An Ishmael of Syria by Asaad Almohammad

An Ishmael of Syria

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KIRKUS REVIEW

In Almohammad’s debut novel, a Syrian academic relocates to Southeast Asia and encounters seemingly bottomless reserves of racism and vitriol among its citizenry.

When Adam leaves Syria to pursue graduate studies in psychology in Malaysia, he experiences multiple incidents of febrile prejudice and ignorance, quickly learning that a “tanned Arab infidel” is about as much of a social pariah as one can be in the island country. The abuse he suffers is astonishing; one professor even asks him if he belongs to the Islamic State group. Women on the brink of falling in love with him seem tortured by his ethnic background, and fellow Arabs astound him with their arrant homophobia, disdain for Jews, and blinkered adherence to ersatz scientific studies that support their narrow-mindedness. He struggles to make ends meet as he’s denied any decent opportunities for employment, and he’s wounded by reports of his native country’s depredations. At the heart of the book, Almohammad’s protagonist wrestles with two parallel but contradictory ideas: first, his desire to be a global citizen is constantly stymied by the world’s rejection of his peaceable assimilation; second, his utter disgust, sometimes bordering on misanthropy, often undermines his desire to maintain a skeptical distance from rigid conviction. Consider the following aside, discussing a devout follower of God: “For me, this delusional douchebag is everything that is wrong with us and is precisely what I don’t want to be. Yet, I am not an atheist preacher....My core philosophy is that I might be wrong.” The story here is not without hope; despite Adam’s inability to fully find a home, he does find love and friends and successfully pursues his intellectual ambition. Almohammad, like Adam, is also a Syrian and a research fellow in psychology, and this fictional memoir seems clearly inspired by these autobiographical elements. The narration throughout is mercurial—sometimes lightheartedly hilarious, sometimes grimly brutal—which can be delightfully entertaining and also disjunctive. The work as a whole lacks a clear structure, so it often reads like a series of loosely assembled anecdotes, recounted conversations, and philosophical meditations. This couldn’t be a timelier book, though, and its power derives from the daring, uncompromising way it tells the truth about a world in danger of being lost to chaos.

An affecting, if somewhat disorderly, tale of dislocation.

Pub Date: April 5th, 2016
ISBN: 978-0-9974815-0-1
Page count: 368pp
Publisher: Self
Program: Kirkus Indie
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