Qunfuz

Robin Yassin-Kassab

Archive for the ‘Culture’ Category

Islam in the Writing Process

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If all goes well I will be at Notre Dame University in the US later this month for a conference on the role of Islam in contemporary European literature. I wrote the piece below for the conference.

enjoin the good

Photo by Rehan Jamil

Salman Rushdie once commented that ‘Islam’, in contrast to ‘the West’, is not a narrative civilisation. This, in my opinion, is obvious nonsense. Beyond the fact that human beings are narrative animals, whatever civilisation they live in, and that Islamic civilisation cannot be isolated from, for instance, Christian, Hindu or Arab civilisations, the Muslim world has a history of influential narratives which is second to none. These include Sufi tales, chivalric adventures, fantastical travelogues, romances and spiritual biographies written in several major languages.

Although the Arabic novel is generally considered to have developed in the early twentieth century from the experience of industrial urbanisation and the penetration of European genres and philosophies, Ibn Tufail’s 12th Century “Hayy ibn Yaqzan”, an inspiration for Defoe’s “Robinson Crusoe”, can reasonably stake a claim to being the world’s first novel. The Arabian Nights (via Don Quixote) is surely another source of the European novel tradition. And Islam the religion – as opposed to the even more nebulous ‘civilisation’ – is a text-based faith. The Qur’an is the religion’s only official miracle; the first word revealed to the Prophet was ‘iqra’ – ‘read’. Those who attempt to draw a distinction between literalist scripture and free and playful literature should pay attention to verse 26 of the Qur’an’s second chapter which, immediately after the first description of heaven and hell, proclaims: “Behold, God does not disdain to propound a parable of a gnat, or of something even less than that.” In other words, the Qur’an is a text unashamed to use metaphor, symbol and a whole range of literary devices in order to point to ineffable realities.

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

November 1, 2009 at 1:52 pm

Why I Love Saul Bellow

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Written five years ago, on the wonderful, appalling Bellow.

saul bellow - Fay Godwin Archive at the British LibraryThere are many reasons for loving Saul Bellow’s work, and some reasons not to. I was first directed to Bellow by a friend of mine who is Jewish, the English-speaking grandchild of Russian immigrants, and interested in his heritage. He therefore has one easy point of access to Bellow, whose protagonists are usually first or second generation Jewish immigrants, which I do not. My friend suggested I read “Ravelstein.” Because I trust his literary judgment, I dutifully struggled through. Not a lot happens in this slim volume, but a lot of details, a lot of memories, are accumulated around the eponymous professor, an opinionated neo-conservative flaunting his newly acquired wealth in Paris. There are many references to expensive brand names and other status symbols. Ravelstein receives updates on the 1991 Gulf War from a previous student who is now important at the Pentagon. (I later discovered that Ravelstein is a fictionalized Allen Bloom, one of  Mrs Thatcher’s favourite thinkers, and his pentagon protégé is based on Paul Wolfowitz). None of this endeared the character to me. I get emotional about neo-conservatives. I spit when I hear Wolfowitz’s name. Although there is a great deal of irony – and serious comment on social mobility – in the treatment of these arriviste Jews (the transformation of the Turnbull and Asser clothing label into Kisser and Asser is only the most obvious of the gags), all the luxury in the novel irritated me.

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

September 30, 2009 at 10:28 pm

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Maghut’s Shade and Noon Sun

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maghutSyrian writer Muhammad al-Maghut was born the son of a peasant farmer in the dusty town of Salamiyah in 1934, during the French occupation. As a young man he joined the Syrian Social Nationalist Party, the second biggest mass party in Syria after the Ba’ath. Like the Ba’ath, the secular SSNP appealed to religious minorities – al-Maghut was of Ismaili origin. Unlike the pan-Arabists of the Ba’ath, it envisaged a fertile crescent state including Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Jordan, Iraq, Kuwait and even Cyprus. Al-Maghut was locked up on several occasions for SSNP membership. During his first imprisonment – in Mezzeh prison in 1955 – he met the influential poet Adonis and started writing poetry himself.

As a poet he deserves to be much more widely known. Along with Adonis and Nizar Qabbani he was a modernist, using free verse instead of the traditional Arabic forms. Like Qabbani he aimed to be accessible to the ordinary people, but his ‘lover narrator’ is perhaps better suited to our twisted times than Qabbani’s. Certain verses sum up the decadent atmosphere very well indeed. The following remind me of those Gulf Arabs and others who profit from the prostitution of refugee women from occupied Iraq:

Lebanon is burning – it leaps, like a wounded horse, at the edge of the desert/ and I am looking for a fat girl/ to rub myself against on the tram/ for a Beduin-looking man to knock down somewhere. My country is on the verge of collapse/ shivering like a naked lioness/ and I am looking for two green eyes/ and a quaint café by the sea/ looking for a desperate village girl to deceive.”

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

September 7, 2009 at 2:43 pm

The Green Still Resists

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In one of the most contentious sections of his thoroughly contentious Cairo speech, Obama declared:

Palestinians must abandon violence. Resistance through violence and killing is wrong and does not succeed. For centuries, black people in America suffered the lash of the whip as slaves and the humiliation of segregation. But it was not violence that won full and equal rights. It was a peaceful and determined insistence upon the ideals at the center of America’s founding. This same story can be told by people from South Africa to South Asia; from Eastern Europe to Indonesia. It’s a story with a simple truth: that violence is a dead end. It is a sign of neither courage nor power to shoot rockets at sleeping children, or to blow up old women on a bus. That is not how moral authority is claimed; that is how it is surrendered.”

It’s difficult to know where to start with this. Perhaps by registering just how insulting it is for the representative of the imperial killing machine – responsible directly and indirectly for millions of deaths in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Lebanon, Somalia – to lecture the dispossessed and massacred Palestinians on their occasional attempts to strike back. We can be sure that the sleeping children Obama is concerned with here are the Israeli children who live on the stolen land of Palestine, not the unsleeping, traumatised children of Gaza, several hundred of whom were burnt and dismembered six months ago. Then it’s worth remarking how the erudition and intelligence shown in Obama’s pre-presidential book ‘Dreams from my Father’ have been immediately crushed on his assumption of the presidency. How otherwise could his historical vision be so partial and simplistic? There was certainly a key non-violent aspect to the struggle for civil rights in the United States, but pretending that violence played no role in the process makes it necessary to ignore the American Civil War (half a million dead), Nat Turner, Malcolm X, the Black Panthers and rioting Chicago. Violence, or the threat of violence, was important in South Africa and India too, and certainly in Obama’s ancestral Kenya, and was the dominant anti-imperial strategy in Vietnam and Algeria.

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

June 17, 2009 at 3:07 pm

Suheir Hammad

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Suheir Hammad is one of the Palfest participants who deserves a post to herself. A Palestinian-American, Suheir was born to refugee parents in Amman. She spent her first years in civil war Beirut before moving to Brooklyn, where drugs and gang wars raged. She is a poet, prosewriter and actress. Her poetry erases any distance between the personal and political, and is humane, passionate and particular. Greatly influenced in its rhythm, diction and pacing by New York hip hop, it fits snugly into the tradition of Palestinian oral delivery exemplified by the late poet Mahmoud Darwish.

Suheir stars in the film Salt of this Sea, but it is surely time someone directed her in a poetry performance DVD. You have to hear her read to really appreciate what she does. A good place to start is the poem First Writing Since, which concerns 9/11.

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

June 5, 2009 at 3:13 pm

Visit Palestine

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Palestine 121

Click here to see my photo album of people.

Click here to see my photo album of walls.

Click here to see my photo album of al-Khalil/ Hebron.

Click here to see my photo album of Ramallah, Bethlehem and Jerusalem.

Please read the captions.

I have just returned from a physically, mentally and emotionally exhausting week in Palestine. I was a participant in Palfest 09, the second Palestine Festival of Literature. It was a great honour to be in the company of writers like Michael Palin and Debborah Moggach, and Claire Messud, MG Vassanji, Abdulrazak Gurnah, Ahdaf Soueif and Jamal Mahjoub, the lawyer for Guantanamo Bay prisoners Ahmad Ghappour, Palestinian poets Suheir Hammad and Nathalie Handal, and all the others. I’ll do a post at some point on everybody there. It was an even greater honour to meet Palestinian academics, students, and people on the streets and in the camps, to witness their incredible resilience and creative intelligence. Something fearless in them slipped into me, and gave me optimism. A people like this can not be kept down indefinitely.

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

June 1, 2009 at 11:00 pm

Posted in Culture, Palestine

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The Gulf Between Us

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Another book review, fairly horribly edited by the Guardian. Here’s the unedited version:

The Arab world’s bestselling novel of recent years has been Alaa Al Aswany’s “Yacoubian Building”, which features a gay journalist, a corrupt minister, and sexual abuse in police cells. The very grown-up film of the book has reached a huge audience. Arabic novels on sale in the Gulf discuss taboos from pre-marital romance to sectarian conflict and slavery. Meanwhile, Al-Jazeera broadcasts from Qatar, offering the Arabs a range of political debate which shames the BBC, and which would have been unthinkable twenty years ago. Satellite and the internet have effectively finished the Arab age of censorship. As for books in English, the ‘Arab World’ sections of many Gulf bookshops could be renamed ‘Harem Fantasy for Whites’, concentrating disproportionately on more or less fraudulent revelations of the “Princess” variety. So long as it sells, very nearly anything goes.

Given the new level of official Arab tolerance, it was surprising to hear that Geraldine Bedell’s “The Gulf Between Us”, a romantic comedy narrated by a middle-aged Englishwoman, had been banned from the International Festival of Literature in Dubai, and this because the novel contains a ‘gay shaikh’. Both author and publisher cried censorship, plunging the festival – Dubai’s first – into a swamp of bad publicity. Margaret Atwood cancelled her appearance.

A few days after the damage had been done, the truth came out: the book hadn’t been banned. Like many others, it was not selected in the first place. Maragaret Atwood regretted her cancellation.

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

March 21, 2009 at 10:55 am

Israel Must Lose

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I was one of 300 writers and academics who signed this excellent letter, which was published in the Guardian. The letter was an informal effort over only 48 hours. More writers and academics are signing at Znet.

The massacres in Gaza are the latest phase of a war that Israel has been waging against the people of Palestine for more than 60 years. The goal of this war has never changed: to use overwhelming military power to eradicate the Palestinians as a political force, one capable of resisting Israel’s ongoing appropriation of their land and resources.

Israel’s war against the Palestinians has turned Gaza and the West Bank into a pair of gigantic political prisons. There is nothing symmetrical about this war in terms of principles, tactics or consequences. Israel is responsible for launching and intensifying it, and for ending the most recent lull in hostilities.

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

January 16, 2009 at 9:24 pm

Posted in Culture, Palestine, Zionism

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At The Empire’s Edge

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Here’s a piece I wrote for the National about Arabs on Hadrian’s Wall.

late 2008 584Beyond the fleeting days of summer, Hadrian’s Wall in the north of England is a cold place to be. I stood on a high ridge looking down the line of the Wall at black cloud building over the ruins of Housesteads fort. I was fully exposed to the wind, which carried small seeds of rain, and the mud covering my clothes seeped slowly towards my heart. For a moment I dreamt myself into the skin of an ancient soldier, one come here from warmer climes to serve his empire, and I shivered to my frozen toes. Then my son grinned, turned towards the fort, and with a delighted scream charged downwards, slaying imagined barbarians as he went.

We had set out early in the brisk morning from our home in south west Scotland, over bridges and past floods in low-lying fields. Streams gurgled in roadside ditches; pond-sized puddles occupied town centres. There’s enough water here to produce the illusion of hopping island to island through a vast archipelago.

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

November 22, 2008 at 9:55 am

Posted in Culture, History, Iraq, Syria, Travel, UK

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Remembering Chab Hasni

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hasniThis was written for the National.

Disturbing a sleeping box of old cassettes the other day, my hand brushed an album by Chab Hasni, and memories rushed in as fluent as music, of the Algerians I’d known in Paris in the early nineties, particularly my friends Qader and Kamel.

In Algeria these two had been ‘hittistes’. That’s a real Algerian word: a French ending tacked onto the Arabic ‘hayit’ meaning ‘wall’. The hittistes were the youths who spent their time leaning against walls, bored, angry, and stoned. They had no jobs and no housing – those young men who did have jobs often slept in their workplaces. They spent their time dodging the fearsome police force.

Life as ‘clandestin’ illegal immigrants in France was not much easier. There too they had to negotiate checkpoints. I remember Kamel spending a fortnight in prison for being stopped ‘without papers’. When at liberty, they peddled hashish on Pigalle and sold the cassettes they lifted from shops. (Still, there was honour amongst thieves. Qader once knocked down a fellow Algerian for stealing from an old man on the metro. “So what if he’s French?” he growled. “He could be your grandfather!”)

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

September 26, 2008 at 12:14 pm

Two Reviews

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Two reviews, one harsh and critical, one brief and bright.

I met Nadeem Aslam in Southampton, and spent an evening and a morning having wonderful conversations with him. When I told him I’d written a bad review of his latest book (half of it is bad) for the National (in Abu Dhabi) he was not in the least bitter, not even for a moment. I am not such a successful human being. I would have been convulsed with rage and venom for at least three hours, and then ill with it for weeks. He just wanted to know why I didn’t like the book. Well, it’s partly the politics, and quite a lot to do with characterisation. Then my review may be fierce precisely because I think he’s a major writer, and therefore fair game. (But I don’t think he’s fair game after meeting him, such a lovely man he is; I hang my head in shame). The negativity of the review may also have something to do with me responding to my own perceived failures as a writer.

And damn, they pay you to squeeze out an opinion, so opinionate is what you do.

The problem with writing a book review after you’ve had a book published is that it seems as if you’re suggesting you could outwrite the writer you’re criticising. Ironically, now that I should be more qualified to write about novels, I feel less qualified. Or at least worried that I’m setting myself up. Anyway.

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

September 23, 2008 at 12:08 am

Dawkins or McIntosh

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I am increasingly infuriated by religious claims to certainty and by religious attempts to close down free thought (I’m not talking about high profile attacks on writers or cartoonists here, which have more to do with power politics than theology, but simply the resort to ‘it’s true because God says so’). Although some leftist and anti-imperialist Islamist groups have achieved great things, I find the current fashion for religious politics in the Arab world to be a dead end. Simple-minded slogans like ‘Islam is the solution’ are no solution. An analysis of contemporary disasters based primarily on class and state and corporation could conceivably provide grounds for unity and solidarity; political action based on Sunni or Shia myths will ultimately only help the empire to divide and rule; it will also empower rulers and institutions hiding behind religious cover. It is sad to watch the Muslims becoming more and more religious as they gallop further into social, economic and environmental catastrophe.

The rise of ugly modernist forms of religion is not confined to the Muslim world. Everywhere, the death of traditional religion has spawned a million poor substitutes. Under the pressure of traumatic social change, and almost always of war, traditional forms of Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism have morphed into Zionism, neo-conservatism, Bible-belt evangelical-nationalism, fascism, Stalinism, Ba’athism, Wahhabi-nihilism, state-Hindu chauvinism and Maoism. And fundamentalist atheism.

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

August 21, 2008 at 6:07 pm

Edinburgh

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I read at the Edinburgh Book Festival on August 12th. It was a double event, shared between me and Mohammed Hanif, author of the Booker-longlisted novel “A Case of Exploding Mangoes.” Mohammed’s book is a tragi-comic detective story which references Marquez’s “Chronicle of a Death Foretold”; and the murderee is General Zia ul-Haqq. (General Musharraf quivers between impeachment and exile as I type). It was great to meet Mohammed, not least because he knows several of the journalists I used to work with in Pakistan. One evening he cooked me a chilli-rich meal. I hope we meet again.

The death that has hung heaviest over the last week is not Zia’s but Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish’s. It was even a death foretold: the Palestine National Theatre was at Edinburgh performing a play based on the Darwish poem “Jiddariyya”, which concerns mortality and the extinction of identity, and which he wrote after heart surgery. It was a new bout of heart surgery which killed him. Such are the Edinburgh crowds that I failed to see the play. I did see Sabry Hafez give a talk on Darwish, and how the extinction of identity is for Palestinians an immediately concrete threat beyond the universal problem of physical death: Darwish was from a family of ‘mutaselaleen’, Palestinians who crept back across the border into ethnically-cleansed Israel in the months following their expulsion in 1948, and as a result his name could not appear on school registers. I wish I’d seen the play. Also sold out was a film on three screens by Iranian director Abbas Kiastorami. It showed, apparently, a Shia passion play, a taaziyeh for the martyrdom of Hussain, performed in an Iranian village.

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

August 19, 2008 at 12:13 am

Complex Origins

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Sumerians at prayer

Sumerians at prayer

From a Muslim perspective, I’m used to seeing Judaism, Christianity and Islam as episodes within the same religion (which is not to deny their differences) – a series of revelations emanating from the same cultural locus. But since so many of the Abrahamic stories are inherited from earlier civilisations, even from the very first to write down stories, it may be that my definition of one religion, or at least one civilisation, should expand to include the earliest myths. Stories so early that we can reasonably guess their roots reach deep into our pre-civilised hunter-gatherer past.

Myth doesn’t mean untruth any more than a great novel does. Myth is heightened truth. A myth is perhaps more ‘true’ than reality because reality unfiltered is unstructured and unexplained. The fact that God uses human myths to talk to humans need not perturb the religious. “wa tilka al-amthal nadribuha lil-nas la’alahum yatafakiroon,” says the Qur’an. “We rehearse these parables to people in order that they may think.” From a religious perspective, the rehearsal of myths in sacred text is proof of God’s understanding of human minds. And where do the myths arise from anyway? From unforgotten events, and from us, from our shared Godstuff.

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

August 5, 2008 at 1:40 pm

Myth-Making

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We often project our current political concerns backwards in time in order to justify ourselves. I say ‘we’ because everyone does it. Nazi Germany invented a mythical blonde Aryan people who had always been kept down by lesser breeds. The Hindu nationalists in India imagine that Hinduism has always been a centralised doctrine rather than a conglomerate of texts and local traditions, and describe Muslim, Buddhist, Christian, Sikh, Jain and animist influences on Indian history as foreign intrusions. Black nationalists in the Americas depict ancient Africa as a continent not of hunter-gatherers and subsistence farmers but as a wonderland of kings and queens, gold and silk, science and monumental architecture. To our current cost, Zionists and the neo-cons have been able to reactivate old Orientalist myths in the West, myths in which the entirety of Arab and Islamic history has involved the slaughter and oppression of Christians, Jews, Hindus, women, gays, intellectuals .. and so on.

Such retrospective mythmaking frequently goes to the most absurd extremes in young nations conscious of their weakness or of a need for redefinition (America may be one of these). Probably for that reason it is particularly evident in the Middle East.

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April 17, 2008 at 4:41 pm

Posted in Culture, Turkey, Zionism

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