Robin Yassin-Kassab, The Road From Damascus, (London: Hamish Hamilton, 2008), 348 pp., hbk, ISBN: 9780241144091, £16.99
Robin Yassin-Kassab’s first novel, The Road from Damascus, reverses St Paul’s journey; it also subverts conventional expectations about the nature of Islamic religious conversion. The protagonist, Sami Traifi, is a committed secularist (like his late father) who visits the city of his ancestors in the hope that it will offer him answers. Instead, Damascus deepens his confusion and he soon returns to London, but by the end of the novel Sami has developed a ‘trembling, contingent faith’ (p. 348). Contemporary British novels which focus on Islam, beginning with Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses (1988), tend to treat it as a political ideology rather than as a religious belief. Hanif Kureishi’s The Black Album (1995) and his film My Son the Fanatic (1997) show young men turning to Islam as a form of resistance to racism at home, and in protest at what they see as anti-Islamic wars and occupations abroad. Following Kureishi, rather similar angry young Muslim men with identity crises make appearances in Zadie Smith’s White Teeth (2000) and Monica Ali’s Brick (2003). There have been very few fictional representations of the spiritual aspect of Islam; Leila Abouleila’s Minaret (2005), which explores the possibility of living as a devout Muslim woman in the West, is a notable exception. So Robin Yassin-Kassab’s decision to structure his novel as a male spiritual odyssey, which charts Sami’s development from militant, politicised secularism to a dreamy undogmatic faith, is unusual and intriguing.
The Road From Damascus is also original in its mapping of Arabic London. With the exception of the Sudanese novelist Tayib Salih’s Season of Migration to the North (1966), there have been few recognised monuments of Arabic London literature. Waguih Ghali, whose comic masterpiece Beer in the Snooker Club (1964) charted the experience of Egyptian socialists in London during the 1950s, has been utterly neglected (Thomas, 2008). More recently, Adah Souief’s English-Arabic novels and Hanan al-Shaykh’s wonderful comic picaresque about Arabic émigrés, Only in London (2001), have received some attention but it remains the case that that none of the major studies of postcolonial English literature focuses on writers of Arab descent (Nasta, 2001; Sandhu, 2003; McLeod, 2004; Ball, 2004; King, 2004; Phillips, 2006). There are signs that this lack of interest in Arabic culture is changing, spearheaded by Saqi Books in 1983 and Banipal (the magazine of modern Arab literature in translation) in 1997, and most recently by the launch of Arabia Books in 2008. Damascus, which has barely registered on the cultural radar, has recently been the subject of a play by David Greig shown at London’s Tricycle Theatre.
Unlike earlier Arabic novelists writing about migration to London, Robin Yassin-Kassab was born in the city to a Syrian father and an English mother. His sense of having a double identity recalls Hanif Kureishi, and Yassin-Kassab’s protagonist has something in common with Karim, ‘the funny kind of Englishman’ in Kureishi’s landmark novel The Buddha of (1990) and even more with Shahid, who veers wildly between hedonism and the lure of a group of Muslim radicals, in The Black Album. For much of The Road from Damascus, Sami too is restless and easily bored, adrift in a ‘chain-smoking, junk-guzzling, substance-abusing world’ (p. 175), and failing to live up to the expectations of his once distinguished family who have slid down the social scale since their exile to England. When the novel opens, Sami is failing to write his doctorate on Arabic poetry and growing apart from his wife, Muntaha, the daughter of Iraqi refugees. She is by far the most sympathetic character in the novel: educated, independent and mature. She attempts to curb both her younger brother’s hip-hop anti-racist Islamic radicalism and Sami’s facile but dogmatic objections to her wearing the hijab, which he imagines will make him look like a patriarchal Muslim tyrant. Sitting next to her on the tube he suspects the passengers see them as ‘Muslims out on dark business, their trauma children and a string of austere relatives left behind in an unfurnished overcrowded room’ (p. 110). Muntaha, who was born in Baghdad, is more confident of her Arabic identity and cares far less what other people think of her wearing the veil. The novel shows a variety of responses to migration and many kinds of Muslim belief, including Sami’s father-in-law finding consolation for exile in a fatalistic form of Islam and his mother’s traditional piety. Relationships in the novel are traced in connection with the events in the Arab world which shape them. Sami’s courtship of Muntaha occurs during the Kuwait war in 1991, which profoundly changes him: ‘the realization that the condition of being an Arab was impotence, which was certainly not the idea he’d inherited’ (p.
The fundamental conflict for Sami is not primarily between liberalism and political Islam, as it is for Kureishi’s characters, but rather Islam is seen in opposition to socialist pan-Arabic politics. At the heart of The Road from Damascus is Sami’s discovery of the part his father played in the brutal suppression of the Muslim Brotherhood in the Syrian city of Hama in 1982. For Mustafa, the ‘twenty or thirty thousand dead’, is ‘worth it’, even though the Syrian government is a dictatorship, because the alternative is worse: ‘These people would take us back to the Stone Age. They would destroy us.’ Mustafa was prepared to sacrifice his own brother-in-law ‘for the sake of the future, of progress’ (p. 169). Sami’s damascene conversion occurs when he realises that his uncle, broken by twenty-two years in a Syrian jail, had been sent there by Mustafa, the father he had hero-worshipped. Sami begins to realise that secular humanism has its dark side and that all religion is not necessarily backwardness. This brings about a rapprochement with his mother, whom he hadn’t spoken to for years ‘because she’d betrayed his father’s secularism by wearing a hijab’ (8), and with his wife. Sami’s return to Muntaha takes place against the background of 9/11. As they watch the news he feels ‘an intestinal rush of excitement’ and rehearses the justification in his mind: ‘America attacks Iraq. Puts military bases in almost every Arab country. … They undermine popular governments and prop up hated dictatorships. Put the bullets in the guns which kill Palestinians’ (p. 316). But he also recognises that the innocent people killed in the twin towers are the counterparts of ‘the dead of Hama’ (p. 317). And he accepts the wisdom of Muntaha’s quotation from the Qu’ran: ‘My mercy is greater than My wrath’ (p. 317).
Although Robin Yassin-Kassab’s analysis of Middle Eastern politics and varieties of religious belief brings something new to the novel, his evocation of Arabic London is sometimes disappointingly flat. Having fled from Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, Marwan (Sami’s father-in-law) explores his new city but the descriptions never take off; they sound like an inventory in a guidebook:
To the Syrian grocer’s on the Uxbridge Road where he bought olives and salted balls of cheese. To Moroccan stalls on the Golborne Road where he drank steaming bowls of harira against the weather and listened to the gruff, almost incomprehensible Franco-Arabic of the market men. To cafes on the Edgware Road or upstairs rooms in Kilburn where he smoked a narghile … between voluble Egyptians and Lebanese. He stepped around plotters, journalists and other exiles, and closed his eyes to the vulgar young Gulf tourists’ (p. 79).
Moreover, the debates about Sami’s identity crisis are couched in a vocabulary that seems at times overly familiar. As a child he was ashamed of his Muslim Arabic background:
From a schoolyard perspective all origins except his had something going for them. Some credibility. White English through strength of numbers, and because it was the normal standard. Black was stronger still. It even made converts: many whites adopted black speech, tastes and hairstyles, as far as was possible for them, at least while in school. There was mutual fascination between the whites and the blacks, watching and imitating each other, fighting and fucking each other, while the Muslims tiptoed in the gloomy spaces around the beds and dance floors where the drama was played out. (p. 60)
Blacks had ‘reggae and hip hop’, Sikhs ‘had bhangra’, the Irish were ‘funny and tough and pissed’ but in Britain ‘Muslims meant Pakis, which meant crumbling mills and corner shops … neither sexy nor strong’ (p. 61). There were too few Arabs to ‘qualify as a community’ and the most visible, the Gulf Arabs, were not cool: ‘tourists and princelings, obese, wealthy, stupid’ (p. 61). It’s not until he gets to university that Sami can fashion an Arab identity by adopting ‘the kuffiyeh and Intifada T-shirt’ (p. 218) and quoting Arabic poetry to impressionable English girls. Yassin-Kassab (who sports a kuffiyeh and a beard in his publicity photograph) often mocks Sami’s pretensions and confusions; since he clearly has a comic gift it is perhaps a shame that he didn’t allow more humour into the novel.
There are some very funny set pieces. In one scene, the famed writer Rashid Iqbal, ‘of Indian birth and British nationality’, author of Taboo Buster, gives a lecture at a London University venue. In front of a crowded hall packed with different student groups (Radical Humanists and delegations from Revolutionary Solidarity with Third World Peoples), Iqbal announces that there are only two images of Homo Religiens: the suicide bomber and the bookburner (p. 297). Warming to his theme, he calls for ‘compulsory hospital examination of African Muslim girls as a means of ensuring their genital rights’. There’s soon an uproar, with hecklers demanding Iqbal gets his hands off ‘our women’s vaginas’ before the scene collapses into a farcical riot: ‘“Ladies and gentlemen,” Iqbal made a preacher’s sweeping gesture over the mob, “I present my characters”’ (p. 302). The novel also has moments of lyrical intensity, some imported through quotations from the Syrian poet Nizar Qabbani (1923-1998), whose ‘Bread, Hashish and Moon’ was the original title of the novel. Although there is much of interest in The Road to Damascus, it is an uneven book. The third person narrative lacks a distinctive style: at times the prose reads like journalistic reportage, at others like an essay on postcolonial identity written by a graduate student at SOAS. It is hard not to feel that although Yassin-Kassab has a great subject he has not quite found his novelistic voice.
Ball, J.C. (2004) Imagining London: Postcolonial Fiction and the Transnational Metropolis (Toronto: University of Toronto Press).
King, B. (2004) The Internationalization of English Literature (Oxford: Oxford University Press).
Nasta, S. (2001) Home Truths: Fictions of the South Asian Diaspora in Britain (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan).
McLeod, J. (2004) Postcolonial London: Rewriting the Metropolis (London: Routledge).
Phillips, Lawrence (2006) London Narratives: Post-War Fiction and the City (London: Continuum).
Sandhu, S (2003) London Calling: How Black and Asian Writers Imagined a City (London: Harper Collins).
Thomas, S. ‘Waguih Ghali’. The Literary Encyclopedia. 12 September 2008. [http://www.litencyc.com/php/speople.php?rec=true&UID=12226, accessed 7 March 2009.]
To Cite This Article:
Susie Thomas, ‘Review of Robin Yassin-Kassab, The Road From Damascus, (London: Hamish Hamilton, 2008)’. Literary London: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Representation of London, Volume 7 Number 1 (March 2009). Online at http://www.literarylondon.org/london-journal/march2009/thomas.html. Accessed on [date of access]