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Robin Yassin-Kassab

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The Unexpected Love Objects of Dunya Noor

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unexpectedJoseph Noor, Syria’s premier heart surgeon and the only man in Lattakia to live in a two-storey home, is experiencing a learning moment: “Living in a dictatorship meant that throughout his life, he, just like the president, could dictate his wishes to anyone who had the misfortune of having less power than him, and he now wondered whether this sort of power could turn any man into a monster.”

This necessary connection between macro and micro is only one of many wonderful things in Rana Haddad’s quirky, very readable, and slightly odd novel. Contradictions abound – Syrian ‘socialism’ solidifies bourgeois snobbery while ‘secularism’ intensifies religious division. Characters sometimes manage to squeeze their various prejudices into gnomic phrases, like: “Only an Armenian would think photography is a career, that and hairdressing.”

The novel’s chief protagonist, Dunya (Joseph’s daughter), is an unruly element in Hafez al-Assad’s totalitarian society of the 1980s, so unruly that she dares state in Qowmiyya (‘nationalism’) class that she doesn’t like the Baath Party. To preserve her safety and her father’s reputation, Dunya is sent to her grandparents in England, where people enjoy “a freedom that caused them to lose all interest in politics”.

Wherever she is, Dunya keeps finding unexpected (and in the eyes of society, inappropriate) love objects – a poor fisherman’s son, a camera, a Muslim, eventually a person of the ‘wrong’ gender. This last love object is found in Aleppo, where the story shifts gear towards the genre of magical (and slightly dreamlike) tale.

I recommend “The Unexpected Love Objects of Dunya Noor” for its lightness of tone and the weight of its concerns. And because it’s part set in Lattakia – not many novels wear that particular honour.

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

June 2, 2018 at 9:24 pm

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Diana Darke on Islam’s “moral economy”

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This interview/ review was first published at the National.

darkeThe Middle East “held a fascination for me since childhood. I mean, it’s where civilisation began.”

I was speaking to the British writer, historian and Arabist Diana Darke, whose second book, “The Merchant of Syria”, is published this month.

An engaging conversationalist, Diana told me about her life-long entanglement with the Arab world.

After studying Arabic in the 1970s, she spent six months in Beirut. This is when – through a series of cross-border visits – she first fell in love with Syria. “I was a 22-year-old blonde woman travelling alone and I was completely safe. Everybody was courteous and welcoming.” Damascus in particular captured her heart – “You breathe the history as you walk the streets” – so much so she wrote a Brandt guidebook to the city, and years later struggled through Syria’s notorious bureaucratic hurdles to buy and restore a 17th Century Old City home. Her first book – “My House in Damascus” (2016) – is an affecting account of this process.

For a while after the revolution and then the war erupted, the house was inhabited by friends displaced from the besieged Ghouta. Then, after a corrupt lawyer wrote a security report describing Diana as “a British terrorist”, the house was seized by profiteers. Undaunted, she returned in 2014 to reclaim it.

Her books interweave contemporary and historical events, providing a long-range perspective she deems “more important than ever. Because today everybody has short memories. The media works on immediacy – blood and gore. It distorts people’s view of the area, which across the centuries has been this incredibly open, tolerant, embracing place – and largely because of trade.”

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

April 6, 2018 at 12:59 pm

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The Shell

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This review of Mustafa Khalifa’s account of life and death in Syria’s Tadmor prison was first published at AlJumhuriya.

shell“The Shell” opens in 1982 with its young protagonist returning to Syria from his film studies in Paris. He rejects his girlfriend’s pleas to stay in France because his home needs him, and he misses its streets, and “in my own country I’ve got rights.”

He is arrested at Damascus airport. Only many years later does he learn the reason for his detention – reportedly he’d made “remarks disparaging to the president” at a Parisian party.

He is sent to the “Desert Prison” at Tadmor, or Palmyra, where the Assad regime consigned the Islamists and leftists who challenged it in the 1980s. Tadmor’s 10,000 inmates “contained the highest proportion of holders of university degrees in the entire country”. Very many died there. In 1980, a thousand were murdered in one day.

This is (with reservations) a true story. Mustafa Khalifa has transformed his own dreadful experience into a bitter classic of Syria’s burgeoning ‘prison literature’ genre. In prison, denied a pen, Khalifa practised “mental writing”. He made his mind a tape recorder, he explains, and then “downloaded” to paper over 13 years later, when he wasn’t entirely the same person. And he won’t download everything, he warns, for “that requires an act of confession”. So “The Shell” is a fictionalised memoir. Published in Beirut in 2008, it was widely admired in Arabic, and is now admirably translated to English by Paul Starkey.

It’s a tale of arbitrary victimisation. Accused of Muslim Brotherhood membership, the narrator tells a guard he’s not only of Christian family, but an atheist too. “But we’re an Islamic country!” declares his tormenter, and the beating recommences.

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

April 5, 2018 at 9:18 am

Posted in book review, Syria

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Two Sisters

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This review was first published at the Guardian.

2 sistersAyan is nineteen and Leila only sixteen when their parents receive an unexpected email. “Please do not be cross with us, it was sooo hard for us to leave without saying goodbye.” They are travelling to Syria to join the Islamic State. They want to help Muslims, they say, “everything from fetching water for the sick to working in refugee camps.”

The names of these “Two Sisters” have been changed, but the story – related by Asne Seierstad, author of “The Bookseller of Kabul” – is entirely true. The girls are Norwegian-Somalis, from a devout but tolerant family. They’ve grown up and attended good schools in Baerum, “the Norwegian municipality with the highest percentage of millionaires and the greatest divide between rich and poor.” What disturbs in the account of their childhood is not its ‘foreignness’ but its comfortable ordinariness. Ayan in particular is a promising student. She develops crushes on boys and expresses indignation at women’s oppression. Then she transforms “from open and approachable to sarcastic, patronising and loud” – hardly an unusual adolescent trajectory.

Certainly the second-generation migrant experience of feeling culturally and racially ‘out of place’ creates an even more urgent need for self-definition. The sisters join Islam Net, a youth organisation seeking to cleanse Islam of the elders’ ‘ethno-cultural’ practices. The danger of such ‘purified’ religion is its potential transformation into an ethnicity-substitute, stridently political but stripped of its moral and spiritual core. Soon the sisters take to niqabs and – to their parents’ horror – adopt a snooty attitude to ‘kuffar’.

But all this – religious awakening, identity politics, conspiracy theories – is still standard teenage fare. What propels the girls from humdrum self-righteousness towards bit-parts in a war drama is their latching onto transglobal Salafi-Jihadism, a religious strain currently prominent on the internet and certain battle fronts.

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

March 21, 2018 at 12:03 pm

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Frankenstein in Baghdad

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This review was first published at the New Statesman.

frankensteinBaghdad, 2005. Occupied Iraq is hurtling into civil war. Gunmen clutch rifles “like farmers with spades” and cars explode seemingly at random. Realism may not be able to do justice to such horror, but this darkly delightful novel by Ahmed Saadawi – by combining humour and a traumatised version of magical realism – certainly begins to.

After his best friend is rent to pieces by a bomb, Hadi, a junk dealer, alcoholic and habitual liar, starts collecting body parts from explosion sites. Next he stitches them together into a composite corpse. Hadi intends to take the resulting “Whatsitsname” to the forensics department – “I made it complete,” he says, “so it wouldn’t be treated as trash” – but, following a storm and a further series of explosions, the creature stands up and runs out into the night.

At the moment of the Whatsitsname’s birth, Hasib, a hotel security guard, is separated from his body by a Sudanese suicide bomber. The elderly Elishva, meanwhile, is importuning a talking portrait of St. George to return her son Daniel, who – though he was lost at war two decades ago – she is convinced is still alive.

In what ensues, some will find their wishes fulfilled. Many will not. After all, the Whatsitsname’s very limbs and organs are crying for revenge. And as each bodily member is satisfied, it drops off, leaving the monster in need of new parts. Vengeance, moreover, is a complex business. Soon it becomes difficult to discern the victims from the criminals.

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

February 6, 2018 at 10:53 am

Posted in book review, Iraq

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Return to the Dark Valley

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gamboaThis review was written for a page which was never born.

Santiago Gamboa’s “Return to the Dark Valley” is a very accessible work of postmodern noir shot through with philosophy and poetry.

Among the characters populating this polyphonic novel are Tertullian, an Argentinian neo-fascist who claims paternity from the Pope and believes in “necessary destructions”; Palacios, a priest who founds an anti-Communist death squad; and Manuela Beltrán, a poet emerging from a dark past and wondering if there’s “a certain spirituality in excess”.

Their plots run parallel for most of the book, converging thematically around rape, revenge, and deception, and eventually cohering around a Colombian intellectual called the Consul – an alterego for Gamboa, who was once Colombia’s cultural attaché in New Delhi. The Consul’s biography of poet Arthur Rimbaud, from enfant terrible in Charleville and Paris to voluntary exile in Harar, Ethiopia, forms the spine of the novel and, with its interest in migration and the impossibility of true return, reflects the concerns found in the dramatic monologues.

The story jumps from Rome and Madrid (where Boko Haram beseiges the Irish embassy) via Berlin to Bogota and Cali. Its kaleidoscopic nature aims to suggest our contemporary sense of accelerating dislocation.

The shifts in voice and genre are masterfully played. Gamboa’s Consul says that in an increasingly readerless world only the most versatile writers will survive, and Gamboa has versatility in spades, as well as the intoxicatingly prolific fluency of a Roberto Bolaño, with whom he is frequently compared. His writing is exuberant, sometimes extravagant, and makes reliably compulsive reading.

Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

January 21, 2018 at 5:06 pm

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Interview with Mohsin Hamid

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mohsin-hamidIt was a pleasure to interview Mohsin Hamid, author of ‘The Reluctant Fundamentalist’ and ‘Exit West’, for the National. This here is the less edited version.

How did you become a writer? Put another way, why do you write?

I’ve always been a fantasist. Like many children, I used to play make-believe, and I still spend several hours a day living in my imagination. Why didn’t I grow out of it? Most people do, or at least are happy for their imaginings to be guided – they enter worlds made by others, in books or films.

I suspect it’s because I’m uncomfortable with the world as it is. I am mixed and mongrelised. I’ve lived my life between Pakistan, the UK and the US, so I’m foreign everywhere. Then, as I get older, my parents’ generation is passing away. Like everyone, I can’t provide the level of security for my children I’d like to. I experience the vulnerability that we all share.

I’m the type of person who requires unreal activity in order to function. If I don’t write fiction for extended periods I become unsettled, anxious, uncertain. I’m less of a pain to be around when I’m writing.

Your writing is distinguished by its clarity. The prose seems effortless, and the volumes are fairly thin. Yet once you told me a novel takes seven years to write. So how much rewriting is necessary?

My first two novels took seven years each. The third took six, and the fourth only four. I start with some ideas. I explore and build them up. I write an outline and fill notebooks. I even write a draft. Oftentimes these ideas don’t work, or they lead to a dead end. Then I may write a draft which shares no words with the first but is nevertheless influenced by it. The first draft of “Exit West” looked like the final product – the first time it happened – though many ideas from the draft were abandoned. I start with something that demands engagement. As I deal with it, my thoughts begin to clarify.

I’m fortunate in having honest readers – my wife first, but also my agent, and editors. And I write for an imaginary reader, not Pakistani or American, not male or female. In other words, I write novels that I’d like to read, that leave a lot open. I write half-novels if you like, not very long, which leave space for the reader to react and imagine.

Your writing, though very accessible, is often formally adventurous. What does form mean to you?

Form is the starting point. I use it in the same way poets used to use metre and rhyme, not as a restriction but as a set of rules to produce inspiration. Form makes possible the kind of story that readers can relate to intuitively. Form brings with it rhythms and patterns. Even if these are not evident, the way the mind works means they are helpful. Form provides vital architecture. The correct form depends on the nature of the story. This is what I must figure out: what’s the story about? What form suits it? What language fits the form?

You see, I don’t accept the notion that there is a stable thing called reality which the novel simply reflects. Humans are complex bio-chemical machines, and reality blurs quickly. What parts of me are talking to what parts of you? My construct of myself is a fiction. I often behave in ways that contradict this fiction. Through form, the novel can reveal the way in which reality is constructed, and how our selves themselves are constructed. Form allows writer and reader to enter a shared domain. We are aware it’s made up, so it can be still more potent than what we call reality.

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

September 3, 2017 at 11:19 pm

Posted in book review, Interview, Pakistan

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