Novelist Eman Assad on Belonging and Identity in Kuwait

By Jenan Alhamli

Literary translator and now novelist Eman Assad and I met on a fine morning in a coffee shop facing the sea. Since we worked together remotely on a team for several months, we had gotten to know each other, but this was our first face-to-face meeting. We met to talk about her first novel No Sun in the Closed Room, published recently by Kuwaiti publisher Takween. The intimate conversation we had revolved around identity and acceptance which warranted, of course, a great deal of politics. 

Jenan Alhamli: So, let’s start with your beginnings. Tell me about your childhood, as someone who is Kuwaiti Jordanian (with Palestinian roots).

Eman Assad: I was born in 1980, and since my father is Jordanian and my mother is Kuwaiti, I belong to [a section of Kuwaiti society named] “Children of Kuwaiti Mothers.” If you were part of that group, then you would be more inclined toward embracing the Kuwaiti identity, because you belong to your mother and reside in her country. So, there’s this rupture from the paternal extension of your family; you do not have that other familial side.

We also have to consider the economic factor. Economically speaking, the mother is the powerful party; she has the privileges afforded to her by her government, for example the right of property ownership. And so she provides a larger income. Hence, there’s this economic control over the household maintained by the mother and the mother’s country, which makes her identity more far-reaching than the father’s. The father is always weaker. He is the weaker party, and so your paternal half is weaker. The balance between your two halves is missing.

On top of this dysfunction, the invasion happened, and with the Palestinan and Jordainan stance on the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, the pressure grew bigger and bigger, and with it, there came the principle of loyalty and betrayal.

JA: A dichotomy.

EA: Exactly, the loyalty and betrayal dichotomy. Your father’s identity has betrayed your mother’s. At the time, just to clarify here, we were in Amman when the invasion happened, on a summer holiday, and so when it happened, we were stuck there for a whole year. We returned with our mother only, in August 1991. We soon realized that the situation had changed, even within the confines of our [extended] family. It became very clear. Our identity was wholly attached [to our father’s], and a new duty was put in place, whereby you needed to express your loyalty to Kuwait. And how do you do that? By accepting the insulting names your country is called without objection. We were treated on this basis, not just within our family, but also newspapers. Columnists were demanding that Kuwaiti women married to Palestinians, Jordanians, or Iraqis be deported, and some blamed them for having married a man from one of those countries.

JA: Did anyone apologize at all?

EA: No, no. No apologies were given. Why would they apologize? And here we go back to the loyalty and betrayal dichotomy. You always have to prove you’re loyal, as with Dana’s character, what she went through [having to verbally abuse her father’s country] reflects a reality many had to live.

JA: Don’t you think that Ayman’s mother was the most internally balanced character, at least when it comes to her national identity? Despite her disagreement with her husband and her troubled motherhood. We saw in the first dialogue she had with her husband that she seemed to be the only Palestinan character in the novel who had this balance.

EA: And that’s why I think she was the only one who took the decision to change, and saw it through. She decided to leave, and she did. 

JA: And tried to take her son with her.

EA: The first time, but he ruined her plan. He reacted to his neighbor Hamouda’s ominous warning that the moment US forces entered, Kuwaitis would slaughter all Palesinians. He feared for his father’s life, and so he invited him to run away with them. Ayman here embodies the Palestinian trauma, and fear, a fear that the Nakba might be repeated, and not just the Nakba, but also what happened in Beirut in 1985 and the Jordanian Black September. Both resulted in a traumatic shock.

JA: The idea that you will be chased out of every land you live in.

EA: You will be chased out and killed wherever you are. Whether you were with or against, this is—

JA: Enough.

EA: Enough to have you killed. So this Palestinan fear that they will be killed en masse made Ayman commit this strategic mistake, by informing his father of his mother’s plan to escape. 

JA: Any national duality whereby a person’s parents come from two different backgrounds results in that person being doubted by people on both sides, each pushing that person to the other. 

EA: True, and that’s what happened with Ghassan the last time he went to Ayman; Hamouda asked him, What brings you to us? Go back to your mother. Hamouda was also the first to tell Ghassan that he was playing the Palestinan role all wrong. Maybe everyone was aware of that, but they were just playing along with him. Even Mr. Assim hated that about Ghassan — he hated his dual identity and the way he treated each side. How he denies his Kuwaitiness, and claims a Palestinianness he knows nothing about. Save for his father’s image or the fictionalized image: Palestinians are rude, witty, and believe that the whole world is conspiring against them. 

Ghassan, like many children of Kuwaiti women, is provocative. We provoke everyone. Having a dual identity compels you to act a role, and everyone else detects that hint of fakeness.

And we, as children of Kuwaiti mothers, especially of my generation, who were kids during the invasion, we had to wear a mask. What’s the problem with that mask? It’s that it hasn’t been just worn, but that it has grown veins into your face. And so if you try to take it off, you’ll end up tearing off your whole face; imagine how bloody and excruciating it would be. It’s not a separate mask, but a mask that has struck its roots into your perception of your own identity.

JA: I think of this sentence, when Mr. Assim summons Ayman’s father, telling him what he did: “Mr. Assim wanted it to be a Kuwaiti end, its raging fires burning the sky. Ghassan wanted it to be a Palestinian end, dyeing bloody the diaspora lands with blood.” There were raging fires, which echoes the cries of the Kuwaiti woman shopping in the supermarket, “May God burn the children of Palesinans!” And even now, if we were to give it a chance, that burning rage would resurface.

EA:  That rage and hate against Palestinians stood out in the first year after the liberation. You could not defend yourself against it.

JA: As for the other phrase “a Palestinian end, dying bloody in the diaspora’s lands,” it tells us that the Palestinans are not the agents of their own fate, but they are the ones forced into their fate. 

EA: And Ghassan wanted to be the agent of his fate. He wanted  the end to be bloody, avenging his father’s tragedy. 

JA: A Palestinian hero whose wife has emasculated.

EA: Absolutely.

JA: Mansour Abul-Iz was weak and frail enough to get into a relationship in which he knew beforehand who would be the stronger party. Not just because he’s Palestinan, but because he is the false replica of Ghassan Kanafani. Through him, Ghada was trying to recreate the relationship she pictured having with Kanafani. 

EA: And here we go back to the same problem: treating Palestinians according to a set of preconceived ideas. 

JA: She made up an image of Ghassan.

EA: She did, and he helped out in this. So there’s a Palestinan contribution in preserving these images. We’re here, of course, talking about that generation, not the current one.

JA: The Nakba generation.

EA: The generation that lived through the Nakba, then events in Jordan and Lebanon, and finally the invasion. I believe what happened during the invasion was immensely damaging to Palestinians, despite the fact that murders against Palestinians  occurred  on a very small-scale. According to [Palestinan- Kuwaiti political analyst] Shafeeq Alghabra, the number of fatalities, suspected to be killed by Kuwaitis, did not exceed 49, including 33 who were reported missing at the time. In an implied agreement, as this case was soon to be closed by both parties.

JA: So Ghassan won’t be avenged.

EA: He won’t. But in contrast, Ayman tried to get him not revenge, but a happy ending.

JA: I would like to discuss here the similarities between Ghassan Kanafani and your character Ghassan Abul-Iz. Both experienced feelings of displacement and longing for home, and both were rebellious, the latter of which manifested itself differently in both Ghassans. The rebelliousness of the Palestinian Kuwaiti teenger, Abul-Iz,  differed from that of Kanafani the Palestinan fighter. 

EA: True, and I felt that if Kanafani was to be born into the same circumstances as those of  Abul-Iz, then he would have been him. The last sentence said of Abul-Iz — “the blackness in his eyes  went dark as the night” — is a quote from Kanafani’s The Land of Sad Oranges.

This quote describes the spilled blood of a murdered Palestinan. It’s alive and dark as night. At this moment, I think, the color of Ghassan’s eyes has turned from grey to black. He no longer had doubts, one side in him claimed victory over the other. Ghassan receives Ghassan, or rather Ghassan describes Ghassan, and the end was claimed by Ghassan. There is an undeniable similarity between the two. Also: Abul-Iz is the pseudonym Kanafani used when he used to write in newspapers in Kuwait when he lived here, and that’s why I chose it.

Yet when he fell and fell, and is described by Kanafani’s words “the blackness in his eyes went as dark as the night,” we realize that he is going to live like a memory that won’t die. This is what happend with Ayman when he gave life to Ghassan. Ghassan will continue living on through every text written about Palestine. 

JA: When Masnour told his son how his relationship with his mother started, he said that she wanted Kanafani, but it was I who fought. There were many Palestinan fighters who died without us knowing anything about them. But not Kanafani.

EA: True, because as Mansour said, Kanafani wrote stories once, thus his heroism was  immortalized. But how many Palestinan fighters were killed? How many Palestinan children were killed? If we were to list the names of those we know of all the fighters and the children, we wouldn’t be able to fill up one page. We’re used to looking at them as a figure, an image. The image of a child throwing a rock at a military tank, the image of the old woman hugging the olive tree. At the end of the day, we only know images, not people. 

That’s why Mansour Abul-Iz found himself overwhelmed with defeat. Unlike Kanafani, he ended up a nameless hero. 

JA: I wanted to speak about the appearance of Palestinan artist Naji Alali in the novel: Ghassan’s keychain, [featuring] the return portrait; Hanzala holding the return key.

EA: Yes, he does appear in the novel, with Ghassan’s keychain and the way he stands waiting. Waiting for his mother, or his father, or Khalid. Even when he talked with Hamouda, he was leaning against the wall with his hands clasped behind him. He stands helplessly, waiting, but when he decided to do something, we saw what happened. He placed his bet on the wrong horse, his mother, where he could have placed it on Fatma. Fatma who listened to him and to his story, who shared the same pain. Mind you, we’re talking about 1991 here, a time when awareness about topics like sexual abuse,  homosexuality, and rape was lacking.

JA: Don’t you feel that she embodies the struggle of the Arab woman, and not just the Kuwaiti woman?

EA: Yes, every Arab woman who has been raped. She must be locked in, and she must never leave the room.

JA: She receives this sentence submissively, as if it were a deserved punishment.

EA: And that’s why she has no issue with her brother. She hasn’t opposed him, not even after his death. She lives with this punishment. 

JA: Despite the threat of eviction she feels looming over her, by her teenage nephew who might do just that at any moment, since it is his house.

EA: Even this threat that she fears might turn into a reality reflects the same fear Palestinians feel. She, too, understands what it’s like to live in a place that’s not yours, or to be in a place you have no claim to, because in the end, you’re just a guest. And this is the situation in which thousands of Arab women live in today. You are a guest at your brother’s house, and you need to respect that. That’s why Fatma holds on to Zainab’s existence in the house, because with it, her services as a caregiver are required, so she tied her being at the house with Zainab’s madness. In that sense, she is investing in Zainab living in the house, and opposes her hospitalization. 

JA: She was on the brink.

EA: She was, and everyone saw that, because of her lifestyle, but no one would say it. She is in this closed room, and the facts are known. If you choose to overlook them for familial or national reasons, that doesn’t deny their existence. It just denies your observance of them, which was your conscious choice. 

JA: True, we deny some things by not facing them. We, in Kuwait, are among the few Arab countries where you can publicly express your support for Palestine. But when asked about the Palestinan existence in Kuwait, when we’re asked to face the past and the present, we give a broad answer and quickly brush it aside.  

EA: This takes us to the idea of truth and reconciliation. This didn’t happen in Kuwait, because there was no open discussion, because what happened [the killings of Palestinians] happened on a small scale. Thirty-three out of 50,000 Palestinians living in Kuwait after the invasion (it was  250,000 before the invasion) is, politically speaking, not worthy of reopening old wounds for.

JA: I would like to go back to where we started. When did you find your inner peace? When did you find your sun?

EA: I haven’t found it yet, not entirely anyway. I started feeling it when I started writing the  novel and then when I published it. But I haven’t found my peace in full yet, it’s a struggle. Maybe because I haven’t given a chance for the Jordanian identity in me to surface. I haven’t lived in Jordan, except for those two years as a graduate student. When I went to say goodbye to one of the Jordanian professors, he was shocked to learn that I’m Jordanian. He thought I was Iraqi, because even my Kuwaiti dialect is not perfect, and so I was treated as if I were a foreigner. 

In Kuwait, we’re called “Children of Kuwaiti Mothers,” and over there “[Jordanian] Expatriates of the Capital,” as is written on my Jordnaian ID. So, the feeling of estrangement I have is not just a feeling, it is official. The government says that I am مغتربة (literally estranged). And I really feel that I am, I am really a stranger.

JA: Why were you late in writing fiction?

EA: Actually, I self-published back in 2014, a novel titled Zainab and the Golden Thread, and maybe the fact that it was a self-publication was why I don’t acknowledge it as my first novel. I see No Sun in the Closed Room as my first novel. It’s also a fully grown novel, more mature. I started writing it back in late 2014 until late 2016, when I sent it to two publishers. And while I was waiting to hear back from them, I was offered the chance to translate Graham Swift’s Last Orders, and so I went from writing fiction to translating it. During my work on the translation, I received two rejection letters, and it was kind of a setback. So, I focused more on literary translation, culminating in eight translated novels so far. 

But I feel deeply grateful for translation, as it has taught me a vast range of  writing techniques, from Margret Atwood to Graham Swift to Virginia Woolf to James Agee. So much so that when I went back to work on my novel, I was much more equipped, and the final draft read much better than the first. And that’s why, when I sent it out again, it was accepted and published by  Takween.

So literary translation has taught me a lot, and it was actually James Agee who truly inspired me to finish the novel, because he passed away before the publication of his novel, so I was really sympathetic towards him; we were in the thick of the pandemic. I am also grateful for the rejection letters, which discouraged me [for a while], but then I realized that the novel really needed to be worked on more diligently. The novel’s events haven’t changed, what changed was the writing technique. And this is how I became a novelist after becoming a translator years ago. I prefer to be identified as a translator first and then a novelist

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Eman Assad is a Jordanian literary translator and author residing in Kuwait and the editor @thmanyah. Assad has a Master’s Degree in American Studies from the University of Jordan (2005). She is translator of books by Graham Swift, Margaret Atwood, Claire Messud, Ian McEwan, Virginia Woolf, James Agee, and Octavia Butler, and is author of Zainab and the Golden Thread (2014) and No Sun in the Closed Room (2021).

Jenan Alhamli is a writer and a translator from Kuwait. 

Also read:

FROM THE NOVEL: An Excerpt from Eman Assad’s ‘No Sun in the Closed Room’

REVIEW: Post-Liberation Kuwait: Finding the Sun in the Summer of 1991

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