The Arabic Booker prize this year went to a young Kuwaiti novelist Saud Al Sanussi, the second time that this prestigious prize has been awarded to a novelist from the Gulf — the first one was given to Saudi novelist Abdo Khal a few years ago.
Writing novels is a flourishing practice in the Gulf, with both men and women taking to this form of writing to express — indirectly — the issues they face as individuals and as a society in an extremely trying and rapidly changing era. The novelists are also trying to understand for themselves and at the same time explain to their readers, the huge and complex sociopolitical and social problems of the changing world they live in.
The Bamboo Stalk, Al Sanussi’s novel, deals with a very common situation in a conservative Kuwait family with one son and two daughters. After the father dies, there is no man in the family except the son to bear the responsibility of looking after his sisters and widowed mother.
The son fall in love with a girl he meets at university, but the mother being from a very conservative and high class in society opposes this relationship on the ground that the girl is a commoner and comes from a less prestigious family, and insists that she is not suitable for her beloved ‘only’ son.
The disappointed and frustrated son then falls for a Filipino maid at home and decides to marry her in secret. The maid gets pregnant and the boy’s mother blames the cook. She decides to get both deported. However, the son comes to their rescue and tells the angry mother that he is solely responsible for the maid’s condition, and also informs her that he had married her in secret.
The mother is devastated and throws her son and the maid out of her house as his marriage brings shame and disgrace to the family. The son starts to live with his wife in a rented flat.
When she gives birth to a boy, the son takes the infant to his mother hoping that it will soften her position as the family had long desired a male heir. However, the mother rejects her grandson. In the end, the son sends his wife and child to her home country.
The story is narrated to the readers by the grandson, Isa or Jesse (his Christian name), who is raised in a poor neighbourhood in Manila in impoverished circumstances by a gambler grandfather and an aunt who works at a nightclub. Eventually, the boy in his early twenties is recalled to Kuwait by a very good friend of his father, who was killed during Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. The friend acts on the will left by the deceased father. So the boy comes to Kuwait with no previous knowledge of his father’s side of the family. As he is not accepted by his grandmother, he stays in the servants’ quarters.
When news spreads among the servants that the new Filipino is related to the family and is not a servant, the family asks him to leave. He now has to find his way as a Kuwaiti with a Filipino face. He tries his hand at different jobs.
Having no knowledge of Arabic, he cannot get a government job. Eventually he starts working as a salesman at a fast food chain.
The boy faces ups and downs, which the writer embodies in a number of sequential events while at the same time criticising social and economic problems in Kuwaiti society — the way expatriates are treated in households or the trivial jobs they are forced to do.
Here the writer touches upon very sensitive social issues, painting a picture of the clash of traditions, greed, humiliation of fellow human beings, and other social diseases that are unacceptable to the new generation although the older generation adheres to them. The deep conflict between tradition and the aspirations of the younger generation is reflected in the new literature coming from young men and women in the Gulf.
Women, number wise, are more active among the story-tellers and novelists as they bring forth in their writings, their inner feelings of romance and fears apart from their suffering in a relatively closed society.
In reading this avalanche of novels, one can understand what kind of future this new generation really wants — a future of freedom, equality and global human values.
Writing novels in Gulf societies is a back door attempt at expressing the deep frustration young men and women face. It has to be taken seriously as other avenues of expression are either closed or are socially prohibitive for them to explore.
Mohammad Alrumaihi is a professor of Political Sociology at Kuwait University.