For all the disparate political problems facing the Arab nations of the Gulf, there is one shared domestic shame: the treatment of the migrant workers who build and clean the soaring buildings that give cities such as Dubai and Kuwait City their air of sleek modernity.
The xenophobia and ill-treatment faced by these migrants, mainly Filipinos and south Asians who have left families behind to toil on the margins of Gulf society, form the central theme of Saud Alsanousi’s The Bamboo Stalk. This, the Kuwaiti novelist’s second book, received the prestigious International Prize for Arabic Fiction in 2013, and has elicited great praise in the Arab world for tackling themes that are rarely acknowledged, let alone explored in fiction, in the Gulf.
Told from the perspective of a young teenager, the child of an affair between a liberal-minded Kuwaiti novelist and a lovestruck Filipino maid, the novel is chiefly concerned with questions of citizenship and identity in Kuwait. There, as in the rest of the Gulf’s Arab states, a society of ethnic Arabs lives alongside a migrant underclass whose living conditions recall the system of indentured servitude that brought workers to the American colonies in the 18th century. What happens to the hundreds of illegitimate children inevitably born in these circumstances? For how long can the Gulf states fail to establish rights for their citizens greater than those of mere subjects, and to deny citizenship outright to those deemed stateless, or “Bidun”?
Isa or José, who bears one name given by his Muslim father and another by his Christian mother, grows up in the Philippines and returns to Kuwait as an adolescent. Raised on his mother’s wistful memories of his father Rashid and the gilded comforts of Kuwaiti life, Isa/José arrives in Kuwait City full of hope, eager to take up his place as a zestful, carousing young Kuwaiti, like those he has seen holidaying in the Philippines. But his father’s family at first refuses to take him in at all, and then finally lodges him with the servants. Isa’s Filipino features trump other marks of identity: that his voice carries the timbre of his father’s, that he carries a Kuwaiti identity card, that he arrives prepared to love and be loved by what he imagines is his family.
At first glance, The Bamboo Stalk appears a bold, morally engaged novel, concerned with how racism and xenophobia degrade a society from within. The depictions of what Isa faces are often unflinching, and the singular pain of migrant life — having children only to leave them behind, refusing to become attached to them out of self-preservation — are deeply affecting. But the moral interrogation at the heart of the novel is ultimately unsatisfying. There is an undercurrent of apologia that runs throughout, notably in the novel left behind by Isa’s father, in which he “portrayed Kuwait as he saw it, with tough love. He wanted to change reality with a novel that was candid and harsh, but his only motive was love.”
It is in such passages that Alsanousi, while perhaps understandably protecting himself, undercuts the force of his story, and produces a mishmash of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Catcher in the Rye, and an Amnesty International report. The awkwardness partly lies with the adolescent narrator — there is only so much dialogue spattered with “Awesome” and “Look, you guys!” that an adult novel can sustain.
The parts of the novel set in Manila never match the vividness of the Kuwait City sections, and some of the Filipino characters feel caricatured. Isa’s mother is particularly unpersuasive. Lured into sex with a sham marriage, by a lofty novelist nonetheless, then rejected and dispatched back to the Philippines, she counsels Isa to bear no resentment: “The decision wasn’t your father’s. A whole society stood behind him.” One wonders if this is the maid’s empathy, or Alsanousi’s, as he struggles to reconcile his own loyalty to Kuwait with dismay at how it treats the vulnerable.
Despite all this, Alsanousi holds significant promise as a novelist. His portrait of Kuwaiti society and the proud family at the book’s centre is memorable, and in these sections the novel reveals what Alsanousi is capable of. The book deserves its accolade, and such a literary voice — ambitious, cultivated and brave — is badly needed in the Middle East.
The Bamboo Stalk, by Saud Alsanousi, translated by Jonathan Wright, Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation, RRP£16.99, 384 pages
Azadeh Moaveni is author of ‘Honeymoon in Tehran’ (Random House)