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.