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Robin Yassin-Kassab

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The Parisian

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This review first appeared at the Guardian.

parisian“The Parisian”, Isabella Hammad’s remarkably accomplished debut novel, very quickly binds the reader’s attention. Ranging from Nablus in the dying days of the Ottoman Empire via Istanbul and Cairo to Montpellier and Paris, and always connecting the personal and the political, our hero Midhat Kamal’s journey makes delightful reading.

The sensation of reality is intense, at various levels. Time and place are fully imagined, with constant attention to the details of dress, furniture, architecture, and attitude. With Midhat enrolled in medicine at Montpellier and the World War One dead stacking up, the ideas and prejudices of the French historical moment are rendered most successfully in extended party scenes – Midhat speaking “with the accidental definiteness of a person using a second language.”

Relationships between characters are very precisely noticed, and the characters themselves are brought to life by a fierce interiority. Midhat’s sense of himself, through his different ages and states of consciousness, is a sustained theme, from his discovery at Istanbul’s Lycée Impérial of “the electric feeling of aloneness, victorious and agonising, unearthly.” The physical correlative is consciousness of “the hard outline of his body”, which transforms when he falls in love: “the awareness of his limbs was an agony, he wanted to get out of them, to be elsewhere.”

As confidence deepens between Midhat and his host Dr Molineu’s daughter Jeanette, Midhat attempts to learn more about Jeanette’s mother, a suicide. He studies her diagnosis of “hystero-neurasthenia”, and the influence upon her of the mysterious Sylvain Leclair. But the pleasures of investigation are superseded by a crisis when Midhat learns he himself has been an object of study for Doctor Molineu, part of a project “linking philology and development”, to analyse “the Muslim as a deviation from the onward progression”.

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

April 22, 2019 at 7:50 am

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Godsend

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This review was published at The Guardian.

godsendAden Grace Sawyer, eighteen years old, is “a serious girl, an asker of questions.” Alienated from her comfortable Californian suburban surroundings by family breakdown – her father has left home following an affair, and her mother has slipped into alcoholism – she turns to Islam for consolation.

Her choice appears guided in equal measure by a genuinely spiritual urge for submission to the transcendent, and a more prosaically youthful defiance. Still in the Bay Area, she dons Afghan-style shalwar kameez, and crops her hair rather than wear a hijab. Next she plans to migrate to a godly country. Because Decker, her blustering boyfriend and travelling companion, has Afghan roots and cousins in Karachi, they head for Pakistan.

Aden’s father – significantly, a professor of Islamic studies at Berkeley – has warned her of the limited “possibilities for a woman in that part of the world”. Aden has too much attitude to accept any sort of limitation and so reinvents herself, improbably but credibly, as a boy. With bandaged breasts, and “hidden by her clear and perfect strangeness”, she is restyled as Suleyman, Quranic student and potential holy warrior. Soon she’s attending an all-male madrasa in the tribal areas of the Pakistani-Afghan borderlands. “So far away,” she whispers triumphantly. Too far for unlucky Decker, who only planned an adventure holiday. To sustain her role, Aden refuses to continue sleeping with him.

The War on Terror theme can quickly reduce even great writers to cliche and worse. (John Updike’s lamentable “Terrorist” may be the worst of the genre.) “Godsend”, however – John Wray’s fifth novel – is entirely convincing, in part, no doubt, because Wray has done his research.

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

January 22, 2019 at 6:45 pm

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A Labyrinth of Suffering

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qusaii-side-nov2013

Kassem Eid in Moadamiya

(A slightly edited version of this article – which reviews books by Alia Malek, Rania Abouzeid, Kassem Eid, and Marwan Hisham and Molly Crabapple – was first published at Prospect Magazine. If you’re interested in more Syrian perspectives on the revolution and war, I recommend Wendy Pearlman’s oral history – my review here – Yassin al Haj Saleh’s brilliant political writing – my intro to the book is here, Samar Yazbek’s books – Woman in the Crossfire reviewed here, and The Crossing reviewed here – and of course our book Burning Country, which gives a grassroots account – information on that here.)

“Syrians. I hated the deceptive simplicity of that word. We were twenty-three million people. Soldiers and fighters. Revolutionaries and counter-revolutionaries. The torturer and the victim. How could one word encompass us all?” – Marwan Hisham

Escorted by Russian bombers and Iranian militia, the Assad regime has returned in recent months to key parts of the Syrian heartland. In its wake come deportations, mass arrests, torture and field executions. Secure in its impunity, the regime has begun issuing death notices for the tens of thousands murdered in detention since 2011. President Putin calls for the regime’s ‘normalisation’ against this backdrop, and in the run-up to the Helsinki summit, it seems he won Donald Trump and Benjamin Netanyahu’s acquiescence.

The democratic revolution is defeated, the country destroyed, and what follows will not resemble peace. Assad’s throne has been saved, but at the dual price of Syrian social cohesion and regional stability. From the originary counter-revolutionary violence, secondary and tertiary conflicts now bloom – Sunni-Shia, Turkish-Kurdish, Israeli-Iranian – while refugee flows and terror scares have infected our politics here. Syria will continue to demand our engagement, and not only for the sake of its vast human tragedy.

Of the expanding shelf of Syria books, the most explanatory (or least ideological) tend to start from the diverse experiences of Syrians themselves. Four recently published books do just that, in very different ways.

Both chronologically and socially, “The Home that was Our Country”, by Syrian-American journalist Alia Malek, has the widest focus. It begins at World War One, when half a million Syrians died of famine, and Armenian genocide-survivors arrived from Turkey. The author’s great-grandfather Abdeljawwad, a landowning ‘notable’ and entrepreneur, shelters one refugee before participating in the 1920s uprising against the French – whose mandate brought martial law, aerial bombardment, and an Alawi-dominated army. By turns generous host and manipulative patriarch, equally attached to tradition and modernity, Abdeljawwad is a Christian, school founder, and womaniser.

Every character in these densely populated pages is as complex. After grandmother Salma – a heavy smoker called ‘sister of men’ – moves to multicultural Damascus, the fates and interactions of her relatives and neighbours illustrate the declining fortunes of society-at-large, as the imperfect post-colonial democracy is succeeded by coups and counter-coups, then the Baath’s one-party state, and finally Hafez al-Assad’s one-man party. Now people (including Salma’s brother) disappear for the slightest dissidence. Their relatives fear asking too many questions. Religious coexistence, once a given, strains under the mutual fear and suspicion built into the new dispensation. Infrastructural stagnation accompanies seeping moral corruption: “If people disregarded anyone’s welfare but their own, it was in part because the state made Syrians feel that everyone was on his or her own; people were being pitted against one another.”

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

September 15, 2018 at 5:19 pm

Disoriental

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disorientalMy review of this excellent novel was first published at the Guardian.

From a fertility clinic waiting room, a single woman seated between couples – Kimiâ – recounts her family history. She promises at the start to follow “the natural fits and starts” of memory, and her narrative jumps across a time scale from a grandmother’s birth in a late 19th Century harem at the foot of the Alborz mountains (the great-grandfather’s thirtieth child), through Kimiâ’s Tehran childhood, to her present incarnation as a twenty-five-year-old French-Iranian punk fan.

“Disoriental”, Négar Djavadi’s sophisticated debut novel, teems with fully-realised characters. Kimiâ ’s immediate relatives – her parents Darius and Sara (both political activists), her big sisters, and uncles numbered one to six – are the most closely observed.

Djavadi’s beguiling tale-telling, cynical and lyrical by turns, extends to an account of Iranian history. Imperialist assaults, coups, revolts, and waves of repression crash against the steady background of a “phallocratic society”. Before Khomeini and compulsory veiling there was Shah Reza Pahlavi, the “pauper-turned-king” who “used a special militia to tear the veils from women’s heads.”

Kimiâ  (meaning ‘alchemy’) grows up a tomboy in a country which doesn’t recognise the concept. Nor – though it tolerates transexuality – does official Iran accept the existence of homosexuality. President Ahmadinejad is quoted: “We don’t have this phenomenon.”

But for now sexuality is the least of Kimiâ ’s problems, as first the Shah’s police and then the mullahs target her parents. The family escapes, but there’s no happy ending. Kimiâ ’s father is broken in exile, avoiding the metro escalator because it’s “for them” (the French). Djavadi treats the immigrant condition with intelligence and compassion, exploring how to integrate into a culture “you have to disintegrate first”.

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

July 28, 2018 at 10:54 am

Posted in book review, France, Iran

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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.

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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