A life uprooted and replanted

The world is familiar with reports about the exploitation of migrant labourers in the Gulf region. In 2013, Saud Alsanousi's book "The Bamboo Stalk", which focuses on the experiences of a young man in Kuwait who is half Kuwaiti, half Filipino, won the International Prize for Arabic Fiction. This novel shines a light on the discrimination and rejection experienced by so many migrants in this region. Nahrain Al-Mousawi read the book

By Nahrain al-Mousawi

Investigations into the abuse and exploitation of migrant workers, ranging from unpaid wages to physical violence and forced labour, have been foremost in news about the Gulf for several years now. Millions of African and Asian workers in the Gulf states – from Saudi Arabia to the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait – have been reported to suffer common patterns of abuse, including excessive workloads, undernourishment and confinement, not to mention sexual violence and trafficking.

The plight of migrant workers in the Gulf forms the central theme of Saud Alsanousi's "The Bamboo Stalk" (originally published in Arabic in 2012), which won the 2013 International Prize for Arabic Fiction. The protagonist narrates not only his own story but that of his parents, as conveyed by his mother: Josephine had immigrated to Kuwait from the Philippines to work as a housekeeper in the Tarouf home, where she became smitten with the thoughtful and intellectual Rashid, the only boy in a family of four women – his three sisters and mother.

By the time Josephine is pregnant and Rashid marries her, his imperious and formidable mother casts them out of the family home. Isa's birth, making him the only male to carry on the prestigious family name, is not enough to reconcile Rashid with his family, and he and Josephine split up.

The novel opens with their son ruminating on a split self, a dual identity – Kuwaiti and Filipino: "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, though 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."

Simultaneously a foreigner and a national

Kuwait's Special Forces disperse a demonstration of Asian workers in Mahboula, Kuwait Monday, 28 July 2008. The workers were demonstrating for better pay and living conditions (photo: AP Photo/Gustavo Ferrari)
Although Nahrain Al-Mousawi welcomes the book as a narrative that focuses on the violation of migrant rights, "particularly from a voice within Kuwaiti society", she points to a number of lines in the book that come across as apologetic, defensive gestures that undermine the force of the author's narrative. Pictured here: Kuwait's Special Forces dispersing a demonstration of Asian workers in Mahboula, Kuwait, on 28 July 2008. The workers were demonstrating for better pay and living conditions

In fact, the "bamboo stalk" in the title of the book refers to that which can easily be split from its roots – uprooted – and replanted, yet there is nothing easy about this uprooting and the sense of rootlessness that forms a wrenching part of the young man's identity. He is simultaneously a foreigner and a national, on the inside and outside, a Filipino and Kuwaiti who feels an uneasy desire to belong in both countries. It's even difficult to name him – should we refer to him as Isa or José? Is it possible to even choose a name for him within the scope of this discussion? – without asserting one part of his national identity over another?

While the novel is introduced with this split identity in Kuwait, it continues by charting the young protagonist's impoverished childhood in the Philippines, where his mother has painted an Edenic portrait of what awaits him in Kuwait – presumably his natural inheritance: a luxury lifestyle to which all Kuwaitis are accustomed, according to Josephine. But what awaits Isa is a society where deeply entrenched class stratifications are entirely tied up with conceptions of race, ethnicity and nationality. At the most extreme ends of the spectrum are, on the one hand, Kuwaitis who make up a privileged class and, on the other, the underpaid immigrant workers who make up the subordinate class.

The protagonist is seen as a foreigner and suffers from racist discrimination and isolation along with other migrants he meets, even though he's technically a national with a Kuwaiti passport. His Filipino side is crucial in illuminating the inextricability of race from class, at least in Kuwait.

Because his mother is Filipino and he looks Filipino, he experiences a racism that casts him as part of the labour class – seen as servile, potentially illicit and automatically subordinate. He's constantly stopped or detained by police and asked for his ID, and his chances for employment end up being restricted to restaurant work. While "The Bamboo Stalk" doesn't feature a comparable Kuwaiti–European character, it's not difficult to imagine that such a situation would in no way be comparable to the young Kuwaiti–Filipino protagonist's struggles with ostracism on a day-to-day basis.

Frank insights into Kuwaiti society

Cover of "The Bamboo Stalk" by Saud Alsanousi (source: Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation Publishing)
The plight of migrant workers in the Gulf forms the central theme of Saud Alsanousi's "The Bamboo Stalk", which won the 2013 International Prize for Arabic Fiction

He struggles not only against discrimination in Kuwaiti society, but also against the racist hostility of his grandmother and aunts, who worry about the damaging impact that he – as a part-Filipino family member – could have on the Tarouf family's illustrious reputation. His reunion with his Kuwaiti family consists of moments where he's deposited in the servants' quarters and being forced to play the part of a servant when in-laws visit.

But even those moments shed light on the position of migrant labourers, especially his mother's experience in the Tarouf household: he remembers his mother telling him that she was regularly called "hmara" (ass). And, when he appears shocked the servants know his background story, the new Filipina maid mockingly responds, "No, we have no feelings and we understand nothing." Certainly, the inability to easily communicate with some of his relatives isolates him further from a milieu that never really welcomed him, but again, we are reminded that the tension for recognition in the family hinges on his racialisation, as he had "a name that brought honour but ... a face that brought shame."

In moving beyond the East–West trajectory, "The Bamboo Stalk" certainly provides a much-needed and timely perspective on the relatively new migrant route from the Philippines to Kuwait. Moreover, Alsanousi provides frank insights into the faults of his society. Ultimately, however, he portrays it as merely the sympathetic victim of its social system. What's more, the fact that the young protagonist is made to pander to the reinforced notion of a subordinate underclass is particularly jarring when he writes in his own novel, "perhaps [I'm] also backward compared with [Kuwaitis] in many ways…"

Nationalistic undertones overtake thorough engagement with how this labour underclass gets treated every day and its heartbreaking consequences in Isa's rejection by his Kuwaiti family. As for his own father, he writes that he "portrayed Kuwait as he saw it, with tough love. He wanted to change reality with a novel that was candid and harsh, but his only motive was love."

Indeed, a narrative of the violation of migrant rights and the nexus of racism-classism at its centre are very much welcome at this time, particularly from a voice within Kuwaiti society, but lines like these come off as apologetic, defensive gestures from Alsanousi himself and undermine the force of his narrative.

Nahrain Al-Mousawi

© Qantara.de 2015

"The Bamboo Stalk" by Saud Alsanousi, Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation Publishing,