It is only when you know the Higher Factor that you will know the true situation of the present religions and of unbelief itself. And unbelief itself is a religion with its own form of belief. – Ahmad Yasavi
Atheism indicates strength of mind, but only up to a certain point. – Pensée 157, Pascal
It’s summer 2001, second generation Londoner Sami Traifi’s life is in turmoil. Not sure of where it went wrong – or how to put it right, he makes a brief trip to visit relatives in Damascus. But there, hidden a family secret, things only seem to get worse.
Back home in London, the non-believer Sami must face up to his unfinished Phd, his unemployment, his fraying marriage; to top it off his wife’s decision to wear the hijab and her brother’s extremist angry hip-hop Islam.
On Sami’s journey in search of his belief and identity in his adopted country, he landed himself in police custody twice, once for smoking spliffs and getting high, another for looking like Islamic Extremist. As he rots in his life, his identity and ethnicity is about to undergo a massive change:
Years by now had passed, and the world had changed since Sami made his academic plans. The blocks with which he’d built his personality – Arabism and poetry – had begun to rot. Which wasn’t only Sami’s fault. The whole world rotted. It heated up grew smokier, more fetid. The Arab part in particular rotted faster than the rest. Arab culture and ambition shriveled. Poets died and were not replaced. Religion grew in response.
This is a thinking-person fiction. The writer amalgamate politics, race, religions, displacement, family, marital problems.. …. and concocted a complex philosophical reasoning and stories of Sami as we get inside the heads of the protagonist and understand why he is as confused as he is.
The war illusioned them, which gave them another reason to hold on to each other. It’s only by being disillusioned that you had illusions in the first place.
For the first time ever, I read a book that discussed London counterculturalists, Islamic Fundamentalism, Secular Fundamentalism (this is new), Atheist Muslim (such as Sami), Idealist (as Tom Field), Agnostics, hip-hop islamist (Ammar), Shii and Shia, people who believe in different things who are given interesting labels…..
“You want to know what I think to help you know what you should think. Am I right? Well, that won’t work. Either you’re a born believer, meaning you subscribe to a cultural belief like you subscribe to gravity, or you decide for yourself. The latter, in your case. Decide for yourself. It’s a matter of choice. Belief is good when it increases knowledge. It’s bad when it doesn’t. if it develops what we can call spirit, or awareness, it’s good. If it smothers it, it’s bad.” – Tom Field, Sami’s Phd mentor.
Yassin-Kassab writes very boldly about taboo topics. We are introduced to Islam, the Quran, signs of time, inheritance law, and why Muslim women chose the headscarf on decision other than religion. We are introduced to the origin and culture of Arabs. The quirks and inconvenience of being one after 9-11. Arabism and poetry.
Marwan said the Arabs are freerer inside their heads than the English because the Arabs never believe what they’re told. That’s why Arab governments need police and fund and torture chambers.
It’s also about multicultural London. The book is so multifaceted, and all encompassing that, I find it very hard to provide a coherent review without appearing as if I’m waffling. Except to say that, if you intend to pick this book up, take the plunge and be expected to blow your mind away. If the book doesn’t make you exhilarated, at least it made you think.
This book has got nothing much to do Damascus. What I didn’t like so much is the way the characters are introduced and given a chapter on centre stage, only to watch them disappeared into oblivion in the subsequent chapters. The only constant is Sami and wife, Muntaha. It is brave, at times funny contemporary novel that ask questions about the choices we make, and ponders how these choices affect not only us, but also those we love the most.