Set in Kuwait between the two Gulf Wars, Small Kingdoms by Anastasia Hobbet follows the lives of seemingly different individuals – local residents and Americans working abroad – and their coming together to help a maid abused by her employers.
Devoutly Muslim, Mufeeda is the picture of privilege, a Kuwaiti housewife with a successful husband and a villa teeming with servants. But with her mother-in-law breathing down her neck, Mufeeda feels her control over the household slipping. To Mufeeda’s dismay and bafflement, the young Indian servant, Emmanuella, who was showing so much promise as a cook is now increasingly clumsy and absent-minded. Unbeknownst to Mufeeda, Emmanuella is risking her own employment to smuggle food next door to the maid, Santana, who is being starved, beaten and repeatedly raped by the couple employing her. Stripped of her documents and denied the wages she was promised, Santana has no other choice but to endure the torment.
Kit Ferguson, an American housewife and Mufeeda’s neighbor, silently endures her “exile” to Kuwait in order to support her husband and his high-powered job in the region. She’s shy and socially awkward, equally at odds with the wives of other American expatriates and the local women. Inept with local customs, Kit clings to and forms friendships with hired help who relish her unexpected attention. Another American, California doctor Theo, comes to Kuwait due to reasons he cannot explain, even to himself. Working under an older Indian doctor at the country’s public hospital, Theo is encouraged to take Arabic lessons to better understand his patients. His lessons lead him to Hanaan, a fiercely independent and beautiful Palestinian woman who risks her family’s wrath for a romance with Theo.
As rumors of Saddam’s impending attack reach their peak, locals and foreigners alike are clamoring to leave the country for safer grounds. Santana’s employers are no exception and they threaten to lock the maid inside the house during their absence. Faced with the desperate situation, the novel’s characters are brought together in a selfless act to rescue the girl from a certain death.
Anastasia Hobbet lived in Kuwait during the time she describes in her novel, and her intimate knowledge of the country, its people and customs seeped through every page. Whether American, Kuwaiti or Palestinian, the characters felt as real as if I were another neighbor living down the street and dining at their table. From the beginning, I found myself invested in their lives and eagerly awaited the outcomes of their choices. Hobbet’s fluid lyrical writing transcended the obstacles of a foreign culture and the maze of unknown customs to make the subject of Kuwait accessible to all readers. Amidst a barrage of novels set in the Middle East, Small Kingdoms stands out as a gem that is not to be missed.