Kuwait

READ THE WORLD – Kuwait: Mama Hissa’s Mice by Saud Alsanousi

Translated by Sawad Hussain.

Growing up together in the Surra section of central Kuwait, Katkout, Fahd, and Sadiq share neither ethnic origin nor religious denomination—only friendship and a rage against the unconscionable sectarian divide turning their lives into war-zone rubble. To lay bare the ugly truths, they form the protest group Fuada’s Kids. Their righteous transgressions have made them targets of both Sunni and Shi’a extremists. They’ve also elicited the concern of Fahd’s grandmother, Mama Hissa, a story-spinning font of piety, wisdom, superstition, and dire warnings, who cautions them that should they anger God, the sky will surely fall. Then one day, after an attack on his neighbourhood leaves him injured, Katkout regains consciousness. His friends are nowhere to be found. Inundated with memories of his past, Katkout begins a search for them in a world that has become unrecognizable but not forsaken.

Mama Hissa’s Mice is one of those stories were the chapters alternate between the present and many years in the past. In the present, forty-two-year-old Katkout wakes up injured in the street and struggles to get to where he and his friends host a radio show in the hopes of finding Fahd and Sadiq there waiting for him. In the past, it’s all about their childhood, their families and what life was like before, during and after Iraq invaded Kuwait in August 1990 and the subsequent Gulf War. The three friends were about twelve or thirteen during the invasion and I personally find it really interesting when big historical and dangerous events are shown through the eyes of a child. Because Katkout and his friends know bad things are happening but they also have fun and don’t always comprehend the seriousness of what’s happening.

Fahd and Sadiq’s fathers are sworn enemies and Katkout often finds himself in the middle of their arguments. Their feud, which sometimes trickles down to the two boys, is because one is Sunni and the other is Shia. Katkout doesn’t understand the differences or what it means to be one and not the other and as a child when he asks his mother which they are she refuses to answer, just saying they are Muslim. Mama Hissa is the matriarch of Fahd’s family and she is the only one that can stop the arguments between the two neighbours. As a child, Katkout loves spending time with her, in their home, listening to her stories and learning a lot.

Though I sometimes like what was happening in the past more than the present, and vice versa, having these two narratives run side by side complimented each other. The tension built in the present as it becomes clear Katkout is hiding something as he and his friends become the targets of violence, meanwhile in the past the political divides become clearer as the boys get older and understand things more.

I found the stud during and after the Gulf War really interesting as the only time I’ve seen it in books or films before is with a focus on the American allied forces and what they were doing, rather than what was happening to the average Kuwaiti. In Mama Hissa’s Mice the American’s weren’t always shown in the best light and it’s shocking how quickly things can change for families overnight when decisions are being made by governments or countries that normally have nothing to do with them.

Mama Hissa’s Mice works best because of the narrative structure. Getting the glimpses of the past and the future and seeing how history repeats itself or how characters ended up on the path they’re on makes things more interesting than if it’d been a linear narrative. Katkout can be a frustrating character, both when he’s a child and an adult, but he is the glue that holds a lot of the other characters together.