Archive for the ‘writing’ Category
imagine the poor man
his eyes dimming his ears clouding
colour draining from the sky
movement stiffening in the trees
from prickly elevation to prosaic daily sludge
in the grey city in the grey century
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?
our dead live more deeply
water flows stalactite
our lungs do not breathe
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.
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
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.
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.