By Jenan Alhamli
In its latest slate of publications, Kuwaiti publisher Takween released the first novel of the literary translator Eman Assad, No Sun in the Closed Room, which takes place in September, at the start of the first school year following the liberation of Kuwait in 1991.
The story follows the lives of three students in the same school, Ayman, an eight-year-old Palestinian boy; Abdullah, a thirteen-year old Kuwaiti; and his classmate Ghassan, who is born to a Kuwaiti mother and a Palesinian father. Given their backgrounds, their unusual friendship—which develops throughout the novel—makes them outliers in the post-Gulf War society in Kuwait, which casts Palestine and Palestinians into a completely different stratum.
The three friends embark on a journey they didn’t think they needed. All three of them felt that they were oceans away from everyone around them, until their friendship blossomed in that hot September in Kuwait. By holding a lantern for one another, one that collectively created a sun for all three of them, they convinced each other, if only briefly, to leave the closed rooms they had locked themselves in.
The book opens with a lullaby being sung to one of the three protagonists: Ayman, a Palestinian third grader, whose parents never seem to afford him moments of familial peace, as his abusive father directs all his physical outbursts towards his mother who, in turn, grows increasingly distant from her son. Yet both agree on reminding their little son that his repetitive uncontrolled vomiting and bed-wetting makes him nothing short of an embarrassment to the two of them.
Following a routine breakfast at home, Ayman boards his school bus to meet his soon-to-be friends, starting with a much older new kid in school, thirteen-year old Ghassan. Judging from his looks, Ghassan is a trouble-maker, and he already gets into a fight with the bus-driver, which results in a bleeding forehead. Then enters Friend Number 3, Abdullah, who hurries from the back of the bus to help Ghassan, his neighbor and classmate.
The Dummy, the Stranger, and the Giant
In those first few pages, we are introduced to these three boys with nicknames that seem to highlight an aspect of their character, or at least how they perceive themselves. Ayman is ghabi or stupid, which he came to believe since those around him believe it. Ghassan, the young Palestinian-Kuwaiti teenager is ghareeb, or a stranger, although he could also be a weirdo. Meanwhile their Kuwaiti friend Abdullah is imlaq, or the giant, both in posture and in privilege, courtesy of his blue passport and his recently martyred father.
Even though the book starts and ends with Ayman, Ghassan seems to be the central character; his position among the others makes him an anomaly, and he is the one who involuntarily connects all the other characters.
Ghassan was born as a result of his mother’s infatuation with Ghassan Kanafani and his work. When the young woman, Moodhi, failed to catch Kanafani’s attention, she settled for another Palestinian, who was also a native of Jaffa, but who fought for his homeland with a gun not a pen. And so, in seeking to recreate her dream, Moodhi—who calls herself Ghada, after the Syrian writer Ghada al-Samman who was rumored to be Kanafani’s lover—marries Mansour Abul-Iz and names their first-born Ghassan.
For the first decade of his life, Ghassan’s identity doesn’t pose a dilemma, and his father’s influence doesn’t materialize until the Iraqi forces invade Kuwait and he chooses to stay and fight for his land. He won’t be driven out of his home like his father once was. That was his initial position. But as time went on, Mansour decided to aid the Iraqi forces, and thus his death toward the end of the war is called a relief, although the consequences of this betrayal will forever haunt his family.
The Stolen Shirts
Whether Ghada realizes it or not, Ghassan her son is a reincarnation of Ghassan the author. Despite all the differences between Kanafani and his namesake, they both share similar feelings of displacement, doubt, and longing.
These strong feelings are embodied in both Ghassans, through a rebellion against their respective realities. Ghassan Abul-Iz is a Palestinian-Kuwaiti teenager who has been wronged by many around him, and who decides to lean into his father’s side, since he not only carries his name, but also his looks, and now he deliberately manifests his Palestinianness by speaking Palestinian Arabic, thereby embracing the disloyalty charge thrown at him.
When he meets little Ayman for the first time, he rips open his vomit-soaked shirt and hands the younger boy his own. In school, Ghassan is handed another one. They sit in front of each other, waiting to meet the principal, and Ghassan asks him: “What do you think of taking off our stolen shirts?” echoing Kanafani’s story “The Stolen Shirt” wherein the protagonist dreamt of getting to his son in a refugee camp. In the story, Abulubud refuses to steal to get his son the shirt, and Ghassan wants to rid himself of that shirt. Both feel estranged from where they are.
The Land of Happy Oil
These feelings of estrangement are further echoed by references to another story by Kanafani, “The Land of Sad Oranges,” which opens with a scene of a Palestinian family fleeing their hometown of Jaffa in 1948, leaving the orange fields behind.
Ghassan Abul-Iz seems to find solace in finding oranges, which brings him one step closer to the identity he wishes to embrace. In the supermarket, Abdullah, who is about to become his friend later that week, finds Ghassan with a joyful expression on his face. The way he picks up the oranges, inspects them, smells them, and puts them slowly in the plastic bag gives a sense of the peace he rarely finds.
Ghassan feels as displaced as the family in Kanafani’s story; they all became refugees overnight and can only get glimpses of home through its oranges. His blood smells of oranges, and his father’s homeland is the Land of Sad Oranges, and, to reach it, he will have to forgo the Land of Happy Oil.
The Bag of Oranges
Abdullah is the son of Dr. Hussien, a martyred resistance fighter, and Zainab, who still believes that her husband is coming back early from work to have lunch with his family. He is drawn to Ghassan from the moment he bled unconsciously on the steps of their school bus.
He envies the moment of peace Ghassan has with the oranges in the supermarket, and he keeps the bag Ghassan filled with carefully chosen oranges to himself, following a Kuwaiti woman’s tantrum, when she shoves Ghassan’s trolley aside, declaring that “these Palestinian kids should be burned!”
Despite his growing attachment to the two Palestinian kids, Abdullah doesn’t forget the Palestinian family friend who betrayed his father to the Iraqis. But he doesn’t seem to think that this fact prohibits his new friendships, unlike all adults around him.
Abdullah defends his friends against all emotionally charged Kuwaitis and their unreasonable outbursts at these children. These gestures are fueled, it seems, by his growing awareness of the privileges afforded to him by his Kuwaitiness, and further heightened by the martyrdom of his father, the resistance fighter who was given away by his Palestinian colleague, “biting the hand that fed him.”
Abdullah beats up a Palestinian kid who bothered his young friend, to the disapproving gaze of the ghost of his father, and he yells the oh-so-familiar Kuwaiti threat: “If you do it again, you lowlife, I will deport you and your whole family!”
Yet, just like his two companions, Abdullah must navigate Kuwait in the wake of the horrible calamity it bore a few months before, which he witnessed in all its gruesome details, down to the murder of his tortured father on the steps of his home, after he was brought back from detention. He tries to move on without the heavy expectations of how a martyred hero’s son should do or act or think.
Along the course of the few weeks of the novel’s action, the classmates Abdullah and Ghassan get closer and closer to their goal of “finding the sun,” inside their neighborhood and among familiar faces. Ghassan soon realizes that, unlike the Abulubud in the “Stolen Shirt” and the Jaffan family in “the Land of Sad Oranges,” he has never been to Jaffa, nor to Palestine for that matter. Identifying with his father’s story in all its aspects is a reactionary and hasty decision.
His once earnestly pursued attempt to reconcile these two parts of his identity—which many in that hot summer of Kuwait, with its blackened skies, deemed antithetical—is now abandoned. Once, his father’s keychain—with its image of Hanzala holding a key, drawn by Palestinian artist Naji al-Ali, a friend of Kanafani’s—once embodied a wish to return to how things were prior to August, 2 1990. But now it seems like the key to unlocking “the room.”
Freeing the Sun
The last time he sees his young friend, Ghassan wishes Ayman a happy early birthday and apologizes for not being able to celebrate it with him the following day. He might not be able to see him, he says cryptically, because “tomorrow the sun will be set free, and will enter from wherever it wishes.”
This message is similar to the one delivered to the little queen from under her locked door in Kanafani’s children’s story “The Little Lantern”: “You will not be able to find the sun in a closed room.” This is a promise that, once you’re determined to look for something, it will meet you halfway.
But while the little queen eventually finds her sun and holds onto it, Ayman, three decades on, never finds his sun again. Never again will he find true companionship; he is never at peace. And since the sun is now free and generous in its scope of reach, he gets a touch of it, a hint of its warmth, but he is never truly consoled. He is forever alone.
How Would the Great Sun Know its Color?
Eman Assad successfully captures the complexities of this struggle between Kuwaitis and Palestinians, and the lives of the “halfsies”; those who fall in between, not knowing exactly where to land, as they’re being constantly pushed by one group toward the other. Eman doesn’t leave Ghassan in Kuwait’s glowing and beaming September sun; instead, she hints at a return.
This novel poses a number of intimate yet uncomfortable questions on identity, love, and humanity. It forces a reckoning with Kuwait’s past and present, indirectly asking: Between the blindingly bright sun, and the sun passing unhinged through our doors and windows, will we stop blocking its rays?
Jenan Alhamli is a writer and a translator from Kuwait.
INTERVIEW: Novelist Eman Assad on Belonging and Identity in Kuwait
FROM THE NOVEL: An Excerpt from Eman Assad’s ‘No Sun in the Closed Room’
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