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Robin Yassin-Kassab

Posts Tagged ‘Critical Muslim

Ten Things to Remember about Syria

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I edited the Critical Muslim’s Syria issue, which includes excellent essays by Amal Hanano, Rasha Omran, Itab Azzam, Maysaloon, Malu Halasa, poetry by Golan Hajji, prose from Zakkariya Tamer, and much more. I contributed an essay on Syrian culture revolutionised, and I wrote the following list:

yerba mateIn the old days Syrians were ready to list their ten favourite picnic spots, their ten favourite restaurants, or even ten of the sects participating in the imaginary happy mosaic. Today lists of traumatisation leap to the mind: the ten largest refugee camps, or ten major massacres, or perhaps ten of the numerous new militias.

This list tends towards the positive (only number 10 is a bad thing – it’s something that can’t be ignored). It focusses on those aspects of Syrian reality that can’t be destroyed by war, those things which will survive (with the exception, we hope, of number 10).

1. Maté

Along with Turkish Coffee, Argentinian Yerba Maté is Syria’s quintessential drink. Drink it strong and sugary in a gourd or a glass, through a silver straw from the Qalamoun region; keep the water hot for continual fill-ups; and you’ll be telling Homsi and muhashish jokes all night. Maté connotes conviviality, and sometimes more specifically the Druze, Christian and Alawi mountain communities. When the martyred Free Army commander Abu Furat appealed to the Alawi community, he did so in terms every Syrian would understand: “I know the Alawis well. I’ve visited them in their houses. We’ve drunk maté together. We lived together before and we’ll live together again, despite you, Bashaar.”

How did a South American drink become a Syrian (and Lebanese) staple? The answer is in the late 19th/ early 20th Century mass migration of Syrian-Lebanese to South and North America, the Caribbean, and west Africa. A couple of hundred drowned with the Titanic. The ‘Street of the Turks’ in Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Macondo is so-called because the people were Ottomans when they arrived in Colombia, but they were Syrian Ottomans, Arabs. Today 20 million people describe themselves as Syrian-Brazilians. Guyana’s richest family is the Maqdeesis. Carlos Menem, former Argentinian president, is of Syrian origin too.

Abdul-Qadir al-Jaza'iri

Abdul-Qadir al-Jaza’iri

2. Migrants

Abdul-Qadir al-Jaza’iri led a long and heroic resistance against the French occupation of Algeria. Eventually captured and brought to Paris, he was given the choice of exile elsewhere in the Arab world. Abdul-Qadir chose Damascus, where he wrote Sufi poetry in the shrine of the mystic Ibn ‘Arabi, who was an earlier migrant, from Andalucia. In 1860, when the Christian quarter of the Old City was burnt in sectarian rioting, Abdul-Qadir protected hundreds of Christians in his house and garden.

The tomb of Ibn ‘Arabi stands between two inner-city neighbourhoods climbing the slope of Mount Qassiyoun: ‘Muhajireen’, or Migrants, is so-named because it once housed Muslim refugees from the Balkans; and ‘Akrad’ means Kurds – still a Kurdish area, it was first built for the Kurds who came with Salahudeen al-Ayyubi (Saladin’s) armies.

Who else? Armenians, descendants of those who survived the forced march from Anatolia. Half a million registered Palestinian refugees and many more Palestinian-Syrians (Yarmouk camp in Damascus, Syria’s largest Palestinian population, is nearly empty now – its population refugees for a second time, mostly in Lebanon). Over a million and a half Iraqi refugees until Damascus and Aleppo became even less secure than Baghdad and Basra. And in 2006, a million refugees from the Lebanese South (fleeing Israeli bombs), who were welcomed in mosques, schools and private homes. Syrians angrily compare the way they welcomed refugees with the way they are now (not) welcomed, in their hour of need.

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

July 31, 2014 at 11:54 am

Posted in Syria

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On Syria’s Alawis

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CM10 cover_0Here’s a brief extract from my essay on Syria’s Alawi community, its history and doctrines and its political fortunes under Assadist rule and during the revolution, written for the Sects issue of the Critical Muslim. If you haven’t done so yet, please subscribe, and encourage your library or college to do so. The next issue will be a Syria special.

Syria’s CIA-backed military coup in 1949 was the first in the Arab world. Although there was a later parliamentary interval, the coup brought the army (and therefore rural minority groups) into the centre of Syrian political life, and a pattern of coup and countercoup set in, only brought to an end when Hafez al-Assad, an Alawi air force officer, rose to absolute power in the 1970 ‘Correctionist Movement’, achieving stability through totalitarian control.

From one perspective, Assad’s early years were golden years for the Alawis, as they and other hitherto marginalised sects (Druze and Ismailis) as well as rural Sunnis moved into the cities and entered state elites. (“Syria’s Peasantry, the Descendants of its Lesser Rural Notables, and their Politics” by Palestinian Marxist Hanna Batatu is a wonderfully comprehensive, wonderfully written study of the mechanics and personalities of this movement). The regime settled Alawis (often low-ranking soldiers and their families) in strategic suburbs on the approaches to Damascus. In these early years too, the Ba‘ath demonstrated loyalty to its rural base and its proclaimed socialist values by building schools, clinics and roads for the villages.

The officers of the Republican Guard, the special forces and the security agencies – the real powers running the country – were almost exclusively Alawi. This ‘empowerment’ of the community arguably reversed its growing acceptance by the Sunni majority. Once despised, Alawis were now feared and resented. It was also the reason why the regime found it necessary to reduce Alawi identity to its Ba‘athist, or more properly Assadist, component. Because the regime depended on Alawis for its survival, it was potentially at their mercy. Therefore it needed to ensure that no alternative source of authority existed within the community, so independent Alawi shaikhs were killed, imprisoned, exiled, or intimidated into silence. The president’s brother Jameel, unqualified to say the least, attempted to make himself a spiritual leader in their place. Against the urging of the clerics, Alawi doctrines were not studied in universities. Religious education in schools centred on Sunni tenets and rituals (Christian students had their own classes). The president prayed Sunni-style in public, and Alawis were encouraged to give up their difference and build mosques and to go on Haj.

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

April 26, 2014 at 5:43 pm

Posted in Sectarianism, Syria

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In Dawn

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As an apology for not posting anything for so long, I’m putting up this interview with me conducted by Muneeza Shamsie and published in Pakistan’s Dawn. There are a couple of inaccuracies: I spent a year and a few months in Pakistan in the early 90s, not two years, and it’s mainly been book reviews rather than political analysis that I’ve contributed to British newspapers.

Novelist, editor and journalist, Robin Yassin-Kassab has worked and travelled around the globe — in England, France, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Oman and Pakistan. But his travels beyond Europe began with Islamabad. He arrived in the 1990’s at the invitation of a Pakistani friend and stayed for two years working as a journalist for an English daily. This winter he returned to Pakistan to conduct creative writing workshops at the Karachi Literature Festival and spoke with passion on the Arab Spring and the political situation in Syria.

In his critically acclaimed novel, The Road from Damascus (2009), Yassin-Kassab discusses multiculturalism, racism and radicalisation in Britain and the larger conflicts in the Middle East through the portrayal of Sami, a British Syrian, and Muntaha, his Iraqi-born wife. The novel examines debates between religious and secular concepts of Arab nationhood and comments on the use of state terror by totalitarian regimes.

During a trip to Damascus, Sami discovers an uncle who had been the victim of prolonged imprisonment and torture. Deeply disturbed, Sami returns to his wife but retreats from their matrimonial tensions, disappears from home and falls into rapid decline. The narrative builds in London in the aftermath of 9/11 and talks about Muntaha’s traumatic childhood, including her escape to Britain from Iraq with her father and brother.

Yassin-Kassab now lives in Scotland and contributes political analyses to The Guardian, The Independent, The Times and Prospect Magazine among others. He co-edits the website PULSE and the journal The Critical Muslim. He is working on his second novel.

Here he talks to Books&Authors about his novel, the writing process and the evolving situation in the Middle East.

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

June 29, 2012 at 10:19 am

Posted in Pakistan

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Critical Muslim

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I’d like to draw your attention to the Critical Muslim, a new quarterly journal which looks like a book. I co-edit the journal with Ziauddin Sardar, who is perhaps Britain’s most prominent ‘critical Muslim’. The CM is concerned with the politics, economics, culture, law and literature of the Muslim world – and of course the Muslim world today includes locations such as London and Lima. Our writers are convinced and sceptical Muslims, religious and cultural Muslims, and non-Muslims. We publish a range of perspectives, usually but not always with a somewhat leftist leaning. And the CM has a sense of humour.

I’m very proud of the arts section. The first issues include a story by the accomplished British-Pakistani writer Aamer Hussein, poetry and prose from upcoming Iraqi writers (one of whom is the very highly-rated Hassan Blasim), a selection of the Arabic poetry (Qabbani and others) which accompanied the Arab uprisings, essays on the Palestine Literature Festival and the Erbil Literature Festival (in Iraqi Kurdistan), a great story of cross-cultural love (and disappointment) by young British writer Suhel Ahmed, poetry from the great Mimi Khalvati, an essay on Muslim jazz, and much more.

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

April 13, 2012 at 2:14 pm

Posted in Critical Muslim

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Aftermath

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The first issue of Critical Muslim, a quarterly magazine in book form co-edited by Ziauddin Sardar and me, will be in the shops in January. More on that at a later date. Today I’m finishing off a long essay on Syria, Iraq and sectarian hatred for Critical Muslim’s third issue. Amongst the books I review in the essay are Fanar Haddad’s indispensable “Sectarianism in Iraq” and Nir Rosen’s “Aftermath: Following the Bloodshed of America’s Wars in the Muslim World,” which is also indispensable, in a different way. As a taster, here’s the section on “Aftermath.”

For a mix of contextual analysis and gripping reportage, the reader will find no better book than Nir Rosen’s magisterial “Aftermath: Following the Bloodshed of America’s wars in the Muslim World”.

Most Western correspondents were flown into Iraq unable to speak Arabic, largely ignorant of the context, to pass their time attending coalition press briefings or embedded with the US military. Their reports were heavy with simplistic labels (‘the Sunni triangle’, for instance) and ignored non-sectarian nationalism and class issues. Rosen’s writing on Iraq is the polar opposite of such parachute journalism. He speaks Arabic for a start, and blends in physically as a result of the “melanin advantage” bequeathed by his Iranian father. More to the point, he is courageous and energetic, going where few outsiders would dare, whatever their skin tone. He’s a reporter of the best kind, capable of locating pattern behind the copious detail. So he doesn’t merely report the mosque sermons he attended, or his encounters with militiamen and their victims, but accurately interprets and reads between the lines. His descriptions of time, place and personality are vivid, with not an ounce of orientalism added. His lack of sentimentality combined with his obvious sympathy for the people of the region make him the perfect candidate to voyage into the sectarian heart of darkness.

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

November 27, 2011 at 7:22 pm