Saud Alsanousi’s The Bamboo Stalk: A Review

Author ········· Rima Alsammarae
Published ······ Online, Mar 2015
Section ·······  Culture

“I was more like a bamboo plant, which doesn’t belong anywhere in particular. You can cut off a piece of the 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.”

Issues relating to identity are more common now than ever, as globalisation has enabled goods and individuals to traverse the borders of countries around the world both legally and illegally. With the influx of Indian, Sub-Saharan and Filipino migration to Arab countries for the sake of improving their economic conditions, younger generations are being born in lands that are wholly different from their ancestors’, leading many to question not only where they come from, but who they are and where they’re going.

The Bamboo Stalk by Kuwaiti author Saud Alsanousi is one such story that deals with a young man’s journey across the world to learn about where he comes from and what his family name means in its original context. The protagonist, Jose Mendoza, is a young man whose mother is Filipina and father is Kuwaiti. The structure of the novel is divided into separate parts with the first half detailing Jose’s life in the Philippines, while the second focuses on his move to Kuwait. Throughout the novel, Jose struggles to find his place in society – an internal conflict that manifests in his understanding of daily experiences. From the many names he’s given to choosing between religions to the encounters he has with family and peers, Jose’s story is one that starts out personal and grows to include a village.

Narrated from the first-person perspective, The Bamboo Stalk invites the reader into Jose’s story with an opening line that immediately alludes to his identity struggle: “My name is Jose. 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.”

Jose’s existence is also one of a controversy, especially in the Arab world were racism is rampant and gossip is more destructive than war. Josephine, Jose’s mother, a former maid of a well-known family in Kuwait, fell in love with Isa Rashid al-Tarouf, the family’s son. After Jose’s father and mother married in secret, Josephine became pregnant. Upon hearing of her son’s actions, Ghanima, Rashid’s mother, banished him and Josephine from the al-Tarouf household, not only because of her own racially-fuelled stupor, but also to protect Rashid’s sisters from becoming social pariahs in the small country of Kuwait. After Jose was born, Rashid abandoned his young family out of weakness and Josephine returned to the Philippines with Jose.

While Jose was born in Kuwait, his first 17 years were spent in the Philippines. It was there that very few people he encountered seem to notice anything different about Jose, other than occasionally calling him ‘The Arab’. Otherwise, he walked among the streets as one of them, but with the belief that one day his father would summon him back to Kuwait, as was Rashid’s promise to Josephine.

While the reader picks up on the many elements of Jose’s attachment to the Philippines, such as his family as well as his love for the land’s natural environment, the character’s bond with his mother’s country seems incomplete. Throughout the first half, much of Jose’s mind is set on his potential return to his father and the idea that within him is a Kuwaiti citizen waiting to be nurtured.

The story picks up slowly and the first half is, arguably, slightly dull with the chapters that centre on Jose’s time in the Philippines lacking in emotional depth. The character seems to be a bit self-pitying and helpless against his cruel grandfather and the poverty his family lives in. The protagonist’s maternal grandfather, Mendoza, is a painfully unpleasant old man, but Jose’s encounters with him are brief although recurring.

While the initial setting wasn’t gripping enough for me, Alsanousi’s character development of the supporting characters is spot on and thoroughly descriptive. One can perfectly imagine an aged and withered Mendoza hurling insults and demands at the rest of his family, as well as his state of deterioration. Jose’s cousin Merla is also well developed, as she gradually grows into an unstable, insecure teenage girl whose abandonment issues take hold of her personal life choices.

The second half of the book is where the story picks up, and social and political norms common in Arab countries are challenged by Jose’s slow and sometimes painful assimilation of Kuwaiti culture. Alsanousi’s ability to bring small details of the normal day-to-day is strong and well-founded. At many points throughout The Bamboo Stalk, Alsanousi describes the state of racism in Kuwait, as well as its stronghold on the population’s social conscience.

During a conversation between Jose and Khawla, his half-sister from his father’s latter marriage, Jose asks about the tribal hierarchy of Kuwait’s social and racial classes. When he notes that tribes in the Philippines are known for growing rice, Khawla retorts that tribes in Kuwait are known for eating rice.

Their conversation is followed up by Jose’s internal dialogue: “I don’t claim that such things don’t exist in the Philippines, but people there are busy with more important things. Some people may look on others with contempt but it happens on a limited scale, and it’s not as important as Khawla suggested it is in Kuwait. In Kuwait, my sister explains, some people boast that their ancestors built a wall around the old city, although all that’s left of the wall is two gates, and others boast about events that took place many years ago around a red fort somewhere in Kuwait. Both groups claim they love their country, Khawla said, and both deny the existence of the other group. It was like watching a match between two teams. Large crowds of supporters, with me in the middle of them, on neither side.”

Throughout his time in Kuwait, Jose not only learns of the cultural and religious traditions of Kuwait, but he interacts with a range of characters that populate the country – the good, the bad and the ugly. From his humanitarian aunt whose beliefs are hollow to his half-sister’s loyalty and hospitality, Jose’s relationship with his father’s family is sometimes stunted while at other times warm. Alsanousi’s exploration of Jose’s relationships in Kuwait are real and well-illustrated. They maintain the bonds and well as the gaps that individuals face in reality when trying to connect with others.

Homosexuality, racism, Bedouin status, stubborn prejudices, migrant workers and poverty are all themes that the author addresses throughout Jose’s story. It’s a novel that should be read by Arabs specifically, as it provides an open approach to terrible issues that deeply plague Arab societies. While the reading level is simple and on par with young-adult literature, the story is emotional and develops a reality for people and issues that have been ignored for far too long.

The Bamboo Stalk will be released on 23 April 2015 in the UK and MENA. For more information or to pre-order your copy visit Bloomsbury's website.

Rima Alsammarae is an Arab-American expat living in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). She has written and edited for a number of Middle East publications that focus on art, design and architecture. Her work experience spans across the Arab region from Lebanon to the UAE. She is currently developing a work of fiction that details Arab-American identity.