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Robin Yassin-Kassab

Archive for the ‘Palestine’ Category

Bitter Almonds

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bitteralmondsAn edited version of this review appeared at the National.

This story starts with a birth and a departure, in Jerusalem in 1948. The birth is Omar Bakry’s, and it orphans him. The departure, alongside three quarters of a million others, is his forced expulsion from Palestine. “We’ll be back in a couple of weeks,” one fatefully quips.

Omar, now in the care of a neighbouring family, relocates to Damascus, where the novel unfolds through the fifties and sixties, both an engaging romance and a convincing period drama.

Lilas Taha writes in American English. My British-English ear found it difficult at first to believe in old-fashioned Arabs saving each others’ asses and getting in each others’ faces. The effect was exacerbated by occasionally clumsy dialogue. Real Palestinian-Syrians would see no need to specify, for example, “the ruling Baath Party” or “the actress Souad Hosni”. Realism is lost at moments such as these when the novel, veering into explanatory overstatement, seems too obviously an act of cultural translation. It might have been better to write a preface, or to add footnotes.

But as the pages turn, slowly but surely, the characters come entirely credibly to life. We learn a great deal about them by observing their negotiations of etiquette and social ritual as they traverse a domestic danger zone marked by deaths, difficult births, precarious marriages, and looming scandals.

The cast is close-knit. Mustafa is a farmer denied his land whose lungs are broken in a wool factory. The book’s title comes from his mouth, and provides a wisdom for the drama: “The bitter almonds make you savour the sweet ones more.” His wife Subhia, their son Shareef and daughters Huda and Nadia, make up Omar’s surrogate family.

Taha depicts them trying to make ends meet, their life in cramped quarters, male and female sleeping areas demarcated by a blanket, and the profound familiarities and festering resentments which grow in such conditions.

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

August 22, 2015 at 6:53 pm

Posted in book review, Palestine, Syria

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The Drone Eats With Me

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droneThis appeared first at The National.

Plenty of news flows out from Gaza, but very little human information. This emotional blackout bothered Ra Page, founder of Comma Press, a Manchester-based publisher producing groundbreaking short story collections. It was Comma that gave the astounding Iraqi surrealist writer Hassan Blasim his first break. Comma has published a high-quality series of literary responses to scientific innovations as well as several collections based around cities such as Tokyo, Istanbul and Liverpool. Why not Gaza too?

“My rather naive idea with The Book of Gaza,” writes Page, “was to try to inch the city ever so slightly closer to a state of familiarity, to establish it as a place and not just a name, through the simple details that a city’s literature brings with it – the referencing of street names, the name-dropping of landmarks and districts.”

The book was by no means the first literary project to aim in some way to normalise Palestinian life. Since 2008 the Palestinian Festival of Literature (Palfest), brainchild of novelist Ahdaf Soueif, has tried to reaffirm, in Edward Said’s phrase, “the power of culture over the culture of power”. In practical terms, this means transforming a literature festival into a roadshow – Jerusalem one night, Bethlehem another, Ramallah on a third… Though these places are only a few miles apart, checkpoints prevent Palestinians from travelling between them. So the guest writers travel to their audience, and at the same time learn something of Palestine’s enormous creativity. This stateless nation has boasted many great literary talents, most notably Mahmoud Darwish and Mourid Barghouti in poetry and Ghassan Kanafani in prose. Meanwhile there are burgeoning film and music (especially hip hop) scenes.

For decades writers had to smuggle their manuscripts out of Gaza to presses in Jerusalem, Cairo or Beirut. The shorter the text, the more likely it was to be published. As a result, the Strip became an “exporter of oranges and short stories.” Edited by novelist and journalist Atef Abu Saif, The Book of Gaza contains stories from three generations. It achieves both the sense of place that Page hoped for and ‘familiarity’ through its treatment of universal themes. The stories are as likely to deal with women “besieged by preconceptions” (in Najlaa Ataallah’s words) as the seige imposed by Israel. The project succeeded in ‘depoliticising’ Gaza, at least to some extent.

But then, immediately after publication, Israel launched Operation Protective Edge. Story contributors were directly affected by the assault. Writer Asmaa al-Ghoul, for instance, lost nine members of her extended family. Page was driven to this bleak conclusion: “There is no stability in Gaza on which to build a reader-familiarity.”

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

July 2, 2015 at 4:06 pm

The Wall

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wallThis review was published at the Independent.

Joshua lives in a brand new town called Amarias. He shares his brand new house with his mother who, since his father’s death in battle, has been “like a pane of glass riddled with cracks that was still somehow sitting there in the frame,” and also with tree-killing Liev, the “anti-father” whose cloying unpleasantness is a great pleasure to read.

One day, chasing a lost football and propelled by an overbearing curiosity, Joshua discovers a tunnel which leads under a wall to an entirely different world – one containing both danger and kindness, and a beguiling young girl. As storytellers from CS Lewis to Philip Pullman know, there’s something archetypal about holes in walls opening onto entirely unexpected realms; and tunnels to wonderland have been evoking rebirth since ancient cave painters squeezed through crevices to make their sacred art. William Sutcliffe employs all this rites-of-passage symbolism with a very light touch, and crafts his novel with sustained suspense.

The new world is not named (not until page 80 is it called “the Occupied Zone”; and the words ‘Israel’ and ‘Palestine’ are never mentioned) – in this way the book avoids being self-professedly ‘political’ – yet the place is described with great accuracy and atmospheric precision. An “aftertaste of violence is hanging in the air, like a bad smell.” The houses are close-packed, unpainted, unfinished. The shops spill onto cracked streets which are “both enticingly alive and strangely depressing.” Those who know will recognise “the mournful wail of a solo voice backed by violins” as the Egyptian diva Um Kalthoum, but Joshua doesn’t know. He doesn’t even speak the language, though the inhabitants speak his.

Amarias, on his side of the wall, with its lawns and pools and rows of identical houses, is clean and fresh “as if a magic spell has conjured it up out of thin air.” Once Joshua has tasted forbidden knowledge, the town, and the fact that no-one around Joshua seems to recognise the absurd ephemerality of its situation, become darkly surreal.

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

April 27, 2013 at 10:31 am

Posted in book review, Palestine

Hypocrisy, As Usual

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Omar al-Masharawi, son of a BBC cameraman in Gaza, murdered by Zionist bombs.

Israel has launched yet another attack against the Gaza Strip, striking the densely-populated and besieged territory from the air and the sea, and as usual the United States, Canada and Britain have lined up in support of Zionist terrorism.

Speaking from a system poisoned by the Israel lobby, State Department spokesman Mark Toner says: “There is no justification for the violence that Hamas and other terrorist organizations are employing against the people of Israel. We call on those responsible to stop these cowardly acts immediately. We support Israel’s right to defend itself.” Confusing Zionist settlers for ‘the Jewish people’, confusing perpetrator with victim, and then parroting outmoded ‘war on terror’ propaganda, Canadian foreign minister John Baird vomits the following: “Far too often, the Jewish people find themselves on the front lines in the struggle against terrorism, the great struggle of our generation.” Then Britain’s foreign minister William Hague makes the following immoral and illogical comment: “I utterly condemn rocket attacks from Gaza into southern Israel by Hamas and other armed groups. This creates an intolerable situation for Israeli civilians in southern Israel, who have the right to live without fear of attack from Gaza.”

Two things must be said. First, this round of escalation, like the 2008/2009 slaughter, was started by Israel. It is totally mendacious to pretend otherwise. The Hamas government in Gaza refrained from stopping other groups from firing missiles as a result of Israel’s murder of a disabled man and of a twelve-year-old boy in Gaza. Here is a timeline of events. Second, the settlers of southern Israel do not have the right to live without fear of attack while the original inhabitants of ‘southern Israel’ are herded into refugee camps. Eighty percent of people in Gaza are descendants of refugees ethnically cleansed from their villages and towns by Zionist militias in 1947 and 1948.

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

November 15, 2012 at 2:16 pm

Posted in Palestine, Syria, Zionism

Outposts

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avocadoes

Whatever the Western media calls them, the illegal Jewish settlements on the West Bank are very far from being outposts. They are connected to Jerusalem and Tel Aviv by fast, Jews-only motorways. Their villas have swimming pools and lawns (a settler is allocated eight times more water than a Palestinian). Even the most recent and farflung of settlements are tooled-up enough to intimidate the Arabs on whose land they encroach.

It’s the Palestinian villages which feel like outposts, although some have been settled for thousands of years. Even when they’re close to major cities they are vulnerable, intermittently cut-off, and surrounded by wolves (or boars).

An example is Iraq Burin, a mountain-top village just a kilometre from Nablus but one trapped behind a checkpoint. Not only are the villagers unable to access city shops and services, they face violent harrassment from soldiers and armed men from the nearby Bracha settlement.

There’s an unarmed ‘popular’ struggle against land confiscation being waged here. It involves weekly demonstrations which are met by tear gas and sometimes bullets (in March two teenagers were killed). Similar protests are held in villages all over the West Bank, most famously in Bil’in, Nil’in and Budrus.

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

November 20, 2010 at 1:41 pm

Posted in Palestine

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Mountain of Fire

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With different pictures, and very slightly edited, this was published at al-Jazeera’s website.

Nablus is built over deep wells on the narrow valley floor between Mount Jarizeem and Mount Aybaal. Its alleyways brim with ground coffee and spices, abrupt wafts of aniseed, plus honied tobacco bubbling from the argilehs, meat vaporising on the grills, traffic fumes, baking odours, pavement rubbish, and dust. By day there’s plenty of friendly Arab noise; by night barks and cock crows take over. Although this is a city of over 130,000 people, everybody seems to know everybody else. Deeper than that, there’s a connecting air of solidarity.

The intricate Old City, and the view of the ochre mountainside, reminded me of Damascus. In fact, Nablus used to be known as Little Damascus. Before Messrs. Sykes, Picot and Balfour chopped up the world, there was a trade route from Nablus (the West Bank) via Irbid (Jordan) to Damascus (Syria). Nabulsis and Damascenes intermarried. In Syria today the famous sweet knafeh is known simply as nabulsiyeh, the Nablus thing.

Nablus is also famed for its delicious olive oil soap. Although local bedazzlement by ‘modern’ products and (mainly) the obstructions of Israeli occupation have shrunk the industry, factories still operate in the Old City, sourcing their oil from the semi-besieged villages in the nearby hills.

These days life is a little easier than it has been. Palestinians can get to Ramallah fairly fast. They can’t get to Jerusalem (or Gaza, or Haifa) but they can benefit from some of the EU/ PA cash sloshing around if they’re lucky. They can even drive up to the Sama Nablus viewpoint and drink tea without being shot at from the military base above.

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

November 16, 2010 at 1:24 pm

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Yom Kippur

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Summer Mist in Nablus

“Have you visited Afghanistan? Pakistan? Yemen? Do you have a weapon? Do you have a credit card? Give us your email address. Do you know anyone in Israel? Do you know anyone in Jordan? What is your novel about? What did you do yesterday?”

It only took an hour and a half to get through the border. They were closing early because it was Yom Kippur, yowm al-ghafran in Arabic, the Day of Atonement.

The driver who met me said he couldn’t go to Nablus, not now, it was getting too late, because the car had Israeli plates and settlers were throwing stones, he could take me to Ramallah instead, although it was further.

“Won’t we be alright with Israeli plates?”

“We need Palestinian plates. They’re throwing stones at Israeli cars because they don’t want Jews driving on the holiday.”

So we went to Ramallah, south through the West Bank. We drove down the confiscated Jordan valley. A couple of memorials to settlers shot here during the Second Intifada were set up at the roadside. To our east, closed military zones and then the hills of Jordan rising. To the west, ochre desert mountains and hardly any habitation.

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

November 9, 2010 at 6:43 pm

Posted in Palestine

Sun Deprived in Palestine

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The PFLP's George Habash pulls an eyebrow

Balata Camp started as tents in the fifties, grew cement blocks in the sixties, installed sewage and water in the seventies, and has stretched ever upwards until now. The camp boasts the densest population in the West Bank: at least 25,000 people in a couple of square kilometres (the inhabitants claim up to 40,000). The buildings are so tightly packed that the kids forced out to play in the shadowed alleyways suffer from Vitamin D deficiency, sun deprivation. There are eight to ten people to a residential room. In school there are 50 children to a class. UNRWA schools and the graveyard take up most space. Most of the graves are those of people killed in the streets of the camp.

It’s a remarkably friendly place, but also discomfiting. Many of the young are prematurely aged and many of the old seem broken. There’s a higher proportion of wheelchairs than anywhere else I’ve been. In a comparatively wide street I found boys playing table football in front of a memorial to their murdered playmate. They laughed and screamed.

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

October 28, 2010 at 5:15 pm

Posted in Palestine

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An Apartheid Distinction

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I was at the border, a British national with an Arab name on my way into Palestine-Israel. The Jordanians were suspicious but not at all intimidating. It felt more like an unexpected cup of tea with an avuncular officer (which it was) than an interrogation. I learnt about Abu Tariq’s children and he learned about my reasons for crossing, my travels, and my career. He noted everything down before shaking my hand.

The bus through no-man’s land was full of Palestinian-Israelis, descendants of the remnant not driven out in 1948 – those the Israelis call ‘Arab-Israelis’, as if they were recent immigrants from Kuwait or Algeria. The sun bubbled the box of our bus. It was airless and sweaty inside.

Israeli border control is staffed by teenaged girls in low-slung military trousers backed up by men with sunglasses and enormous guns. The girls clocked my (Arabic) name, and my bags were searched. Then I was closely questioned. Then I had to wait. Fortunately it was Yom Kippur: they let me through an hour later when they closed up early.

Then by car through the the ethnically-cleansed city of Beesan (signposted in Arabic script with the Hebrew name – Beit She’an), and into the West Bank. The roadsigns here are very democratically scripted in Hebrew, English and Arabic, except for those in Hebrew only. But Palestinian towns and villages are never posted. A visitor travelling a Jews-only road wouldn’t realise that such places exist. Jerusalem is written in Arabic as “Urushaleem,” and then between brackets “al-Quds”, which is the actual, ancient and contemporary Arab name. In such ways the attempt is made to occupy the land’s abstract Arab qualities, to control history and memory, the past as well as the present and future.

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

October 27, 2010 at 12:17 pm

Posted in Palestine

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Things that Happened While I was There

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A large demonstration was held in central Nablus calling for the release of the thousands of prisoners held in the Israeli gulag.

Israeli forces shelled Gaza.

The Palestinian Authority arrested 53 men in overnight raids.

I passed a settlement built during Netanyahu’s ten-month settlement freeze.

Two settlers were shot in the legs by Palestinian fighters while driving near Hebron.

PA president Mahmoud Abbas let slip that he might not pull out of peace talks when the settlement freeze lapses.

The Palestinian Authority arrested 20 men in overnight raids.

Dana wrote a story about a girl raped by a relative.

Hamas forces closed down a Gaza restaurant because a woman had publicly smoked the argileh there.

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

October 26, 2010 at 5:44 pm

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Prisoners

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During the journey from Ramallah to Nablus I got talking to the middle-aged man sitting beside me. It turned out he’d been in prison for five years, cramped in a cockroach-run tent with tens of other men. At the kiosk at the end of my street I got talking to a white-haired young man. A few nights earlier the two owners of the kiosk had been taken away in an Israeli jeep. The white-haired man’s brother had been killed in 2007. He himself had done eleven years inside. I got talking to a writing student whose brother was constantly detained. A Palestinian friend of mine who now lives outside did ten years in Israeli jails. Two and a half of them were underground. Almost every male I met in Nablus had been imprisoned at some point. There are at least 8500 prisoners currently inside. But my friend tells me he felt more free inside the small prison than he did inside the larger. So here’s the statistic that counts: in all the territories controlled by the apartheid state of Israel there are 5,300,000 Palestinian prisoners. The other half of the Palestinian people is locked outside in exile. Here’s Saed Abu-Hijleh describing temporary detention.

Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

October 8, 2010 at 6:05 pm

Posted in Palestine

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Hope, and How Not to Visit Palestine

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My visit to Nablus coincided with the first Palestinian Human Rights Film Festival at an-Najah University. Even better than the films shown were the panel discussions afterwards, on issues such as refugees, resistance and women’s rights. The first film I saw was “To Shoot an Elephant” (watch it here), a brutal, highly-recommended documentary shot by International Solidarity Movement activists who happened to be in Gaza as the 2008/09 massacre unfolded. After the screening the audience communicated with director Alberto Arce via a video link-up to Spain. (Alberto is permanently banned from entry into Israeli-controlled territory.)

Alberto said this: “It is not my job to tell the Palestinians what to do. It’s my job to support the Palestinians and to witness what’s happening to them. The Palestinians have suffered so much from the actions of foreigners, and foreigners have no right to impose their beliefs on Palestinians.”

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

October 7, 2010 at 4:35 pm

The Martyrdom of Shaden al-Saleh

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Vodpod videos no longer available.

This video concerns Israel’s 2002 murder of a Palestinian teacher,cultural activist and neighbourhood organiser, Shaden al-Saleh. Shaden was the mother of Saed Abu Hijleh, who witnessed the murder and gives his own account here. Saed teaches political geography at Nablus’s an-Najah University, writes poetry, blogs, organises, and provides me with wonderful food and information, for which I’m very grateful. He’s a well-educated member of the Nablus middle classes. He’s also been shot in the belly and in the shoulder and has been imprisoned five times. But his suffering is not unusual. Everybody in Nablus has a story to tell. I’ve just returned from the prison, and over the next couple of weeks I aim to convey a few of the stories I heard. An example of Saed’s English-language poetry is over the fold.
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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

October 6, 2010 at 5:58 pm

Palestine Reading – FiveBooks Interview

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Five Books asks writers, academics and othersuch to list recommended books on a given topic. The Five Books Israel-Palestine week features interviews with interesting figures like Steve Walt. And me. Here’s a video interview of me making several of my favourite points:

Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

July 29, 2010 at 1:00 am

David Hirst Interviewed

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My interview with David Hirst, author of Beware of Small States, reviewed here, was done on behalf of the indispensable Electronic Intifada.

Veteran Middle East correspondent David Hirst, author of the seminal work on the Palestinian plight The Gun and the Olive Branch, has a new release: Beware of Small States, an equally important book on Lebanon’s complex tragedy. The Electronic Intifada contributor Robin Yassin-Kassab interviewed Hirst on his work and views.

Robin Yassin-Kassab: You did your national service in Cyprus and Egypt just before the 1956 Suez War. What effect did your first experience of the Middle East have on you? Why did you end up spending your life in the Middle East, particularly in its more violent corners? Have kidnappings and bannings discouraged you?

David Hirst: Yes, I was one of the last generation of British 18-year-olds obliged to do two years of military service. Politically speaking, it had virtually no effect on me; I was an immature youth from a thoroughly apolitical middle class background, and knew next to nothing about international affairs, and hardly knew, for example, the difference between Arabs and Israelis. But — unusually for a mere private soldier — I sought and secured permission to use a fortnight’s leave to travel round Syria, Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon. I enjoyed the experience. After three years at Oxford, I could not think of a career to embark on. Remembering the American University of Beirut, I wrote and asked them if there were any kind of introductory course about the Middle East that I could follow there. There was. With a vague idea of staying there for a couple of years or so, I found myself drifting into journalism, and, taking to it, I ended up staying fifty.

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

July 15, 2010 at 4:01 pm