarian mayhem in Karachi, Islamabad, Swat or Gilgit I remember the immense beauty and carnivalesque energy of Pakistan, the music I heard there, the Sufi festival I visited, the wealth and poverty I saw, and the intelligent, enthusiastic people I met.

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

January 5, 2008 at 1:35 pm

Osama bin Laden

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by Steve Bell
by Steve Bell

Osama bin Laden squeezed his face back onto our screens at the start of Ramadan. This time, probably advised by his American follower Adam Gadahn, he tailored his discourse to a Western audience, and tainted by association the good names of Noam Chomsky and the anti-globalisation movement. Before Ramadan ends, let me talk briefly about bin Laden and those associated with him.

Still when bin Laden’s name is mentioned in many parts of the Arab world, although less so than a couple of years ago, a cheer goes up. Let’s hope that Martin Amis never reads this; he would see it as proof of his thesis that all Muslims are Wahhabi-nihilists. But cheering for bin Laden is like waving a flag or, more accurately, waving two fingers. It doesn’t mean that the cheering people would like to be ruled by bin Laden or that they subscribe to his programme, as they admit when questioned. Many of these ‘supporters’ would be killed if bin Laden could get his hands on them, either for being ‘heretics’ – like my Ibadhi Muslim students here in Oman – or for being ‘apostates’ – like the men in a bar in Aleppo in the following anecdote. These drinkers were well into their third or fourth bottle of araq when bin Laden came on the TV screen. “I swear by almighty God,” said Osama, his finger wagging, “that the Americans will not sleep soundly in their beds until the children of Palestine sleep soundly in theirs!” Immediately the men surged to their feet and held their glasses towards the TV image. “Kassak!” they roared – which means “Your glass!” or “Cheers!”

This story says it all. Beyond the tiny hardcore of Wahhabi-nihilists, bin Laden won sympathy in the Arab world because the Arabs will support anyone who talks tough against America and Israel. This is a symptom of the frustration and impotence felt by the Arabs, and the utter failure of their leaders to stand against Zionist and imperialist oppression in the region. Cheering for bin Laden is the equivalent of the protest vote. And inasmuch as al-Qa’ida targets America, the victim does not behave in a way designed to win sympathy. Before they had time to consider the implications of the September 11th attacks, many Arabs were impressed that this superpower which routinely trashed Muslim cities could be so dramatically humiliated. Central New York looked like Baghdad or Gaza, and to many that was an understandable cause for celebration. People in China and Latin America also celebrated September 11th. I’ve even heard – from a friend who was living in California at the time – that some Black and Hispanic Americans were gleeful about the attacks.

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

October 11, 2007 at 6:58 pm

The Islamism of Not

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One of my correspondents has suggested that islamist economic policy cannot improve the dire social conditions of Muslim countries. I think it is being overly generous to islamism to think that it has an economic policy, or any kind of policy at all. Beyond vague promises to implement sharia law (and there’s a concept that means very different things to different people), islamism is best understood by what it is not. It is a rhetorical function rather than anything of substance.

Of course, there are as many different islamisms as there are contexts in which it thrives. Sunni and Shia islamism, right and left islamism, peaceful and violent, macho and feminist, and so on. Perhaps one good way to divide islamisms, however, is into two kinds: islamism to protect established power and islamism to challenge it.

Islamism which protects established power is the older form. The West complained less about it, because the West was happy with the status quo. The classic manifestation of this kind of islamism is the Wahabism of Saudi Arabia, which takes Ibn Taymiya’s anti-Shia, anti-Sufi, anti-innovation discourse to ever more puritan lengths, and which designates the Al-Saud family as guardians of the doctrine. So long as the Sauds suppress religious diversity, demolish shrines, allow full rein to the religious police, they are free to make whatever decisions they wish on the country’s oil wealth and foreign alliances. The king is ‘wali al-amr’ and it is part of religion to obey him.

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

September 13, 2006 at 1:12 pm