on 16 August 2009
'The Road from Damascus' is a well-written and very enjoyable novel. It is about Sami Traifi, a struggling PhD student who was born in Britain to Syrian parents. The story is set in the summer of 2001 when Sami has just returned from a month's trip to Syria in a somewhat unsuccessful attempt to find his roots. Upon his return to London he finds that his wife Muntaha has begun wearing the Muslim headscarf (hijab) as an expression of her newly found spirituality. Sami, a staunch secularist, is outraged. In a state of frustration and uncertainty, he embarks on a journey of drinking and drugs,which ultimately lands him in a police lock-up for the night. Having reached a state of mental and physical exhaustion, he then begins to find some answers to the questions that have been troubling him for so long.
The novel is an entertaining and often moving tale of Sami's relationships with his wife and others close to him, and through these relationships much bigger themes are explored: secularism and religion, modernity and tradition, love and loyalty. For the reader with limited exposure to Arab and Muslim society, the novel offers a refreshing take on the complexity of culture, identity, race, and religion in a globalising world. Indeed, the novel takes a daring, and timely, approach to issues which are often framed in the western media within the narrow paradigm of a "clash of civilisations".
The depth and breadth of the issues dealt with do not make light reading. However, the novel is entertaining and in parts very funny, and I found it difficult to put down. The story is told in a style which is engaging, employing beautiful turns of phrase, at times capturing the flavour of its setting with the language of the London streets. Overall, 'The Road from Damascus' is boldly original, in parts challenging, and an excellent read. I highly recommend it.
on 9 September 2008
Some people have interesting experiences in their lives, and some people can write interesting prose. I think that both are applicable to this début from Robin Yassin-Kassab.
A beautiful, introspective wife with a great amount of tolerance asserts her identity and newfound religious karma with a headscarf while suffering her husband Sami's journey of discovery via Damascus, the London drug scene, bereavement and a police cell.
Questions of identity are at the heart of the book. The modern globalising world and the friction of cultures all feed the book's plot. Islam (and religion in general) are ingredients. Characters from beautifully métisse backgrounds give a backdrop to the narrative, and serve to raise the kind of questions we must all ask ourselves in today's world. Indeed is the central character a British Syrian or a Syrian Brit (does it matter)? A Russian/Hungarian naturalised Brit focuses on the romantic part of his origins... a London raised arab, once into Public Enemy and black underground cuture, is now a "born again" Muslim with a tendency to mix reggae, rap and and street slang before re-asserting his piety with Koranic references.
No longer is it simple to just state your identity according to nationality or birthplace. People move around a lot (as does the action in the book) and their allegiances change.
You finish this book with a sense that the journey upon which you embark to find the answers is more important than the answers themselves (perhaps there aren't any), that Robin is indeed an erudite and fascinating person, and that questions of tolerance and creed are far better explored by reading these pages than by watching western TV news or asserting your identity as a simple equation of birthplace, nationality, and the colour of your skin.
on 19 March 2009
i found Yassin-Kassab's brilliant debut difficult to put down and it deserves wide popularity.
The book has been reviewed in depth already on amazon so i won't regurgitate any plot but I will say that characters are cleverly used to delineate useful fictional boundaries around and between a few of the multifaceted aspects of Islam in London and, without ramming it in the readers face, Yassin-Kassab demonstrates just how ridiculous and cliched a vast swathe of the media's representation of contemporary British Islam is. It's to the authors great credit that even through employing this clever tactic, the characters remain well rounded and sympathetic instead of ham fisted ciphers and like any good novel, you genuinely miss them after closing the last page.
It's also extremely refreshing to read a new novel that's brim full of ideas, a novel not afraid to have ideas, sometimes radical ones. At times i was even reminded of Philip K. Dick at his drug twisted gnostic best.
I look forward to this talented new authors next novel, i suspect exceptional things are on their way.
on 20 July 2009
I came to this novel with high hopes, being interested in the varieties of contemporary Islam, but overall was somewhat disappointed, although the author clearly has talent.
It narrates the spiritual journey of the central character, Sami, to find some identity and reconciliation between his Islamic ancestry and the militantly secularist outlook of his father. On the way, we learn of the stories of older members of his family, and hear debates on Islamic philosophy, mostly through the mouth of Sami's wife Muntaha: these were often moving and engaging. The main problem I had was with the central character. It need not have mattered that he was so utterly self-centred, charmless and immature (a 31 year old eternal student indulged first by his dead father, and then by his postgraduate institution - something highly unconvincing, knowing today's universities!), but he was also so BORING, lacking any interests or resources other than drink and drugs. I hastened through the pages in his company. Conversely, his wife Muntaba, seemed like a male fantasy - endlessly beautiful, reasonable, loving. Perhaps this book should be read as an allegory, not a realist work with convincing characters - but in that case the secularist mouthpiece should have been a substantial figure, not this overgrown child.
Having said this, the writing is lucid, and the author can both create good comic scenes (such as the arguments between Sami and Muntaha, or the funeral wake)and expound ideas. He will no doubt do better in future, but this is not yet a satisfactory whole.
on 15 August 2010
An ambitious and in the main hugely successful first novel, The Road from Damascus charts Sami Traifi's dramatic fall from academic and marital grace, and his gradual reconciliation with Islam, his Syrian heritage, and his wife's decision to wear the hijab. Yassin-Kassab's writing is culturally and historically astute, deeply informed by politics, theology and poetry, yet always fluid, personal and intensely imaginative. The inner conflicts of a secular British-Muslim are richly drawn on a canvas that stretches from a family secret in Damascus to the destruction of the Twin Towers, from a coke-fuelled spree of rebellion to the private space of prayer. Fundamentalism is satirised, but gently - a young Brother with an excitable belief in jihad is also a loving brother, brother-in-law, son and step-son. Intellectually the book sizzles, exploring not only the subtleties of Islamic thought but also the volatile power-keg of global ideologies in conflict; emotionally the narrative simmers with a warm, aromatic brew of observations and insights. Some minor characters could have been more satisfyingly developed, but the author does a tremendously sensitive job of conveying the complex nerve-structure of family relations. Sami's calm and elegant wife emerges as a powerful and independent figure, while Sami's need to come to terms with the loss of his father and accept his own adult responsibilities to others forms the heart of this compelling book. Highly recommended.
The Road to Damascus is first of all, a very well-written novel. The style is accessible but also challenging, the use of language superb, occasionally stopping you in your tracks to take in the use of words and phrases from the best of traditional English through to the street language of various London cultures. Yassin-Kassab blends styles together in a way which mirrors the language of contemporary London in all its colour and vibrancy.
Essentially it is about a the summer of 2001 in the life of British-born (of Syrian parents), Sami Traifi, a struggling academic, who since graduating has been trying to write is doctoral thesis. He has just returned from Syria where he has been discovering his roots. Flash-back chapters trace his history, including his relationship with his beautiful and gracious wife Muntaha.
On returning from his year in Damascus, where discovering his family roots has not been as helpful as he had hoped, he finds his wife has taken to wearing a head-scarf as an expression of a renewed faith. Sami, an avowed secularlist, finds this deeply distressing, the more so as he himself is on a course of self-destruction, using drugs and drink to veil his own sense of failure and frustration. He fails to realise that Muntaha's hijab is not an expression of a new fundamentalism so much as a symbol of a quiet spiritual renewal and rediscovery of prayer. Muntaha's brother on the other hand, previously only committed to hip-hop music and drugs, has adopted an unthinking and ignorant fundamentalism, leading to some insightful exchanges between brother and sister on the meaning of Islam.
One of the most interesting features of the novel to me, is the use of characters from a variety of strands of contemporary Islam. Muntaha retains her liberal world-view while finding peace in the Koran, while her brother only finds provocation to violence and retribution. The Christian world is very like this, where what to most is a religion of peace and reconciliation, to its fundamentlist wing is religion of judgement and wrath. The powerful apocalyptic strand in the conversations of some characters in the book, echoes the September 11th events at the World Trade Centre, which several of Robin Yassin-Kassab's characters see as pivotal and prophetic. There are so many themes in the book, it would be difficult to mention them all, but I was particularly interested in the debates on the unifying effect of Islam - as opposed to an earlier unsatisfactory Arabism which has failed in various ways.
The book is not just about contemporary Islam and its struggle to come to terms with (or oppose) Western values, but is also full of the day to day struggles of humanity when faced with family break-up, the loss of community cohesion and the dramas of unemployment, ill-health, povery and bereavement. The book is dramatic and from time to time humerous, and is in all senses, a "good read" which I found hard to put down. It is moving in many ways, and presents a cast of characters who are quite believable and as with all good books, when you turn the last page you know you are going to miss them and wonder what happened next.
on 25 September 2011
I found this book a little tedious to get into just for a nano-second, but am so pleased I persevered. Set in London, with disturbing beginnings in Damascus, Sami, so lucky to have such an understanding and tolerant wife and an equally tolerant family, careers though a disaster-filled life, hell bent on destroying it on spliff, grog and whatever comes his way. A misfit in his own world, in London and Damascus, he fights against and struggles with family issues, religious issues, life issues, with identity issues. Is he a fully rounded character? Probably not. Weak, easily persuaded throughout, lost to the academic world he aspires to, through an inability to come to terms with self, Sami is in self-distruct mode. This sets him on a directionless path to nowhere and in that milleu, comes across characters who are as equally disturbed as he is. Enjoy the read as he criss-crosses from sanity to insanity to some sort of resolution about where he fits in society.
on 24 October 2015
Brilliant, deeply nuanced about Muslimdom in Syria and the UK. What was Robin on when he wrote it - its so fantasticallly imaginative to the point of prophethood. Jaffer Clarke
on 2 November 2014
Very pleasant reading. Being from the region, it carries elements of sadness. May God restore us to the city we love- Damascus. Wonderful book!
on 18 April 2014
allows you to get into the mind of the main character, a male. good ending to his struggles, scenarios highly relevant to current society