Leaving One’s Country in Mai Al-Nakib’s “An Unlasting Home”

27 June, 2022
Kuwait City, Kuwait (pho­to Khalid Hussein).

 

The Markaz Review book­group will dis­cuss this nov­el on the last Sun­day in Sep­tem­ber, 2022. To join the group, write books@themarkaz.org.

 

An Unlast­ing Home, a nov­el by Mai Al-Nakib
Mariner Books 2022
ISBN 9780063135093

 

By Rana Asfour

 

When you live in a con­ser­v­a­tive soci­ety, you run the risk of cen­sure. How far should a phi­los­o­phy pro­fes­sor stick her neck out to make a point? Would you put it all on the line in the pur­suit of truth or jus­tice, or what­ev­er informs your intent?

An Unlast­ing Home is avail­able from Mariner Books.

An Unlast­ing Home, by award-win­ning short sto­ry writer Mai Al-Nakib, opens in the sum­mer of 2013. Sara Tarek Al-Ameed, a pro­fes­sor of phi­los­o­phy at the Kuwait Uni­ver­si­ty for eleven years, is in the midst of prepar­ing a paper argu­ing the impor­tance of sup­ple­ment­ing the reli­gious cur­ricu­lum with an ear­ly intro­duc­tion to phi­los­o­phy at the lev­el of pri­ma­ry pub­lic school edu­ca­tion in Kuwait. How­ev­er, a phone record­ing by one of the munaqa­ba girls in her intro to phi­los­o­phy class (in which she is heard argu­ing that “God is dead”) has been passed on to the most con­ser­v­a­tive mem­ber of the Kuwaiti Par­lia­ment — a Salafi, who has filed a com­plaint. Sara is arrest­ed at her home and charged with blas­phe­my, a cap­i­tal crime that comes with the threat of exe­cu­tion, under the new­ly amend­ed Kuwaiti penal code. In the author’s note, Al-Nakib explains that although such an amend­ment did in fact come to pass by a wide major­i­ty of the elect­ed par­lia­ment in 2013, the Emir of Kuwait, who holds author­i­ty over all amend­ments of laws, reject­ed it. This work of fic­tion, explains the author, imag­ines otherwise.

Kuwait is a tiny coun­try of few­er than five mil­lion peo­ple. It drew world atten­tion in 1990 when Iraqi forces invad­ed and attempt­ed to annex it. It boasts one of the high­est per capi­ta incomes in the world that pro­vides gen­er­ous mate­r­i­al ben­e­fits for Kuwaiti cit­i­zens — defined as those able to prove Kuwaiti ances­try pri­or to 1920 — and a con­sti­tu­tion that stip­u­lates equal­i­ty with­out dis­crim­i­na­tion accord­ing to sex, col­or, lan­guage, or reli­gion, despite a gen­er­al­ly con­ser­v­a­tive gov­ern­ment. The right for women to vote was offi­cial­ly grant­ed in 2005, and in 2009 women were elect­ed to par­lia­ment for the first time.

How­ev­er, con­ser­v­a­tive in Kuwait, explains the novel’s pro­tag­o­nist at one point, “today means Islamist … Those stu­dents the Egypt­ian Broth­er­hood teach­ers got their paws on” are the new par­lia­ment along­side the Salafis, respon­si­ble for lead­ing the coun­try from a place of biki­nis and cock­tails at the Gazelle Club to one of niqabs and scrag­gly beards, “unrolled prayer mats as though prayer time were con­tin­u­ous, not five times a day.” Such peo­ple ren­der the coun­try “for­eign” and bare­ly rec­og­niz­able to peo­ple like Sara, who today see Kuwait as a place where “deci­sions were being made in the inter­est of pow­er, not pos­ter­i­ty” and “fore­sight was blind­ed with sharp­ened spears tipped with oil.” 

As Sara awaits tri­al at her Sur­ra home, which she shares with her aging child­hood min­der Maria and her cook Aasif, Lola her cat and her grand­moth­er’s pet par­rot Bebe Mitu, she exam­ines her con­tentious rela­tion­ship with her coun­try, even as she delays break­ing the upset­ting news to her broth­er Karim in the US, who has vowed nev­er to return to Kuwait, and her boyfriend Karl, in Nor­way, and instead mines her cache of mem­o­ries, unveil­ing a fam­i­ly saga span­ning Lebanon, Iraq, India, the Unit­ed States and Kuwait, bring­ing to the fore­front the sto­ries of three gen­er­a­tions of incred­i­ble Arab women and men who sac­ri­ficed much in the pur­suit of home and belong­ing against a back­drop of ever-chang­ing polit­i­cal, social and eco­nom­ic events, play­ing out both domes­ti­cal­ly and globally.

Kuwait, a small emi­rate nes­tled between Iraq and Sau­di Ara­bia, is sit­u­at­ed in a sec­tion of one of the dri­est, least-hos­pitable deserts on Earth. Its shore, how­ev­er, con­tains a deep har­bor along the Per­sian Gulf to which peo­ple from the inte­ri­or would arrive to trade with dock­ing mer­chant ships. It is, here, in 1924 that Sara begins with the first of the family’s sto­ries tak­ing place with­in the old city of Kuwait, where the men were gone for most of the year, leav­ing the women to man­age with­out them.

“Grow­ing up, Sheikha rarely saw her father and broth­ers. Nine months of the year, they were out at sea, on the boums and bagh­las of wealthy mer­chants, trad­ing along the east­ern coast of Africa or the west­ern coast of India. Even dur­ing the three months of mon­soon, when Sheikha’s father and broth­ers were back in Kuwait, they were out pearling. At the end of a sum­mer comb­ing oys­ter beds, the divers would return to shore, legs scoured with cuts, ribs vis­i­ble for wives and chil­dren to count. Like most of the divers and sailors of Kuwait, Sheikha’s father was poor, in debt all his life, rely­ing on advances from his nokha­da to sus­tain his family.”

By the time Kuwait gains inde­pen­dence in 1961, this style of liv­ing will have evap­o­rat­ed, “leav­ing hard­ly a trace of hun­dreds of years of com­mu­ni­ty life shaped by weath­er and water.”

Lul­wa, Sara’s mater­nal grand­moth­er, is the last of Sheikha and Qais’s chil­dren. Born into a very dif­fi­cult and mis­er­able mar­riage, Lulwa’s father “had the eccen­tric pro­cliv­i­ties of the wealthy minus the wealth,” kept an owl in the house and spoke to it in an unde­ci­pher­able code. His pecu­liar ways had come between Sheikha and her babies, hin­der­ing her from feel­ing any­thing towards them, “despair over her own fate smoth­er­ing any shred of ten­der­ness.” And so, by the age of 17, Sheikha decides to “sell” Lul­wa off to the son of a rich Kuwaiti mer­chant known through­out Kuwait for date plan­ta­tions in Bas­ra and fleets of ships trad­ing the east and west of the Indi­an Ocean. Luck­i­ly for Lul­wa, Mubarak Al-Mustafa is a man she’s already seen and admired. The two wed and leave for India, where the Mubarak fam­i­ly has set­tled to expand their already for­mi­da­ble trade inter­ests to include jew­els. It is where Noura, Sara’s moth­er is born. Lat­er, when Kuwait is on the verge of inde­pen­dence and Mubarak has moved his fam­i­ly back to Kuwait, he will argue that India would be the best mod­el for Kuwait to fol­low. The same India he believed to be his “true home” but one, nonethe­less, “that nev­er real­ly belonged to him” either.

Sai­da, Lebanon

The nov­el then skips to Lebanon, where Sara’s pater­nal grand­moth­er Yas­mine, is a six­teen-year-old girl liv­ing in Sai­da, engulfed in grief after the sud­den loss of her father, who unlike the oth­er fathers of the con­ser­v­a­tive city of old Sai­da had enrolled Yas­mine in the Sidon Girls’ School, estab­lished by Amer­i­can mis­sion­ar­ies. Jilt­ed by the moth­er of the man she loves, and fear­ing for the wel­fare of her moth­er and broth­er who are left des­ti­tute after the father’s death, Yas­mine gives up her hope of uni­ver­si­ty and accepts a job in Bas­ra, in Iraq, to teach Ara­bic lit­er­a­ture to pri­ma­ry-school stu­dents. She arrives with the advent rule of King Ghazi in Iraq and a coun­try whose “local women, moth­ers of the girls she taught, had tat­tooed chins, cov­ered their faces, smoked irgileh, and cack­led row­dy com­ments across the alley­way about out­siders in their midst. “Here she comes, ladies. Sway­ing what God gave her. Our swan of the Tigris! How long do you think before one of our own lays claim to those pil­lows? The ones up front as well as that plush one in back like sam­bouks on the Shatt?”

It is in this same Iraq that Yas­mine meets Mar­wan Al-Ameed, Sara’s grand­fa­ther and the son of the Pasha of Bas­ra, and the two wed despite the reser­va­tions of Yasmine’s guardian in Bas­ra who saw in Yas­meen “the future of Arab women — inde­pen­dent, fear­less, shap­ing their lives as they desired, not into shapes deter­mined by mul­lahs or kings.” When Mar­wan mar­ries a sec­ond wife, and Yas­mine con­sid­ers leav­ing him to take her chil­dren back to Sai­da, she is advised by the same guardian to stay with him for the sake of the chil­dren because “their life with­out a father in Sai­da, chil­dren of a divorced woman would be tragic.”

And so the nov­el alter­nates its chap­ters between Sara and all the women who made her — her moth­er Noo­ra, her grand­moth­ers, Lul­wa and Yas­mine, and the ayah Maria who raised her, reveal­ing the full his­to­ry of the inter­twined Al-Mustafa and Al-Ameed fam­i­lies who end up as neigh­bors in Kuwait in the 1950s. Through Sara’s first per­son nar­ra­tive we learn of her upbring­ing in the lap of lux­u­ry in 1980s Kuwait, her Amer­i­can years spent study­ing in Berke­ley along­side her broth­er Karim, and then the rea­sons for her move back to Kuwait despite her atyp­i­cal lifestyle in con­trast with the Kuwaiti girls that she teach­es in the “New Kuwait” in which phi­los­o­phy is “haram” and the girls are “for­bid­den to dri­ve, are forced to wear black, not by law but by fam­i­ly dic­tate, more pow­er­ful than any law.”

“These girls in black and boys in white and red are the daugh­ters and sons of recent­ly nat­u­ral­ized Bedouin. They do not share Kuwait’s mar­itime past, and they missed out on the boom years of Kuwait’s ear­ly state­hood. Theirs is a new major­i­ty –—con­ser­v­a­tive, tra­di­tion­al, with a sheen of reli­gios­i­ty — and it is not silent.” In fact, this new Kuwait is one that Sara bare­ly rec­og­nizes, mak­ing her ques­tion the rea­sons that had com­pelled her to return and remain after years of being abroad. And yet she is hope­ful that the Arab spring, which trig­gered a few demon­stra­tions in Kuwait in 2011, while it flour­ished in oth­er coun­tries, has moved some­thing stalled, “a sense that the crusty coat­ing of reli­gion and tra­di­tion could be sloughed off.”

Mai Al-Nakib was born in Kuwait. She spent the first six years of her life in Lon­don, Edin­burgh, and St. Louis, Mis­souri. She holds a PhD in Eng­lish lit­er­a­ture from Brown Uni­ver­si­ty and is Asso­ciate Pro­fes­sor of Eng­lish and com­par­a­tive lit­er­a­ture at Kuwait Uni­ver­si­ty. Her short sto­ry col­lec­tion, The Hid­den Light of Objects, won the Edin­burgh Inter­na­tion­al Book Festival’s 2014 First Book Award, the first col­lec­tion of short sto­ries to do so. She divides her time between Kuwait and Greece.

What An Unlast­ing Home is essen­tial­ly about should be quite obvi­ous from the out­set. The title of the book, tak­en from a sen­tence in James Joyce’s A Por­trait of the Artist as a Young Man, col­ludes with the capri­cious notion of home. All of Al-Nakib’s char­ac­ters are in con­stant motion across coun­tries and con­ti­nents due at times to polit­i­cal unrest, mar­riage, aca­d­e­m­ic and pro­fes­sion­al pur­suits as well as famil­ial oblig­a­tions. In these sec­tions of the nov­el, Al-Nakib inves­ti­gates the quandary of her char­ac­ters: when one is born in a coun­try but moves to anoth­er, where is one’s home coun­try then? 

As the men and women nav­i­gate their way through new envi­rons, so does Kuwait, forced to adjust in tan­dem with polit­i­cal and eco­nom­ic key events both on its soil and off of it: The col­lapse of the pearling indus­try (1925); the Nak­ba (1948) that would her­ald in droves of Pales­tini­ans, who until the Iraqi inva­sion of Kuwait (1990) were the largest sin­gle expa­tri­ate group that helped to build the coun­try; the dis­cov­ery of oil (1938) that would sky­rock­et Kuwait into a thriv­ing era in a “mete­oric trans­for­ma­tion,” espe­cial­ly after its inde­pen­dence from the British (1961); the Iran­ian Rev­o­lu­tion (1979) as well as the fall of the Twin Tow­ers (2001) by Arabs from the very coun­try that Sara’s moth­er had been blam­ing for its stran­gle­hold on Kuwait since its lib­er­a­tion; for the rise in con­ser­vatism, the change in demo­graph­ics, and Kuwait’s unchar­ac­ter­is­tic insu­lar­i­ty. The result is a coun­try and peo­ple strained against forces of his­to­ry, iden­ti­ty and faith — a “bifur­cat­ed Kuwait”: “Half sea­far­ing, half desert. Half pre-oil, half oil. Half tra­di­tion­al, half mod­ern. Half cos­mopoli­tan, half Islamist. Half demo­c­ra­t­ic, half monar­chist. Half con­sumerist, half reli­gious. Half Kuwaiti, half non-Kuwaiti. Halves that mul­ti­plied ad infini­tum. And as they mul­ti­plied — with their divi­sions and splits — the coun­try dis­in­te­grat­ed … There was no going back, but going for­ward was fraught with peril.”

What final­ly dawns on Sarah as her tri­al approach­es is that to reach a much cov­et­ed peace, and face her own bifur­ca­tion as a Kuwaiti, she will have to first bring parts and pieces of her own expe­ri­ence back into align­ment with her family’s past. By embrac­ing and under­stand­ing Mama Sheikha’s and Mama Yasmine’s rage, the impo­tence of Mama Noo­ra and Mama Yeliz, as well as Maria’s blind­ing fear for their chil­dren, Sara pro­vides her own path with a sense of clar­i­ty, accep­tance and com­ple­tion — ulti­mate­ly see­ing only lessons that brought her to her cur­rent strength and wis­dom. She embraces the full­ness of her expe­ri­ence, now ready to face her fate, to carve out her own destiny.

“To pro­ceed for­ward requires peri­od­ic turns back,” she writes. “Even if those turns are denied, even if they hurt like hell. The past per­sists like a wound. If it isn’t locked in place, it knocks around endlessly.”

 

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