Novel set in Kuwait and The Philippines (“..epic in its breadth and story..”)
- Book: The Bamboo Stalk
- Location: Kuwait, The Philippines
- Author: Saud Alsanousi
Winner of the International Prize for Arabic Fiction 2013
This is an incredible story of migration and rootlessness and what it means “to belong”. It is epic in its breadth and story, and explores how two unequal cultures are inextricably linked through economic need. And still, it is so much more.
Josephine, originally from the Philippines, is working in Kuwait for the al-Tarouf family. The father is long dead, the matriarch, stuck in traditional values, lives with her four children, son Rashid and 3 daughters. Rashid is clearly struggling with the rigid strictures of home and culture and takes the Filipana maid as his wife, unacceptable to family and society. When they go on to have a child, José (Isa), whose story this is, the pressure becomes too much and mother and child are summarily despatched back to The Philippines.
José spends what seems to be his entire childhood just waiting for his Father to summon him back to Kuwait. He has a limbo existence, uprooted and deposited, trying to straddle the duality of culture. Every time he has the merest chance of an encounter with Kuwaitis, he takes it. On Boracay – an island I visited 30 years ago, when the landing strip at Caticlan had to be cleared of chickens – he takes a menial job, and spends a pivotal evening with a group of young men from Kuwait. But time and again, those around him struggle to accept him as a member of either nationality, his looks, learning and life experience are all inhibitors to integration and acceptance.
Alsanousi has a real ability to get into thinking of his chosen countries, the Philippines just comes alive, the almost insignificant interactions between José’s family members, their squabbles and traumas express more than the sum of the words. In Kuwait he captures the oppressive nature of society, the small country reflected in mores and manners, and how prejudice threads its way right through the layers of class, but how fragile it can all feel.
Much credit goes to the translator Jonathan Wright
One of the best books I have read in recent time, I can only say go out and buy it!
This review originally appeared on our blog