London, Asharq Al-Awsat—Kuwaitis appear to be depressed. This is the thought that will no doubt strike readers after spending a few days with an anthology of Kuwaiti fiction—short stories and extracts from novels—published by London’s Banipal magazine.
On the surface, of course, there is no reason for this Kuwaiti depression. The country enjoys more political freedom than many others in the region and offers its citizens a fairly comprehensive welfare system. And, yet, the country’s contemporary fiction portrays a society with little joie de vivre, to say the least. Kuwaiti fiction portray a people who appear to be satiated but not satisfied, moneyed but not rich, free but with few liberties. Here, everything is a case of almost but not quite; the cup is close to the lips but does not quite touch it.
Many characters do not feel free to expose their inner self until they are out of Kuwait. They are modern Bedouins, migrating with the seasons. Take, for example, the heroine of Fatima Yousif Ali’s short story Return from a Honeymoon that depicts a group of young Kuwaiti women visiting Cairo where they feel free to hit the town with no fear of the disapproval of their relatives and neighbors. But even then, the heroine feels truly happy only when she ends up sleeping alone and dreaming of catching a flight to an unknown destination.
Or take Bothayna Al-Essa’s heroine in the novel A Soundless Collision. She travels to a remote Swedish city to meet a “Bedouin hippie” who asks her how Kuwait is doing. This is the reply: “You asked how was Kuwait, as though inquiring about a friend with whom you have lost touch. You may well have asked: Is she married? Or single or in love? Does she receive unworthy suitors as always? What is she up to, this saintly sinner? Does she abuse you and love you all in one go? Does she go nowhere and everywhere at the same time? Perhaps she has simply remained herself, captivating but impossible. How is she, my dear Kuwait?”
Tiba, the anti-heroine in Mona Al-Shammari’s Black Kohl, White Heart is doubly alienated. Although still a child, she is imported from Al-Sharqiyah province in Saudi Arabia as a “toy wife” for a fat, mentally retarded scion of a rich family whose relatives think the young woman is a miracle cure for him. Al-Shammari succeeds in creating an atmosphere of oppression and terror that recalls the best of the American “hard-boiled” crime fiction. In this atmosphere no one is happy because even the oppressors in the family are themselves oppressed by tradition, superstitions, and bigotry.
Quite a few of the characters in Banipal 47: Fiction from Kuwait are foreigners working in the country. Some, like the Egyptian teacher in Taleb Al-Rifai’s Welcome to Abu Ajaj Construction Company have fallen for the myth of Kuwait as an Arab El Dorado. His mantra is “Kuwait, petrol, money and work!” Very soon, however, he is overwhelmed by bureaucracy, sharp practices, swindles of all kind, and a solitude that gnaws at his soul. He is also struck by the fact that he hardly meets any native Kuwaitis. “I might as well have been in India, not Kuwait,” the Egyptian migrant remarks to himself. As for what he dubs “the bitter distress of exile,” Al-Rifai creates a Borgesian atmosphere in which moments of black humor alternate with a narrative of depression caused by disillusionment.
Other exiles, like the Iraqi hero of Ismail Fahd Ismail’s novel It Happened Yesterday leave Kuwait to return home in pursuit of their lost childhood and youth. In this case, the returning exile succeeds in finding his old aptly named “Gate of Desire” neighborhood in Basra along the Shatt Al-Arab only to end up with a machine-gun pressed on his forehead. Having left Kuwait to escape his depression, the only solace he obtains is a brief moment in which he hears frogs croaking. He notes with some pride that there are no frogs in Kuwait.
Ismail’s rich prose and his mastery of the twists and turns of fiction writing enable him to juxtapose his hero’s story with that of Iraq as a whole through a series of flashbacks and flash-forwards.
Hameady Hamood also takes up the theme of exile in his Refugee, a short story written with the terseness of a police report. The refugee in question is a writer who sees his life, with all his hopes and ambitions, reduced to a file on the desk of an interrogator who must rule on his application for asylum or even turn him into a “criminal.”
In Sulaiman Al-Shatti’s short story A Voice from the Dark the heroic image that a comfortable bourgeois has built for himself is shattered when somebody rings his door-bell at night calling for help. The moment of truth about the protagonist’s cowardice comes after a soliloquy in a dream in which he sees himself making a speech about the need to return to the virtues of the desert.
“This desert was empty save for the voice of Man who filled its space with the noblest of ideas: assessing the needy, camaraderie, generosity, even social solidarity found an undeniable place on our list…”
That, however, is the past. What about now? The now is dominated by fears of being burgled or even murdered; one had better barricade oneself in hoping that others will attend to the man calling for help. While he sleeps, the anti-hero shouts, “Wake them up, Wake them up!”
In Love at First Call Suleiman Al-Khalifi writes two characters—a man and a woman—who think they have fallen in love with one another through a series of telephone conversations. Not having physically met, each creates an ideal persona for the other. Eventually, they agree to meet, by driving to a certain point. Unknowingly, they become involved in a road-rage fueled incident, each driving in a way almost designed to kill the other.
Al-Khalifi’s Hemingwayesque prose produces a chilling effect and leaves a bitter after-taste by showing that in Kuwait’s almost-but-not-quite system love, too, must be kept within strict limits.
Since it is difficult for unmarried men and women to meet in public in Kuwait, telephone love affairs appear to be popular.
In Saud Al-Sanousi’s Prisoner of Mirrors a full-length novel based on Kuwait’s nightmarish experience during the 1990-91 Iraqi invasion, the protagonists grow fond of each other through a series of phone calls.
“Was I in love with your voice?”, the hero Abdul-Aziz, son of a martyred resistance fighter, asks. “I felt a strange urge to listen to it.”
Love at first sound is quite understandable. Because women are covered and you cannot see them, a voice becomes a bridge between two beings in search of love. In this case, the two tele-lovers end up meeting, discovering that their fathers had been comrades in “resistance” against Iraqi “hyenas”.
However, even love cannot save the protagonist from his depression. His life is a story of repeated losses—losing his father, mother, and even country. Even when Kuwait is regained, things can never be the same again. Sitting in a restaurant, Abdel-Aziz wonders whether his father’s death had been in vain as “heroes have gone the way of mammoths and dinosaurs.”
He observes that “Even though most of the people there were around my age, we had nothing in common. The guys with their trendy clothes, the girls with full-on makeup- the whole restaurant was like a catwalk, the smell of perfume outperforming the smell of food.”
In a context such as this, love is all but impossible.
In her Ladder of the Day, Fawziya Shuwaish Al-Salem demonstrates the same impossibility of love by breaking as many taboos in Arabic fiction as she dares. Using a set of Western clichés, a red scarf around a woman’s hip, gypsy flamenco music, and a kind of striptease starting with casting off the hijab, she depicts an erotic tableau that recalls the best love scenes of One Thousand and One Nights. The heroine is in heat by “Love snatched from time, from the eyes of parents and the judgment of the tribe, love where pleasure rubs against danger…”
Basima Al-Enezi’s Black Shoes on a Sidewalk is a mordant satire about some Kuwaitis’ fascination with all things Western. Its anti-hero, Dr. Fayez—well, Arabs do love love their titles—is said to have a PhD from MIT, an expensive American university. Al-Enezi suggests that Kuwait, with a native population of half a million, may have more than 20,000 PhD holders, possibly a world record. Fayez is a business strategist and expert in “downsizing”, which in practice means firing people. Yet, he goes around making speeches about the need for Arabs to create 50 million new jobs by 2020 to retain the present level of unemployment. A global vagabond, he seldom stays in a country for more than a week. His world is populated by luxury brands of which Al-Enezi gives an impressive list. The “doktor”, as he is called, is proud of his Rolex watch because if a man does not have a Rolex by the time he is 50 he must be regarded as a failure. While the private space of the “doktor” is defined by luxury, the public space is a scene of desolation, polluted with heaps of rubbish.
Enezi draws an impressive set of characters against a background of office intrigues, flings, and heartaches. One memorable character is the tycoon Abu-Tareq who tries not to lose his humanity by breeding race horses.
Fascination with the West is also the theme of Ali Hussain Al-Felkawi’s novel Clouds Beneath String. The narrator is a travel agent who hates traveling but “visits” every nook and cranny of the globe through travelogues, brochures, TV documentaries and—when all else fails—his own dreams. The recluse is taken out of his world when he has to guide a group of Kuwaiti tourists on a grand tour of Paris and the French Riviera. The tourists are not interested in much apart from exotic drinks, sex, shopping and coded gossip. Most things are judged by their price, and, towards the end, the narrator offers the price-list of baubles bought by his group before returning home.
Like some other writers introduced in this anthology, Al-Felkawi is heavily influenced by American prose styles, reinforcing his theme of superficial Westernization.
Laila Al-Othman is one of the rare writers in this anthology who regards traditional life as still dynamic enough to sustain a plot. In her short story The Abaya of Al-Kadhim, a traditional woolen mantle (abaya) becomes the symbol of a vanishing life-style. What starts as a traditional love story develops into a reflection on one’s relationship with the past. The heroine is visiting the shrine of Mussa Al-Kadhim, a medieval Shi’ite Imam, in Baghdad when she is asked by a guard to wear an abaya before entering. “I hate abayas, I never wear them,” she shouts at the guard. But then “He pulled one out from a pile in an old chest and instructed me to put it on. I recoiled in disgust. It was threadbare, the edges tinged with green from age and frequent use. A repulsive smell wafted from it”
Ending in a cliffhanger, Al-Othman’s short story depicts the stark choice that Arabs face: Wrap yourself in the past or bequeath it to the sea of oblivion?
While most writers in this anthology deal with the Arabs’ encounter with the West, Thuraya Al-Baqsami takes the theme of encounter with the East in the form of the now defunct Soviet Union. In Her novel The Time of the Red Reed Pipe she introduces us to a number of Arab students in the Soviet capital. Adopting a deadpan tone, Al-Baqsami shows how the young Arabs, their leftist postures notwithstanding, bring traditional practices and prejudices with them to the heart of the Soviet Empire. One character, Ayesha, finds herself a victim of blackmail by her husband. Al-Baqsami writes: “Ayesha was a victim of her heritage, which stretched back centuries; a woman who was trampled on every moment, by a man who was happy to ride the steed of virility.”
The status of women, the sufferings of the Bedouin, fascination with the West’s material opulence, exile as both a threat and a relief, and a schizophrenic pressure from a past and a present in perpetual conflict, provide the main themes of the current Kuwaiti fiction.
Against that grim background, Waleed Al-Rajeeb’s short stories provide some comic relief. His Morning of an Ordinary Day is a comic-strip of the written word.
Readers might also enjoy Yousef Khalifa’s twitter-length “short stories” or verbal caricatures. Here is one entitled A Feeling: After twenty years of being a wife, and a mother to five children, a man looked at her from afar and smiled. And she remembered she was a woman.”
But, let’s leave the final word to Basima Al-Enezi who declares her love for Kuwait, despite the fact that it has no frogs and peas don’t grow there: “Love which allows you to love one thing above all else, not because it is more beautiful, but because you love it and that makes it beautiful.”
Well, this anthology is enough to make us all love good old Kuwait, warts and all.
Banipal 47, Fiction from Kuwait is published by Banipal of London.