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Wednesday, 13 December 2017

Kuwaiti Laila Al-Othman's autobiography: Writing is a profession of hardship and happiness

Kuwaiti pioneer of the novel Laila Al-Othman reflects on her life and career as an author in her autobiography

Mahmoud El-Wardani, Wednesday 27 Sep 2017
Laila Al-Othman
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Anfud ‘anny Al-Ghubar (I Dusted Myself Off) by Laila Al-Othman, Al-Ain Publishing, Cairo 2017, pp. 242

Author Laila Al-Othman played a pioneering role as one of the founders of the short story and of novels in Kuwait. She has written to date 13 short story collections and six novels as well as a number of books that tackled her life and personal experiences. These include a book that dealt with her being put on trial for her fiction and her important book in which she chronicled Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait in 1990. She was one of the few who refused to leave Kuwait following the invasion.

While declining to mention her birth date, Al-Othman has said she is over 60 by a number of years. Thus, she was born in the 1950s and this provided her with a broad experience on many levels. Perhaps she is the only Kuwaiti female writer who dared to write her autobiography, in which she revealed much unspoken and submerged in the conservatism of Kuwaiti society.

For instance, she reveals the widespread of polygamy in Kuwait, to the extent that it is the norm. After her mother gave birth to her, her father threatened her mother with divorce if she gave birth to a fourth female child and not a boy. The mother tried to kill Laila by throwing her in the sea.

While she survived, her father divorced her mother and she was obliged to take her daughters to live in a desolate area. When her mother married for the second time, her father snatched the girls and made his other wives bring up the daughters.

In her autobiography, Al-Othman focuses on her troubled, harsh childhood and on her father, one of the richest men in Kuwait at the time, who was extremely cruel, domineering and authoritarian as a parent.

In the first two chapters, she speaks in detail on aspects of life in the 1950s, when Kuwait was just desert communities lacking every amenity before oil was discovered there. She was keen to mention the circumstances in which she starting writing, emphasising throughout the book that she started from scratch.

Al-Othman asserts that the 1950s generation, to which she belongs, were lucky to be taught by Palestinian teachers. The school library led her to the path of knowledge and the attempt to express herself.

After finishing high school, her cruel and domineering father issued a command that she must stop learning, stay at home and wait for a husband. In this period, she started writing but she couldn’t publish because her father refused that her name appear in a newspaper or a magazine.

Her relationship with her father was complex. She was in a love-hate relationship with him, feeling that he was the shackle restraining and preventing her from living her own life, due to his fear for her, his desire to protect her and in keeping with conservative traditions. For these reasons she had no choice but to marry to escape from her father’s control. She even coined her own expression, “Marriage is the doorway to deliverance,” devoting a special chapter to it.

Al-Othman was married first to Dr Hosni Mansour, a Palestinian gynecologist and obstetrician, who was 33 years her senior. He was the family’s doctor and her father trusted him very much.

Her husband encouraged and stood by her and she began her first steps in writing and publishing. She worked in journalism and made a number of news reportages that drew attention due to their daring, such as the one she made when she visited the women prison in Kuwait. However, she realised after some time that journalism consumes the writer’s time and effort, expressing regret for working in this field. Soon she stopped and devoted herself entirely to creative writing.

After nine years of marriage and giving birth to four sons, her husband died, which was a traumatic experience. If in her first marriage she succumbed to traditions and bowed to her father’s will, her second marriage to the Palestinian critic Walid Abu-Bakr followed a love story and she gave birth to two daughters.

One of the books’ important chapters is what she wrote about the Iraqi Invasion of Kuwait in 1990. In this very short chapter, Al-Othman traced the broad lines of another book comprising her diaries of the invasion and resistance acts she performed with fellow Kuwaitis. Al-Othman also narrates the chronicles of her battle with fundamentalist groups and being put on trial for accusations of promoting vice and propagating immorality and debauchery in her books. She realised that she wasn't only defending herself but defending a superior value — freedom.

Finally, Al-Othman concludes her autobiography by declaring her affiliation to pan-Arabism, women’s causes and freedom, “which constitutes the third pillar of my formation and aspirations."

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