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Robin Yassin-Kassab

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The Raqqa Diaries

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samerAn edited version of this review was published at the Guardian.

In March 2013, Free Syrian Army fighters, alongside the al-Qaida-linked militia Jabhat al-Nusra, liberated Raqqa, a city in Syria’s east. Crowds assaulted the dictator’s statues. Detainees were set free. A hip-hop concert was held. Activists hotly debated the shape of the democracy to come. They set up a local council. Nusra set up a Sharia court.

Then ISIS, or Daesh, an Iraqi-led group, split from Nusra. It was contained for a while, until the Free Army in Raqqa was weakened, battered by airstrikes and “busy fighting the regime elsewhere”.

In January 2014 Daesh captured the city. “Snatching it away from the revolutionaries who had sacrificed everything to liberate it,” the jihadists immediately established rule by fear. Some people fled, some submitted, and some resisted as best they could.

samer1“The Raqqa Diaries” are as powerful and fast-paced as a thriller, but this is brutal non-fiction, plainly and urgently told. Their author, risking his life to break Daesh’s communications siege, goes by the pseudonym ‘Samer’. His group, al-Sharqiya 24, made contact with the BBC’s Mike Thomson, and a barebones version of the book was read on Radio 4’s Today programme.

Raqqa is a generally conservative but deeply civilised city, its roots stretching to the Babylonian period. Samer describes its people as “humble” and friendly.

Under Assad, Samer’s father was detained for muttering against corruption. The family was forced to exchange its wealth for his freedom.

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

February 23, 2017 at 8:42 pm

Posted in book review, Syria

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Dancing in Damascus

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wissam

by Wissam al-Jazairy

This review of miriam cooke’s new book was published at the Guardian.

Syria’s revolution triggered a volcano of long-repressed thought and emotion in cultural as well as political form. Independent newspapers and radio stations blossomed alongside popular poetry and street graffiti. This is a story largely untold in the West. Who knew, for instance, of the full houses, despite continuous bombardment, during Aleppo’s December 2013 theatre festival?

“Dancing in Damascus” by Arabist and critic miriam cooke (so she writes her name, uncapitalised) aims to fill the gap, surveying responses in various genres to revolution, repression, war and exile.

Dancing is construed both as metaphor for collective solidarity and debate – as Emma Goldman said, “If I can’t dance, it isn’t my revolution” – and as literal practice. At protests, Levantine dabke was elevated from ‘folklore’ to radical street-level defiance, just as popular songs were transformed into revolutionary anthems.

Cooke’s previous book “Dissident Syria” examined the regime’s pre-2011 attempts to defuse oppositional art while giving the impression of tolerance. The regime would fund films for international screening, for instance, but ban their domestic release.

souad-al-jundi

by Souad al-Jundi

“Dancing in Damascus” describes how culture slipped the bounds of co-optation. Increasingly explicit prison novels and memoirs anticipated the uprising. Once the protests erupted, ‘artist-activists’ engaged in a “politics of insult” and irony. Shredding taboos, the Masasit Matte collective’s ‘Top Goon’ puppet shows, Ibrahim Qashoush’s songs and Ali Farzat’s cartoons targeted Bashaar al-Assad specifically. “The ability to laugh at the tyrant and his henchmen,” writes cooke, “helps to repair the brokenness of a fearful people.”

As the repression escalated, Syrians posted atrocity images in the hope they would mobilise solidarity abroad. This failed, but artistic responses to the violence helped transform trauma into “a collective, affective memory responsible to the future”.

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

January 27, 2017 at 12:14 pm

Posted in book review, Cinema, Culture, Syria

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2084: The Recurring Liberal Apocalypse

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2084This was first published at the National.

The true subject of science fiction is always the present. Its imagined futures are mirrors to today’s hopes and fears. George Orwell’s “1984” simply shifted the numbers of the year in which he wrote the book – 1948 – and made a metaphor of that time’s dark politics. Likewise “2084”, the latest from Algerian novelist Boualem Sansal, is addressed to, and in some way is part of, very contemporary woes.

Sansal lays out a fantastically detailed dystopia in complex and often elegant prose. After the Great Holy War killed hundreds of millions, an absolutist theocracy has been founded by Abi the Delegate, servant of the god Yolah. Abi’s rule is secured by such institutions as the Apparatus and the Ministry of Moral Health, and displayed by frequent mass slaughters of heretics in stadia built for the purpose. The nine daily prayers are compulsory. Women must cloak themselves in thick ‘burniqabs’.

Dissent, individuality, and progress have been abolished. The future must be a strict replica of the past. All languages are banned save the state-invented ‘Abilang’.

Ati, the story’s vague hero, is sent to a sanatorium in the mountains to cure his tuberculosis. Here he hears rumours of a nearby border, a limit to Abi’s reign. The notion “that the world might be divided, divisible, and humankind might be multiple” sparks a crisis of doubt in him, and then a journey of discovery.

At times “2084” suffers from science fiction’s most common pitfall: an unwieldy listing of technical or political information describing the imagined world outweighs and obscures the necessary human information. Sansal’s characters are somewhat two-dimensional, and the plot can seem almost accidental.

It is best, therefore, not to read this as a conventional novel but as a mix of satire, fable, and polemic.

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

January 27, 2017 at 11:28 am

Posted in Algeria, book review, France

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Guapa

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guapaThis review was first published, slightly edited, at the Guardian.

“There is everything that ever happened, and then there is this morning.”

Rasa’s grandmother – Teta – has discovered him in bed with his boyfriend Taymour. It’s a potential disaster for Taymour, who tries to “play by the rules, one foot in and one foot out”, and for Rasa it precipitates a crisis of eib, or shame, the fear of what people will say and the necessity of lying it imposes.

Since boyhood he has obsessed with finding a word to define him: louti – sodomite, or khawal – effeminate, or gay, first heard on TV when George Michael came out, or even shaath – “queer, deviant, abject”.

But Teta’s spying and screaming is only one of Rasa’s problems.

His friend Maj has been arrested. Rasa isn’t sure if it’s because of his human rights work or on account of his sexuality. In a hidden nightclub called Guapa – the “pocket of hope” which gives Saleem Haddad’s wonderful debut its title – Maj often belly dances in full niqab and a print of Marilyn Monroe’s face. He calls this “war-on-terror neo-Orientalist gender-fucking”. “We are all performing,” Maj declares, referring back to eib, and to the demands of survival in a prying dictatorship.

The president’s gaze, no less than Teta’s, “unpacks your existence bit by bit until you are naked and helpless, your most secret thoughts out in the open for all to see.”

Rasa lives in a unnamed, composite Arab city clogged with traffic, policemen, cynical cab drivers, and new and old waves of refugees. People clutch cigarettes and Turkish coffee in their well-chewed fingers. The air smells of jasmine. The walls are adorned with posters of the president in various costumes.

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

October 28, 2016 at 9:45 am

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No Knives in the Kitchens of this City

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noknivesThis review of the latest novel by Khaled Khalifa – an examination of Aleppo’s decades-long strangulation at the hands of the Assad regime – was published at the Guardian.

Were Syrians wise to revolt? Aren’t they worse off now?

Such questions misapprehend the situation. Syrians didn’t decide out of the blue to destroy a properly functioning state. The state had been destroying them, and itself, for decades. “No Knives in the Kitchens of this City”, the new novel by Khaled Khalifa, chronicles this long political, social and cultural collapse, the incubator of contemporary demons.

The story stretches back to World War One and forward to the American occupation of Iraq, but our narrator’s “ill-omened birth” coincides with the 1963 Baathist coup. The regime starts off as it means to continue. The maternity hospital is looted and emptied of patients. Soon the schools and universities are purged. Only pistol-toting loyalist professors survive. Public and individual horizons shrink as the president’s powers grow beyond all limits, through Emergency Law, exceptional courts, and three-hour news broadcasts covering “sacred directives made to governors and ministers”.

The novel follows a large and well-drawn cast – a family, their friends, enemies and lovers – back and forward across three generations. This multiple focus and enormous scope turns the setting – the city of Aleppo – into the novel’s central ‘character’. “Cities die just like people,” Khalifa writes. So ancient neighbourhoods are demolished, and lettuce fields give way to spreading slums.

“No Knives in the Kitchens of this City” won the Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature. As in many of Mahfouz’s novels, Khalifa’s urban environment develops a power somewhere between metaphor and symbol: “The alley was witness to the destruction of my mother’s dreams, and the idea of this alley grew to encompass the length and breadth of the country.”

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

October 2, 2016 at 8:26 am

Posted in book review, Syria

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The Prison

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blinding-absence-of-lightThis article about Arab prison writing was published at the National.

From ‘Prisoner Cell Block H’ to ‘Orange is the New Black’, prison dramas fill the Anglo-Saxon screen. In the Arab world, you’re more likely to see them on the news. In recent months, for example, detainees of the Syrian regime have staged an uprising in Hama prison and been assaulted in Suwayda prison.

No surprise then that contemporary Arab writing features prisons so prominently, sometimes as setting, more often as powerful metaphor.

“About My Mother”, the latest novel by esteemed Moroccan writer Taher Ben Jelloun (who writes in French), is an affectionate but unromantic portrait of his parent trapped by incoherence. The old lady suffers dementia, mistaking times, places and people, but there is a freedom in her long monologues, the flow of memory and shifting scenes, torrents of speech which eventually infect the narration.

The novel is family memoir and social history as well as an experiment with form. Jelloun’s mother was married thrice, and widowed first at sixteen. At the first wedding, the attendants presenting the bride chorus: “See the hostage. See the hostage.”

Fettered by tradition and domestic labour, now by illness and age, she responds with superstition, fatalism and resignation. Her own confinement is echoed by memories of national oppression, first by the French, then by homegrown authorities. She learns to mistrust the police even before her son Taher’s student years are interrupted by eighteen months in army disciplinary camp, punishment for his low-level political activism. “That’s what a police state is,” the adult writes, “arbitrary punishment, cruelty and barbarity.”

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

September 9, 2016 at 10:56 pm

Syrian Dust: An Overview of Books

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syriaThis review of books on Syria, mainly of Francesca Borri’s ‘Syrian Dust’, was published at the National.

…if you only talk about those who are fighting, any revolution becomes a war.” – Francesca Borri

For a long time very little was published on Syria in English. Patrick Seale’s useful but hagiographic “Assad: the Struggle for Syria” was the best known. Hanna Batatu’s classic “Syria’s Peasantry and their Politics” and Raymond Hinnebusch’s “Revolution from Above” were valuable academic studies of the Hafez-era state.

Over the last five years of revolution and war, several shelf loads of books have appeared. Many are sensationalist, cashing in on the latest terrorism scare. But several are of very high standard. Bente Scheller’s “The Wisdom of Syria’s Waiting Game”, for instance, is an excellent analysis of Assadist pre-revolution foreign policy. Thomas Pierret’s “Religion and State in Syria” is an indispensable resource on the social roles of the Islamic scholars in the same period.

Novelist Samar Yazbek’s “Woman in the Crossfire: Diaries of the Syrian Revolution” is the best account of the revolution’s early months, though “Revolt in Syria” by Stephen Starr, an Irish journalist then resident in Damascus, comes close. Jonathan Littell, author of the remarkable WW2 novel “The Kindly Ones” wrote “Syrian Notebooks” after spending two weeks of 2012 in besieged Homs. Marwa al-Sabouni’s well-received “The Battle for Home” gives a Syrian architect’s perspective on the destruction (and potential rebuilding) of the city.

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

June 21, 2016 at 8:57 am