Banipal’s 47th issue features fiction from Kuwait. I’ve never read anything by a Kuwaiti writer, and all I know about Kuwait I know from images of the 1990 Iraqi invasion: torched oil wells lining the blue sky and then what seemed to turn almost immediately into a decades-long American affair. Peacetime Kuwait is indistinguishable, in my mind’s eye, from any other small Gulf country, with an oil reserve, women draped in black, workers from India and the Philippines. What makes Kuwaiti fiction Kuwaiti?
“An Unexpected Encounter in Uppsala,” an excerpt from Bothayna al-Essa’s novel A Soundless Encounter, defies an easy answer. A young exchange student from Kuwait in Sweden meets a fellow Kuwaiti who has been asked by the embassy to be her guide. The guide harbors a mix of feelings about Kuwait: bitter about his outsider status as a Bedouin, full of contempt for his young charge and her simple love and loyalty towards Kuwait. Yet he also says: “I would be able to tell Kuwaiti and Swedish rain apart even if blindfolded.” Perhaps the ambition behind the story hobbled the narrative. The dialogue is stilted and seems more driven by the writer’s wish to pound out the theme than the characters’ own conflicts or desires.
Sulaiman al-Shatti’s “A Voice from the Dark” makes its point more subtly. Lying in bed, a man recalls how his acquaintances admired his expressions of high-mindedness during the day; then, cries for help pierce the house intercom, and he wavers between helping and fearing that it is a ploy by his enemies to kidnap him. The story switches deftly between the man’s thoughts and the presence of the unknown visitor, and its quick strokes and painless dénouement have a Chekhovian flair.
Yousef Khalifa’s “18 Very Short Stories” teach their lessons at about the same pitch: their agendas are obvious, but they also dispatch the agendas with skill. In “A Beating” for example: “The father beat the mother, nobody moved. / The boy beat his sister and the father beat him. / The boy was confused.”
The portraits of women in Banipal are varied. Some recall stereotypes, such as the seductive Tiba in Mona al-Shammari’s “Black Kohl . . . White Heart.” Tiba married into the household from Saudi Arabia, and even the child narrator—Tiba’s niece—can tell that not all is well with the arranged marriage. Tiba’s husband is fat and stupid, and there is little she can do about it—or so it seems. Her protest is quiet, and the most effective kind for a woman in her circumstances. Helplessness and power both emanate from her body and her status as a woman. The story is satisfying, but their layers leave questions open: does Tiba have designs beyond what her immediate goal appears to be, and is she a woman to be pitied or feared?
In contrast, Amwag, the thirty-year-old director of human resources of a large corporation in the excerpt from Basima al-Enezi’s novel Black Shoes on a Sidewalk, commands awe from men and envy from women with “her movie star appearance . . . and the high esteem in which the top administration held her.” She drives a white Range Rover to work, which she parks in a spot reserved for a top manager, goes to workshops in Europe and the United States, and has “disentangled herself from the prospect of marriage to a man who would have hindered her progress and toyed with her dreams” the way she disentangles a Chanel earring from her hair. Amwag would have cut a striking figure even in more liberal societies, and no wonder that she “epitomize[s] the moral decadence of the times” for some, despite the fact that being a woman does not appear to have impeded her ascent to power.
Designed to present a variety of voices from a single country, this issue of Banipal ranges from the delightful (the travel agent’s voice in Ali Hussain al-Felkawi’s excerpt from Traveller of the World), to the moving (an Egyptian looking for work in Kuwait in “Welcome to the Abu Ajaj Construction Company,” excerpted from Taleb Alrefai’s novel The Shadow of the Sun), to the awkward and mystifying (the romantic relationship conducted entirely over the phone in Suleiman al-Khalifi’s “Love at First Call” defies even suspended belief; and we’re never told why the “honeymoon” in Fatima Yousif al-Ali’s “Return from a ‘Honeymoon’” seem like an ending of an epoch). The efforts of Banipal and its translators are much needed in a literary marketplace dominated by work originally written in English. At a time when tension and stereotyping rhetoric permeate discussions of the Middle East, Banipal reminds us that the region is more than war, oil, and women in black, and Kuwait is more than a dock for American aircraft carriers—as I definitely knew, but could not feel or see, before I had opened this issue of Banipal.