STEELE INTERVIEWS: author Anastasia Hobbet

Anastasia Hobbet kindly answered some questions.

Amy Steele [AS]: Where did the idea for this story come from?

Anastasia Hobbet [AH]: The novel was born as a short story with Theo and Hanaan as the main characters. In bringing their cross-cultural romance to a crisis when her father objects, I was able to weave in a lot of threads about Kuwait, and I saw that I could write a bigger story—wanted to write a bigger story. The experience of living in the Middle East had been a very rewarding one for me, and in the aftermath of 9/11, when so much of what we heard about Arabs and Muslims in the US was dark and suspicious, I wanted to highlight the deeper, richer dimensions of the place.

AS: What kind of research did you do into the treatment of the servants in Kuwait?

AH: You can’t avoid observing servants at work in Kuwait. Foreign workers are everywhere: in homes, shops, offices, industry, education, and public works. Kuwaitis are far outnumbered by their foreign workers. The country’s population is about 3 million, and nearly 2 million of those are foreign workers: 65% of the population and 90% of the work force. That work force includes 280,000 domestic servants. That’s about one for every 5 Kuwaitis.

 In private homes, where I had my closest contact with domestic servants, including my own home, I interacted almost daily with maids, gardeners, workmen, and their employers. I came to know many of them well—including their families in some cases; and because I had friends and acquaintances on both sides of the divide—Kuwaitis who employed servants as well as foreign workers employed by Kuwaitis—I got a good feel for their attitudes about each other, their backgrounds, and their life stories. Many international human rights organizations address the issue of maid abuse as part of their overall coverage of women’s rights, human trafficking and modern-day slavery. I also follow and admire writers like Nicholas Kristof of the NY Times, who writes frequently and passionately about these issues.

AS: How do you feel that the people of Kuwait really feel toward Americans? Helped them in Gulf War but for “own purposes” and Saleh sends his children to American school because learning English puts them at “great advantage.”

AH: Kuwaitis still have a fairly positive view of Americans, unlike much of the Middle East, where we’re not popular. To throw in a few stats: In 2007, the Pew Global Attitudes Survey found that 62% of Kuwaitis had a positive opinion of Americans in 2007. Compare this with 30% for Egypt, 20% for Jordan, 15% for Morocco, and even lower for the Palestinian territories. Even so, there’s a lot of ambivalence about the US, its international policies and goals. Kuwaitis were under no illusion that the US joined the first Gulf War in 1990 out of sheer altruism, and they fully expected the American government to exact some payment from Kuwait for the help in rescuing their nation from Saddam Hussein. This came, in their view, in the form of expectations–of special treatment for American military requests and business interests. The Kuwaitis weren’t cynical about this, just realistic: it’s the way the world works—and they’ve benefited since the 1950’s from a close association with the US, when oil was first discovered there by Gulf Oil, a US company. Wealthy Kuwaitis, like Saleh in the novel, want their kids to speak English—and French and German for that matter—because they understand the benefit of being world players. They want their children to feel at home on a wider stage than the Middle East alone can offer. 


AS: Having lived in Kuwait for five years, what is your favorite thing about it and what did you like least about it?

AH: The best: Like Theo, the young American doctor, I relished the opportunity to live in a culture so unlike my own. It was a writer’s dream, to be plopped down in an exotic place, not as a tourist but as a resident of the country for a good long while. What hit me first was how many prejudices and stereotypes I’d brought along with me. Over the years, I felt a growing familiarity with Kuwait, began to understand its rhythms and its ways, and came to regard it as my home. The Kuwaitis made this possible. They’re exceptionally warm-hearted hosts. When you cross a Kuwaiti threshold, you’re no longer a stranger. You’re an honored friend.

The worst: The Kuwaitis in the 1990s, in the wake of the first Gulf war, were busy duplicating the very things I liked least about American culture—the gloss and glitter, the noisy consumerism, rather than pushing their government toward more democracy, offering suffrage to women, and crafting broader rights and protection for immigrant workers. In the novel, Kit’s husband builds fancy shopping malls. Many of my friends in Kuwait loved to go to these places, but I avoided them whenever I could. It seemed tragic to me that the wonderful, traditional Middle Eastern souks, one of the great treasures of the culture, were being replaced by American-style malls. The one thing I would have liked to buy at a mall—a glass of wine over lunch—wasn’t available because Kuwait is officially dry. This seemed a punitive combination to me.

AS: I really liked that you added that Mufeeda would not leave her daughters alone so early in life especially when “there was so much uneasiness in the world, especially for girls.” Can you expand on this for girls and women in the Middle East particularly Kuwait and more “forward-thinking” countries?

AH:  The feminist movement has never caught fire in Kuwait. My sense is that many women fear the changes that it might bring, and think of it as a Western obsession not compatible with their culture and religion. A very few of the wealthier, better-educated Kuwaiti women are the standard-bearers for feminism in Kuwait, but it seems they talk mostly to themselves. A recent survey of Kuwaiti attitudes revealed that most educated white-collar Kuwaitis know next to nothing about the country’s feminist movement—and this is a small place, 3 million people total, including foreign workers. Nevertheless, things are changing for women, an osmotic process that can’t be stopped—you can’t seal out the world, especially when you invite it in via the internet, television, and US-style consumerism—and it’s this lack of control that undermines the confidence of women like Mufeeda. She becomes rebellious herself—distrustful of the old ways, critical of her husband and her own passivity. Her mother’s life seems quaint to her even at this short remove, a couple of decades, and she knows that if Saleh has his way, all her daughters will be educated in the West, which can only accelerate the change between generations. She fears that she’ll lose all her daughters to a way of life she doesn’t understand and doesn’t admire. 

AS: Why was it so unusual that Theo would come to Kuwait to work as a Doctor?

AH: Most physicians in Kuwait are recruited, and some Americans, like Theo, decide to give the place a try. But during the years I lived there, it was so unusual to see a Western doctor that we Westerners felt instantly wary of them. A British doctor worked at one of the private clinics where many Westerners went for primary medical care, and his past was the focus of constant humorous speculation. Was he on the run from a dozen malpractice suits? Was he really a doctor at all, or just a mildly-clever imposter? His name, Dr. Magenta—his pseudonym, we assumed—seemed right out of Agatha Christie or Clue. (Actually, ‘Magenta’ is another pseudonym, which I chose to protect his innocence—in case he had any.)

AS: Why is the class-consciousness so poor in Kuwait? There is also the fact that each nationality bans together so much and that there are clans that stick together. Why is this? Of course, it also happens to a degree in the United States as well but not in such a cruel sense as you often depicted in Small Kingdoms.

AH: Class-consciousness is actually very strong in Kuwait. Why it’s that way is a question only a social anthropologist could answer well, but I’d guess it has partly to do with the tribal history of the Arabs, and the harsh environment of the Arabian peninsula. In the early days, survival in the desert depended upon wit, inventiveness, and frugality. Because the environment offered up so little, every natural resource was precious, and tribal wars were the rule. You had to be wary—even openly distrustful—of your neighbors in order to maintain your own people.  

Another factor: the region has had few permanent immigrants since the Kuwaitis own historical journey as nomads into the area in the 1700’s, so there’s little sense of a melting pot. Guest workers come and go; some stay for long periods of time as non-citizens, such as Hanaan’s family, but they remain outsiders, and usually can’t qualify for citizenship. The British—also a very class-conscious culture—enforced that system in Kuwait. After the First World War and the fall of the Ottoman Empire, Kuwait became an independent sheikhdom under the protection of the British, and a British military colony sprang up here, which paved the way for subsequent trade and commercial development, including the exploration for oil in the 1940’s. There’s still a large British community in Kuwait.

AS: I’ve heard it before but what most Middle Easterners believe about Americans is what they have culled from television and film, truly for most?

AH: Sure, it’s true. It’s true for people all over the world, including some of us Americans. But Arabs generally know a lot more about the United States than Americans do about the Middle East. For generations, Arabs have come to the US as travelers, students, and immigrants. Few Americans have spent significant time in an Arab land. They spend three days seeing the sights in Egypt from air-conditioned busses and come home full of opinions. Our only regular source of information about Arabs and Muslims in this country is a sensationalist news media. This is one reason I felt motivated to write Small Kingdoms. But what we really need in the US is a good, constant supply of Arab novels in translation, both classics and contemporary fiction. Readers in the US need to hear about Arabs and Islam from Arabs themselves.  

AS: Religion is a major part of the book and yet you have also kept it rather low key and not overwhelming. How did you achieve this balance? (For instance, only including the celebratory aspects of Ramadan)

 AH: I’m not a religious person, but I do understand the drive many people feel toward faith. Maybe this is why I can write dispassionately about the topic, until the topic of evolution crops up, anyway. I limited my treatment of Ramadan because deeply devout Kuwaitis were not apt to discuss this solemn month of prayer and fasting with a Western woman in any significant depth, and secular Arabs talked about it in the same way many Americans do Christmas: it’s noisy, commercial, and has lost its true soul. I couldn’t get an in-depth view of Ramadan, so I didn’t try to portray it in intricate detail.

 This may have been a gender issue, though. My husband had a different experience. He was often gently proselytized by Arabs—other men—and was sometimes drawn by them into religious debates. He feels that some of the men he talked to were keenly aware of the common American stereotype—that all Arabs are terrorists at heart—and wanted to prove this wrong, persuade him of their own, and Islam’s peaceful intentions.

AS: Hanaan is looked down upon in Kuwait, despite her intelligence and outspokenness and feminism for being a bidoon. How common is this in Kuwait? How common are women like Hanaan- torn between her own beliefs and those of her family?

AH: The character of Hanaan was inspired by a woman I came to know in Kuwait. She was an uncommon woman by any measure. She felt alone, misunderstood, and mistreated, both by her family and the nation and culture of Kuwait. She certainly had intellectual peers, some of whom I met in the literary circles I visited, but they were Kuwaiti women, not bidoons (officially stateless people, non-citizens, with few rights). They shared no society with this woman, considering her their social inferior. No doubt she exacerbated this separation with her acid pride, but given the low status of bidoons I could hardly blame her. She wanted to belong and she did not.

 I can only speculate about an answer to your second question. As I mentioned earlier, conservative Kuwaitis were unlikely to share their cherished religious views with me. In addition, Kuwaiti family structures are generally very tight. Most Kuwaiti women live within the influence of their families, residing and socializing with the extended clan. Some women I met felt they had almost no time to themselves due to the demands of their very extended families, and true privacy was rare. The woman who inspired Hanaan, felt this lack of privacy painfully but told me that most Arab Muslim women did not and that they avoided solitude.

AS: Who is your favorite character?

AH: Of the minor characters, Dr. Chowdhury is my favorite. He’s inspired by a doctor I knew and admired in Kuwait, and when I started writing Small Kingdoms, he elbowed his way into the hospital scenes and took over the show. Of the main characters, Mufeeda claims my heart. She and I could hardly be more different in background, so she was a real challenge for me to bring to life. I didn’t like her much at first, but I came to like her, to respect and admire her.

AS: I think many Americans think of Kuwait as an oil-rich wealthy country with very tolerant people. In Small Kingdoms you show a much more diverse population and a darker side. How does your book compare to your own experience living there?

AH: Kuwait is a relatively tolerant and forward-looking Arab country, especially compared to its next-door neighbor, Saudi Arabia. My depiction in the novel of Kuwait’s enormous Christian population shows this, I hope. Kuwait has allowed the Christian community to flourish. The vast cathedral in the book is a real one. Take a look at this thing:

The three murders of housemaids are straight out of the newspapers in Kuwait. Some of the characters grew from my own relationships, and I’ve borrowed many stories and histories from friends and acquaintances, making them my own. As for the central action of the book, the imprisonment and abuse of the housemaid Santana: I stood very close to a similar situation and heard of many more, largely from housemaids who took me into their confidence.

The great diversity of the population in Kuwait was a surprise to me in 1995 when I first arrived, and to many incoming Westerners, I think. That was pre-9/11, though. We’ve heard a lot in the US about the Middle East since. Much of what we ‘know’ is still superficial, but we no longer think of all those little countries as indistinguishable, a big block of swarthy people all training to be terrorists. 

AS: The servants being shipped in is very sad and I know it goes on globally. Have there been any regulations?

 AH: Yes, Kuwait does have a few regulations, but they’re not well enforced. Nor are international resolutions and regulations, and chances are they won’t be as long as the source countries such as India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and the Philippines remain poor and heavily populated. Young people in these countries feel obligated to help their families prosper, much as do poor young men and women from Central America, who will brave any danger to make their way north.

AS: As a former journalist, how did you approach writing a novel?

AH: I wasn’t a good journalist. I was always frustrated by the gap between the facts I could nail down and the deeper, human story I knew was going on in the background. John McPhee can write journalism that nourishes like fiction, but he’s a rare man.

My first novel came about when I wrote a newspaper story in the Rockies about Bald eagles poisoned by ranchers in an attempt to protect their cattle and sheep. An okay piece, but everything I really wanted to know was left unsaid by the facts. I wanted to be inside the heads of the ranchers, to understand what they’d done and why, so I wrote a novel, Pleasure of Believing. Carl, the rancher in the book who poisons the eagles, was just as big a reach for me as was Mufeeda, the devout Muslim wife, in Small Kingdoms. I didn’t understand either one of them when I began writing—didn’t even like them. But I came to cherish them both. For me, this is the great power of reading and writing: I can live behind someone else’s eyes and see their world the way they see it. I can have dozens of personalities—and they deepen my sanity rather than throw it in doubt.

AS: What was your greatest challenge in writing Small Kingdoms?

AH: I had to dwell inside the heads of two Middle Eastern Arab women and an impoverished, uneducated teenage girl from India. The idea intimidated me at first, and I wondered how I could avoid offending a few people, whatever I wrote. However I framed my story, there was always the potential that I’d piss someone off—Muslims, Christians, Kuwaitis, Brits. It’ll happen. If it doesn’t, it’s because no one’s read the book. I’ll probably hear first from an American woman who has lived in the Middle East who thinks I was unfair to American women living in the Middle East.

AS: It’s wonderful how all these different types of people band together, how realistic is that and what makes it viable?

AH: Women are more communal by nature than men, and we all—regardless of nationality—recognize the inherent risks in being a woman: our relative weakness and vulnerability to men, especially when we have little control over our environment. This is the plight of the Indian housemaid Santana Small Kingdoms. She’s poor, far from home, and stranded in the home of an abusive couple. The three people who take the biggest risks to help her are all women. Once they recognize her situation, their sense of common womanhood far outweighs their considerable differences of class, background, and temperament. They toss everything aside except the need to help the girl.

AS: Mufeeda seems set in her ways based on generations of the same practice. Yet she’s caught between present and past. She’s very interesting. How did you create this character? What do you find most compelling about her?

AH: Mufeeda interests me because even as a young woman she straddles the past and the present, the past of her own insular Middle Eastern childhood, which is so close at hand, and the much broader horizons of her young daughters. She’s intelligent and well educated, and yet—in a way—she longs for ignorance when it comes to dealing with the brutal mistreatment of the house maid next door. She doesn’t want to know, doesn’t want to be obligated to intervene. I’m like this myself. I try to protect myself from too much bad news—which is everywhere these days, at every level of focus—or I fall into depression and inaction. Mufeeda comes to a critical moment when she can’t sneak away to hide. When I wrote the first draft of Small Kingdoms, I didn’t know what she’d do at that point. I had to find out.

AS: Middle Eastern servants are “cheap and expendable” yet how can the abuse be justified by the Kuwaitis?

AH: Not all Kuwaitis justify it, of course, and to be fair, a good percentage of Westerners accept it outright when they live in the Middle East. They say things like, “Well, it’s the way things are done here. Who am I to object?” Most Americans turned a blind eye for centuries to slavery in this country, and the goals of the Civil Rights movement have taken decades to sink in. The way a people have ‘always’ done things tends to seem right and proper to them. Even if it’s not right, how do you change it with any dispatch? How do you eradicate bribery in Mexico? It’s thoroughly integrated into the culture and the economy. The same goes for darker traditions. A Westernized Sudanese couple I know shrug at the continuing slavery in their country. It’s always existed, they say, and always will. 

AS: Theo, the American Doctor, what is his role I the story—do you feel he is the participant-observer to help readers make sense of a new culture or just another person to add more cultural differences to the mix?

AH: I never thought of him in such a mechanical way. He was always a living, breathing man to me. He and Hanaan were the original two characters in the short story that launched the novel. His genesis is rooted in a story I heard from a Sunni woman I met in Kuwait. She had fallen in love with a Shia man when they both were going to college in London, but her father wouldn’t hear of the romance, threatened to exile her from her extended family, and she gave the man up. Several years later, she still mourned the loss and had never married despite considerable pressure to do so. In my naïveté about the deep divides of Islam, I found this outrageous, which amused her, I think. She educated me a little and we talked about relative transgressions for women in her position. Falling in love with someone like Theo would have been far worse, a non-Muslim, non-Arab, non-religious Westerner. 

AS: Why is Kit so unwilling to hire a servant? Is she naïve or just wanting to keep her Americanism about her? Particularly that shopping scene where she embarrasses Mufeeda by treating Brazio as a peer.

AH: Kit comes from a white, working-class family in Oklahoma that has never known wealth. Her ancestors were dirt-poor Sooners, and the family lives on what had been a farm in better times. Her father now sells farming equipment. She’s never known anyone who employs domestic servants and the idea is foreign to her and a little repugnant, as if having a servant implies she’s not capable of doing the work herself. In her world back home, everyone is basically equal. For her to ignore Mufeeda’s servant Brazio in the souk, when he’s standing right next to her, would seem both rude and prejudiced, like intentionally overlooking one of her father’s seasonal employees because he happens to be African American.

AS: The Honor Code is so disturbing and arcane. I cannot believe it still exists. Why is it so persistent even in seemingly “progressive” Muslim countries?

AH: World wide, honor killing isn’t rare, and Western history isn’t innocent of the practice, either. As far as I know, it’s relatively rare in Kuwait and is thought repellent by most Kuwaitis, but it hasn’t been wiped out. It’s linked with societies that have strong communal traditions, where the idea of individuality holds less sway. Arranged marriage is one manifestation of communal tradition, and it’s still routine in places such as the Middle East and South Asia. A woman marries the man her family chooses, for the good of the family and its connections. When she refuses to obey this tradition, or she flaunts an independence her family doesn’t recognize, she brings disgrace down on the whole clan.

AS: Wonderful writing and riveting story. I don’t want to give away anything. Thank you so much for taking all these questions.

review source: The Permanent Press

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  1. #1 by martin shepard on January 5, 2010 - 02:42

    What a wonderful interview. Though I’m Anastasia’s publisher, I learned much more about her and her novel than I knew before.

    I’m much obliged to you for that; for posing such good questions that tell so much more about life in Kuwait and the sort of thoughtful person Anastasia is.

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