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Robin Yassin-Kassab

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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

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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

The Morning They Came For Us

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The_Morning_They_Came_for_UsThis review was published at the Guardian.

Reading “The Morning They Came For Us” by veteran war correspondent Janine di Giovanni is at once necessary, difficult, and elating. Giovanni’s reporting from the Syrian revolution and war is clear-eyed and engaged in the best possible sense – engaged in the human realm rather than the abstractly political.

Remembering previous wars too, her account is first-person and deeply personal. She’d once been obsessed with Bosnian crimes; in the introduction we hear warning that Syria may “engulf her”. Giovanni finds herself unable to trim her baby son’s nails for thinking of an Iraqi who’d had his ripped out. Later, accepting a cigarette pack from a student of human rights, she notes the old cigarette burns on his arms.

Her Syrian visits fell between March and December 2012. The first told, from the summer, finds an uneasy silence in central Damascus even as the suburbs burn. Class in this society is a more significant divider than religion, and the bi-national elite are spinning conspiracy theories, sunk into pool parties and denial. In these “last days of a spoilt empire that was about to implode” Giovanni delineates the different kinds of regime ‘believer’: true devotees, or those simply scared of the potential alternatives. 300 frustrated UN monitors are confined to their hotel, and war is “descending with stunning velocity”.

The book thereafter recounts the ramifications on Syrian civilians of Assad’s various scorched earth strategies. An estimated 200,000 people have disappeared into the regime gulag. Most have experienced torture. “I struggle to remember a place where torture has been so widespread and systematic,” a Human Rights Watch official tells Giovanni, who sets about particularising, humanising, some of these lost stories through interview, tales of beatings, burnings, cuttings perpetrated to the torturer’s usual refrain: “You want freedom? Is this the freedom you want?”

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

June 1, 2016 at 11:34 am

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The Arab of the Future

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This was my review for the Guardian of Riad Sattouf’s graphic memoir.araboffuture

The graphic novel has proved itself over and over. It already has its classical canon: Spiegelman on the Holocaust, Satrapi on girlhood in Islamist Iran, and (perhaps most accomplished of all) Joe Sacco’s ‘Footnotes in Gaza’, a work of detailed and self-reflexive history. Edging towards this company comes Riad Sattouf’s ‘The Arab of the Future’, a childhood memoir of tyranny.

Little Riad’s mother, Clementine, is French. His father, Abdul-Razak, is Syrian. They meet at the Sorbonne, where Abdul-Razak is studying a doctorate in history. Those with Arab fathers will recognise the prestige value of the title ‘doctoor’. But Abdul-Razak is more ambitious. He really wants to be a president. Studying abroad at least allows him to avoid military service. “I want to give orders, not take them,” he says. When humiliated, he sniffs and rubs his nose.

Abdul-Razak is a pan-Arabist who believes the people (“stupid filthy Arab retards!”) must be educated out of religious dogma. For reasons of both vanity and ideology he turns down an Oxford teaching post for one in Libya. The family takes up residence in a flat which doesn’t have a lock, because Qaddafi has ‘abolished private property’. Little Riad sees Libya all yellow, its unfinished buildings already crumbling. He sings the Leader’s speeches with kids in the stairwell and queues with his mother for food (only eggs one week, just bananas the next).

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

May 3, 2016 at 8:35 pm

Drawing Blood

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mollyThis review was published at the National.

Molly Crabapple’s “Drawing Blood” – “the story of a girl and her sketchbook” – is at once memoir, reportage, literary description, aesthetic enquiry, road novel and romance.

Crabapple’s painting, lying somewhere between Toulouse Lautrec and surrealism, is increasingly celebrated. The surprise here is that her best writing is as provocatively beautiful as her visual art. Her prose is sweet and sour in equal measure, the eye she watches with is both refined and raw. Very often she watches herself. The comfortable clash in her personality of cynic and idealist, highbrow and lowbrow, recalls Saul Bellow’s early characters. Like Augie March, a young Molly shoplifts high-canonical texts and reads them on the elevated trains which pass above slums.

Native of New York, of a stimulating Puerto Rican (Marxist) and Jewish (artist) background, Molly nevertheless hated being a child. School diagnosed her with “oppositional defiant disorder”; by twelve she’d become a goth-punk. At seventeen she was travelling in Paris and Morocco, an American on tour – “nothing but an eye, soaking up the world” – but one seeing a freshly unexotic vision.

“When you draw you are performing quietly,” she writes, “inviting strangers to engage you.” Strangers engage her, of course, wherever she is, whether she’s drawing or not, simply because she possesses (or is possessed by) an attractive female body. This she finds to be both a power and a vulnerability. The financial power leads her to pose for photo shoots. “When I thought of every proposition and threat that I got just walking down the street in my girl body, I decided I might as well get paid for the trouble.” And so she became “rendered into image, untouchable yet tradable.”

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

March 10, 2016 at 11:27 am

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