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Chronicling a distressing decade | Robin Yassin-Kassab

English-Syrian author and blogger Robin Yassin-Kassab on his critically acclaimed debut novel, and the vibrant, mongrel milieu that inspired it, and continues to inspire his output

Teodor Reljic
19 September 2011, 12:00am
English-Syrian author Robin Yassin-Kassab claims he “never wrote… except for maybe a couple of sentences, maybe a paragraph,” when he was younger but then, something horrific happened. 

“The catalysing moment, for me, came while I was living in Oman, and was on holiday in Sri Lanka with my son. All of a sudden I got this thing – this bacteria – that started eating away at my leg. I was in a lot of pain, and the doctors nearly had to amputate my leg…”

Luckily it never came to that, and instead of losing a leg, Kassab – born in London to a Syrian father and an English mother – came out of the experience with a newfound vocation.

“As I spent two weeks lying in hospital, thinking about death as my body rotted,” he smiles, “I read a lot of Saul Bellow. And although I find the man politically disgusting, he was a great influence on me. And where before I never thought I had much of a story to tell, I decided that ‘this is it – I’m going to write’. So I started writing every day, and my life immediately became better because I knew that this is what I should be doing,” Kassab tells me as we sip espresso in front of the St John’s Co-Cathedral.

The 42-year-old author of the critically-acclaimed novel The Road to Damascus (2008) visited the island as part of the Malta Mediterranean Literature Festival, organised by Inizjamed over September 8-10 at the Garden of Rest, in Floriana, in a special edition of the festival that focused on The Arab Spring.

After graduating in English Literature from Oxford University (“I was a lazy student, but I did enjoy the books”), Kassab travelled extensively across the Arab world, coasting on that ever-convenient temp job: teaching English to foreigners. He taught in four different Arab countries, and even worked as a journalist in Pakistan.

During his travels he not only made an effort to improve his Arabic, but also fell in love with the region’s poetry, and realised just how keenly different their approach to literature and culture is to our own.

“Anglo-Saxons tend to laugh at you for saying you’re going to read a book… they’ll go ‘what are you going to do that for? You gay or something?!’ – there’s that really ignorant streak. Whereas in Arab countries, poetry is public property – you’ll find taxi drivers who’ll quote long lines of poetry to you. It’s a folk thing, it’s a political thing, and it has a direct relevance to people’s lives. In fact, during the revolutions in Tunisia, people were singing a poem that was then taken up by the Egyptians.”

Kassab also recounts the horrific fate of Ibrahim Kashoush, a Syrian protest singer responsible for revolutionary verse, who was found with his vocal chords ripped out.

“Very direct symbolism from the regime there…”

But Kassab’s formative literary education goes way back, and has far more of a ‘western’ streak.

“My (English) grandfather was a bookseller. He worked at a bookshop all his life, making the tea and running messages, until he eventually started to run the place, by which time he read all the books in the shop. He was a self-educated, working class man, and I got my love of books from him, as well as this quite romantic idea of a writer as a culture hero…”

Kassab’s novel is very much a tale of these two worlds. Born to Syrian parents but raised in London, Sami Traifi is having trouble finishing his PhD thesis. To further compound his crisis, his Iraqi wife Muntahanaturalised to the English way of life as much as Sami – has decided to don the hijab… a fact that unsettles Sami’s liberal worldview.

Told through vignettes and episodes related to the characters’ lives (often expanding into back stories about relatives and shining a light on their countries of origin and the conflicts found within), the immensely quotable novel is written with verve and intelligence, and paints a refreshing picture of some of the tensions that have characterised the last decade.

It is also, crucially, set during the summer leading up to 9/11, with Kassab clearly taking a stab at trying to locate and pinpoint the roots and causes of the cataclysmic event, sometimes employing larger-than-life characters. Sami’s own woes are often depicted in exaggerated, deliberately hyperbolic brushstrokes, and characters like Muntaha’s ‘hip-hop Islamist’ brother are both hilarious to experience and ominous to consider.

But while Kassab claims that the “dominant genre” of The Road to Damascus is satire, the novel also deals with intimate, as well as sociological truths… chief of which is the aforementioned ‘hijab conundrum’.

When Muntaha reveals to Sami that she has made a decision to wear the headscarf, Sami finds himself in an amusing double-bind. Angered and baffled by his wife’s decision, he claims that she has ‘betrayed’ him and the liberal ideology he assumed they had both decided to follow… all of which, of course, sounds like a religious argument.

And while the satire may look polished, Kassab confesses to being surprised with what he finds in the novel, some years on. “Whenever I read it – which is something I try not to do – I find a lot of stuff in there, especially stuff about fathers and sons, that just jumps at me… I didn’t know it was there until I wrote it down.”

He claims that his next novel will build on this theme further and, also, that he aims to rein in the satire this time around.

“Sometimes I think it can be a little too easy,” he says with a smile.

Our conversation takes place on the eve of the 10th anniversary of 9/11, and I can’t resist asking Kassab what he thinks of its ripple effect, a decade on. He is cautiously optimistic.

“For the first time since it happened, it finally feels a part of history. The stereotypical ‘crowd scene’ in New York has now been effaced by Tahrir Square. The ‘war on terror’ has obviously failed, but anybody with half a brain can now clearly see that it was a stupid response. But it’s been a very distressing decade. If the crime of 9/11 put America and the west to the test, then it has definitely failed that test, and it’s paying for it now… and it was really upsetting. It showed you that the west was really a lot less sophisticated than it seemed.”

Robin Yassin-Kassab blogs at http://qunfuz.com/.  His visit was made possible in collaboration with The British Council.

Teodor Reljic is MaltaToday's culture editor and film critic. He joined t...