Laila al-Othman: A Life of Difference and Defiance
By: Mariam Abdallah
Published Tuesday, December 27, 2011
Laila al-Othman was born in a small seaside town. Her mother had wished for a boy. In fact, after being told the child’s gender, the mother, al-Othman says, rushed to throw the baby out the window. But the nurse intervened just in time.
“It was meant to be. I started a new life. I didn’t drown in the sea like Wasmiya,” says the author of Wasmiya Comes Out of the Sea or Wasmiya Takhruj Min al-Bahr. The story of al-Othman’s birth has led to a series of works inspired by, or almost cursed by this incident.
Born in 1943 in Kuwait, al-Othman was her mother’s fourth girl child after three others. Following her parents’ separation, and her mother’s subsequent marriage, she moved in with her father and her siblings. Being “the daughter of the first wife,” she lived a miserable life with her stepmother and step siblings.
Since then, she has been determined to grow into someone who is loved and admired. Early on, al-Othman started writing and drawing on the walls. This was her way of resisting the beating and mistreatment she was subjected to. It was a way to forget the absence of her father, caught between his wives.
Starting school marked a significant transformation in her life. Her teachers nurtured her talents. She even took up leading roles in the plays she wrote for the school drama club.
“People always ask me if I had not become a writer, what would I have done instead? I always say, a stage actress,” she says.
However, al-Othman was taken out of school by her father. “In Kuwait, there is an old custom that forces women to stay at home and out of school after the marriage of older siblings. This is their way to announce that the daughter is available for eligible suitors.”
Her constant crying and love for education made Laila’s father, the poet Abdallah al-Othman, chief of the famous literary forum in Kuwait, open up his library to his eager daughter. He told her, “one day, you’ll be a famous poet.”
She smiles as she remembers, but her smile quickly disappears. “He used to force me to attend his literary forum. He prevented me from publishing my articles under my own name. He didn’t want people to know that he allowed his daughter to publish articles in the press.”
The most significant transformation in the life of the Kuwaiti novelist was in 1965 when she moved out of her father’s conservative household.
“He used to prevent us from going out to the market and to the cinema. He provided us with all of this at home. In each of his mansions, he would build us a swimming pool and would screen a movie every week in the house.”
Al-Othman describes the house as a real prison like the story of the prisoner of Zenda as she says in one of her novels.
In a large family within a conservative country, daughters are expected to marry their cousins. Therefore, her marriage to a Palestinian doctor was a big scandal. Marriage gave her the freedom to enter into a whole new world, starting with a honeymoon in Europe.
As al-Othman recalls, back then she was not really concerned with the different monuments or tourist attractions of the new countries she visited.
“Freedom was most important. I used to scream and dance on the streets. I was an 18-year-old child, discovering the world.”
Her husband encouraged her to publish articles in newspapers, especially following the death of her father, shortly after their marriage. Extending her arms, al-Othman explains, “I felt like a bird spreading its wings. He used to pressure me even after my marriage. He would ask my husband to prevent me from writing. The day of his death was a day of happiness for me. In the second week after his death, the name Laila al-Othman suddenly appeared in numerous newspapers.”
From poems, to social articles, she started writing a daily column in Al-Siyasah newspaper.
The first novel she published, Al-Mar’a Wa al-Qitta (Woman and the Cat), kicked off a series which also included Imra’a Fi Inaa (A Woman in a Vase).
In the travel genre, al-Othman wrote Aiyam Fi al-Yaman (Days in Yemen), and on the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, Yawmeiyat al-Sabr wa al-Mourr (A Diary of Patience and Bitterness). During the war, she refused to leave her country, living with the brutal experience of conflict that eventually led to the family’s breakdown. With tears in her eyes, al-Othman recounts her story.
Her second husband, the Palestinian writer and novelist, Walid Abu Bakr, was forced to leave Kuwait after its liberation from Iraq. As for now, she says, “I am living a new childhood with my grandchildren. My life is full of happiness. I realized my dream and became a loved writer.”
Al-Othman reminds us of the general political atmosphere of Kuwait in the 1960s, when the Gulf’s first parliament was established after the country’s independence. “There was ample space for freedom and no such thing as press censorship.”
Al-Othman adamantly stood up against religious fanaticism and the conservative Salafi movements. As a result of her political positions, she was sued and attacked. She was sentenced to two months in prison in 2000, along with Alia Shuaib, a professor of ethics at the University of Kuwait at the time. She was charged with making “statements that violate the sanctity of the divine and that are deemed indecent and obscene.”
In the same year, al-Othman published Al-Mohakama…Maqta’ Men Sirat al-Waqi’ (The Trial… A Glimpse of Reality). In this book, she went back to a similar encounter with the courts instigated by the Salafis in 1996. She dedicated the book to those who raised the case against her.
Al-Othman’s friendships among Palestinian political parties have contributed to her intellectual development. In the 1970s and 1980s, the Muslim Brotherhood was getting stronger. They imposed state control over television shows and actresses attire. “They were the authority above the state’s authority,” she says.
Despite all her prizes and general success in the Kuwaiti and Arab cultural sphere, her books are still banned. “Six of my books are banned in Kuwait until now, while they’re sold in Saudi Arabia.”
The most famous of these books is Al-‘Asas (The Coccyx), as well as Al-Mhakama (The Trial). The Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 2006 affected al-Othman deeply and led her to write a book on the country she fell in love with since her very first visit when she was eight, titled Lubnan Nisf al-Qalb (Lebanon, The Heart’s Other Half).
Al-Othman is optimistic about the future of Arabs, but she is worried that if “the Islamists get power, especially in Egypt, this will be a real catastrophe that falls upon the Arab world.”
She continues to analyze the situation in the Arab world from a reflective distance, noting that she is not particularly inclined to write a novel about current events in the Arab world. She is currently working on a new book involving Kuwait and the stories of her old forgotten neighborhood.
When we asked her about her assessment of feminist Arab writing today, she vehemently rejected some female novelists who just dump the market with sexual writing, seeking fame. “I wrote only one sexual scene in Al-‘Asas. This type of writing is not really my goal in life.”
Her works have been translated into several languages, and her novel Wasima Takhruj Men al-Bahr was made into a television show, a radio show and a play.
Al-Othman is currently preoccupied with the prize she allocated for creative young Kuwaitis, which is awarded every two years. “I wanted to be selfish and give it to the young people of my country. Most Arab prizes don’t really focus on the Gulf, as if they still view us as merely the oil countries.”
Despite her age and back pains, al-Othman manged to make the trip to Beirut where she recently participated in a book signing at the Beirut Arab International Book Fair to promote a new publication, Aba’at Al-Maqam.
This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.