Thursday, June 19, 2008

The search for identity

Ask the half-Syrian debut novelist Robin Yassin-Kassab to sum up western misconceptions of the Middle East, and he tells a story. In 1996 Yassin-Kassab moved from England, where he grew up with his English mother, to Damascus. The move was an attempt to get in touch with a part of himself that had long been missing: his Arabic heritage.
"In Damascus I lived at the end of a short alley," says Yassin-Kassab. "Each morning I'd walk down this alley, and as I passed every door someone would say, 'Hey, Robin! Come in for tea!'
It took me half an hour just to get to the end. And half-an-hour back again in the evening.
"That warmth: it's a side of the region that many western people simply don't see."
If 38-year-old Yassin-Kassab's personal odyssey around the Middle East - he's also lived in Pakistan, Turkey, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, and Oman - was a quest for identity, then it's no surprise that his first novel, The Road From Damascus, is also full of British Muslims searching for themselves and wondering how to live. The novel is the latest from prestigious British publishers Hamish Hamilton, the literary star-makers who brought us Zadie Smith and Hari Kunzru. But it's also the newest gust in a gale force wind that has carried Muslim fiction ever higher up the publishing agenda since September 11.
In both the UK and the US, young and fashionable authors (think Monica Ali and Brick Lane, Gautam Malkani and Londonstani, Mohsin Hamid and The Reluctant Fundamentalist) are finding huge readerships with their tales of Muslim lives in the West.So where does Yassin-Kassab's book fit? And how does he feel about joining the ranks of other British-Muslim novelists?
The Road From Damascus is not directly autobiographical, says Yassin-Kassab. But he readily accepts the idea that he and his protagonist, Sami, have been on journeys that share parallels. The novel sees Sami travel to Syria to discover a long-buried family secret, then return to his home in pre-September 11 London, where those he loves are struggling to define themselves: his Arabic wife, Muntaha, has embraced the hijab, while his impressionable brother-in-law Ammar has turned to radical Islam.
As for Yassin-Kassab, after his parents' divorce, he was raised in south-west Scotland by his mother, and only came back to his Arab roots when he arrived at Oxford University.
"I didn't have an Arabic upbringing," he explains. "But it was obvious there was something different about me; my face wasn't the same as the other children's, for a start."
I was always aware that a part of my background was missing. I went to the Middle East in search of that."
Today, Yassin-Kassab identifies himself as a Muslim: "There are times when I pray five times a day, and times when I don't pray at all."
So how does he feel now about the fraught question of British-Muslim identity?"Part of the problem is that there is no distinctive identity for British Muslims," he says.
"It leaves Muslim teenagers desperately searching for a way to define themselves. That's why you see some young Arabs in London embracing black youth culture. It surrounds them, and it's cool, and it gives voice to their alienation."
Of course, September 11 and its aftermath have only caused more British Muslims to wonder where, exactly, they stand. Hasn't it got harder to be a Muslim in the UK?"Western Muslims are under huge pressure at the moment," he says.
"That tends to push the Muslim kids one of two ways. You see some who want simply to party and get drunk, and escape Islam entirely. Others get into hard-core Wahhabi stuff, and try to form little cells at their mosque. That's my character Ammar.
"But I feel great affection for Ammar. He's misguided and ineffectual, but essentially a good person. There are a lot of young British Muslims like him.
"It's this central theme - the Muslim search for a British identity - that ensures that Yassin-Kassab invites comparison to a host of other young British novelists.
Indeed, stories of identity, belonging, and Islam-meets-West have come to define a new generation of British writers, ever since Zadie Smith's White Teeth exploded into literary London in 2000. By counterpointing the fortunes of the Muslim Iqbal family against that of the English-Jamaican Jones's, that book ushered whole new vistas inside the boundary of the traditional English novel.
What has followed amounts, says the leading Muslim-British writer Ziauddin Sardar, to a significant shift.
"The Muslim British novel is really coming of age now," he says. "Go back to the 1970s, and there was a lack of Muslim voices. Muslim stereotypes were common in fiction back then; the men were always misogynistic, the women were always oppressed.
"A new Muslim-British fiction had its birth pangs with Salman Rushdie, and Hanif Kureishi. But with those two, I think, you still see writing about Muslims that stems from an essentially British sensibility. It's still Islam as seen from outside. Now Muslims are starting to tell their own stories, as seen through their own eyes. That's a huge shift in power, and very welcome."
Of course, September 11, and London's July 7 tube attacks, served to bring interest in western Muslims to an all-time high. But what's behind this flowering in western-Muslim fiction?"We're seeing a generation of Muslims who have grown up in the West, are interested in the novel, and understand the huge power of fiction," says Sardar.
"So you have writers such as Monica Ali writing about a Bangladeshi Muslim in Brick Lane, and Ahdaf Soueif, who explores the western Muslim experience in her brilliant The Map of Love."
Most recently, the Financial Times journalist Gautam Malkani gave voice to the Muslim and Sikh "rudeboy" teenagers of Hounslow in his Londonstani, albeit to mixed critical response.
Sardar points also to Pakistan-born Kamila Shamsie, and Mohsin Hamid, whose Booker-shortlisted The Reluctant Fundamentalist sees a high-flying Pakistani-American tell of his disillusionment with the West.The result, says Sardar, can only mean a wider understanding between peoples:
"What, after all, is fiction for but to illuminate unknown areas of life?" he says. "Yes, these young novelists are fashionable. They have a kind of exotic value. But we need to look past that and see the social and cultural layers that they are uncovering. They're showing us how Britain is shaping Muslim life, and how Muslims are helping to shape modern Britain.
"Ultimately, though, Yassin-Kassab, like many of his counterparts, is uneasy about the "Muslim-British writer" tag. The question of identity, he says, is more complex than has been allowed by much recent multicultural fiction.
"This idea of 'multicultural fiction' is a way to sell books, and that's fine," he says. "But I don't want to be a Muslim novelist, or a multicultural novelist; I want to be a novelist. Multicultural London is the setting for my book, but it's really more about parents and children, and marriage, and the relationship of the past to the present."Really, this version of identity that we've heard so much about since White Teeth is an illusion. It's a product of our strange, alienated world that everyone is asking themselves identity questions.
"Almost all of us in the West - immigrant or not - have lost touch with the customs and lifestyles of our great grandfathers, so all of us are starting to ask, 'Who am I?' and 'What badge can I wear to tell people who I am?'
"Still, western misinterpretation of one such badge forms another major theme in Yassin-Kassab's book. Back in London, Sami is distressed by Muntaha's insistence on wearing the hijab. Onlookers, he fears, will believe that she is wearing it at his insistence; Muntaha insists, "I want to belong to my nation".
"In the West, hijab is just as often about an assertion of identity as it is about religion," says Yassin-Kassab. "You get these girls in the East End who were a niqab when even their mothers don't."Then the Islamophobes seize on this and say, 'These girls must be oppressed by their fathers, and uneducated'. Really, it's often much more complex than that. It's a conscious decision by these girls to belong to a certain tribe."
Elsewhere, broader western misconceptions of the Middle East and Arab culture hang heavy over The Road From Damascus. Yassin-Kassab's journey to the Middle East clearly had a profound influence on his novel. So what did he - a westerner himself by upbringing, after all - discover?
"What struck me most was that, despite all the troubles, there is still a great warmth and sense of connection between people," he says. "There's more eye contact, more physical contact, more of a hospitality culture.
"Life in these countries is often not as it is described in western media. Yes, Syria is a dictatorship, but it still contains a spectrum of different ethnic groups living together more or less peacefully. It would be optimistic to call Iran a happy democracy, but people there openly criticised the government when I spoke to them. They sat on street corners reading books. Yet Iran is painted as this monolithic culture with no future.
"People across the region were often keen to question the policies of western governments. But they don't equate ordinary western people with those policies. I never encountered any hostility."
So who is stoking this misrepresentation? Yassin-Kassab looks to political convenience."It's good for those in charge that people in the West aren't asking, 'Why are we violently involved in the Middle East?' Instead they're asking, 'What's wrong with these Muslims?'"
But Yassin-Kassab's extended Middle Eastern journey - funded by teaching English - brought forth more than these observations. It was in Oman that he started to write.
"I'd always known that I wanted to, but felt I had no story. One day I just sat down and started. Sami evolved from there."I've been lucky, Alhumdlillah. There are good writers who spend years trying to get spotted.
"Now, though, Yassin-Kassab is heading to Scotland to work on his second novel. He wants, he says, to avoid the London literary scene, to escape the "multicultural writer" tag it will inevitably try to pin on him. But what, then, of his Arabic roots? Does he feel, at last - after more than a decade in the Middle East - that he has found the part of himself that was missing?
"Yes, I do feel a more complete person," he says. "I lived in the Arab world for a long time; my wife is Arabic."
Then he stops, and considers for a moment."The truth is that when I was younger, it was important for me to ask, 'Am I British? Am I an Arab?' Now, I don't think of myself in those terms. I'm just me."
The Road From Damascus is published by Hamish Hamilton, Dh123.

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