Robin Yassin-Kassab

Syria’s Opposition Should Support Kurdish Autonomy

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This was published first at The New Arab.


‘There is no life without the leader’. PYD militants raise Abdullah Ocalan’s picture in Raqqa

The Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, is a Marxist-Leninist turned authoritarian-anarchist (yes, that is an oxymoron) Kurdish separatist party-militia at intermittent war with the Turkish state. The Democratic Union Party, or PYD, is a PKK-offshoot set up while Abdullah Ocalan was hosted in Syria by Hafez al-Assad. Given its focus on the war against Turkey rather than civil rights in Syria, the PYD was usually tolerated by the regime.

As the revolution began liberating territory in 2012, Assad forces withdrew from Kurdish-majority areas without a fight, handing them over to PYD control. Thereafter the PYD monopolised arms and aid money, repressed opposition parties, and shot at protestors.

At the same time, it won an undoubted national victory for the Kurds. After decades of enforced ‘Arabism’, locals finally policed their own neighbourhoods and children were taught in their mother tongue. Through the commune system, the PYD also promoted a measure of local democracy. The allocation of 40% of commune seats to women is evidence of the party’s impressive commitment to gender equality.

As well as the PYD’s avowed secularism, the fact that its territories were not subjected to Assad’s scorched earth inoculated them against penetration by transnational jihadists. The PYD’s political innovations, meanwhile, won the admiration of many leftists and anarchists in the west. Sadly this support was often uncritical, and generally ignored similar democratic self-organisation experiments in the liberated but heavily bombed territories beyond PYD rule.

At first, the PYD governed Syria’s three Kurdish-majority areas, that is the Afrin, Kobani and Jazira cantons. These areas (collectively called Rojava, or Western Kurdistan) are non-contiguous. Kurdish autonomy could work there, but not statehood.

The PYD, however, was able to take advantage of both Russia’s war on the rebels and the American-led coalition’s war against ISIS to join up and expand its territory. In February 2016, in alliance with Russia, the PYD captured Tel Rifaat, Menagh, and surrounding areas close to Afrin. These Arab-majority towns were governed by civilian local councils and defended by non-jihadist rebels. Both people and rebels were driven out by Russian air power (Russian bombs destroyed all three of Tel Rifaat’s health centres during the assault) accompanied by the PYD’s troops on the ground. Next, in July 2016, the PYD captured the Castello Road leading into Aleppo, assisting the Assad regime’s siege on the city and eventually its fall (in December) to Assad’s Iranian-backed militias.

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

January 25, 2018 at 3:01 pm

Posted in Syria, Turkey

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Return to the Dark Valley

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gamboaThis review was written for a page which was never born.

Santiago Gamboa’s “Return to the Dark Valley” is a very accessible work of postmodern noir shot through with philosophy and poetry.

Among the characters populating this polyphonic novel are Tertullian, an Argentinian neo-fascist who claims paternity from the Pope and believes in “necessary destructions”; Palacios, a priest who founds an anti-Communist death squad; and Manuela Beltrán, a poet emerging from a dark past and wondering if there’s “a certain spirituality in excess”.

Their plots run parallel for most of the book, converging thematically around rape, revenge, and deception, and eventually cohering around a Colombian intellectual called the Consul – an alterego for Gamboa, who was once Colombia’s cultural attaché in New Delhi. The Consul’s biography of poet Arthur Rimbaud, from enfant terrible in Charleville and Paris to voluntary exile in Harar, Ethiopia, forms the spine of the novel and, with its interest in migration and the impossibility of true return, reflects the concerns found in the dramatic monologues.

The story jumps from Rome and Madrid (where Boko Haram beseiges the Irish embassy) via Berlin to Bogota and Cali. Its kaleidoscopic nature aims to suggest our contemporary sense of accelerating dislocation.

The shifts in voice and genre are masterfully played. Gamboa’s Consul says that in an increasingly readerless world only the most versatile writers will survive, and Gamboa has versatility in spades, as well as the intoxicatingly prolific fluency of a Roberto Bolaño, with whom he is frequently compared. His writing is exuberant, sometimes extravagant, and makes reliably compulsive reading.

Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

January 21, 2018 at 5:06 pm

Posted in book review

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The Common Enemy

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This was first published at (the highly recommended) AlJumhuriya.

iran-images-from-the-uprising_592x299-7Do revolutions move in circles? The uprisings which shook the Arab world in 2010 and 2011 were in some ways prefigured by Iran’s Green Movement protests of 2009. The years since have been so dominated by counter-revolution and war that many have despaired of forward movement. Yet one year after Iranian proxies crushed the revolution in Syria’s Aleppo, sparks of revolution are flying in Tehran.

These protests differ from those of 2009 in several important respects. The Green Movement was centred in Tehran, it was largely middle class, and it supported the reformist wing of the Islamic Republic against more authoritarian conservatives. The current protests, in contrast, are fiercest in the provinces, are largely working class, and often express rejection of the Islamic Republic itself.

It remains to be seen how far this angrier, more radical opposition movement will undermine or transform Iranian governance. On the one hand, its working-class character cuts at the heart of the regime’s legitimacy. The mustadafin or ‘downtrodden’ are supposed to be the base and prime beneficiaries of the Khomeinist wilayet al-faqih system, and yet they are chanting for the death of the Supreme Leader. On the other hand, this same subaltern fury may play into regime hands by scaring the middle classes. There is, after all, the Syrian example to point to, an image to strike fear into the hearts of rebellious people everywhere. If a regime is pushed too far, look, the result is war, terrorism, social collapse and mass exile.

The Syrian example deployed as a threat may save Iran’s regime. The tragic irony here, of course, is that the Iranian regime has played a crucial role in creating the Syrian example. It is indeed to a large extent responsible for the disaster.

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

January 3, 2018 at 11:09 am

Posted in Iran, Syria

Thank You for the Cancer

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20170510_184516Writerly wisdom states that the best possible outcome of a writing course is to find a person who will become a critical reader of your work in its early stages, someone on your wavelength. I found that person in Adrian Barnes, while we were doing an online MA in Creative Writing. He lived in British Columbia, I was living in the Sultanate of Oman, but we became closer than the screen.

Adrian had already written several self-published novels and a volume of poetry. His “Satan a la Mode” – a Carrollian book of word-play, farce and philosophy – was completed and would later (in 2012) be published with illustrations by Yuliya Kashapova. While our course lasted he was working on a wonderful (sadly still-unpublished) novel called “Neverhasbeen.” He also parented his sons, taught college students, started several local newspapers, wrote songs, and sang and played the guitar.

In 2012 he published “Nod”, which is literary science fiction, an intellectual treatment of a sleepless apocalypse. Readers recognised its strength, and the book took off. There’s even talk of a TV version. Adrian’s writing career seemed truly underway.

Then one day he was driving to visit a friend in the US, listening to James Brown on the stereo, and realised he could only hear the great man’s voice, not the backing music. He went for tests, and was told he had a brain tumour, or more precisely, a Glioblastoma Multiforme, with a kill rate of over 99%.

He underwent an operation to cut the thing out. He woke up in pain and confusion to be told the operation had been unsuccessful. Thereafter he was unable to read and found writing almost impossible. Time bewildered him.

I’m having trouble with words and numbers – and getting more and more heavy. But, weird though this may sound, I am beginning to wonder if it’s actually a good thing.

I can’t believe in words and numbers. Instead I am in the midst of reality, and what I see is love. Now that sounds kind of hippie-like, but it’s true (the hippies got a lot right, though we love to mock them). I see love and joy, and things I want to do – or not do – and they don’t have a lot to do with words and numbers.

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

December 20, 2017 at 6:19 pm

Posted in Meditation

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The Rohingya and Other Outsiders

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This was first published at the New Arab.

rohingyaI recently had my DNA analysed to illuminate my geographical ancestry. My mother is English and my father Syrian, so you’d expect at least two locations to show. As it happens, I contain Western European, Caucasian, Southern European, Middle Eastern, Irish and Iberian, with small amounts of Scandinavian, North African and South Asian. This demonstrates not only that I am a mixture, but that my parents are too, that everyone is. It reminds us that ethnic distinctions are accidents of cultural history rather than markers of race or even of family purity. It means very similarly mixed blood flows in the veins of those who consider themselves in nationalist terms, for instance, as distinct Arabs, Kurds or Turks.

Ethnicities are fluid, yet European empires and post-colonial states sought to name and thus delimit them from historical flux. When the British arrived in the state called Burma or Myanmar after the Bamar, the dominant group, they set about categorising cultures and races, considering the two categories to be almost interchangeable. In the 1931 census the British named 139 ethnic groups. By 1982, independent Burma’s military junta had reduced this to 135 ‘national races’ qualifying for citizenship.

The Rohingya Muslims of Rakhine state are not included, though they are the descendants of Indian and Persian traders who first arrived here over a thousand years ago. Their numbers increased when early Burmese kings raided Bengal for slaves, and during British rule when workers came from India. Today the Burmese state denies their existence as a community, considering them illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. In recent weeks at least 620,000 Rohingya have been driven from their homes. Villages have been torched, women gang-raped, untold numbers have been hacked or burnt to death. A United Nations official called it a textbook example of ethnic cleansing.

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

December 20, 2017 at 4:41 pm

Posted in Myanmar/ Burma

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Burning Country in the Guardian

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It’s great to find our book selected as one of the best on Syria (in Pushpinder Khaneka’s World Library, here) alongside a couple of contemporary classic novels, In Praise of Hatred and The Dark Side of Love. An excerpt from my introduction to Khaled Khalifa’s In Praise of Hatred is here, and my review of Rafik Schami’s The Dark Side of Love is here.

Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

December 19, 2017 at 12:44 pm

Posted in Syria

Interview with Mohsin Hamid

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mohsin-hamidIt was a pleasure to interview Mohsin Hamid, author of ‘The Reluctant Fundamentalist’ and ‘Exit West’, for the National. This here is the less edited version.

How did you become a writer? Put another way, why do you write?

I’ve always been a fantasist. Like many children, I used to play make-believe, and I still spend several hours a day living in my imagination. Why didn’t I grow out of it? Most people do, or at least are happy for their imaginings to be guided – they enter worlds made by others, in books or films.

I suspect it’s because I’m uncomfortable with the world as it is. I am mixed and mongrelised. I’ve lived my life between Pakistan, the UK and the US, so I’m foreign everywhere. Then, as I get older, my parents’ generation is passing away. Like everyone, I can’t provide the level of security for my children I’d like to. I experience the vulnerability that we all share.

I’m the type of person who requires unreal activity in order to function. If I don’t write fiction for extended periods I become unsettled, anxious, uncertain. I’m less of a pain to be around when I’m writing.

Your writing is distinguished by its clarity. The prose seems effortless, and the volumes are fairly thin. Yet once you told me a novel takes seven years to write. So how much rewriting is necessary?

My first two novels took seven years each. The third took six, and the fourth only four. I start with some ideas. I explore and build them up. I write an outline and fill notebooks. I even write a draft. Oftentimes these ideas don’t work, or they lead to a dead end. Then I may write a draft which shares no words with the first but is nevertheless influenced by it. The first draft of “Exit West” looked like the final product – the first time it happened – though many ideas from the draft were abandoned. I start with something that demands engagement. As I deal with it, my thoughts begin to clarify.

I’m fortunate in having honest readers – my wife first, but also my agent, and editors. And I write for an imaginary reader, not Pakistani or American, not male or female. In other words, I write novels that I’d like to read, that leave a lot open. I write half-novels if you like, not very long, which leave space for the reader to react and imagine.

Your writing, though very accessible, is often formally adventurous. What does form mean to you?

Form is the starting point. I use it in the same way poets used to use metre and rhyme, not as a restriction but as a set of rules to produce inspiration. Form makes possible the kind of story that readers can relate to intuitively. Form brings with it rhythms and patterns. Even if these are not evident, the way the mind works means they are helpful. Form provides vital architecture. The correct form depends on the nature of the story. This is what I must figure out: what’s the story about? What form suits it? What language fits the form?

You see, I don’t accept the notion that there is a stable thing called reality which the novel simply reflects. Humans are complex bio-chemical machines, and reality blurs quickly. What parts of me are talking to what parts of you? My construct of myself is a fiction. I often behave in ways that contradict this fiction. Through form, the novel can reveal the way in which reality is constructed, and how our selves themselves are constructed. Form allows writer and reader to enter a shared domain. We are aware it’s made up, so it can be still more potent than what we call reality.

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

September 3, 2017 at 11:19 pm

Posted in book review, Interview, Pakistan

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