The Bamboo Stalk

Saud Alsanousi

Winner of the International Prize for Arabic Fiction (known as the ‘Arabic Booker’)
Winner of the State of Kuwait Prize
Financial Times recommended Summer read
Winner of 2016 Saif Ghobash Banipal Prize for Arabic Literature in Translation (Jonathan Wright for his translation)

‘Born to a Kuwaiti man and a Filipino maid, the narrator of this novel grows up poor in the Philippines and arrives in Kuwait as a young man full of expectations. But to his father’s family he is a reminder of his parents’ misalliance, and he comes to realize that, because of his Asian looks, Kuwaitis assume that he is a migrant worker. Alsanousi’s absorbing subject is the reciprocal incuriosity of two populations: the migrants are treated as if they “have no feelings and don’t understand anything”; they, in turn, see Kuwaitis as either generous or abusive, while the narrator sees sensitive, ambitious members of a fast-changing society.’ The New Yorker

‘Engrossing… with an electrifying connection to contemporary events’ Bidisha

‘A bold, heart-felt indictment against racism in Arab society. A narrative with power and resonance, which captivates the reader with its artful simplicity and its endearing protagonist’ Leila Aboulela, author of Lyrics Alley, Minaret and The Translator

‘Daring and moving… raises disquieting questions about national, racial, and religious identity.’ Galal Amin (chair of IPAF judges)

‘This brave and compassionate novel by a young Kuwaiti author gives that silent army a voice at last. Winner in 2013 of the International Prize for Arabic Fiction, The Bamboo Stalk compels attention as a tender, frank and absorbing story of a young man trapped between two worlds.’ The

‘A gem of a book, one of those instances when art imitates life so precisely that the reader finds it difficult not to imagine it true. Al-Sanousi has delivered a powerful commentary on the oft-resisted and occasionally illicit intertwining of nationalities in Kuwait… a triumph.’ Kuwait Times

‘Quietly radical… In giving voice to the emotional lives of migrant workers, Al-Sanousi has produced a story of personal and political liberation that, beyond its immediate context, confronts the divided self that stirs in all of us.’ Literary Review

‘Few imagined that such a young Kuwaiti author could take the Arab world, and the whole world by storm, but Saud Al-Sanousi’s “The Bamboo Stalk” proved to be a force to be reckoned with, and even after winning the award, the book continues to disappear as soon as it hits the shelves of all major bookstores.’ Arab Times

‘If The Bamboo Stalk is an inquiry into personal, national and spiritual identity, it’s a coming-of-age novel too. As such, it depicts its protagonist’s journey towards a mature self-knowledge. And as surely as José/Isa achieves this, so too does Kuwait, and the Arabian Gulf in general, through Alsanousi’s writing. The multicultural but semi-segregated Gulf has long constituted a cosmopolis in denial. Now, in this truly cosmopolitan and deeply humane novel, it has found a voice and a mirror.’ The National

THE BAMBOO STALK is the story of Jose’s life (also known as Isa). Born to a Filipino mother, Josephine, and Kuwaiti father, Rashid, who fell in love while she worked as a maid in his mother’s house. Set partly in the Philippines, partly in Kuwait, the novel has been described as “a daring look at the plight of foreign workers in the Gulf region”. However its primary themes are identity and belonging.

Bamboo thrives wherever it is planted, putting down new roots, without a past or memory. José discovers through painful experience that this does not apply to human beings. Rashid and Josephine marry secretly but when their secret is discovered, they are evicted from the house. Eventually, bowing to family and social pressure, Rashid sends his wife and child back to the Philippines, continuing to support them financially until he is taken prisoner in Iraq during the first Gulf war and the letters and money stop. Rashid’s best friend Ghassan seeks José out and brings him back to Kuwait. His arrival prompts a crisis in the respectable al-Tarouf household, in a society where the fear of tyrants and dictators is nothing compared to the fear of “what people will say”. On condition that his identity is kept secret, the family give him a generous allowance but are stingy with their love. Finally, he is forced to leave the house and live independently. He begins work in a fast-food restaurant and meets his Filipino neighbours and young Kuwaitis. Just as it seems that he has found a niche in society and the Kuwaiti friends he had longed for, news of his identity leaks out, causing shame for the family, and his hostile aunt Nouria arranges for him to be sacked and his allowance cut off. He returns to the Philippines.

Throughout the novel he has been searching for a single name, religion and homeland where he belongs. At last he realizes his true self. He is both, José Mendoza and Isa Al-Tarouf. He is Kuwaiti-Filipino. He is Christian, Muslim, and Buddhist.

Al-Sanousi’s style is engaging and accessible. The lush, humid Mendoza compound and barren, pristine streets of Kuwait are skillfully evoked. Characters are beautifully drawn and the pace never falters. An utterly gripping read and a worthy prizewinner.

‘True, a wider ideal of citizenship may take longer to build in the Gulf than the giant towers and slabs that still rise, seemingly overnight, along its endless boulevards. But local voices of conscience such as Al-Sanousi will surely have a part to play in laying those foundations. Besides, we can also meet that lost and lonely migrant on any European or American city street. “José is searching for a homeland and a faith,” his creator says. “These are human questions for any person, in any place.”’ Boyd Tonkin, The Independent

‘This is an incredible story of migration and rootlessness and what it means “to belong”. It is epic in its breadth and story, and explores how two unequal cultures are inextricably linked through economic need. And still, it is so much more.’

‘I regard Saud Alsanousi as an important emerging literary voice in the Arabian Gulf region. This novel has been difficult to keep on the shelves in Arabic bookstores, suggesting he speaks to a large readership that wants open discussions about social and political issues. For literary merit and social impact, he deserves his accolades.’ Philadelphia Inquirer

‘The Bamboo Stalk is an intelligent and thoughtful contribution to the ongoing exploration of globalisation and identity which has become a prominent feature of world literature in recent years. Whilst discourse around migration becomes increasingly toxic in Europe, Alsanousi joins authors likeXialou Guo,SJ NaudeandSunjeev Sahotain looking at the effect of displacement on the individual’s psyche, providing a moving and thought-provoking account of his protagonist’s struggle to adapt to a new culture… This is a fine novel, which demonstrates the power of fiction to shed light on the human consequences of geopolitical change, and move beyond the vilification and short-termism that so often characterises what passes for ‘debate’ on immigration and multiculturalism in this country ‘ Workshy Fop

‘Daring and bold,The Bamboo Stalkconfronts universal problems of identity, ethnicity and religion.’ thetanjara.blogspot

‘The shameful deaths of more than 180 migrant workers involved in the construction of Qatar’s World Cup 2022 stadiums are just the tip of the iceberg of a much wider issue. In Kuwaiti novelist and journalist Saud Alsanousi, foreign workers have a voice; he’s been outspoken on migrant worker conditions in Arab countries, a subject tackled in his novel The Bamboo Stalk alongside issues of identity, race and religion. The novel, which won the prestigious IPAF (International Prize for Arabic Fiction) 2013 award, tells the story of Josephine who travels from The Philippines to Kuwait to work as a maid, only to be abandoned by Kuwaiti Rashid when she becomes pregnant, and also of her son, José, who grows up in poverty back in The Philippines, dreaming of a return to his dad’s country.’ Curious Animal: 12 Books to look out for in 2015

‘With his plain and witty style, Al-Sanousi crafts a complex saga with a number of characters related in one way or another to two families living in two distant countries and whose characteristics can’t be more diverse (social status, language, religion), but whose paths are destined to cross.’ Arabic Literature (blog: arablit)

‘In captivating style, The Bamboo Stalk poses deep and serious questions and enriches the Arabic novel. In a year which [otherwise] did not bring much joy, this “stalk” came from Kuwait to be planted in every part of the Arab world.’ Al-Usboua

‘An important addition to the contemporary Kuwaiti novel and the modern Arabic novel in general. I think Saud Al-Sanousi will become a prominent name in Arabic fiction in the very near future.’ [written before he won the IPAF] Al-Hayat

‘There are novels written to live [with us]. Imaginary characters who impress their reality upon us. I am talking about The Bamboo Stalk.’

‘The Bamboo Stalk, by the young Kuwaiti writer Saud Al-Sanousi, represents a watershed in narrative approach to problematic, taboo subjects in Gulf society… it boldly approaches an extremely sensitive human subject.’ Elaph

‘This novel opens new worlds in Gulf writing… It’s the first true breakthrough into the unspoken world that some thought would never produce an important novel… The novel is part of the post-colonialist genre, dealing with the oppressed and uncovering layers of repression. It offers possibilities of a solution through a hybrid identity that opens up to diverse identities and invests in that diversity for its wellbeing… Al-Sanousi, who is in his early 30s, was able to ask difficult questions about Kuwaiti and Gulf society that have been avoided for many years.’ Al-Ahram


  • Arab Scientific Press World Arabic
  • Bloomsbury UK/Bloomsbury US/Hamad Bin Khalifa University Press
  • Polirom Romania
  • Eksik Parça Turkey
  • Atmosphere Libri Italy
  • Shanghai Literature and Art Publishing, Simplified Characters, China
  • Huud Korea
  • Anvil Publishing Philippines
  • Rahand Press Iraq
  • Prozat Media Macedonia
  • Hiil Press Somalia
  • Way Books Malayalam India
  • Hena Com Croatia
  • baNANA Indonesia

Adapted into a multi-part primetime Arabic TV series

Material: finished copies of Arabic and English editions (370pp)