, , , , , , , , , , , , ,

“My name is José. In the Philippines it’s pronounced the English way, with an h sound at the start. In Arabic, rather like in Spanish, it begins with a kh sound. In Portuguese, through it’s written the same way, it opens with a j, as in Joseph. All these versions are completely different from my name here in Kuwait, where I’m known as Isa.”

This novel by Saud Alsanousi started off a little slow for me, but after about sixty pages it caught hold and became compelling. It is an émigré novel:  about cultural displacement and the failure of socio-economic acceptance. José or Isa, is a mulatto. The son of a wealthy Kuwaiti father and his Philippine maid mother, who while in the employ of this leading Kuwati family, unusually, but temporarily, becomes a wife. As the marriage would create a scandal, there is a quick divorce, forced by his father’s mother. His father vows to support Isa and to have him return to Kuwait when he is older. Like the author, Isa’s father was a journalist and activist. He is killed during Iraq’s invasion and temporary conquest of Kuwait.

” I was more like a bamboo plant, which doesn’t belong anywhere in particular. You can cut off a piece of that 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 doesn’t notice that people have different names for it – kawayan in the Philippines,  khaizuran in Kuwait, and bamboo in many places.”

At first Isa believes he can find comfort and acceptance through religion. He explores Christianity, Buddhism and Islam. He found that he did not need icons or miracles to find faith.

“Religions are bigger than these adherents. That’s what I’ve concluded. Devotion to tangible things no longer matters as far as I’m concerned. I don’t want to be like my mother, who only pray to a cross, as if God lived in it. I don’t want to be like one of the Ifugao and never take a step unless it is sanctioned by anito statues, which help my work prosper, protect my crops and save me from evil spirits at night. I don’t want to be like Inang Choleng, tying my relationship to God to a favourite statue of Buddha. I don’t want to seek baraka from a statue of a white horse with wings and the head of a woman, as some Muslims do in the Philippines.”

The novel is not flattering to Kuwait, particularly its upper social strata. They are trapped more by their maintenance of their social status than by their religion. The author does not paint them with one brush. There are differences, but in the end, the country remains insular. It suffers from passively created wealth. There is a secular shallowness from drilling, in spite of, or compounded by, strong religious beliefs. José ultimately finds his humanity in himself, despite Isa’s disillusionment with his Kuwaiti dream.

This novel was the recipient of the International Prize for Arabic Fiction. It was translated by Jonathan Wright. It is worth your time.