Our journey begins in 1980s Kuwait where three 12-year-old boys, Katkout, Fahd and Sadiq, live in close proximity. Their families differ in faith and ethnicity but exist harmoniously, at least until Iraqi forces occupy their country, at which point the friends’ lives change drastically. Katkout finds himself sheltering at Fahd’s house and bonding with his friend’s grandmother, Mama Hissa, who is a combination of crone and court jester, but whose fables help Katkout cope with his loneliness.
As they grow, the boys form a group known as “Fuada’s Kids” to fight the occupying forces. Readers learn about the group long before they understand why and when it started, as the story opens with Katkout searching for a haven after being wounded by gunfire in a near-future Kuwait where war rages and the “Kids” operate a guerrilla radio station. For most of the book, chapters alternate between past and present, but also between “reality” and a novel called “The Inheritance of Fire,” which Katkout is writing about three allegorical mice who also happen to be rebels.
Meanwhile, readers unfamiliar with the history of Kuwait and its meld of Arab traditions will be trying to untangle the many untranslated words and phrases that the characters use. On one hand, these integrations strengthen the authenticity of this world; on the other, they interrupt the flow. Translator Sawad Hussain must have made tough decisions while bringing “Mama Hissa’s Mice” into English, but not all of those decisions work.
Nor do Alsanousi’s. The near-future fight to regain freedom from forces determined to eradicate it is complicated enough. To combine it with a novel-within-a-novel diminishes the urgency of both stories. But that doesn’t mean this isn’t a book worth readers’ time. Those who persevere will discover beautiful writing about the Arab world that includes Mama Hissa’s fables. Katkout and his friends love her tales about the importance of following God’s will, even though they find the very existence of God difficult to fathom considering the wreckage around them.
As a character to be culturally translated, Mama Hissa will challenge readers. She loves her boys, yet she is a creature of her context whose principal insult is to call someone who offends her, including her grandson, a “Jew.” Alsanousi grounds her epithet by saying she was “insulting him the only way she knew how.” Is her continued use of the word meant to unbalance our perceptions of Mama Hissa? Her behavior raises more questions than it answers, as does the rest of the novel, which leaves readers hungry for even more insight into a country and culture rarely considered in Western literature.
Bethanne Patrick is the editor, most recently, of “The Books That Changed My Life: Reflections by 100 Authors, Actors, Musicians and Other Remarkable People.”
Mama Hissa's Mice
By Saud Alsanousi; translated by Sawad Hussain
Amazon Crossing. 373 pp. $14.95.