Sami Traifi, the central character in Anglo-Syrian writer Robin Yassin-Kassab’s debut novel “The Road from Damascus”, was born in Britain to Syrian parents and lives in London with his Iraqi wife Muntaha. His wife’s decision to start wearing the hijab against his wishes is a key catalyst to the narrative that unfolds. Sami is forced to question everything at a profound level, and Yassin-Kassab’s exuberant novel chronicles his odyssey through chaotic, multicultural London.
Yassin-Kassab dedicates the novel, published in the UK by the Penguin imprint Hamish Hamilton, to his wife Rana Zaitoon. The couple were recently interviewed for an article in the London-based Sunday newspaper the Observer, and revealed certain similarities between the novel and their own lives.
Five years into Robin and Rana’s marriage, when the couple had moved to Saudi Arabia from Syria via a period spent in Morocco, Rana decided to start wearing the hijab. Robin was concerned that people would think he was forcing her to wear it, but he recognized that Rana thought she would be comfortable wearing the hijab and that she felt proud to be identified as a Muslim woman. “So, rather than worrying about other people, I started to listen to her. Now I feel comfortable too. And her hair is still there underneath, and free-flowing in the privacy of our home, as luxurious as it ever was.”
Rana admitted that she sometimes feels sorry for her husband. “He would prefer it if I didn’t wear the hijab. But what can I do? It is my wish.” She has worn the hijab for six years, in a range of colors and patterns, and “it has been liberating”. With the focus no longer so much on her looks she was encouraged to develop her personality, and has become more confident.
Yassin-Kassab (39) was born to a Syrian father and English mother and grew up in the North of England and Scotland. He is a graduate of Oxford University and has travelled widely, including working as a journalist in Pakistan and teaching English in Oman.
His ambitious 350-page novel fizzes with ideas and debates revolving around contemporary Islam, British Muslims, questions of identity, and the tussle between secularism and religion. The novel is set in summer 2001, in the build-up to the attacks of 9/11. The first chapter finds Sami on a visit to Damascus. He has gone to Syria “to reconnect with his roots; remember who he was; find an idea.”
Now aged 31, Sami has spent the previous ten years fruitlessly trying to establish himself as an academic while living off his wife’s salary as a teacher. He wants to write a thesis, get a doctorate, become an academic like his father was and “get it all back on course, his place in the world, his marriage, his mother.”
Sami has yet to escape the shadow of his Arab nationalist father Mustafa who died of cancer when Sami was a teenager. He is not on speaking terms with his mother because she did not talk to his father when he was dying, and because she betrayed his father’s secularism by wearing the hijab. And now his wife back in London is talking about wearing the hijab, which “somehow seemed to represent the end of everything Sami had hoped for”.
One past event that resonates in the novel is the Hama uprising of 1982 in which the Syrian regime killed tens of thousands of civilians. Sami’s father justified the killings to Sami as a response to assassinations carried out by the Muslim Brotherhood. The novel explores whether dogmatic secularism such as that of Mustafa can itself be a form of extremism.
When Sami goes to see his mother’s relatives in Damascus he encounters a broken older man shut away in a room. This is his mother’s brother Faris, who suffered torture and spent 22 years in jail after being betrayed for belonging to the Muslim Brotherhood. Faris had told only close family members that he was a member, and the question is who betrayed him. Sami is reluctant to confront the truth, and the tragic figure of Faris haunts him.
Yassin-Kassab sensitively depicts the nuances in the relationship between Sami and Muntaha, and the tension between them after he returns to London. When she puts on the hijab Sami argues with her, but she says: “I want to show myself that I’m not afraid of who I am.” Yassin-Kassab portrays Muntaha very effectively, conveying her intelligence, integrity and inner stillness.
During Sami’s descent into a vortex of drug taking and drunkenness he is out of contact with Muntaha, and is unaware that her father has died. He fails to attend the condolence gathering at Marwan’s home, unlike Muntaha’s teacher colleague Gabor Vronk.
Gabor is of Russian, Hungarian and Jewish extraction. He deeply admires Muntaha, and their discussions of Islamic doctrines mesh with his knowledge of art and science and influence his painting. He hopes to become closer to Muntaha, but when later in the novel he tries to push things further she rebuffs him and reminds him that she is married although separated.
Sami’s binge of excess includes a sordid act of infidelity and ends with his being detained overnight by the police. On his return home his unfaithfulness is immediately apparent to Muntaha, who asks him to leave their home.
Living alone in student accommodation Sami starts to find himself, giving up his previous indulgences and establishing some inner discipline. He hopes to return to Muntaha, and eventually finds his way to a “trembling, contingent faith”.
While the main relationship in the novel is that between Sami and Muntaha, a host of other characters are woven into the narrative. Muntaha’s father Marwan, a poet, left Iraq in 1982 after being imprisoned and tortured. His wife was killed when she was beaten by the security forces on the night of his arrest. He found refuge in London with his daughter and his son Ammar thanks to help from the former cultural attaché at the British Embassy in Baghdad, Jim Clark. Clark is a recurring figure, an avuncular scholar with a love and knowledge of Arab culture and people.
Muntaha’s brother Ammar has a deep bond with Sami, first forged through a mutual love of the music of American hip-hop group Public Enemy. Ammar has now become radicalized with a fierce, simplistic interpretation of his religion. Yassin-Kassab captures Ammar’s speech patterns and gestures, and their mixed black and other influences.
Ammar’ views bring him into conflict with Muntaha. She is scathing about his jubilation over 9/11, telling him: “Islamic rules say you can’t kill women or children. You can’t kill civilians. You have to fight on the battlefield, not in the middle of the city.” Ammar responds: “They attack our cities. We attack theirs.”
Yassin-Kassab has broken new ground with his novel, which is the first to depict in such complexity the Arab émigré community in London and the religious and political currents swirling around it. A major new talent has arrived on the literary scene, and it will be interesting to see where his second novel takes us.
Saudi Gazette 17 Nov 2008