Reviewed by Krishnasruthi Srivalsan
Title: The Bamboo Stalk
Author: Saud Alsanousi, translated by Jonathan Wright
Publisher: Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation Publishing
The protagonist of Saud Alsanousi’s The Bamboo Stalk is a deeply conflicted man. Jose Mendoza is raised in his mother’s country as a god fearing Catholic who was baptised in the church at the age of ten. Yet, his mother prepares him for a life in the promised ‘paradise’, his father’s country, Kuwait. Jose has a Kuwaiti passport, a Kuwaiti name – Isa al Tarouf – but as the son of his father’s Filipino maid, he’ll never be accepted by his father’s family, despite being the only male heir to carry forward the family name.
Expertly translated from the Arabic by Jonathan Wright, this is an immensely moving novel, weighing heavily on metaphors, that explores multiple themes like race and religion, identity and class, and highlights the often humiliating immigrant experience overseas, especially in the Gulf.
Alsanousi, a Kuwaiti journalist and novelist whose earlier work includes the novel The Prisoner of Mirrors, explores the concept of ‘the other’ in this book. Often the underdog, the ‘other’ is viewed negatively by the majority. Not being able to fit into clear boxes, the ‘other’ find themselves in a murky marshland of mixed up identities, rootless and unwanted. Blinded by one’s own prejudices, society fails to acknowledge and empathise with the ‘other’ and it is precisely for this reason that al Sanousi modelled Jose as his protagonist.
Jose’s story begins with his mother, Josephine, who leaves the squalor of poverty back home in the Philippines and goes to Kuwait in search of a better paying job. She lands at the house of the illustrious al Tarouf family whose matriarch, Ghanima, is as superstitious as she is stubborn. Joza, as Ghanima refers to the Filipino servant girl, arrives on the day a bomb explodes near the Kuwaiti Emir’s motorcade, narrowly missing him. Ever since, Ghanima has viewed Joza’s arrival as a sign of bad luck. Rashid, Ghanima’s only son, an aspiring idealistic writer, is taken by Joza’s good looks, and she agrees to a ‘temporary marriage’ which ends the day Jose is born. Josephine returns home and her son is raised with the promise that he will one day go back to Kuwait.
In the Philippines, Jose grows up listening to the taunts of his grandfather Mendoza who has bitter memories of the Vietnam War, but he is often shielded by his aunt Aida and cousin Merla. In the absence of his father, Jose realises he is a bit like the bamboo stalk, which can grow anywhere but never have real roots, never entirely ‘belong’. As Jose dreams of Kuwait, a chance encounter with one of his father’s companions turns out to be his golden ticket to the promised land.
In Kuwait, he finds a guardian in Ghassan, an old confidante of Rashid, and a friend in Khawla, his half-sister. However, the al-Tarouf family, much like the tarouf or fishing net it derives its name from, is a trap and Isa flails about like fish in the net.
In the Philippines, we are told that Jose’s aunt Aida was once a call girl, and her daughter Merla, presumably from an unknown European given her classic mestiza looks, is deeply bitter. In a letter to Jose, she quotes the Filipino nationalist hero Jose Rizal, – “Death has always been the first sign of European civilisation when introduced in the Pacific Ocean.” She believes the European man who invaded her mother’s body, the way Spain colonised the Filipino archipelago centuries before, is nothing short of death, taking advantage of the poverty that forced Aida to do what she did.
In Kuwait, despite his Arabic name and a Kuwaiti passport, Isa is often discriminated against – in fact, one day, he is arrested for an apparent lack of documents. Sanousi hints at the widespread corruption among officials and how people who have nothing to lose are often the most fearless. For instance, Isa is startled to see a young Filipina who is not the least perturbed when she is taken to prison. ‘Do you know how many policemen’s numbers I have on my phone?’ she asks defiantly even as she goes on to explain how she has sacrificed everything in order to send some money back home.
There are also little indignities which seem trivial, but once we strip away the excuses and justifications for such behaviour, we realise how downright cruel they actually are. Isa is never introduced as part of the family; he is relegated to the servants’ quarters and treated as such. We see him seethe with rage, as the family parrot mimics his grandmother and calls the Filipino maid Luzviminda a himara or donkey. Seeing Luzviminda, Isa remembers the numerous atrocities his mother would have suffered in this very household before he was born. Luzviminda, named after his beloved country – Luz for the Luzon islands, Vi for the Visayas, and Minda for Mindanao – reminds him that Kuwait with its refusal to wholeheartedly accept him could never be the paradise he dreamt of.
Jose, brought up Catholic, embraces Islam as Isa. Even here, he has to deal with conflicting views. Is the peace loving, gentle but firm Islam of LapuLapu, the sultan of Mactan, who defied Ferdinand Magellan, the true faith? How could he reconcile this with the rigid beliefs of extremist groups that have turned Mindanao into a violent living hell?
As Isa tries to fit in the Tarouf household, Ghassan, Ghanima, and Khawla all have their own little secrets. Ghassan, in particular, is resigned to his fate as a bidoon, who, despite being a staunch supporter of the government and a fierce patriot, will never be fully accepted on account of his ancestry. Ghanima still views Isa as the Filipina’s son, full of bad luck, even as she struggles with her conscience burdened with guilt. Khawla, torn between her family and trying to defend her half-brother, ends up trying to complete their father’s novel, in a desperate bid to prove that his ideals, although lost, are not dead.
Sanousi’s book transports you to the two worlds in which it is set – the Philippines where Jose listens frightfully to the story of Pinya, a girl who disobeyed her mother and thus grew a thousand eyes, only to be transformed to a pineapple; and then Kuwait, where Isa visits his father’s grave and tries to find him in men playing the oud, grandmother Ghanima’s many superstitions, and a very lonely first Ramadan. This is a complex story that is told with compassion and courage and though Jose/Isa has no fairy tale ending in sight, the novel ends with a faint flicker of hope.
Krishna Sruthi Srivalsan was born in Delhi and raised in the Nilgiris of southern India, and the Middle East (Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates). Having moved to Singapore for university, she graduated with an honors degree in accounting. She is a chartered accountant by profession and is passionate about books, food, fashion, travel, and celebrating diversities, not in any particular order. She firmly believes that human beings should not strive to ‘fit in’ when they are designed to ‘stand out’. She reads on a variety of subjects and genres and hopes to publish a novel someday.