I have never considered or thought about Kuwaiti Literature before and from there my excitement grew for this book when it gained popularity in the Arab world. This book about José, the half-Kuwaiti, half-Filipino boy, is a mirror to Kuwaiti society, representing the Arab Gulf relationship to migrant laborers. His life reflects how Kuwaiti society looks down upon migrants that seek labor in Kuwait, like José’s mother, due to the harsh conditions of poverty they face in their motherlands.
Despite this complex relation, some Kuwaitis, especially men, marry or have children from migrant laborers and this is what Rashid, from the arrogant Al-Tarouf (الطاروف) family, decides to do.
When the Filipino mother is forced to return to her country, she raises her son to consider Kuwait as his motherland, and the Philippines only as a temporary station. Thus, he grows up conflicted about his identity and religion. This conflict pushes him to later try living in his fatherland, a land where he faces different social ideologies and traditions that he was familiar with.
As I delved into this book, it was captivating how Alsanousi separated his Kuwaiti self from the book by choosing to present it as a translated memoir and give voice to José to come to life. So it felt like reading Filipino literature as well!
When asked about the purpose behind writing this book Alsanousi said: “We don’t know anything about the Filipino…We know nothing about his cultural and intellectual wealth, his history, his struggle against Spanish colonialism… It’s because we don’t know his background that we deal with him in this stereotypical and disrespectful way. And because we don’t know the other, we don’t know our own place in this world.” I think writing this novel could be a means of introducing the “other” to both Kuwaitis and Filipinos, from the neutral perspective of a teenage boy, who is only trying to find a place in which to belong.
José’s self-awareness is torn between religions, homelands and families, and multiple names (José or Arabo in Philippines, Isa or Filipino in Kuwait). His struggle with identity and religion made me rethink if choices are an indication of freedom or suffering, whether the power to choose from an early age is what creates a solid ground in one’s beliefs or the opposite. By the beginning of the novel, it seems like the choices open for José are overwhelming and confusing. Yet, as the story develops, José learns to find his way between the choices.
The choice of title reflects this as well. The adaptable bamboo plant grows wherever it is planted, putting down new roots. I believe this is exactly what José aims for when he leaves his family and memories behind, before gradually discovering the endless layers of complexity of being human and before discovering that it needs more than the ability to adapt and family roots to belong to a different country and a different culture.
This novel received wide acclaim in Arabic, winning the International Prize for Arabic fiction in 2013.
If you read it tell us how it affected your perspective about Kuwait and the Philippines? If you haven’t read it, do you feel like you want to? Let us know in the comment section below!