Puneet Varma

An Ishmael of Syria

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Language  English
Media type  Print (paperback)
ISBN  978-0-9974815-0-1
Author  Asaad Almohammad
4.2/5 Goodreads

Cover artist  Judy Almohammad
Publication date  April 6, 2016
Pages  368 pp
Originally published  6 April 2016
Genres  Historical drama, Drama
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An Ishmael of Syria is the first novel by Syrian author Asaad Almohammad. Published in 2016, it tells the story of Adam, a young man from Raqqa city, and follows his journey across Syria, Lebanon, and Malaysia, for the period between 1989 and 2015.

With the refugee crisis, the Syrian conflict, and radicalisation at the centre of international affairs, Adam, an exiled Syrian, struggles to find a home while questioning the very existence of such a concept. Between Adam’s experiences and his progressive take on controversial issues, it becomes rapidly clear that he has sipped his share of bitter tragedies. In his efforts to keep a clear conscience amid ISIL’s occupation of his hometown and with the burden of attending to his family’s needs, Adam may rise to the challenge, but at what cost.

Through his journey and the characters he meets, Adam finds himself plunged deep into a world where racism is the vernacular. For the language of the demagogue, victimisation, homophobia and misogyny are the syntax.

Asaad Almohammad was born and raised in Raqqa, Syria. A member of the International Society of Political Psychology and a research fellow, he has spent years coordinating and working on research projects across the Middle East and North Africa. To date he has covered a number of psychological aspects of civil unrest, peacebuilding, post-conflict reconciliation, and deradicalisation.

With terrorism, radicalisation, and the refugee crisis becoming the centre of heated debate, Asaad Almohammad's readings, both fiction and nonfiction, coupled with his first-hand experiences impelled him to convey a world widely unknown and often ignored. Through An Ishmael of Syria, Almohammad endeavoured to humanizes the refugee crisis in an accessible way. Narrated from a point of view not often heard from, his book delves into an issue so widely discussed in the news, but from the perspective of outsiders. Often the individuals living through this tragedy are recognized as anonymous numbers, graphs, or maps.

Plot summary

An Ishmael of Syria is a personal story told in a series of flashbacks and incidents from the present. The different excerpts intertwine to create a portrait of a person feeling at a loss while struggling to find meaning and a sense of belonging. It follows the journey of ADAM, a 30 year old Syrian graduate student, across Syria, Lebanon, and Malaysia. Plunging deep into a world of controversies, the tale begins when an initially happy Adam finds himself infuriated, leaving the source of his emotional downturn as of yet unknown. Upon his first glimpse in many years of his brother, NYHAD, a cynical Adam lectures his sibling on the dangers of hope. Nyhad responds, questioning his brother’s lack of ambition.

Part I

In places where derogatory stereotypes are the equivalent of scripture and racism is the majority’s mother tongue, Adam senses the incongruity of being at odds with his friends, CARL and SAMI. Adam’s stance against their pervasive competition for victimhood also leads to a divide with his Shiite Syrian friend, YAMEN. Growing up, he wasn’t absentminded of the roots of misogyny among his people. Adam loathes the kind of people his friends are. However, he hasn’t cut ties with them. Through the many tricks up his sleeve, he manages to divert his friend, SMITH, from ecclesiastical preaching and causes some unwelcomed changes in his circles. Adam has a life beyond Malaysia hidden from his clan. Remotely, Adam engages the assistance of some old friends in Turkey in order to de-radicalise and rehabilitate former child Jihadis. Meanwhile, something else underlies the questions aggravating that emotional downturn, his lack of ambition, and limited choice of friends.

Part II

Before Jennifer was ANNA, an ex-girlfriend who elicited a lot of changes in him. Anna and Adam had had a ritual of their own, telling stories of their childhood. But even with Adam’s childhood in the picture, an answer to Nyhad’s poignant question and the reason he hasn’t cut ties with the very people he loathes remains unclear.

Part III

Adam doesn’t open up to his friends about the shady conditions of his current work. Instead, he divulges to his girlfriend, JENNIFER, the coping mechanism he relies on to maintain some sense of ‘normalcy’ amongst those around him. Overwhelmed by his perpetual hardships, Jennifer ends their relationship. The event reveals his private ritual of physically expressing his rage upon objects, such as walls and trees. Venting his rage, Adam justifies his pessimism through a learned pragmatism. However, thus far Adams’s journey hasn’t marked the boundary between his lack of ambition and perseverance. SHEILA, the woman Adam starts dating after Jennifer, fills the intellectual void that has long existed in his life. Sheila’s friend, SUZAN has a lot in common with Adam; specifically at the psycho-philosophical level. Getting to know him, Suzan wonders about his sophisticated take on obscure controversies, namely those surrounding sexual reassignment surgeries in some parts of the world. As Suzan’s line of questioning continues, Adam’s memory drifts into earlier conversations with Sami and an Iraqi friend (JAMAL), unearthing another fraction of his past. At arm’s length from the war, in his exile Adam recalls the loss of his older brother, FADI, back in 2005. Facing an imminent detention by the government, which would only amplify his family’s tragedy, he was left with little choice but to escape. Several years after making that run, he learns about the allegations against him and how they have affected his family. In his pursuit to rise to the challenges inherent to day-to-day survival in a war zone and its periphery, the distance between the person he once aspired to be and the person he can’t help but become has grown. In his struggle to keep a clear conscience, amid ISIL’s occupation of his hometown and with the burden of attending to his family’s needs, Adam emerges as a pyrrhic victor, having relinquished all hope. Adam doesn’t delude himself into winning the battles that his conscience and misfortunes bring to him, let alone the bigger war of being at peace with himself. Instead of unburdening his conscience, his moral code serves as a demon that must be put to sleep for him to move past a tragic reality full of loss and despair. As Adam finds peace in saving his family, he realises that he is fated to have the very life he thought he had escaped. Even though the war unites his misfortune with that of his fellow countrymen and women, he remains an outcast among them. With that mark, he acknowledges his rationalization for maintaining his friendships, however dysfunctional. Adam’s feeling of joyous relief at securing his family’s escape from the conflict zone is cut short, witnessing the toll the war has taken on them. Though he could now articulate an answer to Nyhad’s piteous question, it no longer needs to be said.

References

An Ishmael of Syria Wikipedia


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