The Hidden Light of Objects – A guttural bellow for home
‘The Hidden Light of Objects’
By Mai Al-Nakib
Published by Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation Publishing, £6.39
From the Kuwaiti writer, Mai Al-Nakib, who during her teenage years witnessed Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990, The Hidden Light of Objects captures an era of confusion, anticipation and yearning for freedom through the lens of adolescent naivety. Almost twenty five years after the Kuwaiti invasion, the Middle East remains a region in which hidden aspirations for political change are crushed under the iron fist of political instability and armed conflict. This historical backdrop makes the stories of The Hidden Light of Objects, the story of every Middle Eastern youth of today for whom the pain of political oppression and the culture of violence acts as a driving force in their individual struggles for freedom.
In The Hidden Light of Objects, Mai Al-Nakib’s debut anthology showcases ten short stories woven together by fluid prose that is both lyrical and lurid in its style. Punctuated by vignettes, the tales are positioned predominately in Al Nakib’s hometown of Kuwait and detail glimpses of precarious happiness punctured by the foreboding presence of the conflict that will soon encapsulate them. A caveat in the conversation of political movements, religious conflict and war, The Hidden Light of Objects captures the shattering of a young Middle East, pregnant with hope and expectation, and its subsequent scrambling for sense, belonging and hope. Through her poignant tales, Al-Nakib introduces us to a girl named Amerika, born around the time of the first Gulf War, who finds her name a barometer for her country’s attitude to the West; a Palestinian youth who speaks from beyond the grave after inadvertently becoming a suicide bomber and a young girl reflecting on a time when her family were intact before the death of her mother in the invasion of Kuwait. Throughout the narratives, Al-Nakib explores the universal dimensions of her largely unnamed characters and effectively grants a global audience of readers the opportunity to identify with their experiences, whilst simultaneously using this anonymity to distance her own voice from the narrative.
Al-Nakib allows a young, cosmopolitan Middle East to bask in the carefreeness of first love and mischief but the tutting gaze of today’s reality looms ever present throughout the narratives. From a foreboding pedestal, The Hidden Light of Objects casts scorn on the premature celebration of freedom and rings out an urgent wail of warning louder than the racing hearts, dancing centers and liquid breaths of the young protagonists. With Mournful nostalgia, Al-Nakib’s young protagonists have their hands prised from each other’s necks as they run through the pages grasping for a time away from the “unforgiving digital glare” of the present.
Al-Nakib effectively objectifies her characters’ vulnerability as they discover the fragility of a human psyche stripped of its social promise and begin to fixate on objects that offer solace in their tangibility. Four rice people in a box under glass for the daughter of a fragmented family, a heavy brass-cased compass for the twins with no home, a wooden bear with a small smile from the Swede boy who loved and left, these objects come to symbolise the universal themes of love, security and freedom which weave together the narratives. With the loss of love, identity and significance, The Hidden Light of Objects shows the loss of voice. Dialogue gives way to the bruised arm of a teenager in love, the raised blue veins etched on a mother fraught with worry, and the sentences hanging loose in the air of the deserted lover who cannot answer why. With a presence as grating as a dying mother’s pleading wail for the safety of her children, Al-Nakib uses crisp prose to bring to life the stories held in the silence after the full stop.
Absent of a bow of triumph, we leave the characters we’ve come to identify with grasping onto their objects. Hunting for the secret that never was, they lie dejected in the “kind of love that could create like magic and destroy like death”. The Hidden Light of Objects brings to our attention the inherent call for home which lies within all of us and issues a plea for compassion that transcends boundaries drawn in an oil-filled sand.
‘The mind has to do violence to itself, has to reverse the direction of the operation by which it habitually thinks, has perpetually to revise, or rather to recast, all its categories. But in this way it will attain to fluid concepts, capable of following reality in all its sinuousities and of adopting the very movement of the inward life of things,
An Introduction to Metaphysics