The Power of Words Issue

Bothayna Al-Essa: Literature Saves Us Years of Personal Growth

The Iraqi occupation of Kuwait left an impact on Al-Essa, which affected her literary work.

By Sharifah Alhinai

Bothayna Al-Essa was only six years old when Iraq invaded Kuwait in August of 1990. Like it did for many Kuwaitis, the invasion left an indelible mark on the young Al-Essa, who remembers watching her parents store bags and cans of food in their basement, bury their jewellery under a tree in their garden to protect them from theft and cover all the windows in their house with tape out of fear of an imminent chemical attack. Al-Essa was forever changed by what she saw and experienced during the occupation. Prior to the fateful summer of 1990, she had viewed life through a colourful lens of innocence, but the sounds of bullets that echoed in her ears and the tanks that shook the streets they rolled on during it dimmed it, and made her recognise the darkness that lurks in the world for the very first time and analyse it closely.

For a long time, Al-Essa knew that she wanted to write about the invasion, and in 2021, she did that through her latest Arabic novel, al-Sindibad al-Ama: Atlas al-Bahr Wa al-Harb (The Blind Sinbad: Atlas of the Sea and War). A work of fiction, the 325-page novel centres on an honour killing that takes place before the invasion, and the aftermath it breeds over decades until the outbreak of the novel coronavirus. With the relative ubiquity of literature about the invasion, Al-Essa wanted to present something new. She also wanted to tackle the issue of honour killings, which has been particularly pressing in Kuwait in recent years, where they still occur. ‘I needed an incomplete crime, a murderer who planned to kill two people but only ended up killing one in the beginning. In 1990, when the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait occurred and the prisons were opened in the process, many prisoners became free in the occupied country, as order, the law and accountability were absent,’ says Al-Essa. ‘For artistic purposes, I needed to have a character enter prison and then leave it in changed political and social circumstances and see how they would behave…. An honour killing was the perfect choice.’

This feature article is part of The Power of Words Issue. To read this article in its entirety digitally click here to buy a digital copy of the issue. 

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