Monday, 23 January 2017

The Bamboo Stalk by Saud Alsanousi

The Bamboo Stalk by Saud Alsanousi
First published in Arabic by Arab Scientific Publishers Inc in 2012. English translation by Jonathan Wright published by Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation Publishing in 2015.
Won the International Priza for Arabic Fiction in 2013.

Where to buy this book:
Buy from independent booksellers via Abebooks
Buy the ebook from
Buy the paperback from Speedyhen
Buy the paperback from The Book Depository

How I got this book:
Gift from a friend

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Josephine escapes poverty by coming to Kuwait from the Philippines to work as a maid, where she meets Rashid, an idealistic only son with literary aspirations. Josephine, with all the wide-eyed naivety of youth, believes she has found true love. But when she becomes pregnant, and with the rumble of war growing ever louder, Rashid bows to family and social pressure, and sends her back home with her baby son, José. Brought up struggling with his dual identity, José clings to the hope of returning to his father's country when he is eighteen. He is ill-prepared to plunge headfirst into a world where the fear of tyrants and dictators is nothing compared to the fear of ‘what will people say’. And with a Filipino face, a Kuwaiti passport, an Arab surname and a Christian first name, will his father’s country welcome him? The Bamboo Stalk takes an unflinching look at the lives of foreign workers in Arab countries and confronts the universal problems of identity, race and religion.

I found Jose-Isa an interesting narrator because of his dual existence even though he is not a particularly likeable person. Groomed by his Filipino mother, Josephine, practically since his birth in expectation of his becoming a Kuwaiti like his father, Rashid, Jose feels something of an outsider in the Philippines even though he has grown up there. His physical appearance marks him out as different and he longs to be in Kuwait where he will fit in. However, on eventually arriving in Kuwait, he finds himself subject to much the same sense of not belonging, this time exacerbated by the treatment meted out by his father's family.

Alsanousi does an incredible job of evoking Jose's life in both countries, explaining social etiquette and depicting how the people live. Many Filipinos travel to Gulf countries to undertake menial jobs and this novel illustrates some of the poverty-induced pressures that force them to do so. Kuwait is seen as some kind of paradise, until the workers arrive in any case. I was surprised to find myself being reminded though of the social snobbery of Jane Austen's Persuasion which I recently read. Polite Kuwaiti society here is a similar small circle governed by the same dread of losing face. I couldn't always sympathise with Jose's predicament in Kuwait until he begins to pull himself together and create his own fortune. Much of The Bamboo Stalk revolves around finding where the grass is metaphorically greener, the importance and significance of family ties, and our enduring search for home and identity whether those concepts be people, place, culture or ideology.

Search Lit Flits for more:
Books by Saud Alsanousi / Contemporary fiction / Books from Kuwait

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