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.
Your novel, The Road from Damascus, has been described as the first English novel about Arab Britons. Through the crises of Sami, a Syrian Britain, you manage to say a great deal about fathers and sons, Syrian politics and different dimensions of British life. Do you feel Sami’s refusal to accept his wife’s choice to wear the hijab embodies a larger issue — the inability to accept difference and dissent?
I wrote the novel in Muscat, Oman, and I was keeping in touch with Britain through the media. It was the middle of the ‘war on terror’ and there were a lot of simplistic, monolithic versions of Islam and Muslims in the popular imagination. The novel was a plea for tolerance and an attempt to show that there as many versions of Islam as there are Muslims. The dominant theme is that we are all religious; nobody is free of religious thinking. Nationalism, Marxism, scientism, some forms of belief in capitalism — these are all grand narratives which the individual likes to (or needs to) lose him or herself in. The most flexible, open-minded character in the book is Muntaha, who decides to wear a hijab. Her atheist husband Sami is much more rigid in his beliefs. (I wasn’t advertising the hijab, just reacting against the tabloid stereotype.)
How did the novel evolve?
It feels like it wrote itself. It’s a very mysterious process. Another way of putting it is that I was just having fun.
You have written extensively on the Arab Spring and have been bitterly critical of the continuing oppression by the Syrian government.
Where do you think Syria is headed?
I find myself unable to predict. First, because we are at a very unpredictable moment of flux globally, in which the old certainties and power structures are much less relevant. Second, because the people in the Middle East in all their variety, as opposed to financial and military conspirators, are suddenly crucial actors. It’s clear that Syria’s immediate future is grim. The regime had a chance at the start of the uprising to respond with genuine reforms, to rein in the security services, to preserve some of its power and to oversee a gentle transition to a semi-democracy. But it miscalculated terribly. It’s brutality and stupidity has ensured its eventual demise. It was always inevitable that the post Sykes-Picot arrangement whereby minorities ruled majorities — Alawis over Sunnis in Syria, Sunni Arabs over Shia and Kurds in Iraq, Maronites over everyone else in Lebanon, Jews over Arabs in Palestine — would collapse. It’s collapsing violently in Syria. Thanks to the regime’s scorched earth policy and its deliberate instrumentalisation of sectarian hatred, there may not be much of a country left afterwards. So it’s a tragedy which didn’t need to happen.
The sectarian dimension has confused and sullied revolutions in the Arab mashreq. In both Syria and Bahrain, sectarianism has offered the regimes a divide-and-rule strategy. The Syrian conflict has already spilled into northern Lebanon, and may well spill further. Sectarianism is a major weakness in the wider Muslim world, including in Pakistan. We have to examine it and defuse it before we can progress.
You’ve been critical of the foreign media coverage of Syria and the Middle East in recent years. Why?
The media is always too ready to accept and replicate simplistic political narratives. An obvious example is much of the Western coverage of the Iraq war. There was far too much ‘embedded’ journalism, too much parachute journalism, not enough context, not enough history, not enough of the human element. There are great exceptions — the Iraqi work of Nir Rosen and Dahr Jamail, for instance. For the human element, you have to read novels and stories. I recommend The Madman of Freedom Square by the Iraqi writer Hassan Blasim. With regard to the absence of history: here in Britain the papers have Afghanistan stories every day, but most British newspaper readers are unaware that Britain tried and failed to occupy Afghanistan twice in the 19th century. Again, if they read more novels they might form a better picture.
Just as the mainstream or right wing western media indulges in blind spots and blanket thinking, so too does the leftist alternative. For too many leftists, the Libyan revolution became a western plot as soon as Britain and France intervened, because Britain and France equalled imperialism. Therefore, the Libyan people were imperialist tools and Qaddafi — who was torturing rendered suspects for the CIA — became an anti-imperialist hero. It’s very poor logic. Leftists rightly supported the revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia against regimes armed by the US, but many don’t support the more difficult revolution in Syria because the Syrian regime is armed by Russia — which is supposedly an anti-imperialist power, despite its history of imperialist outrages all across central Asia and in the Caucasus.
You are now co-editor with Ziauddin Sardar of a new journal, The Critical Muslim. What does it set out to do?
The Critical Muslim publishes provocative essays on Islam and the Muslim world which cover economics, science, history, culture, politics and society. It doesn’t associate itself with a particular position or ideology, except the desire to be critical in the widest sense. It doesn’t so much aim to generate a new discourse as to enrich those which already exist in Muslim societies and globally. It also publishes cutting edge short stories and poetry, often but not always written by writers of Muslim culture or background. Look out for the fourth issue (it’s a quarterly) — a Pakistan special.
You were in Pakistan recently for the KLF and travelled to Islamabad, Lahore and Bahawalpur. Can you share some of your impressions?
I think it’s a great shame that Pakistan, like many other countries, has failed to build functioning education and health systems for all of its people. The absence of social justice is at the root of so many other problems, from corruption to terrorism, and achieving a reasonable measure of social justice would strengthen the country more than the nuclear bomb. That was my impression when I lived here almost 20 years ago, and it still is. Beyond that basic point, and despite its messy involvement in the Nato war on the Afghan frontier, Pakistan appears in many respects to be doing very well. The judiciary is independent, the media is enormous and relatively free, the culture is thriving on every level — at the Sufi shrines, in universities, in films and novels. As ever, I was overwhelmed by the warmth, humour and hospitality of Pakistanis and the luxuriant beauty of their country.
I’m working on the difficult second novel...
The interviewer is a writer, critic and editor.