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Robin Yassin-Kassab

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Interview with Mohsin Hamid

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mohsin-hamidIt was a pleasure to interview Mohsin Hamid, author of ‘The Reluctant Fundamentalist’ and ‘Exit West’, for the National. This here is the less edited version.

How did you become a writer? Put another way, why do you write?

I’ve always been a fantasist. Like many children, I used to play make-believe, and I still spend several hours a day living in my imagination. Why didn’t I grow out of it? Most people do, or at least are happy for their imaginings to be guided – they enter worlds made by others, in books or films.

I suspect it’s because I’m uncomfortable with the world as it is. I am mixed and mongrelised. I’ve lived my life between Pakistan, the UK and the US, so I’m foreign everywhere. Then, as I get older, my parents’ generation is passing away. Like everyone, I can’t provide the level of security for my children I’d like to. I experience the vulnerability that we all share.

I’m the type of person who requires unreal activity in order to function. If I don’t write fiction for extended periods I become unsettled, anxious, uncertain. I’m less of a pain to be around when I’m writing.

Your writing is distinguished by its clarity. The prose seems effortless, and the volumes are fairly thin. Yet once you told me a novel takes seven years to write. So how much rewriting is necessary?

My first two novels took seven years each. The third took six, and the fourth only four. I start with some ideas. I explore and build them up. I write an outline and fill notebooks. I even write a draft. Oftentimes these ideas don’t work, or they lead to a dead end. Then I may write a draft which shares no words with the first but is nevertheless influenced by it. The first draft of “Exit West” looked like the final product – the first time it happened – though many ideas from the draft were abandoned. I start with something that demands engagement. As I deal with it, my thoughts begin to clarify.

I’m fortunate in having honest readers – my wife first, but also my agent, and editors. And I write for an imaginary reader, not Pakistani or American, not male or female. In other words, I write novels that I’d like to read, that leave a lot open. I write half-novels if you like, not very long, which leave space for the reader to react and imagine.

Your writing, though very accessible, is often formally adventurous. What does form mean to you?

Form is the starting point. I use it in the same way poets used to use metre and rhyme, not as a restriction but as a set of rules to produce inspiration. Form makes possible the kind of story that readers can relate to intuitively. Form brings with it rhythms and patterns. Even if these are not evident, the way the mind works means they are helpful. Form provides vital architecture. The correct form depends on the nature of the story. This is what I must figure out: what’s the story about? What form suits it? What language fits the form?

You see, I don’t accept the notion that there is a stable thing called reality which the novel simply reflects. Humans are complex bio-chemical machines, and reality blurs quickly. What parts of me are talking to what parts of you? My construct of myself is a fiction. I often behave in ways that contradict this fiction. Through form, the novel can reveal the way in which reality is constructed, and how our selves themselves are constructed. Form allows writer and reader to enter a shared domain. We are aware it’s made up, so it can be still more potent than what we call reality.

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

September 3, 2017 at 11:19 pm

Posted in book review, Interview, Pakistan

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In Dawn

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As an apology for not posting anything for so long, I’m putting up this interview with me conducted by Muneeza Shamsie and published in Pakistan’s Dawn. There are a couple of inaccuracies: I spent a year and a few months in Pakistan in the early 90s, not two years, and it’s mainly been book reviews rather than political analysis that I’ve contributed to British newspapers.

Novelist, editor and journalist, Robin Yassin-Kassab has worked and travelled around the globe — in England, France, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Oman and Pakistan. But his travels beyond Europe began with Islamabad. He arrived in the 1990’s at the invitation of a Pakistani friend and stayed for two years working as a journalist for an English daily. This winter he returned to Pakistan to conduct creative writing workshops at the Karachi Literature Festival and spoke with passion on the Arab Spring and the political situation in Syria.

In his critically acclaimed novel, The Road from Damascus (2009), Yassin-Kassab discusses multiculturalism, racism and radicalisation in Britain and the larger conflicts in the Middle East through the portrayal of Sami, a British Syrian, and Muntaha, his Iraqi-born wife. The novel examines debates between religious and secular concepts of Arab nationhood and comments on the use of state terror by totalitarian regimes.

During a trip to Damascus, Sami discovers an uncle who had been the victim of prolonged imprisonment and torture. Deeply disturbed, Sami returns to his wife but retreats from their matrimonial tensions, disappears from home and falls into rapid decline. The narrative builds in London in the aftermath of 9/11 and talks about Muntaha’s traumatic childhood, including her escape to Britain from Iraq with her father and brother.

Yassin-Kassab now lives in Scotland and contributes political analyses to The Guardian, The Independent, The Times and Prospect Magazine among others. He co-edits the website PULSE and the journal The Critical Muslim. He is working on his second novel.

Here he talks to Books&Authors about his novel, the writing process and the evolving situation in the Middle East.

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

June 29, 2012 at 10:19 am

Posted in Pakistan

Tagged with , ,

The Karachi Literature Festival

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I’ve recently come back from an excellent three weeks in Pakistan visiting universities, farms, shrines and old friends. I started at the Karachi Literature Festival. In the session below, I, Stefan Weidner and Anouar Benmalek discuss the Arab Spring.

Here’s me doing a creative writing class at the festival. Part one. And part two. It’s probably very boring to watch on video except perhaps for the less formal question and answer at the end.

Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

March 22, 2012 at 11:28 pm

Posted in Arabism, Pakistan, Syria

Our Lady of Alice Bhatti

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This review was written for the Guardian.

“These Muslas,” says Joseph Bhatti, father of Alice, “will make you clean their shit and then complain that you stink.” This is pretty close to the mark. Pakistan won’t forget the low-caste origins of most of its Christians, or ‘Choohras’, who constitute an ‘untouchable’ sweeper and maid class. In recent decades, with the rise of increasingly intolerant forms of Islam, the Choohra plight has worsened. Christians are victims of obscene ‘blasphemy’ laws and frequent sectarian violence. The outside world is often ignorant of the minority’s very existence.

How refreshing, therefore, that Mohammed Hanif, Booker-listed author of ‘A Case of Exploding Mangoes’ and perhaps Pakistan’s brightest English-language voice, has chosen to view his country through the eyes of a (lapsed) Christian – the eponymous Alice Bhatti, a hard-nosed, warm-hearted nurse, too beautiful for her own good, also nifty with a razor blade.

Her lover and foil is the ‘Musla’ Teddy Butt, a thigh-waxing, body-building, Mauser-packing lowlife. Teddy works unofficially for the Gentlemen’s Squad, a police unit somewhat darker than the Keystone Cops staffed by partially reformed rapists, torturers and sharpshooters.

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

October 8, 2011 at 11:27 am

Posted in book review, Pakistan

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You People

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My contribution to the Journal of Postcolonial Writing’s Pakistan Special.

Seventeen years ago, as a very young man, I arrived in Karachi. Apart from six months in Beirut in my babyhood, this was my first time outside Europe. I didn’t know what to expect, although I had stereotypes from my British experience of what a Pakistani was (a Mirpuri, with brown skin and eyes, probably a cab driver).

The airport was spacious and anonymous, until the exit. Here tens of faces squashed against the glass doors, most of them cab drivers trying to make a personal connection. I was offered hashish in the cab, taken to an expensive hotel – which I refused – then to a hotel for cockroaches, but very cheap and very friendly. The man at the desk had black skin and blue eyes.

I liked Karachi. It was bustling, lively and engaging. The food was spicy and the weather was pleasantly hot. There appeared to be no social restraint on spontaneous conversation with strangers. It wasn’t Britain. I was pleased to find a word or two of Arabic helped greatly.

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

April 28, 2011 at 9:20 pm

Posted in Pakistan

The Murder of Salmaan Taseer

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Salmaan Taseer, governor of Pakistan’s Punjab province, has been shot dead by one of his own security detail for the supposed crime of defending Aasia Bibi, a Christian woman threatened with execution under Pakistan’s blasphemy law. The law was introduced by the British and given extra teeth by military dictator Zia ul-Haq, and is commonly used for the pursuit of grudges against the weak. The most disturbing aspect of Taseer’s murder is that both puritanical Deobandi and traditionalist ‘Sufi’ Barelvi religious leaderships have expressed support for it. Many Pakistanis are lionising Taseer’s murderer. For decades sections of Pakistan’s ruling elite have peddled religio-nationalist chauvinism as a stop-gap substitute for social justice. The result is today’s ugly combination of elite and mob rule. I reviewed a book by Taseer’s son here. Below, novelist Mohammed Hanif reports from Karachi:

Minutes after the murder of the governor of Pakistan’s Punjab province Salmaan Taseer I saw a veteran Urdu columnist on a news channel. He was being what, in breaking news jargon, is called a “presenter’s friend”. “It is sad of course that this has happened but . . .”

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

January 6, 2011 at 10:59 am

Posted in Pakistan

Tagged with ,

I Refuse to Buy a Poppy

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05_11_09-Steve-Bell

Steve Bell

Yesterday five British soldiers were shot dead by an Afghan policeman. Just as they keep promising that they’ve reached ‘decisive turning points’ in their battle with the Afghan resistance, British military officials immediately vowed that the ‘rogue’ policeman would be caught. Today the Taliban reports that the policeman is safe with them, and that he’s been greeted with flowers.

Our glorious patriotic press responds. Amusingly, the Daily Mail headline wrings its hands and squawks, “What kind of war IS this?” Because some people aren’t playing by the rules, you see. Instead of sitting quietly in their villages waiting for the drone attack, or perhaps sending their kids out to accept sweets and modernity from a rosy-cheeked English lad, some barbarians are actually shooting back at the invaders. How very unBritish. (To be fair to the Mail – which has never been fair to anyone – it does seem to be taking an anti-war stance today). Other sections of the media worry about the ‘loyalty’ of Afghan troops, as if love for foreign occupiers is a realistic standard of loyalty. Still others, even more clever, psychoanalyse the policeman, wondering if an argument with his commander pushed him to a moment of madness. But it really isn’t that complicated, as anybody who disabuses themselves of imperialist delusion can see. Very simply, people don’t like foreigners striding around their streets and fields with guns and assumptions of superiority. Afghans will kill British troops as surely as Britons would kill Afghan troops if they occupied this country.

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

November 5, 2009 at 6:12 pm

Deconstructing the War on Terror

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Here’s a link to my talk on Afghanistan and Pakistan. Forgive the screwed-up face. It’s the fault of those Palestinians that took me dancing –
http://www.truveo.com/Deconstructing-the-war-on-terror-robin-yassin/id/3953073108

I wrote the following for a Norwegian newspaper to introduce “Deconstructing the War on Terror”, a seminar at Chateau Neuf (Storsalen), Slemdalsveien 11, Oslo, from 12-7pm Sunday 22nd February. George Galloway, Massoud Shadjareh, Yvonne Ridley and Dr Erik Fosse will speak. I’m giving a talk on Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Did the terrorist attacks of September 11th 2001 provoke an unprecedented rupture in American relations with the rest of the world, specifically the Muslim world? Was that day really the day everything changed, as much of the media tells us?

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

February 18, 2009 at 6:55 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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September 23, 2008 at 12:08 am

“Maps for Lost Lovers” and writerly responsibility

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Update 2015: With the passage of time, much of this review embarrasses me. So people and perspectives change. My current view is better summed up by my words at the 2015 Shubbak festival, which Brian Whitaker reports:

There is a beautiful novel called Maps for Lost Lovers by Nadeem Aslam who is Pakistani-British, and I would recommend that everybody reads the novel as a work of literature because it is beautifully, beautifully written and characterised. 

It works as a novel, but there is no good Muslim character in it. They are real characters and you can sympathise with them even when they are doing horrible barbaric things. But they are all doing horrible barbaric things from the moment they get up in the morning, and its the kind of horrible barbaric things that British Pakistanis do that you read about in the Sun newspaper.

So of course there is an issue, but we cant tell Nadeem Aslam that he’s a representative British Pakistani writer and therefore he has to write a nice version of British Pakistanis in order to educate the white population that some of them are all right. He’s writing what he wanted to write about and what was real for him, and he did it really well. I think the critique should focus on the social context. It’s not Nadeem Aslam’s fault so much as the Sun newspaper’s fault.

And here’s the thing I originally wrote:

I’ve recently read Nadeem Aslam’s finely-constructed and richly metaphorical novel “Maps for Lost Lovers”, which portrays a British Pakistani community and its rigid boundaries over a year of daily life and crisis. Save for some occasionally unconvincing dialogue, the writing is beautiful and poetic. Unlike, for example, Martin Amis, Aslam respects his characters, who are well-rounded and complex enough to evoke sympathy even when they behave badly. He shows them busy with gossip, work, poetry – and plenty of murder. For example, a book shop owner is murdered for money by his relatives in Pakistan. At the heart of the book, Chanda and Jugnu are murdered by Chanda’s brothers for ‘living in sin.’ Chanda wants to divorce her husband so she can marry her lover, but her husband has disappeared for years, and she doesn’t know where to. Another girl is murdered by a ‘holy man’ during exorcism-beatings. And so on: a litany of crimes motivated by ‘honour’ and superstition.

One subplot revolves around a woman being forced by sharia law to marry another man before returning to a husband who has divorced her once while drunk. The actual regulation is this: if a man divorces his wife THREE times he cannot remarry her unless she has been married to someone else and that marriage has also collapsed. This is generally understood as a warning to husbands not to divorce their wives without considering the consequences. Furthermore, a divorce announced when the husband is angry or intoxicated is not recognised. As for the stranded Chanda, sharia would automatically grant her a divorce if her husband disappeared for a day longer than a year. Fair enough, Aslam is writing about uneducated people’s partial and skewed understanding of their religion, or of their confusion of tradition and religion, but this point will be lost on non-Muslim readers.

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

February 6, 2008 at 4:23 pm

Dysfunctional State – Dysfunctional World

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The assassination of Benazir Bhutto, although it happened across the Gulf of Oman, feels remarkably close, for both personal and public reasons. On a personal level, the event strikes up sparks of memory. As a very young man I worked for The News, an English-language paper, on the Murree Road in Rawalpindi. I loved that office and all the great people in it, the long late chaotic nights through which we typed and laughed and drank tea. I remember Liaquat Bagh just a little down the road, the park named after Pakistan’s first prime minister Liaquat Ali Khan, who was assassinated there, and where Benazir was killed last December 27th. I remember People’s Party supporters firing shots into the sky outside the office on the night when Benazir was appointed prime minister, for the second time, in 1993. When I read about bombs and sectarian mayhem in Karachi, Islamabad, Swat or Gilgit I remember the immense beauty and carnivalesque energy of Pakistan, the music I heard there, the Sufi festival I visited, the wealth and poverty I saw, and the intelligent, enthusiastic people I met.

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

January 5, 2008 at 1:35 pm

The Islamism of Not

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One of my correspondents has suggested that islamist economic policy cannot improve the dire social conditions of Muslim countries. I think it is being overly generous to islamism to think that it has an economic policy, or any kind of policy at all. Beyond vague promises to implement sharia law (and there’s a concept that means very different things to different people), islamism is best understood by what it is not. It is a rhetorical function rather than anything of substance.

Of course, there are as many different islamisms as there are contexts in which it thrives. Sunni and Shia islamism, right and left islamism, peaceful and violent, macho and feminist, and so on. Perhaps one good way to divide islamisms, however, is into two kinds: islamism to protect established power and islamism to challenge it.

Islamism which protects established power is the older form. The West complained less about it, because the West was happy with the status quo. The classic manifestation of this kind of islamism is the Wahabism of Saudi Arabia, which takes Ibn Taymiya’s anti-Shia, anti-Sufi, anti-innovation discourse to ever more puritan lengths, and which designates the Al-Saud family as guardians of the doctrine. So long as the Sauds suppress religious diversity, demolish shrines, allow full rein to the religious police, they are free to make whatever decisions they wish on the country’s oil wealth and foreign alliances. The king is ‘wali al-amr’ and it is part of religion to obey him.

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

September 13, 2006 at 1:12 pm