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Robin Yassin-Kassab

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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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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.

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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

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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

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Exit West

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exit westThis review was first published at the National.

Saeed works in an advertising agency, lives with his parents, and prays irregularly “as a gesture of love for what had gone and would go and could be loved in no other way.” Nadia, against the wishes of her family, chooses to live alone. She rides a motorbike and wears black robes to ward off predatory men. They meet at an evening class on corporate identity and product branding. They soon become friends, then something more.

Both are trying to build their lives in increasingly precarious circumstances. Saeed’s father is a university lecturer in a country which hasn’t done well by its professional class. He blames himself for not providing for his son: “The far more decent thing would have been to pursue wealth at all costs.”

They inhabit a city “teetering on the abyss”, filling up with refugees and prone to random violence. This could almost be Lahore, where Mohsin Hamid, the novel’s author, was born. But the war, when it arrives, feels like a tale from the Arab counter-revolutions. The encroaching militants behave like Daesh, outlawing music and staging public executions.

So Nadia and Saeed’s hometown could be many places, and this is part of the novel’s point. “Exit West” is formally adventurous despite the initial impression of realism. Set in the near future, or in an alternative and intensified present, the tale twists between magical realism and gentle science fiction.

At its centre is a magical image. Naturally, the war changes people’s relationship to windows, “the border through which death was possibly most likely to come”. But their relationship to doors changes too. Rumours spread of doors closely guarded in secret locations, infinitely dark doors which open onto random distant lands.

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

March 20, 2017 at 5:54 pm

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The Way of the Strangers

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wayA slightly edited version of this review was published at the National.

In “The Way of the Strangers: Encounters With The Islamic State”, journalist Graeme Wood aligns himself with the orientalist tradition of Bernard Lewis, who warned liberal students against projecting secular frameworks on contemporary Muslim politics. Lewis believed religion, not secular grievance, was the prime motivator of this politics.

This may or may not be true. In any case, the argument has limited explanatory power. It doesn’t explain why Islamism is more in vogue today than in the 1960s, for instance, or why contemporary extremists are destroying the ancient temples which previous generations left unharmed.

Does scripture account for ISIL’s crimes? It’s a fact that the Prophet’s Companions took slaves as war booty. The overwhelming majority of contemporary scholars, considering custom (’urf) and public interest (maslaha) as well as learned precedent, nevertheless see slavery as obsolete, no more relevant to modern warfare than bows and arrows. But ISIL, ignoring these considerations, has proudly revived the practice.

Wood rightly expresses exasperation with Muslim scholars who claim that ISIL’s behaviour has ‘nothing to do with Islam’. It would be equally wrong to claim that American slavery had nothing to do with Christianity (see, for example, 1 Peter 2:18: “Slaves, submit yourselves to your masters with all respect, not only to the good and gentle but also to the cruel.”) “It is the interpretation,” Wood writes, “not the historical fact itself, that is up for debate.”

His account lacks political (or ‘secular’) context, but still, with hard-boiled humour, it provides a sometimes fascinating journey through some varieties of Islamic interpretation, from hate preaching to gentle quietism.

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

March 7, 2017 at 7:33 pm

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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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February 23, 2017 at 8:42 pm

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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

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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