An Unlasting Home

Written by Mai Al-Nakib
Review by Waheed Rabbani

In 2013, Sara Al-Ameed, a philosophy professor at Kuwait University, is accused of blasphemy and arrested. Eleven years ago, Sara had returned home from Berkeley, California, to attend her mother’s funeral and stayed on. Awaiting trial, Sara reminisces about her family’s checkered past. Sara has links to the Ottomans. Her Lebanese paternal grandmother had married the son of the Pasha of Basra. Her maternal grandfather was a Kuwaiti merchant who’d established a lucrative jewelry business in India. Sara’s mother, having also lived in the United States, wished to influence the country’s Middle East policies. Sara considers her doting Indian ayah as a surrogate mother. Sara recollects the difficult lives of her great-grandparents, grandparents, and parents in their journeys to Turkey, Lebanon, Iraq, India, the U.S., and Kuwait during the wars and political events. She faces adversities and prepares to encounter another ordeal.

Mai Al-Nakib, a professor at Kuwait University, has penned a sweeping multigenerational novel. The characters’ stories are told mostly in individual chapters, interspersed non-chronologically. Sara’s life and her trial serve as a framing device. This structure should work to keep most readers engrossed, yet it might disappoint others. Careful reading is required to unbundle the storyline from the layers of family members’ backstories. The historical outline of Kuwait’s development from its Ottoman Empire days to a thriving nation, despite the wars—particularly the Iraqi invasion and its aftermath—is well-woven into Sara’s family saga. Al-Nakib’s narratives also depict the development of the liberties Arab women have gained. Although blasphemy is not a crime in Kuwait, as per the Author’s Note, her choice of introducing it as a fictional case against Sara represents how such freedoms can be easily lost as fundamentalism is gaining power. An informative read.