Qunfuz

Robin Yassin-Kassab

Archive for the ‘writing’ Category

The ‘Hakawati’ as Artist and Activist

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hassanI interviewed my friend Hassan Blasim, a brilliant writer and a wonderful human being, for the National.

Hassan Blasim is an Iraqi-born writer and film-maker, now a Finnish citizen. He is the author of the acclaimed story collections “The Madman of Freedom Square” and “The Iraqi Christ” (the latter won the Independent Foreign Fiction prize), and editor and contributor to the science fiction collection “Iraq +100”. His play “The Digital Hat Game” was recently performed in Tampere, Finland.

Because it’s so groundbreaking, his work is hard to categorise. It deals with the traumas of repression, war and migration, weaving perspectives and genres with intelligence and a brutal wit.

Why do you write?

To be frank, I would have killed myself without writing.

If you read novels and intellectual works since your childhood, your head is filled with the big questions. Why am I here? What’s the meaning of life? You apply this questioning to the mess of the world around you – why is America bombing Iraq? why are we suffering civil wars? – and you realise the enormous contradiction between your lived reality and the ideal world of knowledge. On the one hand, peace, freedom, and our common human destiny, and on the other, borders, capitalism and wars.

Writing for me began as a hobby, or a way of dreaming. And then when I witnessed the disasters that befell Iraq, it became a personal salvation. It wouldn’t be possible to accept this world without writing.

Maybe writing is a psychological treatment, or an escapism. It’s certainly a dream. But it’s also to confront the world, and to challenge all the books that have been written before. And it’s a process of discovery. It’s all of these things.

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January 5, 2017 at 1:41 pm

Posted in Culture, Iraq, writing

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Can Literature Liberate?

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It was a real pleasure to attend the first Bare Lit Festival in London – great idea, great audiences, panelists, organisers. In this panel there’s Sareeta Domingo (who writes erotic fiction, amongst other things), poet and academic Joan Anin-Addo, and the accomplished novelist Leila Aboulela. And me. (I reviewed one of Leila’s excellent novels here, and I’m looking forward to reviewing another.)

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March 3, 2016 at 10:35 pm

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Brothers Blood

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Evening_over_Damascus_SyriaI’m honoured that the wonderful poet Golan Haji has translated the prologue to my novel-in-progress for al-Arabi al-Jadeed. Here it is:

دم الشقيق
روبن ياسين قصاب

3 فبراير 2015

كلُّ اسم هنا يعني شيئاً، لكنّ بعض الأسماء قديمة جداً فنُسيت معانيها. قد تعني دمشق في الآرامية “التراب الأحمر”، وربما كانت تعني “قِربة النبيذ” لدى الإغريق والرومان. تسمية أخرى متداولة محلياً اشتُقت من “دم الشقيق”، لأن قابيل قتل هابيل في مكانٍ ما من الأرجاء المجاورة. يقع مزار هابيل في قمة قاسيون، والقبر في داخله عملاق الحجم لأن رجال تلك الأيام كانوا عمالقة حقاً. والعشق هو فرط الحب، وهكذا ثمة احتمال آخر لأصل الاسم هو “دم العشق
المدينة في تجويف إناء أسفل الجبال، وتترامى عبر السهل، وتزحف إلى أعالي المنحدرات، كتلةً كبيرة من المساكن، أبراجاً بيضاء ورمادية وبنية تعلو وتنخفض. واجهاتُ رخام وقبابٌ وأسطحة قرميد أحمر. حمام يحتشد في أسراب مرفرفاً ويحطّ على أعشاش السطوح.
أزقةٌ مغلقةُ المصاريع، متاهات، جدران عالية من ضوضاء السيارات. عالياً فوق هذه الجدران حلّقْ وانظرْ تحت.
سهامٌ من مصابيح ملونة تشير إلى محلات الشواء؛ شاشاتُ تلفزيون تومض عبر النوافذ المفتوحة، في المكتب، في الدكان، أو على الأرصفة حين يكون الطقس دافئاً؛ شاشات مليون هاتف جوّال (يملكها جميعاً الشخصُ نفسه)، تتحرك بمستوى الرؤوس، أو في الأحضان، أو على السرير؛ والصحون اللاقطة؛ ومقاهي الإنترنت.
محلات المثلجات، الحدائق العامة، العوائل الكريمة البدينة التي تفصص البذور. البنوك، الصرّافون، مكاتب الاستيراد والتصدير. سيارات الأجرة والسرافيس. رجال في زي موحد. رجال يدخنون السجائر.
عشاق، متزوجون، جمهرةٌ من راهبات متجهمات في محل أزهار يبيع باقاتٍ سريالية الحجم، محلٌ ضيق لتاجر بسطرمة، تاجر بُنّ في بنايةٍ لائقة، أضِفْ مطحنته وأضِفْ غبارَ القهوة، وصفٌّ من محلات الألبسة، كلها للفتيات، واجهاتها نيون كلّها أزرق ووردي وذهبي، أغنية آر أند بي أميركية Do Me You Do Me You Can Do Me ترجُّ الرصيف، نساء يضايقهن الأطفال محجباتٌ ويلبسن الأردية الطويلة يعبرن تحت مكبرات الصوت، أمام صاحب محل سيديهات ملمَّع الشعر مصفَّفه وراء زجاج مدخّن، ثم باعة محلات الأحذية بأباريق الشاي والابتسامات، تتوالى باباً لصق باب، جدران من صناديق الأحذية تعلو، وبين الجدران: متاهات.
ساحة مركز المدينة. الفنادقُ المواخير، الراقصات النَوَريّات. البدو يعطفون على كؤوس الشاي، لا يزال بعضهم يضفرون جدائلهم، أخاديد ثلّمتْ بها الريح وجناتِهم. جدران من الأقفاص في سوق الطيور، وبين الجدران: متاهات.
كذلك ألقِ بالاً إلى ما لم يكن أو ما لن يكون. حفرٌ لم تُردَمْ، هياكل ما بُنيت، مواسير شبه منسية، ثغرات. هدم غير محسوب، إنشاءات من دون مخطط، منازل عشوائية لم تصِرْ بيوتاً، ومنازل أخرى غائبة موجودة على الورق. ثقوب طلقات لم يجمعها الفرنسيون. نهرٌ أصبح ممشى من الإسمنت المسلح، نفقاً ومستنقعاً آسناً. بساتين مبتورة الجذوع، مخنوقة، مسوَّرة.
ألف مليون كيس نايلون.
صِبيةٌ موشومون، رجال بسواعد مشعرة، أقدام برتقالية تهتزّ بعضها إلى جوار بعض في صفوف المصلّين في مسجد عند الزاوية.
الفنادق الجديدة الفخمة في المدينة القديمة، الخانات والقصور، المطاعم: بعض من ألذّ العشاءات في الشرق الأوسط، في العالم.
الحشد. يلتئم ويتفرّق، يتجمهر ويتبعثر. على عجل.
شبان يبدؤون حيواتهم، يعانون، يحملون الكتب، يقعون في الحب، يشعرون بأنهم محبوسون، يزرّرون عيونهم ليروا طريقاً يجنون عبره بعض المال. شبان في منتصفات أعمارهم يتآكلهم الطموح والفشل، وأولئك المسحوقون بالعار يزرّرون عيونهم أيضاً ليروا طريقاً يجنون عبره بعض المال. العجائز يشتكون أو ييأسون أو يرضون أو يأملون، لا يزالون يزرّرون عيونهم ليروا طريقاً من أجل أبنائهم وأحفادهم يجنون عبره بعض المال. العجائز القانعون بشيخوختهم. العجائز المصلُّون.
في الزحام امرأة تعضُّ شفتها إلى أن تدمى لتمنع نفسها من الصراخ.
عبق الجنس. عبق الياسمين والمازوت والغبار.
فوحُ خَبزِ الخُبز. دوائر ساخنة من الخبز مكوَّمة خارج الأفران، أو ملمومة في أكياس نايلون شفافة لتبني جدراناً، وبين الجدران: متاهات.
فندق الشام والفصول الأربعة. دور السينما والمراكز الثقافية. الملاعب والمسابح. الأبراجُ السجون. المآذن وذروات الأبنية.
الحيّ الشيعي والحيّ المسيحي. المخيمات الفلسطينية. الناحية الدرزية. الأكراد المكدَّسون على السفح الذي يحمل اسمهم منذ عهد صلاح الدين الأيوبي.
الجيوب العلوية التي تتقدم صوب المدينة.
سائح، متغافل عن توترات الحاضر، يقصدُ التمشّي عبر حارة اليهود.
جبال نصلت في الشمس، أذْوَتها الرياحُ القارسة، قوّضتها رشقاتُ المطر، غصّتْ بتكرار الثلوج، وكلّستها مؤخراً أربعة عقود من الجمود.
الألوان على الجبل مرهونة بالغيم، بمواقيتِ النهار، بموضعِ الشمس. وردية، برتقالية، حمراء، بيضاء، سوداء. لون التلوث البني معلّقٌ ولا يُرى إلا من بعيد. ثم هواء يتخلخل في كل اتجاه، فوق الجبال والهضبة والسهل المقفر، هواء رقيق وجاف، مادّةُ الملائكة.
شيء ما مضطرب في الجو يشي بوصول اللحظة. لحظة ستبقى.
تحت السماء، فوق دمشق: الفرقة الرابعة متوارية نسبياً. المدفعية وراء المتاريس. مدافع ضخمة مثبتة في الجبل. القوات الإسرائيلية على قمة جبل الشيخ، بذروته المكتسيةِ ثلجاً في المدى المنظور. وأربعة ملايين سوري، تحت، في المدينة

Written by Barnwalls

February 3, 2015 at 9:20 pm

Posted in writing

First There Was the Word

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I and lots of other writers participated in this BBC radio 4 programme on ‘British Muslim writing’. The programme is written and presented by Yasmin Hai. Those interested in this may also be interested in Clare Chambers’s book “British Muslim Fictions“.

Written by Barnwalls

May 30, 2014 at 9:49 am

Posted in UK, writing

Tooth

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The Glasgow Film Theatre asked me and nine other writers based in Scotland to respond to the theme ‘For All.’ My response is part of the novel I’m writing at the moment. The extract  inspired this very brief but strangely wonderful animation by David Galletly:

You can read Tooth here at the GFT’s website..

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July 14, 2013 at 9:49 pm

Translation and Conflict

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Here was me, Dan Gorman and Samia Mehrez talking about translation and conflict for the Literary Translation Centre at the London Book Fair 2013.

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July 14, 2013 at 9:27 pm

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Lion One and Lion Two

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paul klee's senecio

Lion One

misnamed hollow lion

wearing his megalo mane

a pointy-head frown

toothsome

grin

says the important thing

is to believe in a cause

it allows him to kill

the causeless the useless

the malformed will

rule

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October 4, 2011 at 10:28 pm

Posted in writing

Becoming Sane

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Franz Marc's Fighting Forms

imagine the poor man

his eyes dimming his ears clouding

colour draining from the sky

movement stiffening in the trees

descending

from prickly elevation to prosaic daily sludge

in the grey city in the grey century

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Written by Barnwalls

October 3, 2011 at 11:29 am

Posted in writing

Maltese Interviews

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© 2011 Joseph A Borg

I was invited to the Malta Mediterranean Literature Festival. Malta is a fascinating place, with a fascinating Arabic-origin language, and I met many fascinating writers there. I’ll write about it soon. In the meantime, here are a couple of interviews with me from the Maltese press.

First, from the Times of Malta.

Albert Gatt discusses hedgehogs, dictators and parricide with author Robin Yassin Kassab.

As the crackdown in Syria continues, and the revolution in Libya inches towards resolution, another blow is dealt to the grand narrative of the Arab nation which various dictators – self-styled fathers to their people – used to justify their rule. Can literature offer a nuanced view that counters this narrative’s deadly simplicity?

This year, the Malta Mediterranean Literature Festival, organised by Iniżjamed and Literature Across Frontiers, will focus on the Arab Spring.

One of the guest writers is Robin Yassin Kassab, who appears courtesy of the British Council (Malta). Born in West London of Syrian descent, Yassin Kassab is a regular contributor to the press and blogs on http://qunfuz.com – qunfuz is Arabic for hedgehog or porcupine.

In his first novel, The Road from Damascus (Penguin, 2009), Sami, the son of Syrian migrants in London, struggles to carry the mantle bequeathed to him by his father, a staunchly secular Arab intellectual.

But the turmoil of his own private life and the havoc wreaked by 9/11 force him to challenge the worldview he has inherited, in whose name his father committed the ultimate betrayal.

I’m intrigued by the name of your blog – Qunfuz. In what sense is the writer a hedgehog?

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Written by Barnwalls

September 19, 2011 at 3:13 pm

al-Qa’ida Speaks

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time does not pass

our dead live more deeply

water flows stalactite

our lungs do not breathe

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Written by Barnwalls

September 6, 2011 at 12:14 am

Posted in writing

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Iraqi Fragments

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picture by Zdzisław Beksiński

 

Between the rivers where words begin

Strange architecture of flesh drawn by war

Babies born in the form

of bunches of grapes

And men who die tongueless

women die breastless

Not human any more.

 

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Written by Barnwalls

September 5, 2011 at 6:22 pm

Posted in writing

The Syrian People

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picture by Zdzisław Beksiński

walls to scrawl graffitti on

slabs of stone for carving

if you crush it it sings a song

changes colour with a stamping

meat to hang upon a hook

wire conducting electricity

balls to kick around the yard

to reduce to pure simplicity

wet cloth to dessicate

sweet sounds to silence

flaps and buttons to be tugged off

obscenities to be licensed

unruly features to be trimmed and then

punished, then punished, then punished –

the guilty corpse, the damned – to be

punished, dissected, turned inside out

so all the world can see

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Written by Barnwalls

August 31, 2011 at 12:53 pm

Posted in Syria, writing

Hama Hallucinated

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picture by Reuters

Here’s an extract from my novel The Road From Damascus, in which the dying Ba’athist Mustafa Traifi hallucinates the Hama massacre of 1982. Back then the regime really was fighting an armed group – the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood. I don’t much like my writing of four years ago, but the passage is rustling in my mind today for obvious reasons.

What’s time to a corpse? From the moment of its death, time becomes a foreign territory, a land stranger and more distant with every minute, every decade, until soon there’s nobody left to put a face to the corpse’s name, to the name of the dust, and soon the letters of its name have sunk into the graveslab’s grain, and the stone itself is broken or buried or dug up. And the land which was once a graveyard is overgrown, or shifted, or levelled. And the planet itself dead, by fire or ice, and nobody at all anywhere to know. No consciousness. As if nothing had ever been.

Unless there is Grace watching and waiting for our helplessness.

There is no permanence for a corpse, not even for corpse dust. Or corpse mud, in this country. All this graveyard sentiment. You may as well shoot it into outer space. Into the stars.

Mustafa Traifi is dreaming intermittent dreams of war. He sees the city of Hama from above and within. Sees the black basalt and white marble stripes. The mosque and the cathedral. The thin red earth. The tell of human remains, bones upon bones. The Orontes River rushing red with the blood of Tammuz, the blood of Dumuzi, the dying and rising shepherd god. The maidens weeping on the river banks.

Life is precarious. This place is thirty kilometers from the desert. The river raised by waterwheels feeds a capillary network of irrigation and sewage channels, and agricultural land in the city’s heart. Traffic is organised by the nuclei of marketplaces (Mustafa sees from above, like the planes) where there are householders and merchants and peasant women in red-embroidered dresses and tall men of the hinterland wearing cloaks and kuffiyehs, and mounds of wheat and corn, and olives and oranges from the hill orchards, and complaining oxen and fat-tailed sheep. Where there is dust in the endless process of becoming mud and then again dust.

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Written by Barnwalls

August 5, 2011 at 9:50 pm

Posted in Syria, writing

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Awake Unconscious

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Mark Rothko was a twentieth century American artist. Art academia labels him an abstract expressionist. In his case, however, labels aren’t much help – at least not to me.

Rothko canvases are rectangles or slabs of colour. At first sight they often seem monolithic or blank; upon closer inspection the colour is layered and subtly varied in tone and intensity. But ‘inspect’ is the wrong verb, a far too cold and conscious and controlling verb. The observer is absorbed, rather; in the same semi-dazed or forgetful way he finds himself absorbed by the sky or the form of a mountain. The colours throb and quake, until it feels that the canvas is inspecting the observer instead of vice versa.

Ancient building sometimes creates the same sensation – I’ve felt it at Tadmor and Resafah in Syria, at Persepolis in Iran, in the Hippostyle Hall at Karnak in Egypt. Or in old mosques, stupefied by columns and shadows, by the contradiction of space and constriction. Sumerian statuary also does it for me. I understand entirely why people worshipped statues or remarkable rocks or shapes; I do it myself, involuntarily. Or the larger part of me which has nothing to do with self or will does it. Perhaps the deepest part of me is always reacting like this to the world. Always has. That’s why labels don’t help in Rothko’s case – he could as easily have emerged from the 20th century BC.

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Written by Barnwalls

June 26, 2011 at 2:52 pm

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Spontaneous Expression of Love

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photo by Muzaffar Salman/AP

The regime brought thousands of supporters onto the streets of Damascus today. The picture shows them carrying a two-kilometre-long flag along Mezzeh Autostrade – this supposedly proves that the regime, despite its mass murder of Syrian civilians, is a patriotic one. Some of the loyalist demonstrators will be genuine supporters of the president. Many will be civil servants, teachers and schoolchildren told to do their duty. That’s how official demonstrations work in Syria.

I remember the run-up to the final referendum on Hafez al-Asad’s reign. Every night extended news bulletins screened grim-faced crowds shaking their fists on snowy hillsides or stiffly dancing debke in enormous stadiums. The newsreaders described these spectacles as spontaneous expressions of joy and loyalty. When the president won 99.something percent of the vote, the newsreaders called it ‘a marriage of people and leader.’

In honour of today’s occasion, I’m reposting the short story below. It’s inspired by an organised riot which I witnessed in Damascus in the late 1990s.

The Screen

There were no classes. Instead we marched down to the square and began to shout slogans. At first the teachers led us but soon we got into a group with no teachers and we could shout what we wanted.

Ya Blair Ya haqeer

dumak min dum al-khanzeer

O Blair, you are mud

Your blood is swine’s blood

It was hard to say the words because I was laughing so loud. Muhannad squashed his nose with his finger and oinked like a pig.

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Written by Barnwalls

June 15, 2011 at 8:52 pm

Posted in Syria, writing