Caterina Pinto reviews The Bamboo Stalk, the 2013 International Prize for Arabic Fiction winner and novel where everything is double:
By Caterina Pinto
Everything in The Bamboo Stalk is double: two names, two identities, two countries, two languages, and even two manuscripts. In fact, when you open the novel, you might be surprised to see that — after turning the frontispiece — another one is waiting for you, where the title is written both in Arabic and Filipino, and the name of a supposed translator is mentioned. The reader is thus encouraged to believe that what they’re about to page through is a memoir originally written in Filipino and then translated into Arabic, with an introduction and footnotes by the translator.
The novel’s narrator is José Mendoza, who tells his story between Kuwait and the Philippines, between his father’s homeland and his mother’s. He starts from the time “before his birth,” when his mother Josephine is forced to leave behind her studies and family to go work in Kuwait as a household servant. Here, she meets Rashid al-Taruf, a kind and cultivated man. They fall in love and get married in secret and they give birth to José, well… Issa:
My name is Jose, it’s written like this. In the Philippines we pronounce it as in English, Hosé. And in Arabic it sounds, as in Spanish, Khosé. In Portuguese is written with the same letters, but it is pronounced Djosé. Here in Kuwait, all those names have nothing to do with my name, that is Issa.
As it’s made clear by the narrator, we thus encounter another duality: The protagonist’s name varies according to the country where he lives and to the language spoken by the people. He was born Issa in Kuwait, but when his mother was forced to leave her husband and go back to the Philippines with her two-month-old baby, he became José. However, when he turns 18 and travels to Kuwait to find out what has happened to his father Rashid, he is Issa again.
The description of Issa/José’s experience in Kuwait gives the author the chance to give an account of the miserable conditions of migrant workers in Gulf countries. With his Kuwaiti passport, Issa is not really an immigrant, but he still suffers from discrimination and isolation. His features are unequivocally Southeast Asian and he cannot speak Arabic. He cannot communicate easily with his relatives from his father’s side, which sets him apart from an environment that has never really welcomed him: :[It was] as watching a movie in an unknown language without subtitles.”
If Issa/José — influenced by his mother’s stories — had always seen Kuwait from a distance as a sort of “paradise” on earth, the country shows its real face once he arrives.
If Issa/José — influenced by his mother’s stories — had always seen Kuwait from a distance as a sort of “paradise” on earth, the country shows its real face once he arrives. The Kuwaiti society reveals to Issa a rigid class structure, firmly entrenched in ethnic identities: on the one side there are the Kuwaiti nationals who constitute one class, and on the other side the poorly paid immigrant workers. Issa’s perspective is double: foreign and local, external and internal, as his identity itself is both Filipino and Kuwaiti. Issa’s inner contradictions multiplies what Abdelmalek Sayad calls “the double absence.” He is absent from his society of origin, and at the same time he remains an outsider in the host country. While it’s actually his homeland, he is perceived as a “foreigner.”
Not only does he have to face the racist attitudes of Kuwaiti society, but he has also to struggle against the hostility of his grandmother and aunts, who are worried that his presence could irreparably damage their family’s reputation.
Issa’s perspective is double: foreign and local, external and internal, as his identity itself is both Filipino and Kuwaiti.
The Bamboo Stalk is the winner of the 2013 International Prize for Arabic Fiction, and it was chosen for its artistic merits but also for “its social and humanitarian content.” With his plain and witty style, al-Sanousi crafts a complex saga with a number of characters related in one way or another to two families living in two distant countries and whose characteristics can’t be more diverse (social status, language, religion), but whose paths are destined to cross.
I won’t spoil the novel’s intriguing plot, nor its ending. I’ll just reveal that Issa progressively realises that he will never be welcomed in his father’s family, nor in Kuwait. He also realises he was mistaken when thought of himself as a “bamboo stalk” which can take roots wherever is planted:
If only I were like a bamboo tree, which doesn’t belong to anything! We cut a piece from the stalk, plant it without roots in any land. The stalk won’t take long to grow new roots… it grows anew, in a new land. Without a past, without memory.
Caterina Pinto has a degree in the translation of contemporary Arab literature. She has lived and worked in Beirut, Damascus, and London, and is currently based in Italy, where she collaborates with the University of Bari.