Syrian Dust: An Overview of Books

syriaThis review of books on Syria, mainly of Francesca Borri’s ‘Syrian Dust’, was published at the National.

…if you only talk about those who are fighting, any revolution becomes a war.” – Francesca Borri

For a long time very little was published on Syria in English. Patrick Seale’s useful but hagiographic “Assad: the Struggle for Syria” was the best known. Hanna Batatu’s classic “Syria’s Peasantry and their Politics” and Raymond Hinnebusch’s “Revolution from Above” were valuable academic studies of the Hafez-era state.

Over the last five years of revolution and war, several shelf loads of books have appeared. Many are sensationalist, cashing in on the latest terrorism scare. But several are of very high standard. Bente Scheller’s “The Wisdom of Syria’s Waiting Game”, for instance, is an excellent analysis of Assadist pre-revolution foreign policy. Thomas Pierret’s “Religion and State in Syria” is an indispensable resource on the social roles of the Islamic scholars in the same period.

Novelist Samar Yazbek’s “Woman in the Crossfire: Diaries of the Syrian Revolution” is the best account of the revolution’s early months, though “Revolt in Syria” by Stephen Starr, an Irish journalist then resident in Damascus, comes close. Jonathan Littell, author of the remarkable WW2 novel “The Kindly Ones” wrote “Syrian Notebooks” after spending two weeks of 2012 in besieged Homs. Marwa al-Sabouni’s well-received “The Battle for Home” gives a Syrian architect’s perspective on the destruction (and potential rebuilding) of the city.

Charles Lister’s masterful “The Syrian Jihad” is not only the best guide to the various Islamist groups operating in Syria, it also explains and contextualises their rise. Michael Weiss and Hassan Hassan’s “ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror” is an accessible summary of the organisation’s history and modus operandi. “Jihad Academy” is French journalist Nicolas Henin’s thoughtful account of ISIS captivity.

And three recent books, beneficial in very different ways, provide insider views from outsider women.

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Drawing Blood

mollyThis review was published at the National.

Molly Crabapple’s “Drawing Blood” – “the story of a girl and her sketchbook” – is at once memoir, reportage, literary description, aesthetic enquiry, road novel and romance.

Crabapple’s painting, lying somewhere between Toulouse Lautrec and surrealism, is increasingly celebrated. The surprise here is that her best writing is as provocatively beautiful as her visual art. Her prose is sweet and sour in equal measure, the eye she watches with is both refined and raw. Very often she watches herself. The comfortable clash in her personality of cynic and idealist, highbrow and lowbrow, recalls Saul Bellow’s early characters. Like Augie March, a young Molly shoplifts high-canonical texts and reads them on the elevated trains which pass above slums.

Native of New York, of a stimulating Puerto Rican (Marxist) and Jewish (artist) background, Molly nevertheless hated being a child. School diagnosed her with “oppositional defiant disorder”; by twelve she’d become a goth-punk. At seventeen she was travelling in Paris and Morocco, an American on tour – “nothing but an eye, soaking up the world” – but one seeing a freshly unexotic vision.

“When you draw you are performing quietly,” she writes, “inviting strangers to engage you.” Strangers engage her, of course, wherever he is, whether she’s drawing or not, simply because she possesses (or is possessed by) an attractive female body. This she finds to be both a power and a vulnerability. The financial power leads her to pose for photo shoots. “When I thought of every proposition and threat that I got just walking down the street in my girl body, I decided I might as well get paid for the trouble.” And so she became “rendered into image, untouchable yet tradable.”

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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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The Legacy of Eqbal Ahmad

Eqbal-Ahmad-biography-coverSadly, Eqbal Ahmad is not as well remembered as he should be. Stuart Schaar’s marvelous new biography, Eqbal Ahmad: Critical Outsider in a Turbulent Agewill help rectify this unfortunate fact.

Among many other endeavours, Ahmad directed the Transnational Institute in Amsterdam, collaborated with Algerian revolutionaries, edited the journal Race & Classwrote a column for the Pakistani newspaper Dawn, and sat trial for conspiring to kidnap Henry Kissinger. He was a Third Worldist, an internationalist, and a humanist in the very best sense of those terms.

Richard Falk puts it felicitously:

Eqbal Ahmad was a remarkable human being as well as a seminal progressive political thinker. In this illuminating intellectual biography, Stuart Schaar brings his subject to life, drawing on their long, intimate friendship and shared scholarly engagement with the politics of the Middle East and the Islamic world. Above all, Ahmad grasped the toxic interplay between the maladies of postcolonialism and the persistent imperial ambitions of the West better than any of his contemporaries.

In November I had the pleasure of interviewing Schaar about his book for Middle East Dialoguesa video series produced by the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Denver. Here it is.

The Crossing

crossingThis review of Samar Yazbek’s “The Crossing: My Journey to the Shattered Heart of Syria” was first published at the Daily Beast.

This shocking, searing and beautiful book is an account of three visits to Idlib province in northern Syria, an area liberated from the Assad dictatorship “on the ground but betrayed by the sky.”

In the face of regime repression, Syria’s non-violent protests of 2011 had transformed into an armed uprising in 2012. By August of that year, when the author – exiled Syrian novelist and journalist Samar Yazbek – made her first trip, Assad’s forces had been driven from the rural border zones. From a distance, however, via warplanes and long-range artillery, they implemented a policy of scorched earth and collective punishment. So Yazbek finds her homeland changed to a landscape of burnt fields and cratered market places, with boys picking through collapsed homes in search of things to sell and displaced families sheltering in tombs and caves. Death is ever-present. Gardens and courtyards have become cemeteries. Yazbek never shies away from the horror but builds something worthwhile from it, a record and a reflection, for death is ultimately “the impetus of writing and its source.”

Known today only for war, Syria is heir to an ancient civilisation. Idlib province houses the remains of Ebla, a five-thousand-year-old city, and is dotted with half-intact Byzantine towns and churches. The war’s “ruthless sabotage of history” has damaged these priceless sites. In Maarat al-Numan the statue of 9th Century poet Abu Alaa al-Maari, a native of the town highly respected in his own time despite his unusual atheism, has been decapitated by armed Islamists. And the wonderful mosaic museum at the same location has been bombed by the regime and looted by various militias.

But amid these ruins Yazbek encounters a people giving voice to their aspirations after half a century of enforced silence. In revolutionary towns the walls are “turned into open books and transient art exhibits”. Activists organise “graffiti workshops, cultural newspapers, magazines for children, training workshops, privately-run community schools.” In the context of state collapse these projects are born of necessity, but they also reflect the kind of society the revolutionaries hoped to build – inclusive, democratic, forward-looking – one which they are in fact trying to build, even as extremists fashion their own, much darker versions. Through self-organised committees and councils, Yazbek is told, “each region now has its own administration, and every village looks after itself.” This – Syrians’ willed self-determination, Syrian creativity amid destruction – is the positive story so often missed in the news cycle, and it represents a hope for the future, faint though it is. The activists know they are working against insurmountable odds, but continue anyway. They document atrocities and reach out to international media, an endeavour which has so far failed to bear tangible fruit. When they can, they laugh – it’s “as though they inhaled laughter like an antidote to death.”

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The Dictator’s Last Night

gaddafiAn edited version of this review appeared in the Guardian.

Colonel Gaddafi – “the Brotherly Guide, the miracle boy who became the infallible visionary” – possessed a character so colourful it begged entry into fiction. Yasmina Khadra – pseudonym for Algerian ex-military man and bestselling writer Mohammed Moulessehoul – obliges here in “The Dictator’s Last Night”, a title to be fitted alongside such great dictator novels as Marquez’s “The Autumn of the Patriarch” or Vargas Llosa’s “The Feast of the Goat” (the latter set in the last hours of the Dominican strongman Trujillo). Although Khadra matches neither the epic scale nor the experimental virtuosity of those two, his writing here is compulsive, funny, powerfully emotional, and often sinuously intelligent.

For his last night, the “untameable jealous tiger that urinates on international conventions to mark his territory” is confined to a disused school in Sirte, the sky aflame with NATO bombs and rebel bullets, his generals either fleeing or collapsing from exhaustion.

Like Hitler in the bunker he rails against his people’s betrayal – “Libya owes me everything!” – against the West which so recently feted him and, with no irony at all, against his fellow Arab autocrats, those “pleasure-seeking gluttons.”

Khadra’s imagining of him is probably pretty accurate: bullying, mercurial, grandiose, containing an egomaniac’s contradictions – self-obsessed but craving approval, ruthless but oversensitive. It’s “my full moon, nobody else’s,” he declares, and “Everything I did worked.”

Gaddafi remembers his poor Beduin beginnings, fatherless and disturbed, and his struggles against “the barriers of prejudice”. He was spurned when, as a young officer, he proposed marriage to a social superior. The reader sympathises with the humiliation – until shown the nature of the dictator’s later response. Gaddafi’s voice careers from sentimentality to brutality and back, and at first the reader’s heart follows.

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Interview with Saud Alsanousi

SaudI interviewed Kuwaiti novelist Saud Alsanousi for the National. My earlier review of his novel “The Bamboo Stalk” is here.

Born in 1981, Kuwaiti writer Saud Alsanousi won the 2013 International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF) for his novel “The Bamboo Stalk”. A warm and generous interlocutor, here he speaks about otherness, his ‘method-writing’ approach to characterisation, and his aversion to the ‘shock method’…

RYK: Why did you choose the half-Kuwaiti, half-Filipino Isa/Josè as your hero?

SA: Since my childhood I’ve been interested in the image of the other. The other was always seen negatively, whether he was a Westerner, an east Asian, or an Arab from beyond the Gulf. And in turn the West, the Asians, and the Arabs saw us as the other. Of course I rejected their negative image. At the same time I realised that some of it was true – we Kuwaitis had social problems, we were closed in upon ourselves, we didn’t know any culture except our own. We always think we’re right and the other is wrong, socially, religiously. Through reading and travel I discovered that the world was much bigger than us, that we weren’t the axis of the whole universe.

How could I approach the topic in writing? I thought a novel would be better than journalism, because a newspaper article is a brief phenomenon, whereas when a reader follows the life story of a character through a novel, day by day and page by page, he builds a relationship with that character, he really engages with him.

And why Josè specifically? Previous stories about ‘the other’ have focused on the West. We already know the West looks down on us, how Hollywood depicts us, and we’re used to it. Instead I wanted to concentrate on those some may consider our inferiors. I chose the lowest class, those who serve us in shops and hospitals. I wanted to imagine how they see us. Of course, the hero had to be half-Kuwaiti in order to gain intimate access to a Kuwaiti household. My first idea was to make him half-Indian, but the problem with that was that he wouldn’t look foreign enough. He could pass easily for a Kuwaiti. But Josè looks east Asian, and is judged by his appearance.

RYK: How did you set about building the character?

SA: I only talk for myself, but I found that research by reading and watching documentaries wasn’t nearly enough. It produced only cold information, and when I wrote the result looked like a tourism brochure.

So I travelled to the Philippines and lived in a simple house in a traditional village. I wore their clothes. I ate their food and I breathed their air. And I met a lot of expatriate workers in Kuwait, not just Filipinos, and listened to their problems.

I embodied the character. I’m not exaggerating when I say that when I came back home, from the moment I arrived in the airport, I wasn’t Saud Alsanousi but Josè Mendoza. I saw my own country through the eyes of a stranger. From May 2011 to May 2012, while I was writing, I continued to be Josè. I visited the places he would, I rode a bike like him, I tuned my satellite to the Filipino channels, even if I didn’t understand the language. And I surrounded my workspace with bamboo. I could only write the character by embodying it.

RYK: The novel’s themes are human, social, even spiritual. What is your aim in writing? Why do you write?

SA: Let me start with “The Bamboo Stalk.” We don’t know anything about the Filipino. We see him working in Starbucks – that’s it. We know nothing about his cultural and intellectual wealth, his history, his struggle against Spanish colonialism, nor about the social peace in his country despite the presence of three religions. It’s because we don’t know his background that we deal with him in this stereotypical and disrespectful way. And because we don’t know the other, we don’t know our own place in this world.

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