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Robin Yassin-Kassab

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‘Sectarianization’

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Felipe DanaAP

The remains of the Nuri mosque amidst the remains of the ancient city of Mosul, Iraq. photo by Felipe Dana/ AP

An edited version of this article was published in Newsweek.

In his January 20 Inaugural Address, President Trump promised to “unite the civilised world against radical Islamic terrorism which we will eradicate completely from the face of the earth.”

To be fair, he’s only had six months, but already the project is proving a little more complicated than hoped. First, ISIS has been putting up a surprisingly hard fight against its myriad enemies (some of whom are also radical Islamic terrorists). The battle for Mosul, Iraq’s third-largest city, is almost concluded, but at enormous cost to Mosul’s civilians and the Iraqi army. Second, and more importantly, there is no agreement as to what will follow ISIS, particularly in eastern Syria. Here a new Great Game for post-ISIS control is being played out with increasing violence between the United States and Iran. Russia and a Kurdish-led militia are also key actors. If Iran and Russia win out (and at this point they are far more committed than the US), President Bashar al-Assad, whose repression and scorched earth paved the way for the ISIS takeover in the first place, may in the end be handed back the territories he lost, now burnt and depopulated. The Syrian people, who rose in democratic revolution six years ago, are not being consulted.

The battle to drive ISIS from Raqqa – its Syrian stronghold – is underway. The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), supported by American advisors, are leading the fight. Civilians, as ever, are paying the price. UN investigators lament a “staggering loss of life” caused by US-led airstrikes on the city.

Though it’s a multi-ethnic force, the SDF is dominated by the armed wing of the Democratic Union Party, or PYD, whose parent organisation is the Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK. The PKK is listed as a terrorist organisation by the United States (but of the leftist-nationalist rather than Islamist variety), and is currently at war with Turkey, America’s NATO ally. The United States has nevertheless made the SDF its preferred local partner, supplying weapons and providing air cover, much to the chagrin of Turkey’s President Erdogan.

Now add another layer of complexity. Russia also provides air cover to the SDF, not to fight ISIS, but when the mainly Kurdish force is seizing Arab-majority towns from the non-jihadist anti-Assad opposition. The SDF capture of Tel Rifaat and other opposition-held towns in 2016 helped Russia and the Assad regime to impose the final siege on Aleppo.

Eighty per cent of Assad’s ground troops encircling Aleppo last December were not Syrian, but Shia militiamen from Lebanon, Iraq and Afghanistan, all armed, funded and trained by Iran. That put the American-backed SDF and Iran in undeclared alliance.

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

July 19, 2017 at 8:55 pm

Saud Alsanousi Interview

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Saud Alsanousi

Saud Alsanousi

I interviewed Kuwaiti novelist Saud Alsanousi for the National. My earlier review of his novel “The Bamboo Stalk” is here.

Born in 1981, Kuwaiti writer Saud Alsanousi won the 2013 International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF) for his novel “The Bamboo Stalk”. A warm and generous interlocutor, here he speaks about otherness, his ‘method-writing’ approach to characterisation, and his aversion to the ‘shock method’…

RYK: Why did you choose the half-Kuwaiti, half-Filipino Isa/Josè as your hero?

SA: Since my childhood I’ve been interested in the image of the other. The other was always seen negatively, whether he was a Westerner, an east Asian, or an Arab from beyond the Gulf. And in turn the West, the Asians, and the Arabs saw us as the other. Of course I rejected their negative image. At the same time I realised that some of it was true – we Kuwaitis had social problems, we were closed in upon ourselves, we didn’t know any culture except our own. We always think we’re right and the other is wrong, socially, religiously. Through reading and travel I discovered that the world was much bigger than us, that we weren’t the axis of the whole universe.

How could I approach the topic in writing? I thought a novel would be better than journalism, because a newspaper article is a brief phenomenon, whereas when a reader follows the life story of a character through a novel, day by day and page by page, he builds a relationship with that character, he really engages with him.

And why Josè specifically? Previous stories about ‘the other’ have focused on the West. We already know the West looks down on us, how Hollywood depicts us, and we’re used to it. Instead I wanted to concentrate on those some may consider our inferiors. I chose the lowest class, those who serve us in shops and hospitals. I wanted to imagine how they see us. Of course, the hero had to be half-Kuwaiti in order to gain intimate access to a Kuwaiti household. My first idea was to make him half-Indian, but the problem with that was that he wouldn’t look foreign enough. He could pass easily for a Kuwaiti. But Josè looks east Asian, and is judged by his appearance.

RYK: How did you set about building the character?

SA: I only talk for myself, but I found that research by reading and watching documentaries wasn’t nearly enough. It produced only cold information, and when I wrote the result looked like a tourism brochure.

So I travelled to the Philippines and lived in a simple house in a traditional village. I wore their clothes. I ate their food and I breathed their air. And I met a lot of expatriate workers in Kuwait, not just Filipinos, and listened to their problems.

I embodied the character. I’m not exaggerating when I say that when I came back home, from the moment I arrived in the airport, I wasn’t Saud Alsanousi but Josè Mendoza. I saw my own country through the eyes of a stranger. From May 2011 to May 2012, while I was writing, I continued to be Josè. I visited the places he would, I rode a bike like him, I tuned my satellite to the Filipino channels, even if I didn’t understand the language. And I surrounded my workspace with bamboo. I could only write the character by embodying it.

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

October 16, 2015 at 3:11 pm

Posted in book review, Gulf, Kuwait

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The Bamboo Stalk

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bamboostalkThis review was published at The National.

“A man,” wrote the poet Shelley, “to be greatly good, must imagine intensely and comprehensively; he must put himself in the place of another.” The novel, if well-achieved, is the form offering the greatest opportunity to experience the world through another’s eyes, to escape the self by shifting perspective; a novelist could perhaps be defined as a person able to see his home as freshly as a foreigner would, someone unable therefore to take anything for granted. This is Saud Alsanousi’s successful conceit in “The Bamboo Stalk” – a plea for tolerance and 2013 winner of the prestigious International Prize for Arabic Fiction – a text supposedly translated from Filipino to Arabic, now really (and wonderfully) translated to English by Jonathan Wright.

When he’s in Manila, our narrator is called José, and sometimes ‘the Arab’. In Kuwait, he’s called Isa, and sometimes ‘the Filipino’. José/Isa is the product of a brief marriage between a migrant housemaid and a Kuwaiti of good family. He looks Filipino but has his father’s voice. It’s to him that the title refers – “a bamboo plant, which doesn’t belong anywhere in particular … the stalk will grow new roots if replanted.”

So Alsanousi, with great wit and lightness of touch, portrays the inner dynamics of not one but two families, and of at least two cultures. Half the book takes place in the Philippines, a tropical and entirely credible setting, redolent of mangoes and diesel fumes. Amongst the vividly drawn characters are a roguish, broken grandfather and Isa’s mixed-race cousin Merla, who has good reason to resent both men and Europeans. She looks to an unconventional love for solace, as well as to the “purely Filipino religion” of Rizalism, a deification of independence hero José Rizal.

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

April 18, 2015 at 9:52 am

Posted in book review, Gulf