The Happy Marriage

A very slightly different version of this review was published at the Guardian.jelloun

Tahar Ben Jelloun is a Moroccan who has contributed a series of important works to French literature, perhaps foremost amongst them the brilliant ‘non-fiction novel’ of incarceration “This Blinding Absence of Light”. His latest novel, “The Happy Marriage”, bears echoes of Tolstoy’s grim relationship-degeneration tale “Happy Ever After”, but Jelloun’s tale is thrown into question by a counter-narrative.

Our protagonist is semi-paralysed, recovering from a stroke, his face twisted like a Francis Bacon painting. He is a successful artist, a demanding perfectionist who now struggles to move his fingers while watching TV athletics and thinking about tightrope walking. His contextual musings on deterioration and dependency – “When your life is in someone else’s hands, is it still a life?” – form a suitable backdrop to his memories of a two-decade marriage, in Paris and Casablanca, in sickness and health.

Part One (called, with a nod to Truffaut, The Man who Loved Women Too Much) is the artist’s own carefully-crafted account, in third person. The accomplishment of the writing here recalls Philip Roth’s more sober moods, or Saul Bellow’s studies of older men suffering the humiliations of body and soul. The psychological depth, high-cultural detail, sometimes even the dense but fluid prose (ably translated by André Naffis-Sahely) are reminiscent of that American master.

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Five Year Reflection

picture from anadolu agency
Russian bombing in the eastern Ghouta. picture from Anadolu Agency.

The Guardian asked ten Arab writers to reflect on the revolutions five years on (or in). My piece is here below. To read the others too (including Alaa Abdel Fattah from Egyptian prison, Ahdaf Soueif, and notable others), follow this link.

Five years ago the Guardian asked me to evaluate the effects of the Tunisian uprising on the rest of the Arab world, and specifically Syria. I recognised the country was “by no means exempt from the pan-Arab crisis of unemployment, low wages and the stifling of civil society”, but nevertheless argued that “in the short to medium term, it seems highly unlikely that the Syrian regime will face a Tunisia-style challenge.”

That was published on January 28th. On the same day a Syrian called Hassan Ali Akleh set himself alight in protest against the Assad regime in imitation of Mohamed Bouazizi’s self-immolation in Tunisia. Akleh’s act went largely unremarked, but on February 17th tradesmen at Hareeqa in Damascus responded to police brutality by gathering in their thousands to chant ‘The Syrian People Won’t Be Humiliated’. This was unprecedented. Soon afterwards the Deraa schoolboys were arrested and tortured for writing anti-regime graffiti. When their relatives protested on March 18th, and at least four were killed, the spiralling cycle of funerals, protests and gunfire was unleashed. Syria not only witnessed a revolution, but the most thoroughgoing revolution of all, the one that has created the most promising alternatives, and the one that has been most comprehensively attacked.

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More Talking

And if you follow this link, and listen from 40 minutes till the end, you’ll hear me talking On BBC Radio 4’s ‘The World Tonight’ about Syria’s revolution and war. I was invited because our book Burning Country has been released. It tells the Syrian people’s stories first and foremost, before examining the global responses and results. We feel this drama has been very badly reported in the main, and we hope the book will fill some important gaps. So please read it.

Talking About the Councils

If you follow this link you’ll hear me talking on BBC World Service radio (‘Newshour’) about Syria’s revolutionary councils, decentralisation, refugees, and the ‘peace process’ illusion.

(I made a mistake here. I said Syrians need at least one or two hundred dollars to escape Syria. Slip of the tongue. I should have said they need one or two thousand.)

Burning Country UK Events

Yassin T03090Thanks to assistance and inspiration from Syrian activists, fighters, journalists, doctors, artists, and thinkers, our book ‘Burning Country: Syrians in Revolution and War‘ is published on January 20th, and launched that evening at Amnesty International in London. In the following days and weeks I’ll be speaking about the book at other venues in London, and in Nottingham, Manchester, Lancaster, Glasgow and  Edinburgh. A list of events below (and we’ll be in the US in April).

First, please read the endorsements, of which we’re very proud:

For decades Syrians have been forbidden from telling their own stories and the story of their country, but here Robin Yassin-Kassab and Leila al-Shami tell the Syrian story. Their words represent the devastated country which has denied them and their compatriots political representation. Burning Country is an indispensable book for those who wish to know the truth about Syria.’ – Yassin al-Haj Saleh

Burning Country is poised to become the definitive book not only on the continuing Syrian conflict but on the country and its society as a whole. Very few books have been written on ‘the kingdom of silence’ that effectively capture how we all got here while not omitting the human voice, the country’s heroes and heroines — a combination that is rare but essential for understanding the conflict and its complexities. Robin Yassin-Kassab and Leila Al-Shami have written a must-read book even as the conflict still rages to understand what happened, why it happened and how it should end.’ – Hassan Hassan, co-author of ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror (New York Times bestseller), Associate Fellow, Chatham House, London

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Fighting Daesh at the Frontline Club

Alongside BBC correspondent David Lloyn; Richard Spencer, Middle East editor of the Daily and Sunday Telegraph; Shiraz Maher, author of Salafi-Jihadism:The History of an Idea; and Azadeh Moaveni, author of Lipstick Jihad and Honeymoon in Tehran – I was part of this panel discussing Daesh, Nusra, Assad, Saudi-Iran, and the West. (It was also the first time I saw a finished copy of our book Burning Country).