Ever wondered about those Americans who take jobs in treacherous foreign countries? Ever wanted to know what it is like to move to the Middle East and try to fit in to conservative Islamic culture? Anastasia Hobbet’s novel Small Kingdoms answers these questions through its carefully structured narrative. Set in Kuwait after the first Gulf War, Small Kingdoms takes place in a region familiar to us from TV news broadcasts; Hobbet portrays the decadence and the difficulty of this country masterfully. The story follows five main characters: two American expatriates, one native Kuwaiti woman and her Indian maid, and one a Bedooin or resident alien, a Palestinian woman living in Kuwait. Hobbet constructs her book in short chapters, each following a single character, as these five individuals’ fates are drawn closer and closer together.
The role of women, and particularly lower class women, is at the heart of this novel. Hobbet exposes the underbelly of rich Kuwaiti society, presenting the lives of the household maids with startling detail. These women, so-called guest workers from Third World countries, are represented by the character of Santana, who is “locked into the villa where she works. Her sponsors are starving her, beating her, the woman burned her, the man’s raping her. Now they’re getting ready to leave the country because of Saddam. They’re leaving her in the house, locked in, with the doors and windows bolted.” The maid’s plight serves as one of the focal points of the novel as Kit, an American expatriate whose husband is an engineer, and Emmanuella, another maid, work to free Santana from her dire straits.
Even as the theme of servitude and mistreatment of foreign workers is a major component of the book, Hobbet subtly parallels this with the treatment of women in general. Mufeeda, a rich Kuwaiti woman who is one of the main characters, gradually realizes her own bondage, the way that her wealth and culture have rendered her almost a prisoner in her own home, “a grown-up child who depended on [her husband] for love and protection.” As Mufeeda realizes this, and as she is drawn into the quest for the mistreated maid’s freedom, she recognizes that even though “she was made for softer things, for peace, safety, invisibility. For ignorance,” she must abandon both the protection and the confinement of her religion to establish an independent sense of self.
In addition to the compelling and emotional main story of the maid’s rescue, the novel is enlivened by details such as the trip of a gaggle of American women to an old souk; loud and brash, they horrify the natives. Or the little pieces of setting that Hobbet deftly inserts, like the gardeners who drag “thick, drooling pythons of hose to skeletal palms.” She describes the breakneck driving style, the massive and imposing houses, and the decay of the public hospitals with brilliant and entertaining detail. This far-away and very foreign land becomes imaginable through her prose and her characters.
I found the novel slow to start, perhaps because Hobbet must keep five separate story-lines afloat. Momentum is slow to arrive until the characters begin to meet each other and their story-lines merge, which happens about a hundred pages into the book. But once these interactions begin, the pace picks up exponentially, until by the end of the novel it is breathtaking. I was particularly taken in by the counterpoint story to the maid’s plight, a tale of love between Theo, an American expatriate doctor, and Hanaan, a Palestinian woman trying to make her own way in Kuwait. Hanaan takes in abandoned cats, yet another symbol of the decay behind the decadence; the pets that are discarded when they are no longer wanted. Perhaps it is because I am a cat lover that I was drawn to this storyline, but Hobbet creates a wonderful parallel between the cats and the foreign workers; as Theo is driving a sick animal to the vet, he sees an Egyptian laborer crossing the street, “his long gellibiya [loose-fitting robe worn by men] beating against his legs like a flag of desperate surrender. He had no protection against the oncoming weather […] Like another stray cat, Theo thought, left to fend for himself on the streets.”
Small Kingdoms is a well-balanced novel; the Americans are no more or less flawed than the natives, the men are no more or less sympathetic and compelling than the woman. Even in terms of religion, Christian and Muslim characters are equally devout or equally agnostic. Hobbet is careful not to woefully bias her account. This is a refreshing look at the Middle East, opening up a world at once familiar from news stories and completely hidden from western sight.