To travel seeking truths…

By, Sergio Burns

The pictures flood in. The aftershock of bombs.  Collapsed masonry, crumbling concrete, tangled ironwork, dust clouds, the red and yellow lick of flame, dense dark smoke, screaming people. A woman amid the chaos, her hands clasped tight to the side of her head, calls loudly for her lost daughter. All around her a cacophony of loud voices, people running and the sound of ambulance sirens.

The Library at Dumfries House, just west of Cumnock, is full of authors attending the eighth annual Boswell Book Festival. It is a hubbub of literary discussion periodically releasing steam jets of intellectual chatter. ‘Gruffalo’ I hear the end of a conversation, a distant guffaw. I am here to meet journalist and writer Robin Yassin-Kassab (author with Leila Al-Shami, of Burning Country : Syrians in Revolution and War).

Born in west London and brought up in England, Lebanon (briefly) and Scotland – including a spell of attendance at Drumley House school near Mossblown, Ayrshire – the son of a Syrian father and English mother who met while studying at the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists in Dublin, Ireland.

“I don’t really have a sense of home,” he told Ayrshire Magazine. “I was born in London, I lived in Merseyside briefly, I grew up in Scotland, I went to a boarding school in Cumbria, so I had a kind of all over the place childhood… a mixed up travelling childhood.”

His is a manic wanderlust of country collecting, having lived and worked all over the world – initially as a teacher and then as a journalist – in London, France, Pakistan,Turkey, Syria, Morocco, Saudi Arabia and Oman. He now lives in Castle Douglas, Scotland.

“When this situation arose (in Syria) I felt an urge to communicate my understanding of it, and more importantly the voices of people at the grass roots in Syria,” he said passionately. “I felt that, in general, the thing was terribly misunderstood in the west. I think that there has been some excellent reporting from Syria by western journalists, and some have given their lives, but there has also been some terrible, lazy journalism, and there has been a lot of very arrogant commentary in the west by people who don’t speak Arabic, who don’t know anything about Syria, who haven’t spoken to Syrians about it, and who just, from the start, rested on the assumption, ‘Oh this is about Jihadists versus secularism’.”

He pauses, suddenly aware of other conversations going on around us. Yassin-Kassab glances to his right and then returns his unblinking focus to Syria.

“It is not about that,” he says determinedly. “There are Jihadists on both sides… and there are secularists on both sides and there are more than two sides. It certainly didn’t start with anything to do with people wanting an Islamic state. It is not about Sunni Shia conflict, though now after years of war and the intervention of the regional states and terror organisations… it (has) definitely got a big element of regional and sectarian conflict. But that’s not how it started and that’s still not fundamentally what it is about. We see it in terms of ‘our’ (the west’s) ‘war on terror’. We notice problems in that part of the world when we see mad men with beards who want to blow up our children in our cities here. It’s an understandable response but it’s very myopic. Suddenly out of the blue we arrive at these mad Jihadists.”

An intense man, he is a forthright speaker. The Syrian situation, as he sees it, falls into simplified and easily regurgitated media one-liners like, for example, THE ‘war on terror’. He feels such glib catchphrases ignore the fundamental point at which the war started, the Syrian people’s peaceful protest for democracy.

“You hear arguments,… the Arabs need a strong man, you hear this from the left and the right,” he continues. “Basically their argument is, ‘Oh they assume it is us in the west that has destabilised the countries in the first place, we go and do stabilising then there is chaos, those people were much happier under a dictator’. It is just a horribly cruel thing to say.”

The room is as dark as Robin Yassin-Kassab’s mood. His words glide through the gloom of the library to become huge raindrops falling forcefully from doom-laden clouds. He is locked into his argument, a complex unpacking of a difficult-to-unravel situation.

“If somebody tortured me I would find that totally unacceptable,” he said as he moved on to the need for applicable human rights to deal with situations such as Syria. “So let’s try and apply that basic rule to every other human being. If regimes torture children to death, if that happened here to my children or my neighbour’s children, nobody for a moment could imagine any reason to put up with that. So let’s apply the same rules to everybody. Because they speak a different language or they look a bit different or they have a different culture, we kind of imagine that. Yeah…that kind of thing happens there anyway. Human beings are human beings, so I do think that human rights should be absolutely central.

He leans forward and I wait for him to continue but he falls silent, waits the next question.

“Just at this moment I find it very difficult to be optimistic,” he confesses when I finally ask my next question. “What do they say? Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will? Maybe if those 2011 democratic movements had succeeded…we would be beginning to get imperfect democracies in these countries, then maybe there would be some hope that the states and the peoples in the region could democratically make some plan for facing these huge challenges. But we’ve gone back decades now, and I can’t be optimistic.”

Not everything, however, is hopeless for Yassin-Kassab.

“As much as I have lost… hope,” he relents, “with all of the torture and all of the murder and the bombing, lies, and the propaganda, our willingness here to believe propaganda and so on, when you look at… people like the Syrians in really tough, difficult situations you have this human ability to act with their neighbours and to succeed… 

He pauses, breathes and continues:

 “…that gives you some hope as a species.”

At the last count around 50 percent of the Syrian people had been displaced and now living in refugee camps, while over six million have fled the country.

Someone to our left laughs, an author in discussion with another sharing a private joke. Yassin-Kassab visibly relaxes, he shakes my hand again, we smile, he gives me his email address. An intellectual, thoughtful man with a strong urge to tell the story as it is. A man who will remain restless with a wanderlust that takes him around the world searching for truths.

“It is a beautiful place,” he says of Dumfries House and its setting. “Remarkably, the sun is kind of half shining so it’s great.   But I think, you know, Scotland has a good book culture.”