Refusing to keep it simple: An interview with Robin Yassin Kassab
Albert Gatt - 27/09/2011
As events unfold in Syria and Libya, one gets the feeling that beyond the protests, the bloodshed, the setting up of new governments and fresh alliances, the Arab Spring is also a battle of words. The last of these dictators – self-styled fathers to their people – feebly maintain the grand narrative of Arab nationalism that kept them in power. Meanwhile the West, suddenly bereft of the strong men who fostered its exploits, is hard at work retelling the story by appealing to the ineluctable march of progress. Both views have a disarming – and deadly – simplicity. But the most enduring legacy of these uprisings may prove to be the wellspring of voices from the ground, united in their refusal to keep it simple. Among these voices, many writers have worked to enrich and complicate our perspective. That, after all, is what literature is meant to do.
This year, the Malta Mediterranean Literature Festival, which was organised by Inizjamed and Literature Across Frontiers and took place at the Garden of Rest in Floriana, Malta, in September, had as its theme The Arab Spring: Dignity and Freedom and featured both local writers and writers with roots in the Arab world. One of these was Robin Yassin Kassab, who appeared as a guest of the British Council (Malta).
Born in West London of Syrian descent, Yassin Kassab is a regular contributor to the press and also maintains a blog called Qunfuz ( http://qunfuz.com ), Arabic for “hedgehog” or “porcupine”. His first novel, The Road from Damascus (Penguin, 2009), is the story of Sami, the son of Syrian immigrants in London, who lives in the shadow of his dead father, a secular Arab nationalist intellectual. But the mantle bequethed by his father is impossible to carry: Sami’s academic ambitions prove to be a dead end; his wife “betrays” his secular values by reaffirming her religious faith; and the very notion of Arab identity is suddenly put into question after 9/11. Meanwhile, Sami discovers that the father he adored has committed the ultimate betrayal in the name of his grand narrative of the Arab nation.
Robin Yassin Kassab was interviewed prior to his appearance at the festival.
I'm intrigued by the name of your blog – Qunfuz. In what sense is the writer a "hedgehog"?
Originally there was a personal reason for the name which I won't go into. But yes, the hedgehog has a spiky exterior and a soft warm interior, and as such it's one metaphor for a writer. A writer should provoke, unsettle, even offend, and at the same time he should pay attention to the heart.
It is almost impossible to re-read your novel now without thinking of current events in Syria. I hate to indulge in a reading of a novel as a "parable", but I can't help wondering to what extent the Arab uprisings we are witnessing are about "killing the father", in much the same way that Sami struggles to come to terms with his own . Are we witnessing a form of parricide?
The point in the novel was that even characters who consider themselves to be secular are in fact religious. Sami's father rejected Islam but made a religion out of nationalism. A mythic idea of the Arabs and their destiny was his grand narrative. So his was a false secularism; and the dictators in the Arab world are false fathers. They certainly cast themselves as fathers - in one of his last speeches Mubarak described the Egyptian people as his children. But they failed to fulfil any of the roles played by fathers. Fathers are supposed to protect their children; the dictators exposed their subjects to Western and Zionist attacks, even collaborated in these attacks. Fathers are supposed to inculcate morality and fair discipline; the dictators valorised corruption, terrorised the innocent and rewarded the guilty. Fathers should nurture and educate; under the dictators poverty increased and education systems collapsed. Fathers should reconcile the conflicts which erupt amongst their children; under the dictators sectarianism and class hatreds have worsened.
There is a generational aspect to what is happening now. The young are removing the structures established by a failed older generation, so there is an element of parricide. But these were bad fathers, illusory fathers, more like child-abusing stepfathers. Think of Hamza al-Khateeb, tortured to death at 13 years old. The Syrian regime thugs who killed him filled his body full of bullets and mutilated his penis before he died. These sadists, presumably, are paid a wage for their work.
In a recent blog post, you wrote about Ali Farzat, the Syrian political cartoonist tortured by the regime and you give a disturbing description of some of the regime's techniques of torture. And yet, faced by this pornography of power, you maintain that the regime is weak and that art will supersede filth. How can you be so confident?
Perhaps my confidence is misplaced. I still don’t know how or when or at what cost the Syrian regime will fall. It’s true that so far it shows little sign of cracking from within. But it’s also true that it has lost credibility and legitimacy amongst vast swathes of the population. People all over the country have lost their fear and have burnt their bridges with the regime. For all the people whose faces have been seen on youtube videos, there’s no going back. As time passes, more people, from a wider range of backgrounds, come into opposition. The economy is in a parlous state. The regime doesn’t have vast oil wealth or a foreign threat to keep it going. Fundamentally, unlike Hafez al-Asad (who was as canny and intelligent as he was ruthless), Bashaar and his friends don’t have any intelligence either. Everything they’ve done in the last six months has been stupid. They are too stupid to rule Syria for very long. It may be that once a tipping point is reached the regime will crumble quite quickly.
In your novel, there is a constant tension between religion on the one hand, and art and secular values on the other. For instance, poetry and literary theory provide Sami with footholds in a slippery reality. And then there is a scene involving a writer called Rashid Iqbal, who is scathingly anti-religious. But Iqbal does say something interesting: "in place of religion, I offer you literature". Can the writer, who complicates our view of the world, play the role of prophet today?
Rashid Iqbal is in part a parody of Salman Rushdie, who has suggested literature as an alternative to religion. I have some sympathy for this notion – religion at its best, like art, asks more questions than it answers, and both religion and art originate in the sensation of awe – but I still think it’s far too simplistic. I don’t think art and religion are opposites; nor are they the same thing. Art certainly doesn’t remove my fear of death, although it can help me to come to terms with it.
A writer can be a prophet in the limited sense that he offers a new way of seeing. But today’s writers (in our shrunken world) can’t claim to offer truth. Perhaps the closest our society comes to prophethood is in the figure of the scientist. But that’s a poor compensation too. We don’t have prophets any more, only madmen.
Intimately connected to religion in the novel is the role of women, who act as a counterweight to their men's secularist zeal and are ultimately more stable. I wonder to what extent this is a reflection on the historical role of women, past and present.
At the risk of being accused of sexist stereotyping, I do think that women tend to be more stable and balanced than men, perhaps particularly in Arab families (this is what I have observed in any case). And I suppose I was engineering reality somewhat too, for political reasons: I wanted to write against the popular notion in the West that Muslim women are weak, passive, and do what their men tell them. My sisters decided to wear the hijab against the wishes of my father. My wife decided to wear the hijab against my wishes. The Arab women I know personally are usually the strong point of their families. And women are very often the connectors between individuals, those who make families and communities cohere. This is closely linked to ‘religion’ in the Latin sense, as ‘relinking’.
Finally, a question to satisfy a reader's curiosity: what's next?
I’ve found it very difficult to write a second novel. At times I’ve thought I’d never finish another. I moved back to Britain after almost two decades outside, which threw me. I became much more self-conscious about writing after my first novel was published. And I’m a different person now, with different preoccupations. I certainly don’t want to write the same kind of book again. But, finally, I am writing something I think I’ll finish, and I’m enjoying it, though the work goes slowly. I have no idea if it will be commercial. It’s set in Iraq, and it’s less satirical, more surreal than the first.
A shortened version of this interview appeared in the Sunday Times of Malta on September 4th, 2011.
This interview was also published in Transcript , multilingual online review published by Literature Across Frontiers .