Kuwaiti Novelist Saoud al-Sanousi on Why José Rizal Inspired Him and Hopes for the Future

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. This is the second part of a two-part interview:

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.

The first part of the interview — on the books receptions and mis-readings — was published last week. Below, al-Sanousi talks more about writing about the “other.”

Andrew Leber: On the subject of citizenship and belonging, is there importance to the fact that you focus on the historical figure José Rizal, an important writer and thinker on the subject of Filipino nationalism?

Saoud al-Sanousi: The use of José Rizal was very important for me, for several reasons. Here in Kuwait and the rest of the Gulf, we don’t know anything about Filipinos other than the fact that they work in McDonalds and Starbucks or as domestic servants in homes.

Now, I visited the Philippines four times and that really drove home the point that this was a real place, with an enormous cultural heritage – great historical figures, artists, thinkers, politicians and so on. The people in Kuwait who read Bamboo Stalk were surprised to find that Filipinos – like people anywhere else – were more than just servants.

It was as though the Philippines was completely unknown as a country, and Filipinos were understood only as workers in Kuwait. It might be a poor country materially speaking, but from a cultural standpoint it is extremely wealthy.

So I wanted to say to readers that you shouldn’t feel inherently superior to somebody coming from one of these poorer countries. These people come from a great civilization, from a long history, from a background of prominent figures.

Even for me personally, José Rizal is an inspirational figure in many respects, not the least as I’m a novelist as well. Every time I was playing around with the format of the novel, or tweaking some of the characters, I’d think – Jose Rizal inspired the Filipino independence movement at the end of the 19th century with just a novel!

I was often envious of José Rizal as I wrote this book, thinking – I could never accomplish what he did! I just hope that I can write a novel where I change people’s view of others, whether that’s in Kuwait or the world at large. That’s why I have José Rizal in the novel.

AL: I also noticed that you tried to distinguish between the Gulf states in your novel, since they’re so often lumped together. José’s mother Josephine, for example, writes about her experience in Bahrain as being much better than her time in Kuwait.

SS: I certainly see differences between the countries. When I spoke with many of the people that informed my book – Indians, Filipinos – they knew I was a writer, and a lot of them were afraid to talk at first. Yet the more we built up trust, the more they felt free to talk as they got to know me and we talked about these differences.

Bahrain and Oman are certainly different, though I only know Bahrain well. In spite of the terrible events there recently, Bahrain hasn’t become like a lot of the other Gulf countries in terms of how it looks at foreigners.

As long as you have Bahrainis working in car washes or collecting bags at hotels, they can sympathize more with ordinary workers because they could imagine themselves doing that kind of work.

We don’t have that in Kuwait – no Kuwaiti is working at a menial job. Therefore, the older generation – my grandmother’s – treats workers much better than ours does. Those people lived poor lives in mud houses before the oil – people like my grandmother can empathize with those workers better because they actually shared some experiences with them.

For our generation, though, the state pays for everything, jobs are waiting for us, we live in fancy homes…. How can you empathize with any worker when you’ve never worked yourself?

I think that you find more tolerance and understanding toward workers in Bahrain because the Bahrainis there lead simpler lives. 

AL: Were you surprised by how well your novel seems to have received in the Arab world? Why do you think it has proved so popular? Do you think it might enjoy similar success in the English-speaking market? 

SS: An important question – and perhaps worrying. Before the novel won [the International Prize for Arabic Fiction], it was received well – it won the state prize for literature in Kuwait.

But reactions were divided. The younger generation – which did not live a difficult life – accepted the premise since they’re more open-minded. But the older generation, which might be more empathetic toward these workers’ situations, were hung up on the matter of bloodlines – of marriage.

There was a sense of – “What is Sanousi trying to say? Does he want us to marry off our sons to domestic servants?” This is the old way of thinking – we might empathize with these people’s situation, but we can never integrate.

A number of writers called Bamboo Stalk a matter of “friendly fire” – how could a Kuwaiti write this kind of criticism? I feel that Bamboo Stalk is my way of criticizing some aspects of our culture on the Arabian Peninsula, but it’s a work that comes from my love for the region. I don’t like seeing certain acts in my country. In the end, though, I leave the door open – it’s a Kuwaiti novel, and if it’s critical then it tries to do so nicely.

As for a Western reader, to be honest I don’t know – maybe the question of identity doesn’t resonate as much. Every year I visit London for two months or so, and I see the degree of diversity and interaction on display – this is something familiar to people there.

I don’t know if a reader from London, say, would receive it in the same way – it was written for a local audience, after all.  I never thought about translating the novel. When the translation was finished, and as I talked it over more, it seemed like an issue that might interest some people further abroad but I still don’t know just how interested they will be.

AL: Do you think that having a narrator from a mixed background – half-Filipino, half-Kuwaiti – helped make it easier for Kuwaitis to hear criticisms expressed by “the other”?

SS: You’re speaking as if we distinguish between somebody who is half “other” and somebody who is completely an “other.” José might be half-Kuwaiti, but he’s considered a Filipino in Kuwait. In every reading of this novel – all of the articles written about it, all of the people who’ve talked about it – everybody talks about “José Mendoza.”  Nobody uses his Arab name – Isa Tarouf.

You want a surprise? Even I say José more than I say “Isa.” It’s as though, sub-consciously, even I’m not convinced that he’s Kuwaiti. Even the people who accept him as a character call him José Mendoza. He’s still “Jose the Filipino guy” – even the readers can’t quite accept who he really is.

AL: Certainly, José/Isa doesn’t feel at home in Kuwait, but neither does he feel fully at home in the Philippines. Was this a way to bring more of a discussion of the Philippines into the novel?

SS: In Kuwait, [José/Isa] found a great deal of money, but no family. In the Philippines, he never had much money but he at least had his family. So there’s that.

But a more important point, I wanted the Filipinos in the novel to be symbolic of something larger – they could have been Indians, or Pakistanis, or Bangladeshis. I don’t want my novel described as “a book about Kuwait and the Philippines.” It’s about Kuwait and “the other” – or the Arabs and “the other.”

AL: We also see this discussion of identity in the e-mails between José/Isa and Merla [José’s cousin] where they discuss Merla’s mixed European-Filipino heritage.

SS: Yes, and what’s more is that this heritage is also reflected in her facial features – her eyes, her hair and so on. Yet this has the opposite effect of José’s face – she is accepted more and finds it easier to fit in. José is unable to completely assimilate in Kuwait, compared with the more open-minded Philippines – there, people accept you even if you look slightly different or whatnot.

The ultimate ending is left open, though – a lot of people ask me why José leaves for Kuwait in the end, and what happens next. I usually tell them “Sure, he left, but he’s 20 years old. He’ll die someday, like all of us, but there’s plenty of time for something to happen. The Kuwaiti government can’t distribute his inheritance unless he’s around – and he has a son of his own, Rashid, so maybe there’s a little bit of hope that something might happen.”

AL: Perhaps a final question – why did you choose the bamboo stalk as central symbol and title for the book?

SS: I don’t mean a full bamboo tree but one of those small bamboo stalks – my house is full of them. It’s known for not needing extensive roots in order to grow. With the plants I have – no matter how tall – you can prune off a part, put in a different pot, and it will grow into a stalk of its own unrelated to the other.

José wanted to be just like that bamboo stalk – to leave where he’d been, like the Philippines, and take root wherever he planted his feet. But no matter how much time he spent in Kuwait, no matter what he did, he couldn’t be like the bamboo stalk.

In the novel, he says, “I was more like a bamboo plant, which doesn’t belong anywhere in particular. You can cut off a piece of the stalk and plant it without roots in any piece of ground. Before long the stalk sprouts new roots and starts to grow again in the new ground, with no past, no memory. It doesn’t notice that people have different names for it – kawayan in the Philippines, khaizuran in Kuwait, and bamboo in many places.”

But that’s not how things turned out for José. 

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.