In her debut novel, An Unlasting Home, Mai Al-Nakib exposes the challenges that often come with state formation and national identity. The title, borrowed from Irish writer James Joyce’s novel, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, speaks to the impermanence of home “under the eaves of men’s houses,” as Joyce puts it. The roof could easily collapse at any moment.
The novel, divided into three parts, centres around the alienation of its protagonist Sara, an American-educated philosophy professor who, after her parents’ death, reluctantly returns to Kuwait to live in her family’s home. A certain “inertia” keeps her tethered to the home despite her discomfort that in the years she has been away, Kuwait has drastically changed; its social reality is one nestled in a contradictory meeting point of globalisation and cultural conservatism. Throughout all this, it is difficult for Sara to negotiate her position, at once influenced by her family’s transnational history and her international affiliations with a brother committed to a life in American exile and her Norwegian partner, Karl, who remains in Europe. For a while, this discomfort determines the constant rhythm of Sara’s life until one day in 2013, a Salafi student in Niqab records her philosophical lecture on Friedrich Nietzsche, discussing the German philosopher’s questioning of God and the divine.
A trial ensues under the charge of blasphemy, an event that propels Sara into an existential reckoning, and through this, the narrative gives way to the protagonist’s personal negotiation of alienation, a dance between exile and return from and back to Kuwait, examined through inter-generational trauma of sorts. The novel breaks away from Sara’s perspective and offers the reader a glimpse into the lives of her great-grandmother Sheikha, her grandmothers Lulwa and Yasmine, her mother Noura, her nanny Maria and, of course, of Sara herself.
These matriarchal histories are critical to the narrative framing of the novel and the reader’s understanding of Sara’s interpretation of home and homeland. The first matriarchal history takes us to 1924 to the story of Sara’s great-grandmother Sheikha, whose father, a pearl diver, was among the many poor workers of the emirate and its Gulf neighbours. He dove deep into the Gulf, searching for oysters bearing pearls and: “[Returned] to shore, legs scoured with cuts, ribs visible for wives and children to count.” The Kuwait painted in these early years is not wealthy and teeming with economic abundance. It is one wherein the average citizen struggled to make ends meet, lived in simplicity and partook in traditional trades that were often dangerous and physically taxing. In the decades that followed, and with Kuwaiti independence in 1961, however, much changed with the discovery of oil and the age of industrialisation that it brought about.
The novel then turns to Lulwa, Sara’s maternal grandmother, and her husband Mubarak Al-Mustafa, who marry and live in India for 30 years. The marriage is a happy one, and it is in their new home that Lulwa and Mubarak spend years fostering and growing a business in the trade sector, obtaining wealth from the subcontinent’s riches and jewels while also growing their family. It is in India that Sara’s mother Noura is born and spends many years. Ultimately, the family returns to Kuwait on the cusp of independence, with national debates regarding state formation in full swing. Yet, for their children, particularly for Noura, this is no homecoming. Her broken Arabic makes it difficult to assimilate. This rocky return irrevocably shakes Noura, and its lifelong aftershocks would go on to impact her daughter (Sara).
Exile and expatriation — in India and elsewhere — seem to be a theme that impacts many of the novel’s characters, including Sara, who begins to question her role in the Kuwait university system and, of course, the limits of free speech, which have had a real and tangible impact on her life. The narrative expands beyond this point by taking the reader back in time yet again to Sara’s paternal grandmother, Yasmine, a Lebanese-Turkish woman from Saida, Lebanon. Yasmine wishes to study at the American University of Beirut, but the loss of her father and ongoing financial struggles force her to migrate to Iraq. It is in Basra that Yasmine meets her future husband, Marwan, the spoiled son of a pasha. A dream of education is deferred, and one of domesticity and childbearing ensues. Yasmine marries Marwan, who, soon after, forces her to quit her job and stay at home to raise their children in Iraq. Later on in the story, Yasmine and Marwan’s son, Sara’s father, is killed by nationalist Kuwaitis after the Iraqi invasion. His death was the result of his Iraqi accent, though, ironically, he played a foundational role in the establishment of Kuwait’s national health service.
In An Unlasting Home, there is no separation between personal and political. The novel gestures to Kuwait’s national history and its encounters with others — the oil consortiums, the Indians, the Palestinians and the Kuwaitis themselves — as they negotiate their national identity. Yet Sara, in the wake of her trial (her charges were eventually dropped), concludes that she is only half Kuwaiti at best, part Lebanese, part Turkish and perhaps half Indian and American. The complicated history leads the protagonist to contend with her own limits as she reconciles with a personal ultimatum: to exist beyond Kuwait, no matter what that may look like.
Though An Unlasting Home is a novel about many things: philosophy, free speech, politics, exile, womanhood, family histories and belonging, its narrative framework allows the reader to explore how the multiplicities of an individual and her family determine how and to what end we belong within a homeland and its society.