Albert Gatt discusses hedgehogs, dictators and parricide with author Robin Yassin Kassab.
As the crackdown in Syria continues, and the revolution in Libya inches towards resolution, another blow is dealt to the grand narrative of the Arab nation which various dictators – self-styled fathers to their people – used to justify their rule. Can literature offer a nuanced view that counters this narrative’s deadly simplicity?
This year, the Malta Mediterranean Literature Festival, organised by Iniżjamed and Literature Across Frontiers, will focus on the Arab Spring.
One of the guest writers is Robin Yassin Kassab, who appears courtesy of the British Council (Malta). Born in West London of Syrian descent, Yassin Kassab is a regular contributor to the press and blogs on http://qunfuz.com – qunfuz is Arabic for hedgehog or porcupine.
In his first novel, The Road from Damascus (Penguin, 2009), Sami, the son of Syrian migrants in London, struggles to carry the mantle bequeathed to him by his father, a staunchly secular Arab intellectual.
But the turmoil of his own private life and the havoc wreaked by 9/11 force him to challenge the worldview he has inherited, in whose name his father committed the ultimate betrayal.
I’m intrigued by the name of your blog – Qunfuz. In what sense is the writer a hedgehog?
The hedgehog has a spiky exterior and a soft warm interior, and as such it’s one metaphor for a writer. A writer should provoke, unsettle, even offend, and at the same time he should pay attention to the heart.
To what extent are the Arab uprisings we are witnessing about ‘killing the father’, rather as Sami, in your novel, struggles to come to terms with his own? Are we witnessing a form of parricide?
The point in the novel was that even characters who consider themselves to be secular are, in fact, religious. Sami’s father rejected Islam but made a religion out of nationalism. A mythic idea of the Arabs and their destiny was his grand narrative.
So his was a false secularism; and the dictators in the Arab world are false fathers. They certainly cast themselves as fathers – in one of his last speeches Mubarak described the Egyptian people as his children. But they failed to fulfil any of the roles played by fathers.
Fathers are supposed to protect their children; the dictators exposed their subjects to Western and Zionist attacks, even collaborated in these attacks. Fathers are supposed to inculcate morality and fair discipline; the dictators valorised corruption, terrorised the innocent and rewarded the guilty.
Fathers should nurture and educate; under dictators poverty increased and education systems collapsed. Fathers should reconcile the conflicts which erupt among their children; under dictators sectarianism and class hatreds have worsened.
There is a generational aspect to what is happening now. The young are removing the structures established by a failed older generation, so there is an element of parricide. But these were bad fathers, illusory fathers, more like child-abusing stepfathers.
Think of Hamza al-Khateeb, tortured to death at the age of 13. The Syrian regime thugs who killed him filled his body full of bullets and mutilated his penis before he died. These sadists, presumably, are paid a wage for their work.
In a recent blog about Ali Farzat, the Syrian political cartoonist tortured by the regime, you described the regime’s torture techniques as a mere assertion of brute strength, of its ability to shock and outrage. Faced by this pornography of power, you maintain that art will supersede filth. How can you be so confident?
Perhaps my confidence is misplaced. I still don’t know how or when or at what cost the Syrian regime will fall. It’s true that so far it shows little sign of cracking from within. But it’s also true that it has lost credibility and legitimacy among vast swathes of the population. People all over the country have lost their fear and have burnt their bridges with the regime.
For all the people whose faces have been seen on Youtube videos, there’s no going back. As time passes, more people, from a wider range of backgrounds, come into opposition. The economy is in a parlous state. The regime doesn’t have vast oil wealth or a foreign threat to keep it going.
Fundamentally, unlike Hafez al-Asad (who was as canny and intelligent as he was ruthless), Bashaar and his friends don’t have any intelligence either. Everything they’ve done in the past six months has been stupid. They are too stupid to rule Syria for very long. It may be that once a tipping point is reached the regime will crumble quite quickly.
In your novel, there’s a scene in which Rashid Iqbal, a writer with scathingly anti-religious views, argues that literature can replace religion. Can the writer play the role of prophet?
Rashid Iqbal is in part a parody of Salman Rushdie, who has suggested literature as an alternative to religion. I have some sympathy for this notion – religion at its best, like art, asks more questions than it answers, and both religion and art originate in the sensation of awe – but I still think it’s far too simplistic. I don’t think art and religion are opposites; nor are they the same thing. Art certainly doesn’t remove my fear of death, although it can help me to come to terms with it.
A writer can be a prophet in the limited sense that he offers a new way of seeing. But today’s writers (in our shrunken world) can’t claim to offer truth. Perhaps the closest our society comes to prophethood is in the figure of the scientist. But that’s a poor compensation too. We don’t have prophets any more, only madmen.
Women in the novel are more religious than their men, and also more stable. To what extent is this a reflection on the historical role of women, past and present?
At the risk of being accused of sexist stereotyping, I do think that women tend to be more stable and balanced than men, perhaps particularly in Arab families (this is what I have observed, in any case). And I suppose I was engineering reality somewhat too, for political reasons: I wanted to write against the popular notion in the West that Muslim women are weak, passive, and do what their men tell them.
My sisters decided to wear the hijab against the wishes of my father. My wife decided to wear the hijab against my wishes.
The Arab women I know personally are usually the strong point of their families. And women are very often the connectors between individuals, those who make families and communities cohere. This is closely linked to ‘religion’ in the Latin sense, as ‘relinking’.
The festival takes place at the Garden of Rest in Floriana, from Thursday to Saturday at 8 p.m. Robin Yassin Kassab will appear on Saturday. For further information, see www.inizjamed.org.