Monday, January 14, 2019

Kuwait: The Hidden Light of Objects, by Mai Al-Nakib

When I can find only one book from a particular country, the quality can be a bit hit and miss. That wasn't a problem with Mai Al-Nakib's luminous short story collection, The Hidden Light of Objects. Ten "vignettes" alternate with the ten stories in this collection, which give a vivid picture of life in Kuwait as it develops from a traditional fishing village into a cosmopolitan oil-exporting nation, and then, with the Iraqi invasion, becomes a place of horror and war, and increasing fundamentalism.

There are objects a-plenty to carry the weight of the title. In "Chinese Apples" a young girl collects story objects - objects about which she spins imaginative tales which she relates to her younger sister. The story is a lamentation for the loss of her mother, the loss of innocence. In "Amerika's Box" another young girl, named in gratitude for America's role in resisting the Iraqi invasion, has a box in which she collects objects that represent America to her. But her name gradually becomes a liability as attitudes towards America change, particularly after 9/11. And there are many more significant objects in other stories - a compass, a diary, a stamp bearing the image of an elephant, a straw hat with a red ribbon.

While these stories are set against a background of Islam, it is a far less intrusive presence than in books I have read from other Middle Eastern countries. The characters in these books have an abiding interest in the wider world, in literature, culture, music and so on from all around the globe. If the young girls take up wearing the burqa, it is with reluctance and under pressure from an increasingly fundamentalist school and social environment. One senses that the author, too, has a liberal outlook on life.

Mai Al-Nakib was born in Kuwait in 1970. She holds a PhD in English literature from Brown University in the US and teaches postcolonial studies and comparative literature at Kuwait University. The Hidden Light of Objects was published in 2014 by Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation Publishing and won the 2014 First Book Award from the Edinburgh International Book Festival.

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