Literature has been a lifeline for Mona Kareem, a poet, translator and university lecturer who was stateless in her homeland, Kuwait, and is now building a new identity and career in the United States, where she was recently named Translator in Residence for the fall semester at Princeton University.
Even as a child, Kareem was curious about books and eager to spend time in her father’s library, though she was unaware at the time that she was forming the first links in the lifeline that would help her cope with being Bedoon, or “without nationality,” in Kuwait.
“I was curious about and jealous of that room full of books,” she said. “I was bored of childhood and children’s life, and that adults were controlling the course of their day. I had a feeling that that room was a getaway for my father, and that it could be my escape too.”
Kareem, who has studied and worked in the United States for nearly a decade, was born in Kuwait’s Farwaniyah governorate in December 1987, the eldest daughter of the writer Kareem Hazaa.
She had an exceptional poetic talent that allowed her to publish her first poetry collection, Naharaat maghsūla bi Ma-e el ’atash (Mornings Washed by Thirst’s Water), at the age of 14. Her second collection, Ghiyab bi asabi’ mabthūra (Absence with Amputated Fingers), followed two years later. She then studied literature and worked in journalism and translation in Kuwait.
Escape Through Literature
However, these early accomplishments always seemed incomplete to her, for she was denied citizenship and the benefits that come with it in Kuwait.
“I was depressed, my life was somehow halted, my university degree did not change anything in my life, and this made my parents very sad, especially since they were unable to help me,” she said. “I resorted to literature again to save me and help me escape my reality.”
The number of Bedoon people in Kuwait exceeds 100,000, according to human-rights organizations. Bedoon people are denied services that Kuwaiti citizens benefit from in terms of education, health and jobs. The Bedoon are divided into subgroups according to the different details of their legal status. Some of them get identification cards that allow them to enroll in private schools, the military, or specific jobs. The status of the Bedoon is transmitted from fathers to their children, even for those who were born in Kuwait.