Qunfuz

Robin Yassin-Kassab

Archive for the ‘writing’ Category

Easter Blood

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On Friday the saviour died for our sins

That we might live.

Dumuzi, on the blood river’s brink

Takes the plunge.

Israa Yunis, seven years old, takes the plunge

And the little boys of Dara’a whose skulls they smashed

The brave men of Jableh, the warm women of Bayda

The intellectuals, the street kids, the people of truth

Walk into the waves.

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Written by Barnwalls

April 26, 2011 at 3:18 pm

Posted in Syria, writing

Miss Dallal

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Emil Nolde: Portrait of a Young Girl

This story was published in today’s Guardian.

He filled up the tank before he left Kuwait City, filled it again at Qurriyat near the Saudi-Jordanian border. He stopped a couple of times for sandwiches and crisps, otherwise kept on driving through the flat desert with stereo playing and air conditioning humming. They waved him through the crossings after he’d waved his genuine Rolex and his heavy silver rings at them. Including border stops, the journey took eighteen hours. These days the world’s a small place, which is one of the Prophet’s Signs of the Hour – distances will disappear before the end comes.

Dusk was falling on Damascus when he arrived. Fumes rose from the minibuses and paraffin heaters and from people’s cigarettes and swirled up to meet the thickening night. Green lights and minarets shook on either side, and there were potholes in the asphalt. He didn’t bother checking into his hotel. He wanted to get straight to business.

He drove towards the mountain, through the centre of town. He followed a highway along the bed of a gorge. Here at last the barren melted against the power of potential fertility. A gurgling stream rushed beside the road, and there were trees and restaurants, sometimes dining rooms fatly bridging the water. He pulled in at a building more contemporary than the rest, a tall building fronted in metal and dark mirrors.

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Written by Barnwalls

April 16, 2011 at 11:57 am

Posted in writing

The Imitator

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picture by Ali Farzat

He copies phrases from foreign newspapers into a notebook. Then he copies his notes into a larger notebook with a flag and a band of gold on the front.

His mouth imitates the words of the state TV channel, and the words of undead clerics, and the words of puff-eyed men who sit in cafés.

He curses his country’s backwardness. At the same time he proclaims that the world was brighter when his grandfather was still a rheum-eyed boy.

At school he wrote poems praising his teacher. At work he writes letters praising his boss. When the time is right he writes reports denouncing his colleagues.

He is embarrassed by his social station. In the presence of his inferiors he imitates his superiors. He swings his belly like a wealthy businessman, preens his moustache like a tribal chief, avoids eye contact like a distracted poet or professor, or establishes it, beneath beetling brows, like a policeman. He aims to provoke fear. He is scared of everything.

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Written by Barnwalls

February 10, 2011 at 6:22 pm

Posted in Arabism, Egypt, writing

Petrol

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His father used to work at the refinery, which was a good job. His father brought home a new toy every evening, that’s what Bilal remembers. Many of the toys are still at home, stuffed under his mother’s bed: speaking animals, racing cars, things that work if you have batteries.

Bilal thought his father had a round and jolly face, but this thought contradicted the stern, gaunt photograph framed on the living room wall. The photograph was a fact – unlike Bilal’s thought, which was only a thought, as vague and blurry at the edges as thoughts tend to be.

A couple of years ago, a long time now, his father had been arrested and taken away. This happened to a lot of people and was nothing much to cry about.

There was some confusion as to his father’s exact location. One aunt said he was in the local prison. One said he was in prison in the capital. His uncles squeezed his shoulder and said nothing at all.

One aunt said he was in heaven. When Bilal heard her he thought his father had been killed and he began to cry inconsolably. But his mother told him that that aunt was just upset and raving, that his father was in prison in the capital, and that Bilal would meet him again one day when he’d grown up and done something that his father could be really proud of. She said people don’t die in any case. And Bilal was consoled.

He was the oldest child, the only son, so in a way the head of the household. He bossed around his two sisters who were too little to obey him. He knew he bore responsibility for them and for his mother whose wages paid the rent on their flat but didn’t put food on the table. That was his job. But what he suffered in responsibility he regained in freedom.

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Written by Barnwalls

November 3, 2010 at 10:31 am

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The Screen

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Polizeiposten by Wilna Marianne Werefkin

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. 

Ya Clinton Rooh Amreeka

Hal mushkiltak ma’ Moneeka

 O Clinton Get to America

Solve your problem with Monica

That was the funniest one. Muhannad screamed in my ear about Clinton’s cigar and the Jewish woman, which was bad because a girl was next to me. He told me the story almost every day, but it was funnier this time, or maybe it felt like that because the tall girl was there and such a crowd was in the square. The sky was bright, although it was a cloudy day.

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Written by Barnwalls

April 8, 2010 at 8:05 pm

Posted in writing

This Evening

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It was a relationship abrasive and intimate, based on love. So a good relationship. To his children he barked commands, swore, adopted strict military monotones, or ignored them, ordered them out. Underneath it was love. Usually his anger was feigned. He didn’t know how else to control his thoughts when children were screaming. He wasn’t a multitasker. So it wasn’t so much a matter of controlling the children as of organising himself, except on certain planned occasions. The children understood this.

For a while he lay in the bed with the girl to read her from a book of prehistory. He read a page she read a page. It was volcanoes and evolution versus creation myths. Then he called the boy to come and join them. Come and read the good book, he said. His mother had read him the Bible when he was young although she wasn’t a Christian, or it must have been selections, but he remembered the dark shock of Noah drunk and naked cursing his son to enslavement, and Lot’s daughters spicing their father’s drink just right to get him drunk, but not too drunk to fuck, and Abraham pimping his wife, twice, and God rewarding him for it, and the passion and strangeness of it all. He was grateful to his mother for showing him this stuff and was passing the favour to his own children. Except he sent the girl out of the room for the aforementioned parts. She was only seven after all. Both children enjoyed it, just the Book of Genesis so far.

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Written by Barnwalls

February 2, 2010 at 12:52 am

Posted in writing

Islam in the Writing Process

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If all goes well I will be at Notre Dame University in the US later this month for a conference on the role of Islam in contemporary European literature. I wrote the piece below for the conference.

enjoin the good

Photo by Rehan Jamil

Salman Rushdie once commented that ‘Islam’, in contrast to ‘the West’, is not a narrative civilisation. This, in my opinion, is obvious nonsense. Beyond the fact that human beings are narrative animals, whatever civilisation they live in, and that Islamic civilisation cannot be isolated from, for instance, Christian, Hindu or Arab civilisations, the Muslim world has a history of influential narratives which is second to none. These include Sufi tales, chivalric adventures, fantastical travelogues, romances and spiritual biographies written in several major languages.

Although the Arabic novel is generally considered to have developed in the early twentieth century from the experience of industrial urbanisation and the penetration of European genres and philosophies, Ibn Tufail’s 12th Century “Hayy ibn Yaqzan”, an inspiration for Defoe’s “Robinson Crusoe”, can reasonably stake a claim to being the world’s first novel. The Arabian Nights (via Don Quixote) is surely another source of the European novel tradition. And Islam the religion – as opposed to the even more nebulous ‘civilisation’ – is a text-based faith. The Qur’an is the religion’s only official miracle; the first word revealed to the Prophet was ‘iqra’ – ‘read’. Those who attempt to draw a distinction between literalist scripture and free and playful literature should pay attention to verse 26 of the Qur’an’s second chapter which, immediately after the first description of heaven and hell, proclaims: “Behold, God does not disdain to propound a parable of a gnat, or of something even less than that.” In other words, the Qur’an is a text unashamed to use metaphor, symbol and a whole range of literary devices in order to point to ineffable realities.

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Written by Barnwalls

November 1, 2009 at 1:52 pm

Sabra and Shatila

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Genre-specific readers be alerted: this is first draft fiction, not reportage – though its material is entirely factual. Twenty seven years ago today.

sabra shatila 1The militia were Arabs, brother Arabs.

The Phalangists were already baying from east Beirut, howling revenge. Now Israel flew Haddad’s militia, la crème de la crème, up from the south. Both groups assembled at the airport, for General Sharon to ensure all were properly kitted out: with weapons, military rations, medical supplies; Israeli cocaine and Lebanese hashish; Mediterranean testosterone, bad breath.

Then he uncaged them.

At six on Thursday evening. In the first penetration, three hundred and twenty men were brought on thirty trucks. Four gangs invading from four approaches. These were the most blood-addicted, rape-happy, battle-addled of militiamen, men long ago surfeited on outrage, men who required ever more extreme atrocities to stir their glutted senses. Ever wilder, ever sharper.

Israel lit the sky for them. White phosphorus flares trailing and dancing. Fire above like a terrible sun in the ceiling, a sun switched on in anger, while the children are sleeping.

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Written by Barnwalls

September 16, 2009 at 1:27 am

Posted in Palestine, writing

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Maghut’s Shade and Noon Sun

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maghutSyrian writer Muhammad al-Maghut was born the son of a peasant farmer in the dusty town of Salamiyah in 1934, during the French occupation. As a young man he joined the Syrian Social Nationalist Party, the second biggest mass party in Syria after the Ba’ath. Like the Ba’ath, the secular SSNP appealed to religious minorities – al-Maghut was of Ismaili origin. Unlike the pan-Arabists of the Ba’ath, it envisaged a fertile crescent state including Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Jordan, Iraq, Kuwait and even Cyprus. Al-Maghut was locked up on several occasions for SSNP membership. During his first imprisonment – in Mezzeh prison in 1955 – he met the influential poet Adonis and started writing poetry himself.

As a poet he deserves to be much more widely known. Along with Adonis and Nizar Qabbani he was a modernist, using free verse instead of the traditional Arabic forms. Like Qabbani he aimed to be accessible to the ordinary people, but his ‘lover narrator’ is perhaps better suited to our twisted times than Qabbani’s. Certain verses sum up the decadent atmosphere very well indeed. The following remind me of those Gulf Arabs and others who profit from the prostitution of refugee women from occupied Iraq:

Lebanon is burning – it leaps, like a wounded horse, at the edge of the desert/ and I am looking for a fat girl/ to rub myself against on the tram/ for a Beduin-looking man to knock down somewhere. My country is on the verge of collapse/ shivering like a naked lioness/ and I am looking for two green eyes/ and a quaint café by the sea/ looking for a desperate village girl to deceive.”

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Written by Barnwalls

September 7, 2009 at 2:43 pm

The Search

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Ernst Kirchner

On a couple of occasions – that I know of – I’ve had my irises scanned. These in the airports where I get pulled over for the stupid questions. In theory, a computer link can now tie my iris to my bank account, credit rating, police record, driving license and passport details – all in the sharpest microsecond.

The town centre has been replaced by a shopping mall, owned and controlled. People take more interest in Angelina Jolie’s romantic life than in the course of political events. The politics on show are soap opera, and the soap opera is determined a ‘British value’. According to the new points system for migrants, access to Britishness can be speeded up by campaigning for a political party (I presume they don’t mean Hizb ut-Tahrir), while ‘active disregard for British values’ – which might or might not mean protesting against imperialist wars – will retard membership of the club.

The great Englishman Dr. Johnson said, “Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.” And on that sound note allow me to introduce a short story by the Syrian writer Ibrahim Alloush, translated by Domenyk Eades.

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Written by Barnwalls

September 4, 2009 at 9:02 pm

Posted in Syria, UK, writing

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In Control

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Night Windows by Edward Hopper

Night Windows by Edward Hopper

On this night I was the controller for King’s Cabs, whose shopfront office lies on the southern reaches of the Caledonian Road. I was the man who watches the phone line, directs the drivers, greets the punters. I sat under neon. I read a lot of stolen books.

The shift began at ten, in time for a plastic cupful of tea, a roll-up, and some pages of What Is To Be Done? before the pub closing rush, which had always been the only rush of the night. If it was a rush.

First action struck shortly after eleven, when a couple of red-jowled, sweaty-eyed men strolled in, bellies straining against football shirts and tongues wagging in keen debate.

“That black one, fuckin hell!”

“Nah. Sparrow tits? Nah. The fuckin Russki, I tell you.”

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Written by Barnwalls

August 23, 2009 at 6:03 pm

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How Grampa Entered History and Left Again

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scan0001[1]Grampa was an older man than most of them in the castle, already in his thirties, almost too old for war. Nevertheless it was a fresh dawn for him, who was finally finding confidence in himself, liking himself at last. No longer tongue-tied, he was popular with the soldiers. He found he had the gift of getting on with men from all social classes and all parts of the country. And he was able to make himself useful.

They put him in charge of accounts. At the end of each month he handed over the leisure allowance in big notes, money for beer and cigarettes and trips into Glasgow. The men seemed to hold him personally responsible for this snippet of good fortune. Cheers, Arnold, they said one by one, bright eyed, shuffling forward and bouncing out. But this was not his only job. He was also a medical orderly and, with his cool nerves, an attendant at operations. Bloodied, hot, he displayed the type of courage that tougher breeds couldn’t understand. Once he saw a man faint at the sight of a needle who had before that crash-landed, unruffled, a flaming fighter plane on the sea.

He had been considered officer material – he was bright enough for that and more – had been sent on the training course in Wales. But then, rushing across the grey fells, his knee gave in. He only grinned. He was used to such disappointments. He hadn’t gone to sea because he couldn’t distinguish blue from red. He had failed his school exams because of a huge boil exploding on his bottom. He hadn’t gone to art school, where he might have made a career of colour blindness, because his father, despite the art master’s recommendation, thought art school unbecoming. So he had been placed instead in the book trade at the age of 14, more properly the tea-getting, message-bearing trade. (Though after the war he was promoted to a position that fitted his more solid presence). He worked among hard and paper backs. Papery-thin he was himself, and ivory white. His mates called him snowball for the icicle down that clung to his albumen skull. Later on, when I knew him, the hair had gone, but the soft domed head remained, and the blue veins.

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Written by Barnwalls

August 19, 2009 at 11:52 am

Posted in writing

Muslim Writer

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Something for the Muslim Writers Awards:

Am I a Muslim writer? American Jews and Russian Christians are what I read when I write. I like Syrian poets and Egyptian novelists too, but it would be difficult to argue that Nizar Qabbani is more ‘Muslim’ than he is ‘Arab’ or ‘Modernist’.

Is Islam a defining part of my personality? To be honest, it depends on the year. And what determines Muslim belonging anyway? Geography? Ideology? Linguistics? Surely not skin colour. Should Muslim writing be halal, and avoid beer and heresy? Should it intend to prevent vice and promote virtue? – if so, late Tolstoy was a Muslim writer.

It happens that my novel discusses tawheed, and that its most balanced character is a prayerful Muslim who wears hijab. I used the ideas and characters I found before me. But if I set my next novel amongst anarchist philosophers in the Ukraine, will I still be doing Muslim writing? It’s problematic, certainly.

I suppose if you can have Black writing and Gay writing and London writing you can have Muslim writing too. The label, like any other, is limiting if it’s used as a box, but liberating if we use it as a springboard. The point is, that as Muslims in Britain, many fictions are being written about us. Many are presented as fact. The Muslim label already looms large in the cultural imagination, and is skilfully brought into play by everyone from Martin Amis to Madonna. So we should write back. We – and I mean nothing more definite by ‘we’ than those who share a few key Islamic references, who don’t see Islam as foreign – have a million tales to tell. In Britain we are immigrants and natives, black and white and brown, rich and poor, taraweeh-praying and whisky-swilling, and mixtures of the above. For us to be heard in our variety is important, because heard voices empower. Voices heard through novels also work against ignorance, because novels, unlike the BBC, humanise. They deal in characters instead of abstractions, and raise questions, and so provide the human texture which the most well-intentioned news media cannot.

As Muslims in a non-Muslim or even Islamophobic society, I think we have something especially strong to contribute. We possess not only a fresh stock of stories and a range of new cultural forms, but also the enriched perspective and impatience with assumption that otherness and in-betweenness give you. To see all lands as foreign, through the eyes of a musafir – there is something in this which Islam and novel-writing share.

Written by Barnwalls

May 21, 2009 at 3:07 pm

Posted in writing

Writer Talk

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Notes for a talk to the Dumfries Writers Group tonight. It’s pretty narcissistic, but narcissism is what I do. I’ll also talk about the practicalities of finding an agent and a publisher, and about blogging.

Where does the urge to write come from?

It comes from the fear of death. From where all human effort beyond eating comes from. Maybe eating too. But the fear of death is only one way to say it. Writing is the attempt to control what can’t be controlled, to impose pattern on confusion, to battle time by recording it, to immortalise thought and sensation, and so to make them sacred. A vain but very human enterprise.

The film director Werner Herzog said, “I believe you can discover a very deep, ecstatic truth by fabricating.” I’m not sure what this means, but I’m sure I agree with it.

Also, for me, fabrication is a channel for passion which might otherwise express itself as anger.

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Written by Barnwalls

April 21, 2009 at 1:28 am

At All Costs

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A short story published in Five Dials. It’s only the second short story I’ve written, and I don’t know if I should be proud or ashamed of it. Here’s the link. It includes an interview with Noam Chomsky.

Abdu, masterful and charismatic, was holding forth above a long table which supported a debris of pastes and salads, when he registered, like a disturbance on a radar screen, a burst of cruel hilarity erupting from a couple of the younger guests. Abdu didn’t slow down; instead he increased his volume and amplified the movements of his hands. It was important that as few people as possible noticed the teenagers’ disrespect, and that nobody noticed that he had noticed. To notice it was to grant it value, and that he must not do.

This was his 60th birthday meal. At the climax of his life, after decades of sustained effort, he’d won the right to celebrate birthdays, like Europeans do, and also to be considered a right-living patriot. That is, an embodiment of modern success. No woman at the table wore a headscarf, and neither, of course, was any alcohol served. His young dyed-blonde wife presided quietly at his side. She wore a cream-coloured jacket and trousers from Paris. He wore a new, blue suit. All eyes were upon him. This was essential. If they didn’t recognise him correctly now, he would be ruined in his own eyes.

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Written by Barnwalls

November 13, 2008 at 1:13 pm

Posted in writing

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