Sunday, December 13, 2015

It's a Small World

I have been waiting for this book to come out in English since 2012 when it won the International Prize for Arabic Fiction. Finally, finally, I received the English translation, made possible because of the prize.

Al Sanousi, Saud. The Bamboo Stalk. Trans by Jonathan Wright. Doha: Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation Publishing, 2015.
ISBN 9789927101779
Having lived in Kuwait for 8 years, I was intensely curious to see how a Kuwaiti man would tell the story of a boy whose father was Kuwaiti and whose mother, although the two were legally married, was still the result of the father's union with the family's Filipina maid.

As it turns out, Al Sanousi's tale is realistic, believable, and as heart-breaking as I thought it would be. Afraid of the shame the half-blood child will bring to the family name, the father is forced by his domineering mother to send the mother and son packing back to the islands, shortly before he goes missing in the 1990 invasion.

Jose grows up, fatherless in his motherland, never quite feeling complete, always dreaming of the day his father will make good on his promise to raise him as his legitimate Kuwaiti heir.

When that time arrives, Jose becomes Isa Al Tarouf, and is literally caught in the net of the Tarouf family reputation. What ensues is a Juvenalian satire of the state of class and race relations in Kuwait. Al Sanousi creates a microcosm of the microcosm that is Kuwait--with the bad, as well as so much that is good.

It is a first novel, so perhaps some of its elements are a bit contrived. For example, the attempt to connect the colonization of the Philippines to the lack of father figures, is a bit of a stretch, but it does ultimately work for the "islands" part of the story as it resolves. The main motif, the titular "bamboo stalk" is made a bit too obvious in places.

However, the historical backdrop and discussion of Bidoon and Kuwaiti politics from 2006-2008 was dead-on accurate, as I was teaching during those years and remember those elections quite well.

Was I surprised at the outcome of the novel? No. No, I wasn't.

Was I disappointed? Yes, I was.

Oh, Kuwait. You are a small world, indeed, as the book so clearly reminds us. I wish the novel would become required reading for all students in Kuwait; however, I fear the opposite may be more likely to happen. Tongues wag. Reputation is more important than money.

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