Review: Taleb Elrefai’s ‘Outclassed in Kuwait’

This review, of Kuwaiti novelist Taleb Alrefai’s engaging Outclassed in Kuwait, translated by the author, appears in The National. It opens:

In the recently published Outclassed in Kuwait, there are two, mirror images of author Taleb Alrefai. The first is the real, award-winning Kuwaiti writer, while the second is as narrator.

The biography opens with fictional Alrefai getting a call from a wealthy businessman named Khalid Khalifa requesting that he pen a novel-to-order.

This isn’t the sort of ghostwriting that’s common in English – where the rich pay an author to assemble their memoirs and then stamp their own name on the cover. Instead, this millionaire wants Alrefai to lend his name to the project. Khalifa wants an old-fashioned praise poem in his honour, written as a modern novel. It is this odd combination that spawns the book’s most interesting tensions.

“Praise novels” aren’t something a 21st century author usually undertakes, as narrator Alrefai quickly points out, and after receiving the offer he opts to talk things over with the late novelist Ismail Fahd Ismail. Ismail was a (real) friend of the (real) author, and this detail creates a new layer of mirroring and illusion.

Things get less real when Khalifa offers Alrefai 100,000 Kuwaiti dinars (Dh1.2 million) to write the book. Later, when Alrefai is offered more money to stop writing it, Ismail tells his friend to take the cash. “No Arab writer ever makes that kind of money,” he says. Alrefai’s wife Shoroq also urges him to take payment. “What about our financial problems? My love, please forget about those wretched communist principles you believe in this one time.”

Keep reading at The National.