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 – 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.

2017 Challenges – Bring it on!

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2016 was a great bookish year for me, and I hope 2017 will be just as good, if not better.

I have a few challenges I will be undertaking in 2017 that I would love to tell you about:

  1. The Goodreads Challenge – doesn’t everyone do this? I’ve set my goal at 150 – I would rather revise it up than be stressed about it being too high.
  2. Litsy A – Z Challenge – This was devised by the delightful @BookishMarginlia on Litsy. I’ve posted my list for this one previously, but you can find it here. The idea is to read a book representative of every letter in the alphabet, using title, author or a combination of both. My list is by title and I’ve added an extra level of difficulty by using a ‘diverse’ book for every title in this challenge. Which leads me to the next challenge…
  3. Diverse Reading Challenge – Naz from Read Diverse Books has laid down a challenge for bloggers to read and review more diverse books and authors. You will be awarded a badge according to your level of participation. Check out the #ReadDiverse2017 tag on Twitter. (My goal is to hit 30 if not more – diverse books are awesome!)

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    Naz’s button

  4. Australian Women Writers Challenge – This Challenge is to read and review more Aussie women writers. I’ve pledged to read 30 and review 4, though I’m hoping for more than that.

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    AWW Button

  5. Reading Around the World Challenge – I’m kick starting my project to read a book from every country in the world. This will take me longer than 12 months (a lot longer!) but I’ve tried to work books from this Challenge into some of the others. You can check out the planning page here and I’ll be updating it over the next few days mainly so I can keep track of books that I have ordered. I’ve found abebooks.com really helpful for this challenge. It’s great to locate second hand or even new books that are hard to find or completely overpriced on amazon or the other usual sites.
  6. Less of a challenge and more of a thing: Bex from An Armchair by the Sea is hosting a Discworld reread through her blog. I’m going to be hosting the Watch during the month of May!

So there you go. These should keep me pretty busy. Notably absent is the Bookriot Read Harder Challenge, but I feel that, like last year, I will be able to complete most of it by participating in these challenges.

What challenges are you participating in during 2017?

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Litsy A to Z Challenge 2017

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So while I’m talking about fabulous things on Litsy, this Challenge has been floating around. There are a number of takes on it but I’ve gone A to Z by title only. I’m also pretty jazzed as this is an entirely diverse list.

Here goes:

  • An Ishmael of Syria – Asaad Alomohammad
  • Barbed Wire and Cherry Blossoms – Dr Anita Heiss
  • The Cypress Tree – Kamin Mohammadi 
  • Dust – Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor
  • Every Secret Thing – Marie Munkara
  • Follow the Rabbit Proof Fence – Doris Pilkington
  • The Girl with 7 Names – Hyeonseo Lee
  • Honor – Elif Shafak 
  • The Interpreter of Maladies – Jhumpa Lahiri
  • Jinangga – Monty Walgar 
  • The Kadaitcha Sung – Sam Watson
  • Left to Tell – Immaculee Ilibagiza
  • The Museum of Abandoned Secrets – Oksana Zabuzhko
  • Not Quite Men, No Longer Boys – K.C. Laughton
  • Oreo – Fran Ross
  • The People of Forever Are Not Afraid – Shani Boianju
  • Quiet Violence of Dreams – K Sello Duiker
  • Rainy Season – Nnanaziri Ihejirika
  • The Spider King’s Daughter – Chibundu Onuzo
  • Twisted – Jessica Zafra
  • Under the Udala Trees – Chinelo Okparanta
  • The Vegetarian – Han Kang 
  • We Need New Names – NoViolet Bulawayo
  • Xala – Ousmane Sembene 
  • You Can’t Touch My Hair – Phoebe Robinson
  • Zubaida’s Window – Iqbal Al-Qazwini

Join me with an A to Z list of your own! Let me know what you think you’ll include!!

Reading Around the World – Prep Phase

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I’m getting pretty excited about my Reading Around the World journey.

I’m still doing a bunch of research to find authors to read from every country – you can see how I’m going on the dedicated page. 

I’ve made a few decisions about how I’m going to accumulate the books. Normally I listen to audiobooks, or read on my kindle. I’ve decided though that I want actual copies of the books I’m using for this project. This may not always be possible, but that is what I will try for in the first instance. I think I may also need to change my mission statement to be “at least one” book from every country in the world, because I’m discovering so many amazing authors!!

I’ve started the long (and expensive!) process of ordering the books in so I have somewhere to start in January.

I’m getting sucked in by a lot of these covers – isn’t the cover for Honour beautiful?

I’m looking forward to reading Anita Heiss’s book – Heiss is an Indigenous Aussie author and this is a pretty new release. Even better, she is doing a book talk at my favourite Indie book store, Avid Reader, in February. Awesome!!

As always, please feel free to leave me any recommendations for awesome reads (available in English 🙏🏼) from your part of the world in the comments.

Reading Around the World – modern African books

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Diana at A Haven for Booklovers has been my source of African book recommendations so far. I’ve been exploring and found this website – there are some good looking books on this page!!

The Contemporary

If you have any book recommendations from your part of the world, please let me know!!

Reading Around the World – 10 Filipino Writers

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While researching my Reading Around the World project I’ve come across this great article which I thought I would share with you, my like-minded diverse reading friends.

Enjoy!!

10 Contemporary Filipina Authors You Absolutely Should Be Reading