An Account Syncopated by Death: Littell’s Syrian Notebooks

May 14, 2015 § Leave a comment

syrian notebooksThis review was published at the National.

“The Kindly Ones”, one of the 21st Century’s great novels, is an epic inquiry into the intersection of state power and human evil. Its narrator is supremely civilised but also – and somehow without contradiction – an SS officer engaged in industrial-scale murder. The novel is set in the battlefields and death camps of World War Two.

The author, Jonathan Littell, previously worked for humanitarian agency Action Contre La Faim in various war zones including Chechnya, in whose fate he sees Syrian parallels. In 1996 Chechnya won de facto independence. Then collusion between Russian security services and Islamist extremists weakened Chechen nationalists, made the country too dangerous for journalists, and drained international support. This facilitated Russia’s 1999 reinvasion and the total destruction of the capital, Grozny. The Russian strategy is echoed today in what French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius describes as the “objective complicity” between Assad and ISIS.

There are World War Two parallels too. Aleppo is the most bombed city since that conflict. Syria’s refugee crisis is the greatest since 1945. And the Assad regime, like Hitler’s, produces “thousands of naked bodies tortured and meticulously recorded by an obscenely precise administration.”

Perhaps these commonalities explain why Littell chose to bring his clear sight to bear on Syria’s war. He went in, for 17 days in January 2012, with renowned French photographer Mani. The experience led to a series of reports in Le Monde in February, and now to a book: “Syrian Notebooks: Inside the Homs Uprising.”

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The Bamboo Stalk

April 18, 2015 § Leave a comment

bamboostalkThis review was published at The National.

“A man,” wrote the poet Shelley, “to be greatly good, must imagine intensely and comprehensively; he must put himself in the place of another.” The novel, if well-achieved, is the form offering the greatest opportunity to experience the world through another’s eyes, to escape the self by shifting perspective; a novelist could perhaps be defined as a person able to see his home as freshly as a foreigner would, someone unable therefore to take anything for granted. This is Saud Alsanousi’s successful conceit in “The Bamboo Stalk” – a plea for tolerance and 2013 winner of the prestigious International Prize for Arabic Fiction – a text supposedly translated from Filipino to Arabic, now really (and wonderfully) translated to English by Jonathan Wright.

When he’s in Manila, our narrator is called José, and sometimes ‘the Arab’. In Kuwait, he’s called Isa, and sometimes ‘the Filipino’. José/Isa is the product of a brief marriage between a migrant housemaid and a Kuwaiti of good family. He looks Filipino but has his father’s voice. It’s to him that the title refers – “a bamboo plant, which doesn’t belong anywhere in particular … the stalk will grow new roots if replanted.”

So Alsanousi, with great wit and lightness of touch, portrays the inner dynamics of not one but two families, and of at least two cultures. Half the book takes place in the Philippines, a tropical and entirely credible setting, redolent of mangoes and diesel fumes. Amongst the vividly drawn characters are a roguish, broken grandfather and Isa’s mixed-race cousin Merla, who has good reason to resent both men and Europeans. She looks to an unconventional love for solace, as well as to the “purely Filipino religion” of Rizalism, a deification of independence hero José Rizal.

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ISIS: Hassan/Weiss versus Cockburn

March 28, 2015 § Leave a comment

isisThe review below was published at the Guardian. Unfortunately the heart of the review was cut from the published version. I’ll put it here first of all, because it shows that Patrick Cockburn actually makes stuff up in order to defend Assad and Iran and to slander the Syrian people. Here it is:

“There is no alternative to first-hand reporting,” he nevertheless opines; and “journalists rarely fully admit to themselves … the degree to which they rely on secondary or self-interested sources”. Which brings us to the question of Cockburn’s reliability. In the book he states, in early 2014, “I witnessed [Nusra] forces storm a housing complex … where they proceeded to kill Alawites and Christians.” This alleged massacre was reported by Russian and Syrian state media (Russia is Assad’s imperial sponsor, providing his weapons and defending him at the Security Council); yet international organisations have no record of it. But Cockburn’s original report of the incident, in a January 28, 2014 column for The Independent, states that, rather than witnessing it, he was told the story by “a Syrian soldier, who gave his name as Abu Ali”.

And now here’s the whole thing:

ISIS feeds first on state dysfunction, second on Sunni outrage. In Iraq – where its leadership is local – Sunni Arabs are a minority displaced from their privileged position by America’s invasion. Their revanchism is exacerbated by the sectarian oppression practised by the elected but Iranian-backed government. In Syria – where most ISIS leaders are foreign – Sunnis are an oppresssed majority, the prime targets of a counter-revolutionary tyranny headed by mafias but claiming and exploiting Alawi sectarian identity.

Under other names, ISIS first grew in Iraq as it would later in Syria, by exploiting resistance to occupation, American in one case, that of a delegitimised regime in the other. Drawing on research by the Guardian’s Martin Chulov as well as their own, Michael Weiss and Hassan Hassan show how Syria’s regime collaborated with Iraqi Baathists and Salafist extremists, facilitating the passage of bombers to Iraq who would do more to precipitate civil war than to shake off American occupation. This was a message to America to leave Syria alone.

Popular disgust and the US-backed Awakening movement eventually drove al-Qaida out of Sunni Iraq. The jihadists waited; their moment returned when peaceful Sunni protests were repressed by live fire in 2013. Heading a Baathist-Islamist coalition, ISIS then captured huge swathes of the country and set about its reign of terror.

Weiss and Hassan have produced a detailed and immensely readable book. Their informants include American military officials, American, Jordanian and Iraqi intelligence operatives, defected Syrian spies and diplomats, and – most fascinating of all – Syrians who work for ISIS (these are divided into such categories as politickers, pragmatists, opportunists and fence-sitters). They provide useful insights into ISIS governance – a combination of divide-and-rule, indoctrination and fear – and are well placed for the task. Hassan, an expert on tribal and jihadist dynamics, is from Syria’s east. Weiss reported from liberated al-Bab, outside Aleppo, before ISIS took it over.

Cockburn’s book, on the other hand, is more polemic than analysis. While Weiss and Hassan give a sense of the vital civil movements which coincide with jihadism and Assadism in Syria, Cockburn sees only an opposition which “shoots children in the face for minor blasphemy”. He concedes the first revolutionaries wanted democracy, but still talks of “the uprising of the Sunni in Syria in 2011”. The label doesn’t account for (to take a few examples) the widespread chant ‘The Syrian People are One’, or Alawi actress Fadwa Suleiman leading protests in Sunni Homs, or Communist Christian George Sabra leading the Syrian National Council.

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Progressive Except For Syria? Take The Test!

February 27, 2015 § Leave a comment

We’ve experienced those who are Progressive-Except-For-Palestine. And now we’re experiencing the Progressive-Except-For-Syria syndrome. Are you worried you may be a sufferer? The ‘We Write What We Like’ blog has invented a self-diagnostic test. Here are the first ten questions:

For the rest, visit the page here.

A Leftist Syrian Point of View

February 12, 2015 § Leave a comment

“I am afraid that it is too late for the leftists in the West to express any solidarity with the Syrians in their extremely hard struggle. What I always found astonishing in this regard is that mainstream Western leftists know almost nothing about Syria, its society, its regime, its people, its political economy, its contemporary history. Rarely have I found a useful piece of information or a genuinely creative idea in their analyses. My impression about this curious situation is that they simply do not see us; it is not about us at all. Syria is only an additional occasion for their old anti-imperialist tirades, never the living subject of the debate … We, rank-and-file Syrians, refugees, women, students, intellectuals, human rights activists, political prisoners … do not exist … But honestly I’ve failed to discern who is right and who is left in the West from a leftist Syrian point of view … Before helping Syrians or showing solidarity with Syrians, the mainstream Western left needs to help themselves. Their views are totally misguided, and the Syrian cause was only a litmus test of their reactionary and decadent perspectives.”  – Yassin al-Haj Saleh

Read the full interview here.

Brothers Blood

February 7, 2015 § Leave a comment

Damascus-Syria-2009I’m honoured that the wonderful poet Golan Haji has translated the prologue to my novel-in-progress for al-Arabi al-Jadeed. Here it is:

دم الشقيق
روبن ياسين قصاب

3 فبراير 2015

كلُّ اسم هنا يعني شيئاً، لكنّ بعض الأسماء قديمة جداً فنُسيت معانيها. قد تعني دمشق في الآرامية “التراب الأحمر”، وربما كانت تعني “قِربة النبيذ” لدى الإغريق والرومان. تسمية أخرى متداولة محلياً اشتُقت من “دم الشقيق”، لأن قابيل قتل هابيل في مكانٍ ما من الأرجاء المجاورة. يقع مزار هابيل في قمة قاسيون، والقبر في داخله عملاق الحجم لأن رجال تلك الأيام كانوا عمالقة حقاً. والعشق هو فرط الحب، وهكذا ثمة احتمال آخر لأصل الاسم هو “دم العشق
المدينة في تجويف إناء أسفل الجبال، وتترامى عبر السهل، وتزحف إلى أعالي المنحدرات، كتلةً كبيرة من المساكن، أبراجاً بيضاء ورمادية وبنية تعلو وتنخفض. واجهاتُ رخام وقبابٌ وأسطحة قرميد أحمر. حمام يحتشد في أسراب مرفرفاً ويحطّ على أعشاش السطوح.
أزقةٌ مغلقةُ المصاريع، متاهات، جدران عالية من ضوضاء السيارات. عالياً فوق هذه الجدران حلّقْ وانظرْ تحت.
سهامٌ من مصابيح ملونة تشير إلى محلات الشواء؛ شاشاتُ تلفزيون تومض عبر النوافذ المفتوحة، في المكتب، في الدكان، أو على الأرصفة حين يكون الطقس دافئاً؛ شاشات مليون هاتف جوّال (يملكها جميعاً الشخصُ نفسه)، تتحرك بمستوى الرؤوس، أو في الأحضان، أو على السرير؛ والصحون اللاقطة؛ ومقاهي الإنترنت.
محلات المثلجات، الحدائق العامة، العوائل الكريمة البدينة التي تفصص البذور. البنوك، الصرّافون، مكاتب الاستيراد والتصدير. سيارات الأجرة والسرافيس. رجال في زي موحد. رجال يدخنون السجائر.
عشاق، متزوجون، جمهرةٌ من راهبات متجهمات في محل أزهار يبيع باقاتٍ سريالية الحجم، محلٌ ضيق لتاجر بسطرمة، تاجر بُنّ في بنايةٍ لائقة، أضِفْ مطحنته وأضِفْ غبارَ القهوة، وصفٌّ من محلات الألبسة، كلها للفتيات، واجهاتها نيون كلّها أزرق ووردي وذهبي، أغنية آر أند بي أميركية Do Me You Do Me You Can Do Me ترجُّ الرصيف، نساء يضايقهن الأطفال محجباتٌ ويلبسن الأردية الطويلة يعبرن تحت مكبرات الصوت، أمام صاحب محل سيديهات ملمَّع الشعر مصفَّفه وراء زجاج مدخّن، ثم باعة محلات الأحذية بأباريق الشاي والابتسامات، تتوالى باباً لصق باب، جدران من صناديق الأحذية تعلو، وبين الجدران: متاهات.
ساحة مركز المدينة. الفنادقُ المواخير، الراقصات النَوَريّات. البدو يعطفون على كؤوس الشاي، لا يزال بعضهم يضفرون جدائلهم، أخاديد ثلّمتْ بها الريح وجناتِهم. جدران من الأقفاص في سوق الطيور، وبين الجدران: متاهات.
كذلك ألقِ بالاً إلى ما لم يكن أو ما لن يكون. حفرٌ لم تُردَمْ، هياكل ما بُنيت، مواسير شبه منسية، ثغرات. هدم غير محسوب، إنشاءات من دون مخطط، منازل عشوائية لم تصِرْ بيوتاً، ومنازل أخرى غائبة موجودة على الورق. ثقوب طلقات لم يجمعها الفرنسيون. نهرٌ أصبح ممشى من الإسمنت المسلح، نفقاً ومستنقعاً آسناً. بساتين مبتورة الجذوع، مخنوقة، مسوَّرة.
ألف مليون كيس نايلون.
صِبيةٌ موشومون، رجال بسواعد مشعرة، أقدام برتقالية تهتزّ بعضها إلى جوار بعض في صفوف المصلّين في مسجد عند الزاوية.
الفنادق الجديدة الفخمة في المدينة القديمة، الخانات والقصور، المطاعم: بعض من ألذّ العشاءات في الشرق الأوسط، في العالم.
الحشد. يلتئم ويتفرّق، يتجمهر ويتبعثر. على عجل.
شبان يبدؤون حيواتهم، يعانون، يحملون الكتب، يقعون في الحب، يشعرون بأنهم محبوسون، يزرّرون عيونهم ليروا طريقاً يجنون عبره بعض المال. شبان في منتصفات أعمارهم يتآكلهم الطموح والفشل، وأولئك المسحوقون بالعار يزرّرون عيونهم أيضاً ليروا طريقاً يجنون عبره بعض المال. العجائز يشتكون أو ييأسون أو يرضون أو يأملون، لا يزالون يزرّرون عيونهم ليروا طريقاً من أجل أبنائهم وأحفادهم يجنون عبره بعض المال. العجائز القانعون بشيخوختهم. العجائز المصلُّون.
في الزحام امرأة تعضُّ شفتها إلى أن تدمى لتمنع نفسها من الصراخ.
عبق الجنس. عبق الياسمين والمازوت والغبار.
فوحُ خَبزِ الخُبز. دوائر ساخنة من الخبز مكوَّمة خارج الأفران، أو ملمومة في أكياس نايلون شفافة لتبني جدراناً، وبين الجدران: متاهات.
فندق الشام والفصول الأربعة. دور السينما والمراكز الثقافية. الملاعب والمسابح. الأبراجُ السجون. المآذن وذروات الأبنية.
الحيّ الشيعي والحيّ المسيحي. المخيمات الفلسطينية. الناحية الدرزية. الأكراد المكدَّسون على السفح الذي يحمل اسمهم منذ عهد صلاح الدين الأيوبي.
الجيوب العلوية التي تتقدم صوب المدينة.
سائح، متغافل عن توترات الحاضر، يقصدُ التمشّي عبر حارة اليهود.
جبال نصلت في الشمس، أذْوَتها الرياحُ القارسة، قوّضتها رشقاتُ المطر، غصّتْ بتكرار الثلوج، وكلّستها مؤخراً أربعة عقود من الجمود.
الألوان على الجبل مرهونة بالغيم، بمواقيتِ النهار، بموضعِ الشمس. وردية، برتقالية، حمراء، بيضاء، سوداء. لون التلوث البني معلّقٌ ولا يُرى إلا من بعيد. ثم هواء يتخلخل في كل اتجاه، فوق الجبال والهضبة والسهل المقفر، هواء رقيق وجاف، مادّةُ الملائكة.
شيء ما مضطرب في الجو يشي بوصول اللحظة. لحظة ستبقى.
تحت السماء، فوق دمشق: الفرقة الرابعة متوارية نسبياً. المدفعية وراء المتاريس. مدافع ضخمة مثبتة في الجبل. القوات الإسرائيلية على قمة جبل الشيخ، بذروته المكتسيةِ ثلجاً في المدى المنظور. وأربعة ملايين سوري، تحت، في المدينة

Arab Jazz

February 7, 2015 § Leave a comment

arabjazzThis review was published at the Guardian.

“Arab Jazz” – already the winner of the English PEN award – is a brilliant debut, both from Karim Miské and the very capable translator Sam Gordon.

The setting – “between the Lubavitch school complex, the Salafist prayer room and the evangelical church” in north east Paris, home turf of the Charlie Hebdo and kosher supermarket killers – couldn’t be more topical.

And Ahmed Taroudant, the novel’s main protagonist, is in some respects a typical French Arab – religiously non-observant, confused about his identity, haunted by the past, and now set up to take the blame for murder.

Immensely likeable despite his neuroses, Ahmed aims “to lose himself by devouring the whole world in a single, uninterrupted story written by others.” The metaphor fits fundamentalists perfectly, but in Ahmed’s case it’s more literal: he’s a crime fiction fanatic who tries to buffer himself from reality with a wall of books. He’s reading on his balcony when blood drips down from the corpse of his upstairs neighbour Laura, whose love he might have reciprocated had he been clear-headed enough to notice.

Ahmed, of course, wants to understand what’s happening. He’s the book’s third detective; the first two are Lieutenants Rachel Kupferstein and Jean Hamelot, an atheist Ashkenazi Jew from the neighbourhood and a Breton of Communist heritage; both, like Ahmad, are well versed in crime fiction, and both are “intellectual, cinephile types”. Karim Miské, the French-Mauritanian author, is a film-maker himself; his book is crammed with genre, literary and film references. One scene is set in ‘Chaim Potok high school’, for instance; the title alludes to James Ellroy’s novel “White Jazz”; and – as if the book were already a film – there’s a playlist of songs at the back.

The characters are strong and various, from the young, second-generation Muslim and Jewish north African immigrants – the girls generally better adjusted than the boys – through such predictable figures as a Turkish kebab-shop proprieter and a Portuguese concierge, to the more surprising – an Armenian anarchist, for instance, or a Hasidic Rastafarian who produces a messianically-sanctioned MDMA-variant called Godzwill.

There’s an implicit commentary here on the new phenomenon of gangster-Salafism: “craving the validation of others … they were frequently tempted to reverse the feeling of stigma, to brand themselves proudly with the very religion which brought them such relentless contempt.” But the implicit critique of religion itself – of “those who clog up their depths, their inner space, with the concrete of certainty” – extends to political and social certainties too. Everyone’s been damaged by their heritage; everyone’s vulnerable to inner darkness and the explanatory narcotic of grand narrative.

“Arab Jazz” is a genre novel in the same way that “Pulp Fiction” is a genre film – superceding the form even as it pays homage. It’s a trans-continental identity novel, dramatising the painful contradictions and fertile syntheses of contemporary multicultural life, focussing on racial discrimination in Morocco as well as Paris. And it’s certainly a well-achieved literary novel, detailed with colours, tastes and flavours, sustaining a light and energetic comic tone even when the material is unrelentingly grim.

The settings are particularly rich, as Miské journeys confidently from his prime location as far as Crown Heights, Brooklyn, or to New York’s Watchtower, global HQ of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, and back and forth in time.

The dialogue can be somewhat clumsy, occasionally rendering the plot machinery too visible and the characters too obviously functional. In general there’s a little too much telling rather than showing – in the improbably self-revealing monologues of the police’s interviewees, for example, or the perfectly overheard street sermonising. Perhaps, as a detective story, the novel suffers a glut of too-easily-flowing information. This may irritate some genre readers, but it should be forgiven. “Arab Jazz” should be read charitably as a pushing beyond realism rather than a failure to achieve it. There’s something theatrical in Miské’s world; it’s as if the detective-readers witness performances, or discover texts, instead of teasing out meaning from an inscrutable and intransigent reality. Miské is a writer enjoying himself, playing on his scales, improvising sometimes, his subplots and walk-on acts fed deftly into the whole. The monologues are instrumental solos; the rhythms are propulsive. Like jazz, it’s complicated, but sounds beautifully simple.

This review was published at the Guardian.

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