Removing the Frame: Discussing Saud al-Sanousi’s ‘The Bamboo Stalk’

In the original, Saud Alsanoussi’s The Bamboo Stalk was presented (fictionally) as a translation from Tagalog. In English translation (real, this time), the framing device has been removed. Translator Jonathan Wright — and author Saud Alsanousi — addressed this and other issues during a February 23 talk to celebrate The Bamboo Stalk winning the Banipal translation prize:

By Sarah Irving

Ben East, Saud Alsanousi and Jonathan Wright. Photo from Banipal.
Ben East, Saud Alsanousi and Jonathan Wright. Photo from Banipal.

Despite the best efforts of Hurricane Doris to close down Britain’s transport networks, on February 23, Kuwaiti novelist Saud al-Sanousi and translator Jonathan Wright made it to Manchester’s Anthony Burgess Foundation.

The pair were in the UK to promote The Bamboo Stalk, Wright’s translation of Alsanousi’s Saq al-Bambu, which won the International Prize for Arabic Fiction in 2013 and the Saif Ghobash Banipal Prize for Arabic-English translation in 2016.

At the heart of the novel are themes and questions of identity, racism and prejudice in Kuwaiti society. Nevertheless, Alsanousi insists, the reception he and his book have received has been overwhelmingly positive, including a national literary prize the year before Saq al-Bambu entranced the IPAF jury, and adaptation into a Kuwaiti TV series.

The central character of Alsanousi’s novel is José/Isa, a half-Filipino, half-Kuwaiti youth with “a Kuwaiti passport and a Filipino face” who is subjected to rejection and racism at the hands of Kuwaiti society and the Arab half of his family. According to Saud al-Sanousi:

Through José/Isa I had an opportunity to get into a world about which we are silent, a world that is not spoken about. Isa’s character is a portal through which I could present what I wanted to say. He gave me two opportunities: to experience how we see the other and how the other sees us, and to live someone else’s experiences, someone who is not part of my own circumstances, someone with whom we agree only in our convictions.

Alsanousi visited the Philippines in order to research his novel. His initial intentions were initially with the “simple aim” to “see the names of the streets, to see the house he lived in, to eat the food he eats.” But, he discovered, the “Other that in our society represents the lower, is actually much richer than we give them credit for. We deal with the Other based on our knowledge of them, but we actually don’t know anything about them.” And, he says, when he came back to Kuwait, it was to see his own society “with José’s eyes” and a new critical perspective.

In a profoundly moving choice of excerpt from the book – delivered first by Saud Alsanousi in Arabic and then by Jonathan Wright in English – we witness a brief moment of hope when José, his name confused with another child of the family who is also called Isa – thinks that perhaps his Arab grandmother, aunts and uncles are about to acknowledge and include him in their circle. Berated by them for appearing in public, his dream is rapidly dashed, and his isolation and exclusion made all the harsher and more obvious.

As both Wright and al-Sanousi emphasise, the extract was chosen in order to highlight the way in which the novel, despite its important message, is not a polemic but, first and foremost, a story. Whilst Said admits that the diverse attitudes are intended to display the different opinions and reactions within Kuwaiti society, Wright stresses that the novel’s appeal for him was its “simple language but powerful narrative thrust [and absence of] … literary flourishes or purple passages.”

Wright (and a later questioner from the audience) raised a second issue in Alsanousi’s novel, that of Kuwait’s bidoun (‘without’), long-term residents of the country who nevertheless have no citizenship status, few rights, and who are discriminated against in many facets of Kuwaiti society. The group of “young, crazy” characters  who are most accepting of José include Shi’i, bidoun and other ‘outsiders’ in Kuwaiti society.

In Alsanousi’s opinion the plight of the bidoun, despite having been addressed in other Kuwaiti literature, would have been a more controversial topic for his novel than the complex, uncomfortable dual status of José. The character of Ghassan, however, does allow him to highlight the way in which even the much-abused José has more rights in Kuwaiti society than Ghassan, whose family have lived there for generations. And, Alsanousi suggests, those readers who did object to the washing of Kuwait’s dirty linen in public tended to be older generations, with younger people more open to facing the country’s flaws.

Beyond those raised by the novel’s themes, Jonathan Wright also raised some of the issues which translating the book highlighted. Stylistically, Wright pointed out that the Arabic original was framed as a translation itself, supposedly from a notebook written in Tagalog. But, Wright suggests, Anglophone readers feel less need to have an opening explanation of the provenance of a text than Arabic audiences, so both the opening account of how the book came about, and the translation device itself, are dropped in the English version.


Saoud al-Sanousi on What ‘Bamboo Stalk’ Is Really About and Why Some Kuwaitis Disapprove

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

The Bamboo Stalk: Exploring Kuwaiti Society and ‘The Double Absence’

Leading Kuwaiti Writers Saud Alsanousi and Bothayna al-Essa on Pushing Back Against a Season of Censorship

Sarah Irving [] is author of a biography of Leila Khaled and of the Bradt Guide to Palestine, and has been a journalist and reviewer for over a decade. She is currently a postgraduate student at the University of Edinburgh and is dipping a tentative toe into the waters of Arabic-English translation.