While living and working in Qatar back in January of 2015, Andrew Leber sat down with Kuwaiti author Saoud al-Sanousi to chat about his well-received novel Bamboo Stalk, translated into English by Jonathan Wright. This is the first part of a two-part interview. The next part will appear next Wednesday:
By Andrew Leber
Winner of the International Prize for Arabic Fiction in 2013 and subsequently translated into English, Bamboo Stalk tells the story of José Mendoza, a young man raised in the Philippines who journeys to Kuwait, the land of his long-absent father. José’s mother, Josephine, was all-too-briefly married to Rashid Tarouf, scion of the Kuwaiti family that Josephine worked for as a domestic servant.
Though a fair amount of time has passed since our interview, the novel has not faded from the public eye — the television adaptation of Bamboo Stalk aired this past summer, with its discussion of citizenship, national identity, and discrimination in Kuwait earning it a complete ban from the country’s censors.
All in all, the discussion was a welcome break from the bland PR statements and stock government phrasing that colors much of the debate over national identities and social change throughout the GCC. Our interview picks up after al-Sanousi had finished a stock interview for a local Qatari paper, so I tried to kick things off by asking what he wanted to discuss.
Andrew Leber: We were just discussing how you felt that many readers and interviewers assumed the book dealt mainly with migrant workers’ rights and their experiences in the region. In your opinion, what is the central theme of this book?
Saud al-Sanousi: I’m certainly worried that the book might be branded as being only about expat workers’ rights in the Gulf states. The novel may touch on these issues from time to time, but I don’t want the entire things to be viewed in this framework.
The novel deals with two essential but related issues – the nature of identity, and how we view “the other.” I wanted to ask how we, in our culture (whether Kuwaiti, Gulf, or Arab) define and view “the other.”
Not just any “other” – even here we have different classifications to divide things up. There is the superior other – the Westerner, like an American or a European. We sense that they are somehow higher up, and so we shrug off whatever they have to say. The Arabs may be portrayed terribly in Hollywood, but we don’t care that much, for example.
But here I mean more the Asian or Indian “other,” where we sub-consciously – or even consciously – feel we are superior to them. That’s why this novel and its criticisms are difficult for some people. If the main character was, say, half-American, it would be seem pretty normal for them.
The question is, how does this section of society – most of them lowly workers, like waiters in the cafes and Ethiopian maids – how do they come to view us negatively? Asking this question is what riles people up in Kuwait.
AL: How did you get the idea to write about the Philippines, and to travel to the Philippines as well?
SS: The original idea was to write on India, as it is much closer to Kuwait than the Philippines. I even traveled to India, but I couldn’t finish working on that idea – Gulf citizens just don’t look that different from Indians. When I was in India, people would speak come up and speak Hindi to me – same thing in London.
So if the protagonist was half-Indian, it wouldn’t pose a huge problem for him. Even the Kuwaitis, in the age of sail before oil, used to go and marry people from India. That didn’t pose a big problem for society, and it wouldn’t provide much of a central problem for the novel.
But for somebody with an East Asian background, the contrast is much greater – you can’t conceal the features that are written on your face. No matter how well you speak Arabic or wear a thawb, and the ghutra and the atshal, all the traditional attire – you’ll struggle to feel you belong.
That’s why José – when he was going out for Eid, maybe Eid al-Adha, when he was wearing all the traditional clothes – felt that nothing really suited him except his face. Perhaps Ghanima – the grandmother – would have accepted José if only he looked different.
AL: Do you feel that there is discrimination against East Asians specifically? I witnessed this while living in Cairo, and we certainly find it in your book as well.
SS: It’s certainly around, but it’s not a direct problem – if somebody is Filipino, if they’re a co-worker or whatever, it’s not a problem. But mixing the bloodlines… now I’m not speaking about everybody in Kuwait, but a family like the novel’s Tarouf – which represents a lot of families in Kuwait – would reject this completely.
The family would have rejected the marriage [between Rashid, their son, and Josephine, the servant] in the beginning of the novel, but it is another thing entirely when their son comes back to claim his place in the family. It would have been much simpler if the mother had forbidden her son from marrying the servant before anything happened.
A lot of people in Kuwait were sensitive about this portrayal – how could the Tarouf family react this way? Certainly, some families are open to mixed marriages. A university professor told me that his brother’s wife was Filipino, and that they all live together in a large house.
I replied that of course this happens as well – but that I was talking about a specific class within society, a specific phenomenon among some families.
AL: There is certainly an image abroad that Gulf societies are divided into very rigid and separate communities – Gulf Arab, Western expat, East Asian expat, the Indian community, and so on – with little interaction between them.
SS: No, it’s worse than that. Even in domestic society, we have divisions between Kuwaitis of Iranian origin, Najdi origin, Saudi origin, Iraqi origin, and so on. We face this predicament of identity even among ourselves – everybody who claims a “Kuwaiti” identity does.
AL: Is this reflected in the novel where José enters Kuwait for the first time, when the passport officer sends him to the line for foreigners?
SS: Indeed. I’m not against the idea that a citizen should enjoy a certain special service in his own country – even in Europe and other countries I visited, there were separate lines for foreigners and so on – but it’s all about how you deal with people.
In this scene José is actually carrying a blue passport – the Kuwaiti passport. Of course, once he shows the officer his passport he’s admitted and it’s all fine. Yet the key image is that the moment he sets foot on Kuwaiti soil, the employee rejects him because of his face even before José gets to present his papers. It gives you a sense of how we tend to imagine “the other.”
AL: Do you see some parallels between this topic and what we see elsewhere in the West – given the large Muslim communities in France, the United States, and elsewhere – where people reject the idea that these people are citizens no matter what their documentation?
SS: Certainly – even look at Mexican immigrants in the United States who get treated like second-class citizens! This is not a Gulf problem or an Arab problem alone – it may not be quite as bad elsewhere, but we can certainly see similar issues anywhere we look.
In France, you have a large number of people of North African origins who are treated by many as second-class citizens. I’ve never lived in France, but even on brief visits and in discussions with friends this comes across.
The second part of this interview — a further exploration of othering, identity, The Philippines, and different attitudes toward workers in different Gulf nations — is scheduled to appear next Wednesday.
Saoud al-Sanousi’s best-selling third book, Mother Hissa’s Mice, was published in Arabic in 2015 by Arabic Scientific Publishers, Inc.
Andrew Leber (@) is a PhD student at Harvard University’s Department of Government. He occasionally translates and writes about other things when time permits.