Q&A with Asaad Almohammad, author of An Ishmael of Syria

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You may have noticed that I posted a review of the wonderful An Ishmael of Syria last week. After that I was lucky enough to connect to Asaad Almohammad through Twitter (you can find him here), and he has very generously answered some questions about his book for me to share with you!

Sue: What was the writing process like for you? Did you have a solid goal when you began to write?

Asaad: I’m a researcher by trade so for me projects often start with a problem statement. Objectives and questions are then inferred to correspond to that problem. Such objectives and questions are then put in place to explore and/or describe the problem, and ultimately present solutions.

When I began to write I had a number of goals in mind; some, to the best of my knowledge, I managed to achieve and others I had to let go of.

Let me elaborate on the goal and processes. For a year or so I’d translated my first-hand experiences coupled with my psychological insight into a work of fiction. With terrorism, radicalisation, and the refugee crisis becoming the centre of heated debate, I thought that the story is one that readers might appreciate. Through the narrator, I used critical consciousness as a tool in tackling a number of socio-political issues. I wanted to engage the mainstream audience without neglecting readers with deeper knowledge of the region and issues conveyed through the book.

Sue: How similar are your experiences and Adam’s experiences?

Asaad: The novel is semi-autobiographical. I have to say the bulk of it actually happened. I’ve used some artistic licence to weave the stories together. But in essence everything happened.

Sue: Why did you choose to write fiction rather than a memoir?

Asaad: I choose fiction because it gave me certain level of freedom in narrating the story. It also made possible to navigate through a number of socio-political issues. There are individuals involved in the story who felt more comfortable about it being fictional.

Sue: What are you hoping your book will achieve?

Asaad: Through the novel, I had an aim in mind. That is to say, to humanize the refugee crises in an accessible way. Narrated from a point of view not often heard from, this book delves an issue so widely discussed in the news, but from the perspective of outsiders. Too often the individuals living through this tragedy are recognized as anonymous numbers, graphs, or maps.

Sue: Did you choose to portray Adam as an atheist to make him more palatable for Western readers?

Asaad: Over the years I have come across a lot of foreigners (i.e., not from the Middle East) who have a single story of Syria and the Middle East at large: A story of devolved world views and misery. In that collective stereotypical script, Syrians cannot be socially progressive, politically liberals or be faced with similar challenges. In my opinion, reducing the Syrian people to a single story limits viewing us as equal human beings. I also acknowledge that if my views of Syria and the Syrian people were shaped by the recent conflict, I would have believed that Syria is the land of senseless war and incomprehensible people who must be religious.

Adam is unapologetic atheist. He also asserted that “I am not an atheist preacher. I am not an absolutist or chauvinist whose ways are immune to evolution. My core philosophy is that I might be wrong.”

I believe that going against that single story didn’t make the narrator more palatable for Western readers. In fact, many have questioned the “Syrian authenticity” of the narrator’s voice. Growing up in Syria, I admit that I have no clue what Syrian authenticity inclines. But I know that I’m a Syrian and I believe that Adam’s beliefs resemble mine.

Sue: I note that you work in the field of political psychology. Do you have any projects you are working on at the moment?

Asaad: For the last few years I’ve been working as a consultant on a number of issues spanning across deradicalisation intervention programmes, civil unrest, illicit financial flows, and due diligence research.

Recently, I published a theory of political emotion. I realize it is a very technical paper. In case somebody is interested in implicit emotions and their impact on voting behaviour, here is the link:

http://sgo.sagepub.com/content/6/3/2158244016662106

At the moment, I am in the process of starting to work on a new paper that touches on post-truth politics, public cynicism, and emotional and behavioural reaction to conspiracy-based information sources.

Sue: Adam believes that the West doesn’t care about what is going on in Syria. Would you recommend any particular resources for people to better understand why the conflict in Syria began and what’s happening there now?

Asaad: A while back I told a friend that there is a difference between sharing your book with others and having a dialogue with them. I continued  by telling him that people might very well have a different understanding of your book than the one you intend to portray. For me, Adam believes that there is a sense of abandonment rather that a total lack of awareness.

Fouad Ajami’s The Syrian Rebellion explores early stages of the Syrian conflict.

Giving that the situation is still fluid, current events are best covered by think tanks reports. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights is a relatively accurate source.

Think tank reports:

https://www.crisisgroup.org/middle-east-north-africa/eastern-mediterranean/syria

http://www.washingtoninstitute.org/policy-analysis/topic/syria#categories=16

Observatories:

http://www.syriahr.com/en/

Thank you so much Asaad!

You can find Asaad at his website as well as on Twitter and Facebook 

You can buy An Ishmael of Syria through Amazon , The Book Depository , Booktopia , Barnes and Noble or where ever good books are sold.

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Review: Resistance (Divided Elements Book 1)

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Optor is a post apocalyptic city where the people are separated into elemental classes based on their strengths. Anaiya is a fire elemental, meaning that she works as a Peacekeeper. She is good at her job and doesn’t hesitate to take down people not abiding to the Orthodoxy. When a pocket of resistance is believed to be located amongst the Air Elementals, Anaiya is chosen to be reprogrammed to go undercover into the Air sector to find the miscreants. Having her brain reprogrammed brings a lot more with it than she expected. Suddenly she experiences emotions, music makes sense and she starts to find joy in everyday experiences in a way she hadn’t previously. Despite this, Anaiya is determined not to let these new aspects of her personality sabotage her mission. If she fails in her mission, or can’t be converted back to a fire alignment, her life is at stake.


Resistance is a stunning debut. The world building is very unique and goes right down to the language used. The book starts with an execution, so we know what is at stake for Anaiya when we learn that the man whose execution we witnessed was her mentor, and that she was under suspicion of having been influenced by him. 

Anaiya is a great character, ready to take risks and generally kick arse. Moving from the Peacekeepers to the Air Element allows her to get a different view of how other sectors experience the Fire Elementals, and you can feel her beginning to doubt the world view she has held up until this point. Anaiya is not entirely sure what she should do about this or if there is anything she can do.

 There is a romance element, but Anaiya doesn’t completely lose herself to that relationship and still focuses on her mission, although her feelings – something she isn’t used to – do end up clouding her judgement in a realistic way.

Intense, imaginative and gripping, if you like dystopian fiction, you will want to read this book. I’m looking forward to the next in the series.

5 out of 5.

Diverseathon!

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Did you know there was a Diverseathon? I didn’t!

Thanks to Naz at Read Diverse Books for posting about the Diverseathon and getting me clued in!

It’s pretty laid back with no real challenges – just read as many books as you can between January 22 and January 29. If you’re participating in the 24 in 48 readathon, why not load up your reading list with Diverse books? 

You can find out more information by checking out @diverseathon on Twitter, and if you’re stuck for titles, check the #ownvoices tag on Twitter as well.

Here’s what I’m planning to read.


I’m pretty excited to read this one – it’s part of both my Litsy A to Z and my Reading Around the World challenge. Plus Dr Heiss is going to be giving a talk and signing books at my favourite indie store at the beginning of February so I definitely need this finished.


This one is from my Netgalley queue and I’m really looking forward to it. 
 

Hooray for fortuitously timed library holds coming in. I have this on audio, so this will be my commute listen. I’ve seen some very different reviews of this one, so I’m interested to see what it’s all about.

And if I get the time:


Anh Do is known for his comedy here in Australia, but his journey to get here wasn’t easy. I’m sure a lot of Aussies don’t realise that he came as a refugee by boat (a group of people who are currently treated despicably by the Australian government and media). I’m sure this will be both an interesting and difficult read.

Are you going to join the Diverseathon?? You know you want to!!

Review: Crosstalk by Connie Willis

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This is another book I threw myself at when I saw it on Netgalley. Connie Willis’s The Doomsday Book is still one of the best time travel novels I’ve ever read. Crosstalk did not disappoint. 

Briddey believes she has met the man of her dreams. They have been dating for six weeks (!) and Trent is convinced they should get an EED – a surgical procedure which will allow them to connect empathetically so they can be closer than they already are and know for certain what the other person is feeling. 

Crosstalk is a delightful palate cleanser and – spoiler alert! – there’s telepathy, which is always fun to play with in sci fi.

I felt a bit sorry for Briddey at the beginning of the book. She appears to be in a hell of her own making. Everyone in her life wants to be constantly in touch with her – her family (which seems to overreact to everything), her place of work (which wants her to be accessible and possibly working around the clock). She is constantly lying to everyone, which she doesn’t like and isn’t great at, in order to keep people out of her way so she can make it to her office, let alone make it through an entire day.

The only person who doesn’t seem to want constant contact with her is Trent, her boyfriend soon-to-be fiancé. He may want to get the EED, but he seems to caught up in the company’s super-secret project  to spend time actually talking to her.

Briddey and Trent undergo the procedure. They are warned that they must be emotionally bonded for it to be a success and that the connection can take 48 hours to establish. Except Briddey connects immediately. With the wrong person. How can this have happened? And how can she marry Trent if she is connected to someone else?

Crosstalk is about self discovery and a lovely piece of social commentary on availability and connection. It seems that it’s only when Briddey is able to shut out all of the voices imposing their opinions, ideas and expectations that she is able to identify who she is and what she wants. 

4 out of 5 reasons to switch off social media.

Review: Kierkegaard – A Single Life

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Kierkegaard was one of the original existential thinkers. His work influenced Jean-Paul Satre and Albert Camus. Although his work wasn’t taught as part of my philosophy studies, I read and was interested in Kierkegaard’s work without really understanding where he fitted in the world of existential philosophy.


When I saw this title about Kierkegaard’s life and work available on Netgalley, I eagerly requested it. I wasn’t disappointed.

Backhouse masterfully tells Kierkegaard’s story – his difficult relationships at home, especially with his father and older brother Peter, of his tendency to annoy his teachers with his quick wit and out of the box thinking. Of his romance with and then complicated ditching of the only woman he would love. Of his trials and tribulations due to his physical ailments and disabilities. Of his public battle with and subsequent bullying by one of the main publications in his town. Of the love and affection his nieces and nephews described for this complicated and difficult man. 

The accompanying illustrations also tell a story, particularly those caricatures of Kierkegaard himself, designed to humiliate and shame him.

Backhouse’s book also talks about Kierkegaard’s continuing influence on society today, from musicians like Arcade Fire and Childish Gambino, to the manga Sickness Unto Death and the twitter feed of @Kimkierkegaardashian, which mixes up Kim Kardashian’s words and Kierkegaard’s philosophy.

Backhouse has made me want to do something that I haven’t experienced in reading a biography before, which is to go back and revisit Kierkegaard’s work. 

Whether you are familiar with Kierkegaard or have never heard of him (and if you are the latter, there is a section in the book that lists Kierkegaard’s works with descriptions) this is a wonderful and accessible read.

5 out of 5 churchyards.

Review – An Ishmael of Syria

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Adam is an academic, living in Malaysia and trying to scrape together a living. His family is still in Syria, and he can only watch news reports and wait desperately for news from home, hoping they are okay. He is poorly paid despite the work he does and the hours he puts in, but his really hasn’t much choice – without the money he sends to his family they will have even less access to food, water, medicine.

An Ishmael of Syria is both a wonderful character portrait, and gruelling, haunting, powerful account of the tragedies in Syria. Adam’s father taught him that to think that life is or should be ‘fair’ is a childish notion. Adam is staunchly against the mindset of victimhood, which is, understandably, a recurring theme throughout the book. He is continually confronted with racism – towards others by his peers as well as towards himself by other groups – and he opposes this at every opportunity. He also opposes the stupidity and hypocrisy that is spouted by his Syrian friends in their support of the president. Despite his own strident voice against racism, Adam feels unsupported by Malay society; that being Syrian marks him as someone distasteful, and as someone who can be treated badly as his choices are very limited. As he agrees to the worst job offer he has ever heard, Adam is aware that he is breaching his own code of ethics and worries that he has entered a state of learned victimhood. But he knows he will do anything to help his family.

While this is written as a novel, Adam’s voice feels incredibly personal and authentic. It feels more like a personal recount than a novel. The despair, anger and heartbreak is utterly raw. It put me in mind a little of Scholastique Mukasonga’s Cockroaches, which is a memoir of her escape from Rwanda prior to the genocide and the pain of waiting to find out what had happened to her family. 

Read this book immediately.

4 out of 5.