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Robin Yassin-Kassab

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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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We Crossed A Bridge and it Trembled

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This review first appeared at the Guardian. (I would recommend my and Leila’s book Burning Country as the best social, political, historical and cultural contextualiser of the Syrian Revolution, and Yassin al-Haj Saleh’s The Impossible Revolution as the best analysis – and one of the best political books you’ll ever read about any topic – but I would certainly recommend this remarkable book for its method. The entire story is told through the voices of Syrians themselves.)

bridgeEveryone talks about Syrians, but very few are actually talk to them. Perhaps that’s why Syria’s revolution and war have been so badly misunderstood in the West – variously as a US-led regime-change plot, or an ancient Sunni-Shia conflict, or a struggle between secularism and Jihadism.

“We Crossed a Bridge and It Trembled” bucks the trend. Here the story is told entirely through the mouths of Wendy Pearlman’s Syrian interviewees, hundreds of them, from all social backgrounds, Christians and Muslims, Ismailis and Druze, rural and urban, middle-class and poor. These best of all possible informants – the people who made the events, and who suffer the consequences – provide not only gripping eyewitness accounts but erudite analysis and sober reflection.

The introduction, alongside a concise overview of developments from 1970 to the present, describes Pearlman’s method. She interviewed refugees (who are therefore overwhelmingly anti-regime) in locations stretching from Jordan to Germany. And she interviewed in Arabic, enabling “a connection that would have been impossible had I relied on an interpreter.” The result is testament both to Syrian expressive powers and the translation’s high literary standard.

These heart-stopping tales of torment and triumph are perfectly enchained, chronologically and thematically, to reflect the course of the crisis. They begin with life under Hafez al-Assad’s regime, “not a government but a mafia”, when children were trained to lie for their families’ security. “It was a state of terror,” says Ilyas, a dentist. “Every citizen was terrified. The regime was also terrified.”

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

August 12, 2017 at 8:41 am

Posted in book review, Syria

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The City Always Wins

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City Cover ExtraAn edited version of this review appeared first at the Guardian.

“The City Always Wins”, the astounding debut novel by British-Egyptian film-maker Omar Robert Hamilton, opens after the seeming triumph of the Egyptian revolution’s early stage has passed, though it is remembered, cinematically, as “an explosion of light, sound and epic consequence with no room for ego or doubt.”

Now the revolutionaries are flailing in various tides of counter-revolution. The new Muslim Brotherhood government forces through a constitution which ignores key revolutionary demands. Brotherhood ‘security’ and a revived police force torture and murder at will. The army kills too, and prepares to seize total control. To emphasise these reversals, parts one, two and three of the novel – though the story moves forward chronologically – are titled respectively Tomorrow, Today and Yesterday.

Crowds are evoked through disputatious voices. A large and striking cast of characters struggles in night-time streets, chokes in traffic or on tear gas, argues in bars, and waits in hospitals and morgues. They are brought together through the figure of Khalil. Palestinian-Egyptian, and American born, Khalil’s problematised nationality, and people’s responses to it, is one way in which the novel questions the nature of community. Khalil’s partner Mariam is a medical worker seeking a life worthy enough to “conquer death with memory”, and a feminist in the way she lives and loves, though she never mentions the word.

Khalil co-founds Chaos, a magazine, website and podcast (in the real world, Hamilton co-founded a media collective called Mosireen). The office “becomes a cerebral cortex at the centre of the information war.” Significantly, the novel begins at the massacre of (mainly Christian) protestors outside Maspero, the state media HQ. Later, Khalil will have reason to repeat: “I wish we had taken Maspero.”

The revolutionaries set up illegal radio transmissions, write manifestos, crowd-source, make public art. Increasingly they also tend the wounded, comfort the bereaved, and find lawyers for the detained. Some of the people here are real, like the imprisoned activist Alaa Abd el-Fattah, Hamilton’s cousin, to whom he dedicates the book.

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

August 4, 2017 at 7:59 am

Posted in book review, Egypt

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A Good Country

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goodcountryThis review was first published at the National.

Rez (or Alireza) is growing up in comfortable Orange County, California, where high school students drive their own cars and can afford to stay in hotels. His parents are Kurdish immigrants from Iran, though Rez considers himself, at first at least, to be thoroughly American. America, as his father says, is “a good country”, one deserving of its citizens’ gratitude.

The environment is multicultural, but there is also the issue of ‘turf’. The Mexicans stick with the Mexicans, the Vietnamese with the Vietnamese, and so on. Rez hangs out with white friends – all of them called Pete – until a disastrous road trip causes him to be ostracised. Then he befriends Arash, a Syrian-American boy, and continues his old pursuits – smoking dope, listening to hip-hop, and chasing girls.

His ethnic ‘identity’ is therefore already an issue, but it becomes much more urgent when a fellow student’s brother is injured in the 2013 Boston marathon bombing. Unable to reach the Chechen brothers who perpetrated the atrocity, this student galvanises a harassment campaign against Rez and other Muslim-origin students. In the wider society beyond school too, Rez’s name and appearance lay him open to suspicion and hostility.

When Arash’s academic prospects are abruptly blighted, he turns to Islam for solace. Rez and his girlfriend Fatima try to understand. They visit a mosque where, although Rez doesn’t know how to pray, he finds kindness, dignity and – something related to ‘turf’ – brotherhood.

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

June 16, 2017 at 7:17 pm

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Shortlisted for the Folio Prize

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My co-author Leila al-Shami and I are honoured that “Burning Country: Syrians in Revolution and War” has been shortlisted for this year’s Rathbones Folio Prize. But the true honour belongs to those Syrians whose stories we transmitted. We’re particularly happy with the shortlisting because the book may receive more attention, and because these remarkable people’s achievements need to be heard.

Here’s a short film of me (looking rather puffy) talking about the book. Film credits go to the camerawoman, Ayaat.

Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

May 19, 2017 at 6:26 pm

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Olivier Roy’s ‘Jihad and Death’

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jihad&deathThis review was first published at the National.

What motivates Westerners to become jihadists? What comes first, radicalism or religious text?

Olivier Roy, a French analyst of ‘globalised Islam’, begins “Jihad and Death: The Global Appeal of Islamic State” with empirical research on about 100 people involved in Jihadist terrorism in France and Belgium. Converts account for a staggering 25% of this sample. The rest tend to be lapsed Muslims, and return to strict religious practice, if at all, only months before they commit violence.

They are as likely to come from prosperous as poor families. They show a frequent history of delinquency, and very often of domestic violence. Crucially for Roy’s argument, they tend to be immersed in global youth culture: action movies, computer games, hip-hop and streetwear. “Combat sports clubs are more important than mosques in Jihadi socialisation.”

Terrorists don’t come from what the French right-wing calls ‘Salafised spaces’. Roy points out the irony of the ISIL-linked Abdeslam brothers running “a bar in a neighbourhood described as Salafised,” and usefully emphasises the distinction between Salafism and ISIL-style radicalism. The latter, unlike the former, permits punishment by fire and suicide attacks, for instance, and rejects parental and clerical authority.

“Jihadis do not descend into violence after poring over the sacred texts,” Roy writes. A self-serving, inconsistent and decontextualised manipulation of scripture is central to ISIL propaganda, but largely irrelevant, he argues, to the European radicals. These are not believers programmed for terror by religion, but “rebels who choose radicalism and then fit it into an Islamic paradigm.”

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

May 19, 2017 at 5:26 pm

Posted in book review, France

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The President’s Gardens

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president's gardensThis review was published first at the Guardian.

Since 1980, Iraq has suffered almost continuous war, as well as uprisings, repressions, sanctions, and war-related cancers. “The President’s Gardens” by Muhsin al-Ramli –published in Arabic in 2012 and now masterfully translated by Luke Leafgren – at last provides us with an epic account of this experience from an Iraqi, and deeply human, perspective.

“If every victim had a book, Iraq in its entirety would become a huge library, impossible ever to catalogue.” This book must belong to Ibrahim, nicknamed ‘the Fated’, the discovery of whose head (in a banana crate) opens and closes the novel in 2006, and whose life until that decapitation is narrated in the most detail. Yet Ibrahim’s friends since childhood, Tariq ‘the Befuddled’ and Abdullah ‘Kafka’, are essential to the story.

Tariq is a schoolteacher, a perfumed, snappy dresser, and a grinning, earthy imam. As such he is spared military service, and prospers in the village, making necessary accomodations to the ruling system.

Abdullah, the “prince of pessimists” who describes contemporary events as “ancient, lost, dead history”, is already alienated by his illegitimacy when he is called up in 1988 for the war against Iran, captured, and incarcerated as a POW for the next 19 years, with almost 100,000 others. In Iran he is paraded, tortured, starved, and lectured on Khomeinism. Prisoners are separated by religious affiliation, but those ‘penitents’ who adopt the Islamic Republic’s ideology are raised up to rule over the unconverted.

There is no sectarianism at all in the narration. The main characters, from north of Baghdad, are probably Sunnis, but the reader must bring knowledge from beyond the text to make this assumption. Their travels through the country’s beautiful landscapes and terrible warscapes convey a clear sense of Iraqi nationhood alongside a sustained disdain for exclusionary and propagandistic nationalism. “When I look at the flag of any country,” says Abdullah on his release, “I see nothing more than a scrap of cloth devoid of any colour or meaning.”

If Abdullah’s chief mode is principled nihilism, Ibrahim’s is gentle resignation. “Everything is fate and decree” is his catchphrase, and he names his daughter Qisma, ‘fate’. Made sterile by poison gas in the Iran war, lamed during the invasion of Kuwait, he finds a job in the paradisal gardens of the title, secret expanses within Baghdad studded by Saddam Hussain’s palaces, where the fountain water is mixed with perfume, camels graze between rose beds, and crocodiles swim in the pools. Naturally, horrors lurk beneath this surface.

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

April 23, 2017 at 11:34 am

Posted in book review, Iraq

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