The Road from Damascus, written by Robin Yassin-Kassab, is set in London, and follows the story of Sami Traifi, a tortured academic who struggles to follow in the footsteps of his brilliant atheist secular Syrian father.
The book opens in Damascus where Sami is visiting distant relatives in order to inspire his academic thesis, but he discovers a dark secret there that ought to shatter the perfect image he has of his father, but which pushes him deeper into crisis. Interwoven into his tale are the struggles of his neurotic but patient and devout mother Nur, his long-suffering and yet extremely balanced and new-to-discovering religion wife Muntaha, as well as his street-wise fundamentalist brother-in-law, and numerous other characters.
It is a dark, disturbing and challenging read. This is not a frivolous by-the-beach book, far from it. You have to be fully engaged intellectually and emotionally with this book. It rattles you in the way intense literature can. At times you feel physically shaken, at others, you marvel at the author’s turn of phrase that shimmer jewel-like in the text.
At first glance it is a welcome addition to the writings about Muslim experiences, and in particular it offers an insight into a world that is even less familiar to British readers – that of the Arab experience in the UK. It delves into the history and attitudes that have been shaped by the rise of Arab Nationalism and secularism in the region, and the tensions that have been created – rightly or wrongly – between the notion of keeping religion whilst aspiring to modernity. Sami is a secular atheist fundamentalist who cannot comprehend why his wife finds fulfilment and solace in the faith she discovers long after they are married. He is repulsed by his mother who prays and excludes her from his life out of disgust. Yet they are far more centred and content than he is despite the fact he claims moral and intellectual superiority. He spurns them, whilst they shower him in love.
But whilst the book does much to inform readers of the “Muslim experience”, it is about something other than making a contribution to the landscape of literature that tries to untangle the complexity of religion in our society. The book is much bigger than this and in some ways less about religion and more about the intersections of life choices of different people, and how at some points they veer towards each other, and other times they veer apart. the human skill is to be able to hold relationships together no matter where you are on the curve.
Sami is a deep, dark, miserable anti-hero, not realising that redemption comes not from remaining in the past, but by making sense of what has gone before in order to create the future. His are the darkest of human demons – disparaging the importance of emotion and spirituality in favour of the intellect. In many ways it is the portrait of the eternal questions that face human beings, and which are at the centre of our contemporary debates.
I caught up with Robin Yasin-Kassab after he returned from the Palestine Literature Festival.
Shelina: Where did the idea for your book come from?
Robin: I don’t know. I just started writing. Which is my only advice to someone who wants to be a writer: just write.
Another answer would be: from the churning of ideas and experiences in my mind, having lived in London, Istanbul, Damascus, Rawalpindi and elsewhere, over the years. And from feeling the rising cultural tension after September 11th, the crushing of the second Intifada, the invasion of Iraq, etc.
And from reading novels, of course.
Shelina: In Britain, even though mainstream writing by and about British Muslims and Islam is relatively limited, what does exist tends to focus on the Sub-continental experience. Your book exposes a very different backdrop that many readers may be unfamiliar with like notions of Arab Nationalism, secularism and modernity in the Middle East. In what way do you feel the Arab experience in Britain has been different?
Robin: According to the old imperial definition of citizenship, the peoples of the subcontinent (and the Caribbean) were British even before they arrived in Britain. In most cases Arab immigrants don’t have the long cultural-historical link with Britain that some other groups do. They are (with exceptions such as the Yemeni communities) more recent and less well-established arrivals, fewer in numbers, and more likely to be political refugees. Proportionately, there is a high number of intellectuals, journalists, writers etc, as these people have often had trouble with Arab regimes or occupation authorities. Mainstream Anglo society is perhaps even less conversant with the ideas and cultural references of the Arabs than with those of the subcontinent.
In my book I didn’t intend to create a representative sample of British, or London, Arabs. I have spent most of the last fifteen years living in the Arab world, so my preoccupations while writing were not necessarily specifically British. I used a London setting to dramatise the preoccupations because I felt most comfortable writing about London. I still do feel most comfortable writing about London, and I’m not sure why. I’ve lived in other places much longer.
Shelina: Let’s be honest, your main character Sami, is not the most likeable hero. And reading your book is at times a challenging emotional wrangle. Was this deliberate?
Robin: It’s always a risk to write about an anti-hero or a failure, but most of us are partial failures, some of the time. And there’s a great contemporary tradition of nasty protagonists – from Dostoyevsky to Philip Roth and John Updike. In these cases, the reader’s discomfort is compensated for by the strength of the writing and observation, and in Roth’s case by humour. I hope that Sami’s unpleasantness is usually compensated for by psychological observation, humour, interesting writing, and the satirical angle of the narration. As for ‘challenging emotional wrangle’ – I sense disapproval here! – I suppose this was deliberate too. I wanted to transmit the emotional wrangles that my characters are challenged by, and that the world was challenged by in september 2001. Again, there is a great tradition of the challenging emotional wrangle text, real great claustrophobic classics, like Notes from Underground or Wuthering Heights. Of course, I do not possess the skill or experience of these writers. I do what I can.
Shelina: The female characters in your book are much more centred, spiritual and accepting of others than the male characters. Why do you think this is?
Robin: Because they are, I think, treated less satirically and more realistically. And in a slightly more forced way, becuase I wanted to write against the contemporary stereotype of the passive, ignorant, oppressed Muslim woman. In my novel Muslim women choose to wear hijab for their own reasons, becuae they have an inner life. In most of the media, Muslim women are told to wear the hijab.
Shelina: As a female reader I felt frustrated by the female characters – they seemed too perfect, too right, too balanced. The male characters had much more leeway to explore themselves to their absolute limits. Do you think women are more constricted by culture and religion?
Robin: Do you really think Sami explored himself to his absolute limit, more than Muntaha did? Wasn’t he in fact only avoiding self-exploration through dramatic diversions? Sami learns a disturbing secret in the first chapter and then takes until the end of the book to admit it to himself. Everything he pretends is exploration is really a red herring. I think Sami is shown as far more constricted by culture and religion (although his is a secular nationalist religion) than his adaptable wife.
And I’m not sure that Nur is completely right and balanced. She’s a nervous chainsmoker for a start. And she is able to see through culture to the possibility that she may only be grasping at something unreal. Her justification for the hijab in the penultimate chapter is more Camus than Qaradawi.
I suppose I used testosterone as a literary device. I think there is a certain kind of silliness – like Sami’s ridiculous drugged night out, or Ammar’s flirtation with militant blackness – for which boys are more likely candidates than girls.
Shelina: Your main character Sami Traifi appears to be a secular fundamentalist who clings to his religion of unbelief with immense tenacity. His wife’s younger brother is a fundamentalist of a different kind, born of the street, combining hip hop, reggae and a need to claim some kind of social identity. What light, if any, does this shed on current debates on religious fundementalism?
Robin: Well, it’s a satirical reflection of our world. I think the cultural arrogance, reductive simplifications and monomania of the ‘new atheists’ is as fundamentalist as Ayman az-Zawahiri. Other ‘religions’, in whose names people are ready to kill, include American manifest destiny, the civilising mission, ‘liberty’, and so on. In good ways as well as bad, religions surround us – by which I mean religion in the widest sense, a story and set of values and meanings which are bigger than individual human beings. But the culture often pretends that only systems like traditional Christianity or Islam are religions.
About Ammar, one point here is that he’s British. His hip hop-Islamist militancy (but he’s a gentleman really, just disturbed) could only be British. It’s like wearing a hood and saying innit, innit?
Shelina: What do you hope for your book?
Robin: I feel blessed with what has happened. I didn’t really expect it to be published. In the year since it’s come out I’ve met many interesting writers and been to Oslo, Milan, Dublin and Palestine. Being a participant in the Palestinian Festival of Literature was a great honour.
Shelina: What is your next project?
Robin: I’ve given up, for now, after a year and a half’s work, on my second novel. It was too complicated and self-conscious and wasn’t flowing. The difficult second novel. So I’m thinking about the third novel, and playing with three ideas. One involves an albino, one is a family saga, and one returns to Sami and Muntaha, later, and shows Muntaha in a period of weakness. Perhaps I should write that one for you, Shelina!
I also have a blog http://www.qunfuz.com/ and I’m a coeditor of Pulse http://www.pulsemedia.org/ , one of Le Monde Diplomatique’s five favourite websites.
Shelina: Thanks Robin for taking some time out to talk to me, and I’m looking forward to that third book in my honour. I wonder if I’ll be mentioned in the dedication page! Good luck with your future writing, and I hope to read a lot more of your work in the future.
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