‘The Bamboo Stalk’ by Saud Alsanousi
William Armstrong - firstname.lastname@example.org
REUTERS photo‘The Bamboo Stalk’ by Saud Alsanousi, translated by Jonathan Wright (Bloomsbury, 377 pages, $8)
“The Bamboo Stalk” by Kuwaiti novelist Saud Alsanousi was first published in 2013 and won the International Prize for Arabic Fiction the same year. The issue of Gulf migrant laborers has fallen off the global news agenda, but the book has just been republished in English and poses acute questions about the plight of foreign laborers, identity and deracination. It is a compassionate, generous, even courageous novel, translated with crystal clarity by Jonathan Wright.
The story follows the life of Jose, the son of a Filipino maid in Kuwait who was made pregnant, secretly married and then abandoned by a wealthy local man. Sent back to the Philippines with his mother, Jose grows up in poverty in the capital Manila, struggling as a banana seller, a masseur and a tourist hotel worker. As he observes:
Everyone in the Philippines dreamed of living abroad in a country that provided stability and a decent life. Women gave up everything to marry Western men who would take them off to their countries, for the sake of an opportunity to live well and have a family ... In the Philippines it’s the dream of every man and woman to emigrate and settle in Europe, America or Canada, giving up everything – their past, their country and even their family.
At the age of 18 he is sent for by his father’s best friend in Kuwait, where he is renamed Isa and is recognized as a Kuwaiti citizen. In Kuwait he experiences the confusion of having a Filipino face, a Kuwaiti passport, an Arab surname and a Christian first name. Mocked as an Arab in the Philippines, he resembles a domestic worker in his father’s homeland, where “they treat us as if we have no feelings and don’t understand anything.” His late father’s wealthy family ostracizes him, bound by the rigid codes of a shame-heavy, hierarchical society. Filipinos can only be servants; they must not cross boundaries into the family. When distant relatives visit he is hidden away and forbidden from leaving his segregated living quarters. “One rotten fish spoils the rest, as they say,” he reflects grimly.
Adrift and yearning for a sense of belonging, he flirts with Islam, Christianity, and Chinese mysticism. But none satisfy him completely. “If only my parents could have given me a single, clear identity, instead of making me grope my way alone through life in search of one,” he complains:
Then I would have just one name that would make me turn when someone called me. I would have just one native country. I would learn its national anthem. Its trees and streets would shape my memories and in the end I could lie at rest in its soil. I would have one religion I could believe in instead of having to set myself up as the prophet of a religion that was mine alone.
As for Kuwait itself, Jose feels jilted. “Whenever I tightened my grip on the hem of Kuwait’s throbe, it slipped out of my grasp. I called Kuwait and it turned its back on me and I ran to the Philippines to complain … There was something complicated in Kuwait that I didn’t understand.” The author Alsanousi was brave to address the insularity of his homeland, where he has been criticized for washing dirty laundry in public. But the novel’s criticism is well-judged and never too scathing.
The character of Jose comes across as a little too conveniently passive at times. The book’s title comes from his observation that he is “like a bamboo plant, which doesn’t belong anywhere in particular. You can cut off a piece of the stalk and plant it without roots in any piece of ground. Before long the stalk sprouts new roots and starts to grow again in the new ground, with no past, no memory.”
“It’s my destiny to spend life looking for a name, a religion and a country,” Jose reflects at another point. It’s a nice idea for a novel, if a little forced when spelled out so explicitly. Still, paradoxically it made me wonder about the hundreds of millions across the world who are not quite so tortured by identity anxiety in a hyper-globalized world, who are comfortable and not traumatized by split loyalties. That kind of ordinary ease doesn’t really lend itself to dramatic novels, but it is probably the experience of a large majority of people.
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