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Robin Yassin-Kassab

Archive for the ‘Travel’ Category

Dusklands

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maghrebLast summer I travelled in Morocco (where I used to live) in order to write an essay for the Maghreb issue of the Critical Muslim, which I also edited. This essay is available in full online (for free). To read the other essays, stories and poems (and there are some truly brilliant ones) you’ll have to buy the issue (available on Amazon) or subscribe. Please support the journal/ magazine by encouraging your local library/ college to subscribe.

Morocco’s Arabic name, ‘al-Maghreb’, emerges from the root gh-r-b, which denotes concepts including the west, distance, and alienation. ‘Ghareeb’ means strange. ‘Ightirab’ means living outside the Arab world, whether in the west or the east. ‘Maghreb’ also means sunset, dusk, the evening prayer, the time at which the daily fast is broken. Al-Maghreb al-Arabi refers to the entire Arab west – Libya, Algeria, Tunisia, Mauritania, the Western Sahara – but Morocco has no other name. It is al-Maghreb al-Aqsa, the furthest west, the strangest.

The ancient Egyptians believed they spent the afterlife wandering ‘the Western Lands’. William Burroughs, who lived in Tangier, wrote a novel inspired by the notion. When I lived in Morocco, teaching English at the turn of the century, a Syrian woman of my acquaintance used to play on the word like this: la tustughreb, anta fil-maghreb or, Don’t be shocked, you’re in Morocco! On this return visit I heard the same phrase from the mouth of a Moroccan man in a train.

But shocked I was, a little bit, twelve years ago.

I’d been living in the mashreq, the Arab east, before I arrived, and (foolishly) I expected the maghreb to be similar. I found a much more liberal place, one much less subject to taboo. For instance, depending on class and region, a Moroccan girl with a boyfriend is not quite the social catastrophe it would be further east. Moroccan sleaze is not hidden away (which is perhaps, overall, a good thing). I once almost pushed my son in his pushchair past men engaged in a sexual act, not in a dark basement but among the trees at the side of a main road. Several times I walked past the same exhibitionist in central Rabat. There were police nearby but they ignored him. And I frequently saw ragged street children sniffing glue-soaked rags, more of a South American scene than an Arab one. (I didn’t see that on this recent trip). In addition to public taboos, Moroccans lack the softness and eloquence, the courtliness, of the eastern Arabs. But they also lack the airs and graces, the intense class resentments, the hypocrisies. You don’t feel everyone is judging everyone else as you can do in the east, at least not in the same way, not to the same extent.

Then there were the contradictions, or perhaps the diversity, better put, of language, ethnicity, culture and, most of all, class. Parts of the big cities were comparable to Europe in their lifestyles and aspirations. Some of my students went to French-language schools, spent their holidays in Europe, and spoke French at home. Meanwhile much of the countryside was consigned to illiteracy and grinding poverty. There was almost no modern infrastructure out there. The people didn’t speak French. Some didn’t speak Arabic either.

I return twelve years later to Rabat, once my home, a handsome capital surrounded by red walls and built in that distinctive architectural style which connects Andalusia to West Africa. Rabat’s ‘new city’ contains tree-lined boulevards, embassies and white villas, and the enormous Makhzen (royal court) compound. The madina al-qadima (old city) and kasbah (fortified settlement) are to the west. A necropolis lies west of the madina. Then comes the beach and its piers, the crab-crawling rocks, and the cold Atlantic. The madina is neither traditional nor modern: it’s contemporary, and Moroccan traditions are an integrated part of contemporary life. The glossy-artisanal rue des Consuls is designed to serve foreigners, in the past and the present, but it’s by no means an over-touristed souq. The flea market in the mellah (what used to be the Jewish quarter) deals in antiques, broken office machines, and books – classics and curiosities in Arabic, French and English.

My visit comes in Ramadan, whose rhythm has overtaken the madina. This means quiet mornings and bustling afternoons. As the maghreb prayer calls, the sunset is dispersed by light Atlantic cloud, then the streets empty and silence reigns while the fast is broken. A fat moon rises. An hour later boys are sitting on the steps of the kasbah beating drums and singing traditional songs, not for show but to amuse themselves. A couple break into dance as they walk past. More drums and picnics down on the beach. The mosques are full (of both men and women) for Ramadan taraweeh prayers, and the markets are crammed until two in the morning.

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

January 5, 2014 at 4:46 pm

Journey to Kafranbel

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This account of my trip into Syria’s partially liberated Idlib province was published by the Guardian.

DSCI0172To cross the border I had to climb a wall three times my height. It was the most frightening part of my trip into liberated Syria.

At Atmeh camp (where I’d been working, just inside Syria on the Turkish border) there’s no passport control but only a gap in the barbed wire. On the day of our journey, however, the Free Syrian Army and PKK-linked Kurds were facing off nearby and the Turkish authorities blocked access as a result. This meant we had to go through the official border at Bab al-Hawa. Two of our party possessed Syrian passports, and were waved through. Two of us didn’t, and so were smuggled across by Kurdish teenagers.

We skirted a deserted shack which our escorts pretended was a policeman’s house. One disappeared for a while, pretending to pay an expensive bribe. Our winding path led through a red-soiled olive grove, far away from the border post, but then wound back towards it, and to the wall. I could see the backs of soldiers through the trees, smoking not patrolling.

There were no security cameras. The boys told me they’d taken Chechens across like this.

At wallside a whispered negotiation ensued. We soon haggled a price for their service. The next part was more difficult – They wanted us to scale the wall into what was obviously still the Turkish border post.

I looked at my fellow smugglee. “Do you believe this?” I asked in English.

“I don’t know. Talk to them some more.”

So it went on, until at last Abdullah, one of our hosts inside Syria, phoned to advise me to do as the boys said.

So I climbed too fast for vertigo to strike, scissored my legs over the railings, dropped onto concrete, rolled, picked myself up, then endeavoured to walk across the neatly-trimmed lawn with a nonchalant but entitled and entirely legal air. I strolled through the airconditioned duty free zone and rejoined my companions to wait for the bus through no-man’s-land. (No private cars have been allowed here since a car bombing in February killed thirteen). Sitting in front of me on the bus: a fattish version of Che Guevara, in curls, beard and black beret, but with nogodbutgod printed on the beret.

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

August 14, 2013 at 11:09 pm

Posted in Syria, Travel

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Malta

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Malta is a speck or three of rock distantly cradled by the Tunisian-Libyan coastline, south of Sicily, midway between Gibraltar and Suez. It’s an ideal location for a Mediterranean Literature Festival.

Megalithic people built temples here six thousand years ago. The Phoenicians established a trading colony. The Greeks and Romans valued the place for its honey (and the Greek word for honey-sweet – Melite – is one possible origin for the name). For a few centuries Malta was ruled by Arab dynasties; a foundational period of immersion in that civilisation which brought in the Siculo-Arabic language, precursor to modern Maltese.

The language is Malta’s idiosyncracy: half Arabic in vocabulary, more than half in structure. The verbs, prepositions and pronouns are Arabic. The rest is mainly Italian. The air hostess asked us to store our bags ‘fowq raasikum’. When we landed she said ‘saha wa grazia!’ In the airport before the return flight I needed no translation for ‘Wait Behind the Yellow Line’ – Stenna Wara l-Linja s-Safra. (The only word there which isn’t Arabic is ‘linja’.) There is, I think, controversy over the extent of Arabic influence on the language. Our tour guide was certainly downplaying it. On the other hand, the Maltese prose writers and poets I met seemed very proud of the heritage. The writer Albert Marshall called Arabic ‘the mother’, and told me how, as he saw it, the gutturals of Semitic jostling Romance language softnesses offer a tremendous sound range for the poet.

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

October 7, 2011 at 10:29 am

Oman Again

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To break up the winter I spent most of January visiting my brother-in-law and friends in Oman, where I used to live, and my sisters in Doha, Qatar.

Since Hamad bin Khalifa Aal Thani deposed his corrupt father, Qatar’s powerful oil and gas economy has expanded and diversified. The state follows an interesting and idiosyncratic foreign policy. It hosts the largest American miltary base in the Gulf, and it also hosts – against American and Arab objections – al-Jazeera. In terms of the regional ‘Resistance Front versus US-client’ dialectic, Qatar stands in the middle, and in 2008 it helped negotiate a Lebanese compromise between the two sides. Wahhabism is influential (my five-year-old niece wants to attend ballet classes, but ballet classes are banned because the costume is considered unIslamic – even for five-year-old girls in a man-free environment), yet women can vote and drive.

Overall, I don’t much like the place. I had a good time with my family, ate some fine meals, went to a book fair. But there’s a bad power game going on in Qatar. Nobody is smiling. I met some very pleasant Qataris – the staff in the excellent Islamic Art Museum, some men in a bowling alley, a retired pearl diver – but I also noticed many refusing to descend from their cars at the grocery shop. (Arabs often expect take-away food to be brought to the car, but not groceries.) Expatriates form a majority of the population. As elsewhere in the Gulf, expatriate wage and class status can be mapped reasonably smoothly onto ethnicity, with white Westerners on top, followed by Lebanese, then other Arabs, then Indonesians, Pakistanis and Indians. Expatriates don’t have citizenship rights, although the infrastructure depends on them. Many contemporary Qataris, in contrast to their proud grandfathers, are obese. The city is one of close walls. The surrounding desert is flat, pale, and begrimed by industry.

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

March 15, 2010 at 2:41 pm

Posted in Oman, Qatar, Travel

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Visiting the Great Satan

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Notre Dame University

I’ve never before visited the USA. Like everybody else in the world, I’ve had it come to me. Its approach has been unstoppable, for good and for ill. For good first: the incredible achievement of American prose, which leaves British writing of the last century far behind. I am astounded by Faulkner, Bellow, Updike and Roth (when they’re good), Cheever, Scott Fitzgerald, and now Joshua Ferris. Formulaic Hollywood switches me off, but I can’t get enough Spike Lee or Martin Scorcese. I love Bob Dylan, Public Enemy and Miles Davis, just for starters. Jazz and particularly hip hop are American art forms which have travelled very well indeed. These two came originally from the black poor, and it’s the heterogeneity of America, and the possibility of marginalised genres and people being heard, which is so appealing. America is a continent-sized country of mixed-up Africans, Jews, Italians, Irish, Latinos, French, Wasps, and everyone else. It should be the most globally-minded and tolerant country in the world.

It isn’t of course. A narrow hyper-nationalism, the shaping of public discourse by corporations and lobbies, and a stupifying media and public education system have seen to that. Which brings us to the ill: America’s homogenising rage, which has ravaged first its own main streets (so Naomi Klein says in No Logo) and then the high streets of the world; its humourless TV gum; its advertising culture of false smiles and sugary platitudes; its racism, wars, military bases, aircraft carriers, support for dictators and apartheid regimes. These are the reasons why the US is known in some parts as the Great Satan, standing behind most of the little satans sitting on Asian and African thrones. In Muscat, Damascus, Shiraz and London I’ve met many people who have been made refugees by the USA.

America is the empire, admittedly in decline. In one sense, therefore, I haven’t needed to visit to know it. But last week I visited nevertheless, for a conference at Notre Dame University which I enjoyed very much.

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

November 25, 2009 at 4:09 pm

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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Terrorists Strike Syria

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P1071110America has already killed a Syrian border guard during its disastrous occupation of Iraq. And now it has sent four helicopter gunships eight kilometres into Syrian territory and killed at least eight Syrian citizens.

A reader of Syriacomment sent in this post, which is the best information I’ve heard yet on the raid itself:

I just spoke on the phone with a doctor in ABou Kamal- He confirmed that the attack happened around sunset. The 4 helicopters came from the East of the township, he saw them coming. The soldiers debarked and shot people who were working in a building under construction on the periphery of the township. 9 people were pronounced dead on arrival to the hospital- Two more are severely wounded and are being operated on right now [he does not expect them to survive]- He has not read the papers (there are none to read at this time of the night) nor listened to the news and there is no internet there….His report was completely spontaneous. I was not able to get the details on the ages of the injured but he described them as poor simple people (Masakeen)from the town.”

And this is from the Guardian:

Intriguingly, Farhan al-Mahalawi, mayor of the nearby Iraqi border town of Qaim, told the Reuters news agency that the targeted village had been surrounded by Syrian troops.”

It isn’t clear if those killed were a farming family, a family of smugglers, or labourers on a construction site. The Americans, having had a day in which to work out their story, claim that an al-Qa’ida militant was targetted. The sentence from the Guardian (although one wonders how the mayor of al-Qaim would know) suggests the Syrians may have been aware of a militant presence in the area and were keeping their own eye on it. It doesn’t necessarily suggest the people killed were the same militants. (As one would expect, most of the western media have taken American claims more seriously than Syrian reports. In fact, the US military’s description of the attack as “a warning to Syria” was anticipated by western headline writers by 24 hours.)

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

October 29, 2008 at 12:57 am

Posted in Iraq, Syria, Travel, USA