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Friendship in a War-torn World
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Friendship in a War-torn World

Written by the winner of the International Prize for Arabic Fiction, Saud Alsanousi’s Mama Hissa’s Mice is an apocalyptic and caustically funny novel about the power of friendship in a war-torn world. Mama Hissa’s Mice was a banned book in Kuwait, where the book is set, for over four years.

Mama Hissa’s Mice, published originally in Arabic, takes place in a near-future Kuwait that has succumbed to sectarian violence and chaos, though not without protest. A group of friends calling themselves Fuada’s Kids has been trying to call the nation to attention for years through radio broadcasts, online articles, and public actions— attempting to warn their fellow patriots of the dangers of hatred, intolerance, and fundamentalism. But when the narrator, nicknamed Katkout, regains consciousness in the middle of the street one day in 2020 to find himself scratched up, his car half-destroyed, and buildings ablaze, it appears that Fuada’s Kids have failed. His phone is full of missed calls and text messages, but one, in particular, catches his eye — it’s from his publisher in Beirut, asking Katkout whether he’ll agree to cut four chapters from his forthcoming novel, The Inheritance of Fire, to prevent it from being censored and going unpublished altogether.

Growing up together in the Surra section of central Kuwait, Katkout, Fahd, and Sadiq share neither ethnic origin nor religious denomination— only friendship and rage against the unconscionable sectarian divide turning their lives into war-zone rubble. To lay bare the ugly truths, they form the protest group Fuada’s Kids. Their righteous transgressions have made them targets of both Sunni and Shi’a extremists. They’ve also elicited the concern of Fahd’s grandmother, Mama Hissa, a story-spinning reservoir of piety, wisdom, superstition, and dire warnings, who cautions them that should they anger God, the sky will surely fall.

Then one day, after an attack on his neighbourhood leaves him injured, Katkout regains consciousness. His friends are nowhere to be found. Inundated with memories of his past, Katkout begins a search for them in a world that has become unrecognizable but not forsaken.

Sneaking through decades of Kuwaiti history well into a cataclysmic twenty-first century, Mama Hissa’s Mice is a harrowing, emotional, and caustic novel of rebellion. It speaks to the universal struggle of finding one’s identity and a reason to go on, even after the sky has fallen.

The novel takes readers to a place where few American readers have ventured: Kuwait. Readers will discover beautiful writing about the Arab world that includes Mama Hissa’s fables. As a character to be culturally translated, Mama Hissa will challenge readers. It leaves readers hungry for even more insight into a country and culture rarely considered in Western literature. It’s a powerful story of friendship and unequivocal hope even in the direst of circumstances.

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It may be tough to read complex novels in these days of social media platforms and fast-food fiction, but Mama Hissa’s Mice is worth your time. The novel is intermittently sarcastic comic and harrowingly tragic. Interspersing past and present, the author shows how every day, every action reverberates into the future. Thus, this book is both a coming of age novel and a contemporary look at the ongoing violence in the Middle East and the Persian Gulf States.

This novel could be used in classrooms to educate students about how the world got to this place. The novel has a place on the general reader’s bookshelf because of lovable Katkout and his desire to do the right thing despite every reason to do the contrary.

Mama Hissa’s Mice is a rich and resonant book that asks more questions than it (or anyone) can answer: What do stories—of past grudges, of present loves, of friendship despite historical differences—mean? How do they shape our realities? How much power do we have to change these stories? At times bleak and others uplifting—the arrival of a young girl who believes in Fuada’s Kids’ mission toward the end of the novel feels like a symbol of hope and future possibility—Alsanousi’s book is reflective of his own particular country, culture, and sociopolitical context that serves as both window and mirror to Western readers.

Translator Sawad Hussain has succeeded in bringing this beautiful, affecting novel to an English-reading audience and has captured the emotional, political, and aesthetic concerns preoccupying the book.

(This Review appeared in the October 2020 print issue of the Mountain Ink.)

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