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‘Blind Sinbad’: Bothayna Al-Essa Explores a Changing Kuwait, from War to Pandemic

In her latest novel “Blind Sinbad: Atlas of the Sea and War”, the Kuwaiti novelist Bothayna Al-Essa focuses on a family story that forms the central and symbolic theme at the same time. The novel raises questions about memory, roots, and identity within society in the wake of the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990.

Through the Gulf War and later events, the novel gradually approaches the story of Nadia, a wife and mother who dreams of writing her first novel. “When I turn forty, I will write a novel,” she says. Although Nadia leaves the novel early after she dies in a family accident, her presence remains central throughout the book.

In Nadia’s circle, we get to know the husband, Nawaf; their daughter, Manayer; and a family friend, Amer. They appear first on the seashore, where the waves, sand, and clear sky crown the tenderness of this family gathering. But a reckless and cruel accident follows, also beside the sea, and causes radical changes in the characters’ fates.

From this tragedy, Al-Essa weaves a narrative world that raises questions about friendship and love, doubt and certainty, blindness and insight. The narrative extends from the war in 1990s up to the Covid-19 pandemic, which appears in the novel as an extension of the years of invasion, war and isolation with all its grudges.

Parallels of War and Pandemic

The 325-page novel also raises questions of the generational changes that have taken place in Kuwaiti society, seen through Manayer, Nadia’s daughter. The death of her mother exacerbates Manayer’s feeling that she is an “invisible” child. She finds her spontaneous dreams in the sea, its waves and shells, which she loves. She draws sea nymphs on paper.

Al-Essa weaves a narrative world that raises questions about friendship and love, doubt and certainty, blindness and insight.

Soon, Manayer finds herself forced to learn a new language, that of war—its terms, warnings, chemical protective masks, and armor and tanks.

Thirty years later, Manayer grows up to become a woman laden with her generation’s questions; the generation of war, besides her other personal questions about her life, the pain of loss and loneliness.

The memories resonate in the pages of the novel against a literary audio background that gives the novel its spatial and temporal privacy.

In this sound world, the reader will find poems and authentic Kuwaiti and Adani songs, along with the sounds of bombing and artillery, and the family’s dialogues in the Kuwaiti dialect. There is also the sound of the local radio station, Kuwait Radio. Their country’s official radio remains the most awaited voice of Kuwaiti people. They listen to it for instructions on when not to leave their homes, to stay away from windows, and finally the voice of freedom that, choked with tears, declares “Kuwait’s liberation.”

From the war years until the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic thirty years later, the novel recaptures the protagonists’ memories of imposing curfews anew. Thus, the narrative compares the faces of war and the epidemic and the endless nightmares of the end of the world that wars and pandemics bring.

The Sinbad of Folklore and the Sea

The fictional character of Sinbad, the Sailor, with all the legendary and folkloric heritage it evokes, appears in a symbolic way, reflecting the sea world. Al-Essa chose the sea as a major theatre in her novel, in parallel with the events that take place on land.

In a signing ceremony for the novel in Cairo, Al-Essa said that her choice of the title might have been influenced by the traveler and orientalist Alan Villiers, who wrote about the last nearly extinct generation of Kuwaiti sailors, whom he called “Sons of Sinbad”. Moreover, the words themselves appear at the beginning of one of the most important collections of poetry by the Kuwaiti writer Mohammad Al-Fayez, “Memoirs of a Sailor”.

“The Blind Sinbad”—published by Takween Publishers in Kuwait and by other publishers in Algeria, Egypt, Iraq, Morocco, Palestine and Tunisia—is Bothayna Al-Essa’s tenth novel. Others include “Saear” (the Arab Institute for Research and Publishing, Beirut, 2005) and “A Soundless Collision” (Dar Al-Mada, Syria, 2004).

Al-Essa weaves a narrative world that raises questions about friendship and love, doubt and certainty, blindness and insight.

The new novel also comes after a new literary experiment Al-Essa started in her fantasy novel “The Guardian of the World’s Surface” (Arab Scientific Publishers, Beirut, 2019). In this work she addresses the freedom of creativity and the confiscation of imagination. The novel’s protagonist, who works in book censorship, finds himself confused and is forced to rediscover himself. This eventually makes him fall in love with books rather than censoring them. (Al-Essa was among the writers who lobbied for the easing of censorship laws in Kuwait in 2019.)

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In addition to her fiction writing, Al-Essa established the Takween Bookstore and Publishing House in Kuwait in 2016, in an effort to promote the culture of reading and writing.

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