Tag Archives: postcolonialism

Leaps of faith and faithlessness


Sara Veal

Taking place over the course of a long London summer in 2001, Robin Yassin-Kassab’s debut novel offers a nuanced depiction of Islam, and explores religion, identity and love among an increasingly post-cultural society.

Sami Traifi, a second-generation Londoner of Syrian origin, is a mess. He was meant to follow in his late father’s footsteps, and become a renowned specialist in Arabic poetry. However, ten years on from completing his undergraduate degree, the PhD remains elusive, and both his self-belief and marriage are rapidly disintegrating. Rather than “leaping forth from the giant’s shoulders” as he’d hoped, he seems firmly stuck in his father’s shadow.

A last-ditch trip to visit relatives in Damascus turns up an unpleasant family secret that adds to his turmoil, which he chooses to elude with copious spliffs. His wife Muntaha, the love of his life, is finally running out of her seemingly bottomless patience.

Through Sami, Muntaha and the people around them, Yassin-Kassab demonstrates the complexities of the Muslim faith, even embodied in one individual. He fleshes out his characters with unsentimental prose, keeping them realistic and surprising as the narrative meanders through their pasts and presents.

Sami is an atheist who is losing faith in himself, his faithlessness and his father Mustafa. Muntaha is an empowered and educated woman who decides to wear hijab, much to Sami’s dismay. Her brother Ammar is desperate to find his racial and cultural position in the world, veering between black hip hop artists and the mosque. Gabor is a scientist-artist who sees logic and beauty in Islam and longs to worship fellow school teacher Muntaha, whom he aligns with the faith.

While the focus is on Sami, several of the supporting characters easily warrant their own novels, such as Muntaha’s former poetry editor father Marwan and Tom Fields, Sami’s enigmatic, survivalist-professor friend. Yassin-Kassab touches on their rich histories with restraint, summing up the unimaginable loss that Muntaha’s father Marwan suffers in Baghdad, and offering a peep into Tom’s off-the-grid, rural hideaway.

Yassin-Kassab further enriches his exploration of Islam by establishing a gender divide between his characters that favours the fairer sex.

The women of The Road from Damascus possess the most strength, especially Muntaha who remains straightforward and composed in the face of tragedy. Sami’s largely silent, devout mother Nur, carries her pain with pragmatism, while Muntaha’s stepmother Hasna, although comically bossy and bragging (about her doctor son in particular), is the heart of the community around her, enlivening her second husband’s musty home.

In contrast, most of the male characters are largely ineffectual. Both Sami and Muntaha’s fathers are trapped in the past; Mustafa is a revered relic for his son, in the form of his books and memories, and Marwan is a living ghost, thanks to the trauma he endured in Baghdad.

In the present day, Ammar parrots the various creeds he has taken on board, whether the anti-globalization pronouncements of Public Enemy or passages from the Koran, without really understanding what he means. Sami’s PhD adviser Dr Schimmer is well-meaning, but fails to give Sami the firm direction he really needs. Gabor has a confident exterior, but gets swept away in fruitless fantasies, despite his professed commitment to science and logic.

As much as faith, love is both a binding and separating force in the novel, particularly for Sami and Muntaha. Just as Sami is caught in his father’s academic shadow, it seems his marriage may fail as theirs did too, for similar reasons.

Sami initially sees his love for Muntaha in poetic terms, likening her beauty and allure to the Sumerian artefacts in front of which he first encounters her, an orientalization that is later echoed by Gabor.

Both men orientalize themselves as well as Muntaha; Sami with his Syrian heritage and Gabor with the Russian-ness of his grandfather, although both men reveal themselves to be more typically English than anything else.

However, this typical English-ness is tempered by the constantly redefined meaning of being English, another modern aspect that Yassin-Kassab explores through his recreation of London.

Although the novel begins in legendary Damascus, “a city that had briefly ruled the world”, and briefly travels to Baghdad and St Petersburg by way of memories and musings, London is the main landscape in which the characters wage their internal battles.

Yassin-Kassab richly evokes “unrelenting, eternal” London’s schizophrenia, effectively bringing it to life as a densely multi-faith, multi-cultural metropolis.

In his London, you can buy weed from elderly Trinidadian barbers; attend mosque with Irish converts; infiltrate Freemason haunts; rave in warehouse parties; get arrested at Tower Bridge; become a pyramid power disciple (or not); riot at controversial lectures; and fall in love at the British History Museum.

This London setting suits the entangled political and historical shifts that intertwine the characters’ lives. At first, it provides a buffer to the Middle Eastern drama the previous generation – i.e. Mustafa and Marwan – fled from, with Sami and Muntaha being able to enjoy a blissful courtship in the aftermath of the 1991 Kuwait war.

As the summer continues, the realities of their fathers further encroach upon them, while Sami undergoes several transformations; physical, spiritual and emotional. So much happens in the characters’ internal and external worlds that the season’s notorious end comes as a surprise, and is well-utilized as a turning point in Sami and Muntaha’s relationship, as well as more tightly weaving together the novel’s multiple themes.

While The Road from Damascus offers no easy solutions to the grand questions of religion and relationships that it raises, it succeeds in depicting a positive, complex and thoroughly modern Islam, one which is much needed in a world that increasingly swings between forms of extremism, whether hedonistic, consumerist or religious. More importantly, it does so while telling an engaging tale that offers insight into many worlds, all of which are thoroughly grounded in reality.

The Road from Damascus
Paperback: 368 pages
Publisher: Penguin (2009)
Language English
ISBN-10: 0141035641
ISBN-13: 978-0141035642
Product Dimensions: 19.6 x 12.8 x 2.6 cm


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Rewriting the white man’s burden


Sara Veal

Patrick Neate describes his latest novel, which concludes the loose trilogy that began with Musungu Jim and the Great Chief Tuloko and Twelve Bar Blues, as “a far-flung tale of three generations of a family rooted in the English establishment” as well as “a broad satire of colonialism, postcolonialism and neocolonialism”.

While those who have read the prequels will enjoy the return of familiar characters, Jerusalem stands on its own feet, offering timely insights into issues such as international economic crisis, corrupt elections, asylum-seekers and AIDS, with a wry execution that prevents it from collapsing under the weight of its ideas.

Jerusalem opens with a 1900 diary entry by a “local *English* gentleman”, reflecting on his traumatic Boer war experience and colonial disillusionment, fearing that “in this place we have become less than human, less even than the Negro”. It then switches to 2008, in the fictional, Zimbabwe-like Republic of Zambawi, where a rookie prison guard is meeting a philosophical prisoner. The next switch is to contemporary London, where a jaded entrepreneur watches his father, a junior foreign minister, criticize the Zambawian arrest of a “prominent UK businessman”.

Such traversing across time, space and culture characterizes Jerusalem, in which the story is told using several perspectives, and a tapestry of Zambawian folk tales, news articles, transcripts, memos, diary entries and letters.

This varied narrative technique creates a sense of mystery that propels the reader on, as well as effectively fleshing out the range of settings, from the slums of Zambawi’s capital to the initially idyllic English countryside. As you might expect, all the threads are eventually woven together, and in a way that subtly surprises, calling for an immediate reread.

That the narrative pieces come together so well is mainly due to the deft characterization. Neate has a knack of creating characters that are somewhat stereotypical and humorous (in that we’re mainly laughing at them than with them), but reveal depths and nuances that really lift them off the page. You can’t help but feel sorry for the dying man who is resigned to his fate, but also can’t help snickering when another character describes him a “polished peanut”.

The protagonists are an anonymous early twentieth century Englishman; Musa Musa, a Zambawian zakulu (witchdoctor) and political prisoner; Preston Pinner aka 2P aka Tuppence, a successful, but increasingly dissatisfied entrepreneur who excels at marketing “cool”; and his father David Pinner, a “dashing” junior foreign minister who hopes his diplomatic mission to Zambawi to retrieve an alleged coup plotter will improve his chances of becoming Prime Minister.

Other notable characters include Zambawian President Enoch Adini, a charismatic mix of Robert Mugabe and Barack Obama, variously regarded as a “staunch nationalist” and would-be dictator”; Jim Tulloh, an AIDS-ravaged English expatriate who runs a Zambawian orphanage; and Nobody, an enigmatic rapper, whose hit song “Jerusalem” “serves up a story of immigration and frustration in *the* skittish British nation”.

Neate captures this array of voices with comic precision, whether Preston’s “distinct, cultivated London twang”, the booming, eloquent pronouncements of a wealthy Zambawian businessman who views England both as a “colonial evil stepmother” and a great place to shop, or the seductive rhetoric of President Adini as he benevolently addresses his nation via frequent telecasts.

Zambawi itself, as much a character as a setting, feels familiar and real, particularly for those who have never visited “Africa”. It fits in well with the Africa of the average outsider’s collective imagination, a point that Neate acknowledges and exploits, using Zambawi as a mirror to unflatteringly reflect back on its colonial stepmothers’ own inadequacies and uncomfortable truths, such as the vapid, sheep-like pursuit of cool and continuing Western hypocrisy, i.e. the US pressuring for “free and fair elections”, when their own was “ultimately awarded to the loser”, as President Adini slyly points out.

Furthering the typical “Africa-ness” of Zambawi, a sequence where a Zambawian bus breaks down offers a microcosm of the way things tend to go wrong in African countries. The bus runs out of fuel; the usually well-connected gas-station owner is unexpectedly out of supplies; no one on the bus can call for help as the phone network is down as a result of foreign staff being withdrawn; when eventually found fuel cannot be legally bought due to restrictions on bank transfers meant to prevent corruption; the fuel has to be bought on the black market at eight times its market value.

Thus one of the passengers loses out on foreign funding for a local women’s initiative, as the Swedish NGO director she was inevitably late to meet is fed up with the “wanton irresponsibility” of “Africans” epitomized by her no-show and lack of warning phone call.

This cultural clashing and intermingling is also well exemplified by the title Jerusalem, which as well as being the name of Nobody’s hit, refers to the hymn “Jerusalem” written by Sir Hubert Parry, an English composer, who in turn based it on William Blake’s poem “And did those feet in ancient time”.

The hymn, which is sung before every FA cup final and regarded as England’s most popular patriotic song, evokes the idealized English countryside, and a call back to the ostensibly simpler, more “pleasant” time before England’s post-industrial revolution.

With this twin titular reference, Neate blends English nostalgic idealism with modern post-culturalism, skewering one character’s desire to find the essence of Englishness with another’s astute summary of Englishness as it is today.

You can actually watch Nobody’s “Jerusalem” on YouTube, and hear for yourself what caught the ear of hard-to-impress Preston. The video isn’t as subversive at the one described in the novel (where the Queen of England gets “happy slapped”) but offers a similarly tongue-in-cheek dig at modern-day Englishness (“Britain, where nobody votes for the election, but everybody votes for Big Brother eviction”). Nobody is performed by Sway, the UK’s number one rapper, tying into Neate’s documented interest in the hip-hop genre.

This interlinking of the printed word, the worldwide web and music, further elevates Jerusalem’s timely appeal, enriching the literary experience for those who appreciate interactivity, without being distracting for those with more traditional tastes.

Furthermore, despite the various criticisms of individuals and nations, Jerusalem ends on a largely hopeful, redemptive note, appropriately concluding a series that has been unfailing hilarious and perceptive, as well as occasionally poignant.

is thick with ideas and biting commentary, but executed with a light touch that allows for effortless absorption. It can be devoured in one go, providing much food for thought and definitely warrants a second helping. The fitting end to a far-reaching trilogy.


Patrick Neate
Fig Tree (July2, 2009)
416 pages

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Patrick Neate, A man with many voices


Sara Veal

Patrick Neate has written five novels and won several writing awards, but he never set out to become a novelist.

“I still can’t quite believe that’s what happened and I always have a vague notion that I’m on the verge of getting a proper job. To be honest, I still want to be a footballer .”

The Londoner’s latest novel, Jerusalem, concludes the loose trilogy that began with Musungu Jim and the Great Chief Tuloko and the Whitbread Award-winning Twelve Bar Blues. The three novels offer a multifaceted exploration of Africa. Musungu Jim focuses on a hapless English gap year student and fictional sub-Saharan banana republic on the verge of revolution. Twelve Bar Blues spans three continents and two centuries, centering on a New Orleans jazz musician and his search for his lost stepsister.

So what is Jerusalem about?

“About? Do you mean about about? I mean, on the one hand it is a far-flung tale of three generations of a family rooted in the English establishment; on the other it’s a broad satire of colonialism, postcolonialism and neocolonialism,” Neate says. “I find it hard to say what my books are about; not because I think I’m so clever but because my pen can be a bit of a blunderbuss!”

Neate says that the trilogy was completely unplanned, and “just tumbled out . that way”.

“The trilogy is very open-ended, in that you don’t have to have read any one book to read another. The main narrative connection is two key characters who have more or less significant roles in all three novels.”

Another connection between the novels is obviously Africa. Neate says he first went to southern Africa as a kid, and has been going back, frequently by mistake, ever since.

“I’ve found my temperament is well-suited to places like Zimbabwe and Zambia for some reason.”

He was inspired to write Jerusalem after reading about Cecil Sharp (Nov. 22 1859 – June 23 1924), popularly regarded as the founding father of the folklore revival in England.

“I have always been fascinated by mythologization and the creation of identity, but had never turned that critical eye on the English before. I thought it would be fun…”

The 30-something has a knack for creating characters that are both humorously stereotyped and three-dimensional, from Rastafarian witch doctors and impotent dictators to embittered pigeons and cricket-loving private investigators.

He says that none of the characters is based on anyone specific, but each one is an amalgam of people he’s met.

Similarly, his diverse array of settings and periods, from early 20th century New Orleans to contemporary London, immediately feel familiar and tangible.

“I think the trick is to do your research but not too hard and then let your imagination take over. And you have to be confident. It’s amazing what people will believe if you sound like you know what you’re talking about!” he says.

Neate’s other novels are The London Pigeon Wars, which offers a pigeon’s perspective on present-day London, and City of Tiny Lights, a noir-ish detective thriller, also set in London. He has also written several short stories, poetry, articles, reviews and a screenplay. Of all these forms of writing, Neate prefers the novel.

“I consider myself a novelist, so I guess it has to be the novel which has, I think, the most freedom; both for writer and reader. That said, the formality of poetry and screenwriting frequently appeals. I suppose they’re like different forms of exercise. Even runners occasionally fancy a swim.”

Jerusalem is the work that he is currently most proud of, as it’s the most recent and he feels he has to cling to the idea of improvement.

“That said, I have a real soft spot for The London Pigeon Wars . a novel I wrote that was, I think, rather misunderstood,” he says, referring to the work described as both a “frustratingly ramshackle chronicle” (The Sunday Times) and “strikingly imaginative” (Metro).

He’s currently working on the screenplay for City of Tiny Lights. As for the future?

“Yikes. frankly, I struggle to plan past next week.”

Neate also cofounded and continues to host Book Slam, a monthly “literary nightclub” in London, where you can enjoy takeaway Thai food and cocktails to poetry performances, book readings and live music. He says the event is a protest against the way books are often divorced from mainstream culture and how mainstream culture is often regarded as the lowest common denominator.

“I don’t see why the mainstream can’t be smart and literary. Hence, a literary nightclub. Fortunately, there seem to be enough people who agree with me to make it work.”

Book Slam’s guests have included singers Adele and Kate Nash, and multi-award winning authors Hanif Kureishi (The Buddha of Suburbia) and Zadie Smith (White Teeth). The Website describes the alumni as “superheroes of under-the-counterculture”, although, judging by the enduring and current success of many, Book Slam seems to be an excellent place to catch those on the verge of widespread recognition in a fairly intimate environment.

Neate is obviously a regular fixture at Book Slam, and is approachable if he’s not occupied with hosting duties. He also personally updates his Website and has a Twitter account, and is thus, reasonably accessible to his readers. As with his other achievements, he says he didn’t set out to be accessible.

“I mean, I just started writing a blog and people wrote to me, so I replied . it can be a bit challenging these days. I get hundreds of emails via my Website and people get vexed that it takes me a while to respond. But the fact is, I read everything myself and if I replied to every email I’d never do anything else.”

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