Saud Alsanousi: لبامبو (The Bamboo Stalk)
Our hero is called José but he is also called Isa. His mother is Filipina, hence the José, while his father is Rashid, a Kuwaiti, hence Isa. Josephine comes from a not particularly well-off Filipino family. Her father fought in the Vietnam War (on the US side) which entitles him to a meagre US pension but also left him very much traumatised. Sixto Philip Mendoza, though known to everyone as Mendoza, though it is his surname, does not work. He spends what money he gets from the his pension on cocks and cock fighting. His wife is ill, so she cannot work. As a result, when Josephine’s older sister, Aida, is seventeen, she is sent out to work. This essentially means prostitution and the family lives off her earnings. This inevitably makes Aida hate men and hate her father, who eagerly grabs her purse when she comes home after a night’s work.
However, when she was twenty-three, Aida had had enough. She got pregnant. This was by no means the first time but, normally, she had an abortion and went back to to work. This time, she kept it secret until it was too late. She announced that she was giving up work and going to bring up her baby. The baby, Merla, was born and that is what she did. Without medical treatment, her mother got worse and died. With no income, Mendoza decided it was Josephine’s turn. However, Josephine had seen what had happened to her sister and had no desire to follow in her footsteps. When she learned that an agent was seeking women to work in Kuwait, she jumped at the opportunity. However, the agent needed a fee and the family had no money. Aida, however, had kept some hidden savings for Merla and she offered them to her sister. However, Mendoza managed to grab the money. Aida, in revenge killed four of his cocks. Next day, Aida’s money was spent on four new cocks. Josephine was able to borrow money – at a high rate of interest – and off she went to Kuwait. She worked for a rich family and was despised by all, except the son, Rashid, who talked to her, eventually secretly married her and then impregnated her.
After it was realised that Josephine was pregnant, Rashid’s mother was furious and the couple had to move out of the house and live in a small flat. Rashid tried a rapprochement with his mother but it did not work. Josephine returned to the Philippines and Rashid stayed in Kuwait. Rashid kept in touch, sending money and promising to help later. This continued for a while. The two divorced and both remarried but Rashid kept in touch, till the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and then communication stopped. Josephine later found out that Rashid had worked for the resistance and had been captured by the Iraqis.
Meanwhile, young José is growing up in the Philippines and is not entirely happy. He hates his grandfather. His mother goes off to Bahrain and he is brought up by his aunt Aida. When older he falls in love with Merla, who is four years older than him but, unfortunately, this love is not reciprocated. His mother has another son, Adrian. One day, when José is five years old and his mother is in Bahrain, he is asked to look after Adrian by Aida. Somehow, Adrian gets away and falls in a drain. It is raining heavily and he is nearly drowned. He is rescued but the near drowning meant that his brain did not get enough oxygen for a while and he is permanently brain-damaged. Aida does not tell Josephine for a while and José inevitably feels very guilty.
But José is growing up and when Merla moves away, he sees no incentive to stay home and goes off. He first tries making a living selling bananas and sharing a room with Cheng, a Chinese Buddhist immigrant. He dabbles with Buddhism, not least because he feels neither kinship with Islam or Christianity. He tries other jobs. On one job, he meets a group of Kuwaiti tourists and, though they do not accept him as a Kuwaiti, they encourage him to consider returning to Kuwait. When his grandfather dies, he learns of his father’s death in Iraq and Ghassan, his father’s friend, invites him to come to Kuwait, he decides to go.
In Kuwait, his family are not exactly welcoming, with the exception of Ghassan and Khawla, his half-sister (daughter of his father’s second marriage). Things barely improve. Some of his family want to deny him completely and for him to return to the Philippines at once, while others want him to keep a low profile. For example, when he is finally invited to his grandmother’s house, he is expected to live in the servants’ quarters. Only Khawla is really sympathetic, though his Aunt Hind, who later stands for parliament, is somewhat sympathetic. Hind, José/Isa and a few others make considerable reference to the social structure of Kuwait, whereby, unless you are true Kuwaiti, i.e. both parents are Kuwaiti, you are considered an outcast. The servants are treated badly and the police frequently stop anyone who does not look Kuwaiti (José gets caught more than once). Bidoons, like Ghassan, also have a hard time.
The second half of the novel deals with José’s time in Kuwait, ending with his starting to write the story we are reading. With his treatment by his family and by the local authorities, life is not easy. He makes friends with other Filipinos and bumps into one of the Kuwaiti tourists he had met in the Philippines and resumes his friendship with them. However, though he is determined to make a life in Kuwait, it is never going to be easy.
The idea of telling the story of a half-Kuwaiti, half-Filipino is certainly an interesting one, as it shows the problems that mixed-race children face in this world and not just in Kuwait and the Philippines. Alsanousi is clearly sympathetic towards José’s plight and clearly recognises that his own country has many faults, of which racism is clearly one. Obviously, Kuwait is not the only country to have this sort of attitude. José struggles not only with the direct racism but with his own identity. Is he Kuwaiti or is he Filipino? He struggles with religion, flirting with Buddhism to escape the Filipino Christianity and the Kuwaiti Islam. He is not the only one. His cousin, Merla, who is the child of a Filipina woman and an unknown European, also struggles with her identity. Ultimately, José has to decide which one he is and that is not an easy choice.
First published in 2012 by Arab Scientific Publishers
Frist English translation by Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation Publishing in 2015
Translated by Jonathan Wright