Exactly eight years ago, Robin Yassin-Kassab could scarcely believe his eyes, experiencing a flood of confusion as he watched unimaginable destruction unfold on his television screen.
“To be honest, I felt a certain exhilaration at that stage, that New York could be brought as low as Gaza or Baghdad, places destroyed by American weaponry. And I really did expect Arnold Schwarzenegger to turn up at some point,” says the 39-year-old.
“Then reality sank in and my exhilaration dissolved. September 11th was a great crime against ordinary people, and a great gift to the American empire. It provided the spark for an international wildfire of tragedies.”
The Scotland-based Oxford graduate describes his debut novel The Road from Damascus (Penguin Books, 2009) as a response to the ensuing “war or terror”, in terms of its Western media presentation and its reality in the Middle East, which he experienced firsthand.
“Perhaps my novel is to an extent a letter to the West, aiming to show that Islam and Muslims are complicated, that there are many different types of Islam, even inside one person. And that atheism, nationalism, reductive science and certain forms of capitalism are also in their own ways religions. That none of us are free of belief systems.”
Yassin-Kassab says writing The Road from Damascus was like “chipping away at something pre-existent” and “a lot of fun”. He dedicated the novel to his wife of 12 years, Rana Zaitoon.
The Road from Damascus features an array of characters in contemporary London, either struggling with or accepting their faith and faithlessness, and their diverse ethnic backgrounds, including Syrian, Iraqi and Hungarian.
While the novel reflects Yassin-Kassab’s experiences and preoccupations, he says it is not autobiographical. “Having said that, there’s quite a lot of me in Sami the decadent atheist, Muntaha the spiritual Muslim, Gabor the scientist-artist, and even Ammar the hip-hop Islamist. Or there’s quite a lot of them in me.”
Like his characters, he finds it challenging to define his mixed cultural identity.
“My father is Syrian; my mother is English. I’m English but not British. I think the concept of Britishness continues to do a lot of damage. I’m an Arab and a Muslim. I’ve lived and worked in Pakistan, Oman, Morocco, Turkey, France and other countries – all have had an effect on me. I eat a lot of Indian and Chinese food and listen to a lot of hip-hop. Can I be *hip-hop’?,” he says.
“And I agree with Doctor Johnson, who said, *Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel’.”
Just as his novel reveals many sides to Islam, his own religious beliefs are accordingly nuanced. While he likes Islam, he opposes “Muslimism” and Wahhabism. He also finds much to value in Christian, Buddhist and Hindu texts.
“I don’t like arrogant certainty, whether it’s the certainty of the atheist or of the religious fanatic. I agree with Dhu’ n-Noon when he says, *To ponder the essence of God is ignorance, and to point to Him is shirk – idolatrous association – and real gnosis is bewilderment,” he says.
He notes there are several challenges facing Muslims around the world, including an increased focus on the symbols and rituals of Islam, rather than true religious revival; a lack of spiritual striving traditionally associated with Sufism; and a neglect of public ethics.
“We need to bring these back into focus to create a true Islamic balance.”
He deplores the spread of Wahhabi ideology, which he says is due to the Saudi regime’s control of the holy places, its access to oil money, its ownership of TV stations and its Alliance with the USA.
“The Saudis have demolished 95 percent of historical buildings in Mecca and Medina, and this is emblematic of their disregard for Islamic history, scholarship and culture,” he says. “We should all be proud of our local cultures and resistant to Wahhabism, which is a religious and political dead end.”
In the Middle East and elsewhere, he adds, the imported state model has not worked, instead exacerbating sectarianism and allowing tyranny to flourish.
“We need to stop being so obsessed with the nation state and think of other models.”
Yassin-Kassab points out that much of the global Muslim community faces poverty and class divisions. He calls for more inter-Islamic trade, aid and cooperation.
“There are specific political tragedies in the Muslim world which we all should do much more to understand and act upon. Foremost of these is the ethnic cleansing, repeated massacre and apartheid imposed on the ancient Palestinian people.”
As well as fiction, Yassin-Kassab writes book reviews and political pieces for the British press, including the Guardian, Sunday Herald, Observer and Prospect Magazine. He has also written for The National in Abu Dhabi, alternative media resources Electronic Intifada and the Palestine Chronicle, and writes on his own site http://www.qunfuz.com.
He worked as a journalist for The News in Pakistan, and has taught English in four Arab countries, for the British Council and the university in Oman.
“After journalism, teaching must be the easiest way for an outsider to learn quickly about a new culture,” he says. “I had wonderful students of varied backgrounds and I enjoyed it very much.”
Yassin-Kassab, who studied English Literature at Oxford University, has a diploma in teaching English and an MA in Creative Writing from Manchester Metropolitan University.
Currently, he’s attempting the “difficult second novel”, but for now not succeeding. “I’ve given up on something I spent a year and a half on, and I’m playing with some new ideas instead. I’m working on short stories too.” Other activities include visiting Palestine in May as a participant in the Palestine Festival of Literature, which he describes as “an amazing experience”.
As for his greatest achievement, he says it’s a toss-up between The Road from Damascus, described as “extraordinary” (Sunday Telegraph) and “wonderful, witty, very original” (Independent), and his children, Ibrahim and Ayaat.
“Which am I more responsible for? I don’t know.”