Taking place over the course of a long London summer in 2001, Robin Yassin-Kassab’s debut novel offers a nuanced depiction of Islam, and explores religion, identity and love among an increasingly post-cultural society.
Sami Traifi, a second-generation Londoner of Syrian origin, is a mess. He was meant to follow in his late father’s footsteps, and become a renowned specialist in Arabic poetry. However, ten years on from completing his undergraduate degree, the PhD remains elusive, and both his self-belief and marriage are rapidly disintegrating. Rather than “leaping forth from the giant’s shoulders” as he’d hoped, he seems firmly stuck in his father’s shadow.
A last-ditch trip to visit relatives in Damascus turns up an unpleasant family secret that adds to his turmoil, which he chooses to elude with copious spliffs. His wife Muntaha, the love of his life, is finally running out of her seemingly bottomless patience.
Through Sami, Muntaha and the people around them, Yassin-Kassab demonstrates the complexities of the Muslim faith, even embodied in one individual. He fleshes out his characters with unsentimental prose, keeping them realistic and surprising as the narrative meanders through their pasts and presents.
Sami is an atheist who is losing faith in himself, his faithlessness and his father Mustafa. Muntaha is an empowered and educated woman who decides to wear hijab, much to Sami’s dismay. Her brother Ammar is desperate to find his racial and cultural position in the world, veering between black hip hop artists and the mosque. Gabor is a scientist-artist who sees logic and beauty in Islam and longs to worship fellow school teacher Muntaha, whom he aligns with the faith.
While the focus is on Sami, several of the supporting characters easily warrant their own novels, such as Muntaha’s former poetry editor father Marwan and Tom Fields, Sami’s enigmatic, survivalist-professor friend. Yassin-Kassab touches on their rich histories with restraint, summing up the unimaginable loss that Muntaha’s father Marwan suffers in Baghdad, and offering a peep into Tom’s off-the-grid, rural hideaway.
Yassin-Kassab further enriches his exploration of Islam by establishing a gender divide between his characters that favours the fairer sex.
The women of The Road from Damascus possess the most strength, especially Muntaha who remains straightforward and composed in the face of tragedy. Sami’s largely silent, devout mother Nur, carries her pain with pragmatism, while Muntaha’s stepmother Hasna, although comically bossy and bragging (about her doctor son in particular), is the heart of the community around her, enlivening her second husband’s musty home.
In contrast, most of the male characters are largely ineffectual. Both Sami and Muntaha’s fathers are trapped in the past; Mustafa is a revered relic for his son, in the form of his books and memories, and Marwan is a living ghost, thanks to the trauma he endured in Baghdad.
In the present day, Ammar parrots the various creeds he has taken on board, whether the anti-globalization pronouncements of Public Enemy or passages from the Koran, without really understanding what he means. Sami’s PhD adviser Dr Schimmer is well-meaning, but fails to give Sami the firm direction he really needs. Gabor has a confident exterior, but gets swept away in fruitless fantasies, despite his professed commitment to science and logic.
As much as faith, love is both a binding and separating force in the novel, particularly for Sami and Muntaha. Just as Sami is caught in his father’s academic shadow, it seems his marriage may fail as theirs did too, for similar reasons.
Sami initially sees his love for Muntaha in poetic terms, likening her beauty and allure to the Sumerian artefacts in front of which he first encounters her, an orientalization that is later echoed by Gabor.
Both men orientalize themselves as well as Muntaha; Sami with his Syrian heritage and Gabor with the Russian-ness of his grandfather, although both men reveal themselves to be more typically English than anything else.
However, this typical English-ness is tempered by the constantly redefined meaning of being English, another modern aspect that Yassin-Kassab explores through his recreation of London.
Although the novel begins in legendary Damascus, “a city that had briefly ruled the world”, and briefly travels to Baghdad and St Petersburg by way of memories and musings, London is the main landscape in which the characters wage their internal battles.
Yassin-Kassab richly evokes “unrelenting, eternal” London’s schizophrenia, effectively bringing it to life as a densely multi-faith, multi-cultural metropolis.
In his London, you can buy weed from elderly Trinidadian barbers; attend mosque with Irish converts; infiltrate Freemason haunts; rave in warehouse parties; get arrested at Tower Bridge; become a pyramid power disciple (or not); riot at controversial lectures; and fall in love at the British History Museum.
This London setting suits the entangled political and historical shifts that intertwine the characters’ lives. At first, it provides a buffer to the Middle Eastern drama the previous generation – i.e. Mustafa and Marwan – fled from, with Sami and Muntaha being able to enjoy a blissful courtship in the aftermath of the 1991 Kuwait war.
As the summer continues, the realities of their fathers further encroach upon them, while Sami undergoes several transformations; physical, spiritual and emotional. So much happens in the characters’ internal and external worlds that the season’s notorious end comes as a surprise, and is well-utilized as a turning point in Sami and Muntaha’s relationship, as well as more tightly weaving together the novel’s multiple themes.
While The Road from Damascus offers no easy solutions to the grand questions of religion and relationships that it raises, it succeeds in depicting a positive, complex and thoroughly modern Islam, one which is much needed in a world that increasingly swings between forms of extremism, whether hedonistic, consumerist or religious. More importantly, it does so while telling an engaging tale that offers insight into many worlds, all of which are thoroughly grounded in reality.
The Road from Damascus
Paperback: 368 pages
Publisher: Penguin (2009)