I recently finished reading my first piece of Arabic fiction, which is important to me because a) it was my college reading assignment and b) I’m moving to an Arab country in less than 4 weeks. I wanted to talk about this book not because I particularly liked it but because it made me think. Maybe that sounds oversimplified – don’t all books make us think? I guess so. But most of them just recycle our thoughts, stir up the leaves a little, and leave behind a new mess. Yet some of them are like a gust of wind, carrying new leaves, new thoughts, into our brains. These, I think, are the truly interesting pieces of literature.
The Bamboo Stalk begins with Josephine, a Filipina who escapes prostitution by becoming a maid in Kuwait. There, she falls in love with Rashid, the coddled, bookish son of Ghanima, the widow Josephine works for. When Josephine becomes pregnant with Rashid’s son (the maid and the man of the house – gasp!), the two are cast out by Rashid’s family.
‘Kuwait is a small place’, we are told repeatedly, as if all the consequences of this phrase can be cupped into one’s palm. As the novel progresses, what it really shows is not a small place, but a large society, united in its wealth, in its expectations, its scrutiny, its shared, hard lump of the smallest of thoughts.
The novel truly begins with José, Josephine’s son. Until 18, he lives in poverty in the Philippines, waiting to go back to the ‘promised land’ of Kuwait. Meanwhile, he learns Chinese massage, and grapples with religion. Standard coming-of-age stuff. But ‘with a Filipino face, a Kuwaiti passport, an Arab surname and a Christian first name, will his father’s country welcome him?’ Boom. We now have the story.
With this kind of subject matter, that threads through race, religion, identity and patriotism, I expected The Bamboo Stalk to be something like Adichie’s novels – a literary act of protest. Activist in its very nature. When you think about it, any person of color today, or someone who comes from a country/situation that is experiencing injustice, is expected to make activist art. Like okay, you’re a black woman writing poems about lakes and fields. Now how about some verses on the BlackLivesMatter movement? It’s as if you can’t make art for the sake of making art – it has to say something, shout something. It can’t just be pretty when so much is at stake.
Sorry, other tangent. Back to The Bamboo Stalk – which, ironically, is about a current human rights issue: the state of migrant workers in the Gulf region. No one likes to talk about this, except perhaps Amnesty International. And while The Bamboo Stalk may not be as bold and barbed as Americanah, for example, it is still revolutionary in that we finally have an Arab openly talking about the elephant in his room. The mistreatment of the thousands of Filipinos, Indians, Pakistanis etc. who build and wipe and sweep the sleek skyscrapers is a dark lump of shame carefully held beneath our tongues. And here’s why Saud Alsanousi has made us, or at least me, think – in a month’s time, as a Sri Lankan girl, close to my age, serves me at some local Burger King, what will I do? What will I see? What will I say? And how, in the end, will I write about it?
Will I do what everyone else does, toss out a careless ‘thanks’, and forget, in an instant, the bags dragging down her eyes, how tired she looks as she smiles?
The Bamboo Stalk is undoubtedly critical of this situation, but it is first a story before a critique. The narrative is simple and clear, like a gentle stream. And although the writing style didn’t always appeal to me, its mere clarity felt refreshing after all the complex fiction I’d been reading. I’m not sure if that’s the translation or the very nature of Alsanousi’s writing. But it felt decidedly new and soothing.
Another aspect I loved was the metaphors: ‘If only I were like a bamboo tree, which doesn’t belong to anything! We cut a piece from the stalk, plant it without roots in any land. The stalk won’t take long to grow new roots… it grows anew, in a new land. Without a past, without memory.’ Another one was Tarouf, which means ‘net’ in Arabic – José talks about how his family in Kuwait, the Tarouf family, has become enmeshed in the net of societal expectations, while he, a small fish, can often manage to slip through.
I expect this book will inspire more ramblings on here as I go on to discuss it at college AND…surprise, surprise – meet its writer! Yes, apparently we will get a chance to meet Saud Alsanousi himself and satiate all our curiosities. To meet the writer of an interesting novel…dreams do come true, people.
I’m going to finish this off with some words by Nigerian poet Ijeoma Umebinyuo, which I was reminded of by this book. Thank you for reading this far. You are lovely:
“Here’s to the security guards who maybe had a degree in another land. Here’s to the manicurist who had to leave her family to come here, painting the nails, scrubbing the feet of strangers. Here’s to the janitors who don’t even fucking understand English yet work hard despite it all. Here’s to the fast food workers who work hard to see their family smile. Here’s to the laundry man at the Marriott who told me with the sparkle in his eyes how he was an engineer in Peru. Here’s to the bus driver, the Turkish Sufi who almost danced when I quoted Rumi. Here’s to the harvesters who live in fear of being deported for coming here to open the road for their future generation. Here’s to the taxi drivers from Nigeria, Ghana, Egypt and India who gossip amongst themselves. Here is to them waking up at 4am, calling home to hear the voices of their loved ones. Here is to their children, to the children who despite it all become artists, writers, teachers, doctors, lawyers, activists and rebels. Here’s to Western Union and Money Gram. For never forgetting home. Here’s to their children who carry the heartbeats of their motherland and even in sleep, speak with pride about their fathers. Keep on.”