The Road From Damascus, by Robin Yassin-Kassab

Sects and the city

Reviewed,Aamer Hussein
Friday 20 June 2008 00:00

Sami Traifi is an Arab in London – a Syrian, to be exact – and a Muslim. But he isn't, at least to begin with, too enamoured of his Muslim background. In his ideological leanings he follows his father, a secular and intellectual pan-Arabist, whose ideals have been shredded by political persecution and exile. His mother, on the contrary, is a conservative, religious woman in a headscarf.

Sami becomes an expert in Arab literature. But his mind is weighed down by doubts, questions and a near-obsession with varieties of belief. His sophisticated Iraqi wife, Muntaha, drifts towards the religion of her birth, though hers is the kind of faith that doesn't depend on outward signs. She, too, chooses to wear the headscarf, much to her husband's chagrin. His brother, on the other hand, has a hybrid faith: he uses the rhetoric of hip-hop and race politics to express his Islam. Sami's family is skilfully contrasted to Muntaha's, whose father, from a very similar political background, turns in exile to a vague, tentative accommodation with Islam.

In a novel so packed with ideas that it threatens, at times, to explode, Robin Yassin-Kassab uses Sami's interaction with his relatives to voice debates on national and religious identity, on the domination of the Arab-Islamic world by the West, and on the existential choices migrants and exiles make. But his characters are rarely mere mouthpieces for their ideological positions. One of the author's gifts – and he has many – is to give us characters who, even at their most wilfully one-dimensional, are believable and at times funny.

Ammar, Muntaha's brother, is a wonderful portrait of a would-be radical. Muntaha's Eastern European admirer flirts with Islamic terminology in order to draw closer to her. In a witty set piece, a post-Islamic intellectual delivers an insider's rant against his own cradle Islam so accurate that it seems transcribed from life.

These portraits also link us to the polyglot London that is the vividly depicted backdrop. Though we have seen Arab London before – notably in Hanan Al-Shaykh's Only in London – this is mostly through the eyes of expats and outsiders.

The Road to Damascus is the first novel that takes us into the British-Arab community and the anxieties and aspirations of its second generation. It will inevitably be compared to White Teeth and Brick Lane; at times, Sami resembles a Kureishi hero in his search for hedonistic escapes in the city.

In spite of its passing resemblances to other novels, this is a very original book that deconstructs, rather than celebrates, multi-culturalism and assimilation. Written with an insider's anger and pain, it's also a double-edged narrative that sails with bold energy between its Arab, Islamic and British references, navigating Qur'anic discourse, the exhausted rhetoric of Arab nationalism, the pseudo-academic jargon of the diasporic intelllectual.

At the heart of the novel is the love story of Sami and his wife, or more exactly the story of the fraying of their love. Muntaha is, though not idealised, a positive character, secure in her religious and existential choices. Sami's own choices are not, however, always consistent. What makes him abandon his studies and marriage: exile or displacement? His burden of identity? His wife's religious beliefs? His tormented family history? All these don't quite add up to a reason for his almost pathological disenchantment. What they do give is a hook on which to suspend Sami's self-tormenting and at times scatological ruminations, often in a dense prose that causes us to endure our hero's claustrophobic existence from inside his head.

As the title suggests, a journey of self-exploration has its goal. Like the women in his life – his mother, whose name means light, and his wife, whose name implies the infinite space beyond limits – Sami, too, must come to fragile terms with his limits and see, beyond them, the limitless possibilities that faith promises and life fulfils.

Aamer Hussein's 'Insomnia' is published by Telegram

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