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Review: Arabic Booker winner 2013 - 'The Bamboo Stalk'

Saud Alsanousi's novel explores questions of mixed indentities rarely tackled in his homeland of Kuwait

Sayed Mahmoud, Wednesday 24 Apr 2013
Bamboo Stalk by Saud Al-Sanousi
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Saq Al-Bamboo (The Bamboo Stalk) by Saud Alsanousi, Beirut: Arab Scientific Publishers, 2012.

Kuwait's Saud Alsanousi was awarded the International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF) for his novel Saq Al-Bamboo (The Bamboo Stalk) at the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair on Tuesday.

On my return flight from Kuwait, I sat next to the famous writer Mohamed El-Makhzangy. Seeing Saq Al-Bamboo in my hand, he commented, "This novel opens new worlds in Gulf writing … It's the first true breakthrough into the unspoken world that some thought would never produce an important novel."

El-Makhzangy, who lived for many years in Kuwait without writing about it, hit upon the most important thing about this novel. Alsanousi, who is in his early 30s, was able to ask difficult questions about Kuwaiti and Gulf society that have been avoided for many years.

Before publishing the novel, Alsanousi wrote articles and short stories for Kuwaiti magazine Al-Qabs, as well as for another Kuwaiti magazine, Abwab, from 2005 and until it ceased publication in 2011.

He published the novel Sageen Al-Maraya (Prisoner of Mirrors) in 2010 and was awarded the Lalya Al-Othman award last year. He was also awarded the Kuwaiti State Encouragement Award for Literature, which renders the IPAF award not so much new recognition, rather his introduction to a broader circle of readers.

The Bamboo Stalk, as we understand from the first pages, refers to anything that grows where it is planted. On the very first page, the protagonist asks his mother why she is bothered by him sitting under a tree. “Is she afraid I may grow roots that reach down in the earth and render my return to my father’s land impossible? Maybe … but even the roots mean nothing sometimes.”

“If I were a bamboo tree, and didn’t belong anywhere ... we cut out a piece from the stalk, plant it, without roots, in any land … it will grow new roots … without a past, without memory, never minding the differences in its naming among different people … it will be kawayan in Philippines, khayrazan in Kuwait, or bamboo elsewhere.”

The metaphor seems to refer to the challenge of Jose Menduza (a Filipino hero who fought against Spanish invaders), but this time he has an Arabic name, Eissa Al-Taruf, who is the offspring of a Kuwaiti father and a Philippine maid servant, a story shared by hundreds of Asian servants in Gulf countries.

Alsanousi gives this old story a lot of new flesh, and uses plot devices to liven up its telling.

The author's first game is on the second page, when he attempts to convince the reader that he is following a story translated from the Philippines, with an introduction by the translator and explanations as if copying a work from a different language.

Maybe this trick is to get the reader involved, or perhaps it is to try and avoid dangerous ground from the perspective of a Kuwaiti audience. Kuwait doesn’t pretend to be homogenous as much as it aims to balance the relationship between different identities and control the internal battles between them.

But what is more important in this novel is how it attempts to tackle the questions from someone who lives outside, bearing in mind that all the stories about Kuwait in the novel come from stories Eissa heard from his mother, Josephine, who departed to her homeland after splitting with Eissa's Kuwaiti father.

The Kuwaiti society he writes about is ailing, living out a memory of the first and second Gulf wars. The son is also trying to find a balance between these fighting identities within himself, as the son of a Muslim Kuwaiti father and a Christian Filipina mother. He goes to Buddhist temples and is baptised in a church, but also has a passion for Islam.

The protagonist treats his life as a journey of self-discovery, crossing over his inherited controversies, and so shaping what Amin Maalouf would call a “hybrid identity.”

The narrative adventure of the author himself is also intertwined with writer and teacher Ismail Fahd Ismail.

As understood from the story of Alsanousi, Ismail was his entry into writing, and he uses the fact that Ismail spent some years in the Philippines to give him a role in the story: he becomes a lead for Josephine and her son to find a way back to the father who was taken hostage during the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait.

Before dying, the father left instructions to his friend Ghassan (who is without nationality) to return his son Eissa to Kuwait, and this is where the young boy returns, full of dreams about the “awaited paradise.”

But the young man is not accepted because of his Filipino looks, and so he returns to his mother’s homeland, and marries his cousin, Myrla, and bears a son he calls Rashid, after his father, and the author attempts to find a solution starting with this new generation.

The novel is part of the post-colonialist genre, dealing with the oppressed and uncovering layers of repression. It offers a realm for finding solutions through the hybrid identity that opens up to diverse identities and invests in that diversity for its wellbeing. 

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