It was 2015 and Saud Alsanousi was finishing the follow-up to his novel, The Bamboo Stalk, which won him the International Prize for Arabic Fiction in 2013. The bestselling Kuwaiti author set sections of his latest book, Mama Hissa's Mice, during an imaginary civil war in his home country … in 2020.
He couldn't have known it at the time, but it's quite the coincidence that the English translation should be published in the first month of the new decade. If Alsanousi didn't predict the future, he certainly feels his concerns about sectarianism ring true.
"I'm a firm believer that we're currently living in a civil war that is only missing weapons," he says. "This civil war has consumed us no matter how much we try to claim differently in a superficial national song. What the novel says about upbringing that excludes 'the other' and what goes on in homes between Sunnis and Shiites is still happening today. Honestly, I hope that I die before seeing the end of the novel come to play out in reality."
Alsanousi's fiction has always been underpinned by truths we would do well to heed. In The Bamboo Stalk, he explored issues with the migrant economy. In Mama Hissa's Mice, the warning is that a silent battle consuming Kuwaitis of all faiths and factions doesn't need much to be inflamed. The story explores Alsanousi's own childhood memories through the lives of three friends – Katkout, Fahd and Sadiq – who form a protest group called Fuada's Kids and live through, as Alsanousi puts it, an "environment on fire, directly impacted by what was going on in neighbouring countries".
Bubbling away at the edges of their 1980s childhood of video games and mucking about being boys, there are the implications of the uprising in Iran, the civil war in Lebanon, the Iran-Iraq War and their effect inside Kuwait. "All of these things had a direct impact. That was not only political, but rather on people's daily lives, their behaviours and ways of thinking," Alsanousi says. "We imported these surrounding wars and chose our own icons to support and believe in, creating a Sunni-Shiite divide in Kuwait that we suffer from until today."
What Alsanousi says he finds so infuriating is that everyone is actually united under one issue. "It's just 'how do we survive?'," he says.
During a crisis such as the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, which is described in a remarkably moving section in the book within a book that Katkout is writing, the suffering reaches everyone, whether they're Sunni, Shiite or Christian, Arabs or foreigners living and working in Kuwait. "A gun doesn't check an ID card before shooting its bullet," he says.
Mama Hissa's Mice, which has been translated into English with some skill by Sawad Hussain, takes on these serious issues with a passion, but it's also written with a fair amount of emotion, empathy and even black humour. In a clever twist, the novel within a novel that is being written by Katkout is missing four chapters because the publisher is afraid of the censorship committee.
It makes no difference: Katkout's work is still banned by the authorities. "This is precisely what happened to me when the book was banned by the media ministry without stating any clear reasons why," Alsanousi says, in a classic case of life imitating art.
It took four years, but the author won a court case to allow the book to be published. It is now available in his homeland.
The content might raise some concerns among some people in Kuwait, but when you drill into the ethos of the Fuada's Kids movement at the heart of the book, they're only inciting a desire to warn people of the dangers of intolerance and fundamentalism.
"I see Fuada's Kids as very realistic," Alsanousi says. "Its idea is childlike, ruled by the emotion my generation grew up on. See, the idea of a nation for this generation is just a national song, that spreads enthusiasm and longing. I just wanted the reader to take another look at our childhood, what we learnt and memorised by heart … and the heart only.
"In the novel, Katkout doesn't really say anything except to condemn. But he condemns everyone – the home, the school, the mosque, the media … for propping up this romantic sleight of hand called 'nation'."
As for Alsanousi himself, he says he's no longer the same person he was before he wrote the book. "I only have more and more questions about religion, nation, identity," he says. Some of these questions have begun to coalesce in his writing; there have been two novellas and he continues to work on a fantasy novel that tells a story about Kuwait before oil.
"It delves into history with fantastical eyeglasses on," Alsanousi says. "But I started writing it after Mama Hissa's Mice and it seems like it will take a long time."
For his ever-increasing readership, that is a shame. Alsanousi was arguably the most accessible author to win the International Prize for Arabic Fiction in its earlier years – The Bamboo Stalk is certainly one of the more readable, contemporary winners – and he still feels its effect keenly.
"Certainly the prize has afforded me a lot, the most important being having readers and writing with a greater responsibility," he says. "It made me known to a much larger number of people and that's what has made me so much more careful and serious when writing."
Maybe this is the biggest clue as to why a follow-up to Mama Hissa's Mice is taking so long. He admits to being "possessed by the notion of identity" and how that plays out in the complicated society of Kuwait. "Most of our problems are a result of identity crises," he says. "It irks me when people busy themselves with criticising the beliefs of others. You know, the two old women in my book, Mama Hissa and Bibi Zaynab, manage to live in harmony without each of their belief systems being changed."
That is as good and as hopeful a message as perhaps we can hope for this year.
Mama Hissa’s Mice is available on Amazon.ae from Dh61.93