Kuwait: In Purgatory's Shadow
Outside the Scientific Center was a reminder of how Kuwait had once existed off another natural resource, pearls. Although the upper Gulf was not nearly as rich as the pearl beds off Bahrain and Qatar, there were enough to support a community of a few hundred pearl divers, which were collected and traded in sewn dhows such as those I've mentioned in writing about other Gulf countries. This was the major industry around 100 years ago in the days of the man who is considered the founder of modern Kuwait, Mubarak the Great.
Late in the 17th century deep in the Arabian interior, the rise of the ‘Anaza tribal confederation triggered a series of nomadic migrations, one of which resulted in the formation of the B. Utub near what is today Qatar. From there they went to the head of the Gulf, but denied permission to settle within the Ottoman Empire, they went instead to a fort, or Kut, along a harbor just outside of effective Ottoman control in the domains of the B. Khalid. This was the beginning of Kuwait, named from the diminutive of Kut, in the mid-18th century.
At that time the B. Khalid, weakened by internal strife and pressure from the Wahhabi Al Saud power based in the interior, were in their last decades. During the late 19th century, the time of Midhat Pasha, the Ottomans took more interest in the area, though their usual means of staking a claim was to bestow a title on local rulers and persuade them to fly the Ottoman flag. According to Al Sabah historical tradition, however, it was when the emir Muhammad al-Sabah began getting too close to the Ottomans that his brother, the Mubarak the Great mentioned above, assassinated him and took control. There is undoubtedly something self-serving in this account, as Mubarak himself initially pursued a pro-Ottoman course, but when the Ottomans kept insisting on moving toward integrating Kuwait with Basra province administratively as well as notionally, Mubarak shifted gears and began seeking an alliance with the British. This was often against the better judgment of the latter, who had no major interests that far up the Gulf and were leery of confronting the Ottomans over it. This did not change until about the time of World War I and the construction of the Baghdad railway. All that aside, however, it is the age of Mubarak and his sons Jabir and Salim, the progenitors of today’s two branches of the Al Sabah dynasty, that is marked most frequently around the city.
As with the Gulf’s other major cities, Kuwait City today is a sprawling city filled with skyscrapers and stretching over numerous named neighborhoods many of which were formerly their own villages. It’s also expensive, with a tall coffee at Starbucks or Costa Coffee going for $3.70. I was lucky to find reasonably cheap lodging thanks to a hotel above a strip mall in Salmiya district where I got a room for about $65. This was a good five or six kilometers from Kuwait City central, the original site of the metropolis by that name. Here you will find much of the country’s cultural and administrative core. Along the waterfront is Sief Palace, though I found out from a bemused taxi driver it isn’t used as a residence, and is just “palace” in the administrative sense. Near that in the downtown area is the Kuwait Stock Exchange, while out Arabian Gulf Road heading back toward Salimya in the east is the fish market and Sharq Souq, perhaps the cream of the Kuwaiti crop of the shopping malls for which the smaller Gulf states are famous.
Maybe it’s because I both spent all my time in the city (as opposed to the UAE) and it wasn’t a religious commemoration (as it was in Bahrain), but Kuwait seemed to have the deepest commercial Westernization of any of the smaller Gulf states I’ve visited. (I didn’t make it to Qatar, and can’t think of a convincing reason to bother doing so at this point.) It wasn’t just the Christmas decorations, though they were everywhere, with giant lighted balls hanging from mall ceilings, tinsel lining shelves all over the place, and more Christmas trees and snow scenes than I suspect figured into traditional Kuwaiti culture. Santa Claus, in case you are interested, was appearing at the Marina Mall on December 7. Even the diversity of western chains seemed greater, as perhaps best seen in the Johnny Rockets by my hotel between McDonald’s and Dunkin’ Donuts.
In any case, traffic near the Kuwait City center is also bad, especially right where I wanted dropped off my second day there, al-Sur Street, which comes just before the numbered “ring roads” which circle the center with increasing circumferences. “Sur” is Arabic for “wall,” and, yes, this was where the city’s wall stood from 1920 until 1957. As is common in Arabian cities, the walls did not just follow the boundaries of the built-up area, but included substantial open land to one side where the Bedouin could set up camp when they came to trade or seek protection. Today the gates remain, modest structures to be sure by the standards of such things, with twin wooden doors set in what looks like adobe but may have simply be mud covering rocks and boulders, as in Oman.
For more on Kuwait’s heritage during that time, you can visit the ethnographic section of the Kuwait National Museum. Although the lighting is so dim you sometimes have trouble seeing anything, it consists of a number of booths along a winding walkway which show shops and houses of early 20th century Kuwait City, complete with a soundtrack of noises one might have heard on the streets at that time, such as fruit vendors calling out prices and the blacksmith banging on hot iron. Next door in the Sadu House you can also, if you were of a mind, see Bedouin weaving and buy its products.
That is about all there is to the museum these days, however, and the reasons lie in the most recent episode in the desert city’s desire to escape Mesopotamia’s dominance. Its roots may lie in the 1958 coup which brought the Arab nationalist government of Abd al-Karim Qassim to power in Baghdad. Qassim never pursued expansionist policies, but he did employ expansionist rhetoric. It was in his time that the name “Arabian Gulf” entered the Arab diplomatic lexicon, and his government which sought to activate in its own name the old Ottoman claim to Kuwait, a claim which served Iraq’s national interest while appealing to the twin villains of conservative royalty and British imperialism. Qassim’s government soon fell, but its broader claims continued, and were finally acted on in 1990, when under Saddam Hussein, Iraq invaded Kuwait.
As with most undertakings by the late, rather unlamented Iraqi dictator, the Iraqi invasion and attempted annexation of Kuwait was brutal, and not only to museum collections. Kuwait’s national symbol is the Kuwait Towers, two large and one smaller towers used for water storage and electricity generation. You can go up in them to look over the city and harbor through really dirty windows, which seems to make a cheap date for locals as well as a way for visitors to kill off an hour or so. The Iraqis wanted to wipe out all traces of Kuwaiti national identity, and, unable to destroy the towers themselves for infrastructure reasons, set about trashing the interior, damage seen today in a serious of pictures which label the Iraqis as “barbarian invaders.” The transfer of materials from Kuwait’s to Iraq’s national museum was also part of that. Some materials were saved, however: Along a side street in Jabriya, out by the Fifth Ring Road, is the ornate home of a former government minister who collected antiquities named Tariq Rajab. His collection became the kernel of a museum in his home. On the morning of August 2, as word of the Iraqi invasion spread, the curators bricked up the main entrance and otherwise disguised the building so no one would know there was anything of interest there. Among the treasures preserved were many manuscripts, including a unique scientific work by al-Kindi.
The most important tolls, though, were not on buildings and artifacts, but on people. For the first two months of the occupation, an underground movement resisted the occupying forces. The steps the Iraqis took to suppress it were brutal. I talked to one Nubian guest worker who recalled, his voice thick with the memory, how it was dangerous just to go outside to run an errand, as if anything happened to an Iraqi soldier in an neighborhood, a unit would go through the neighborhood firing randomly. It wasn’t even totally safe being inside, as bullets could break through the windows, and you had to have your hiding places.
Although the active resistance sputtered out, the cells remained, looking for the day when they could do some good. In late February, that day came. Members of one cell gathered in a tan brick house in the suburb of al-Qurain, planning to support the forthcoming coalition ground invasion. They were, however, found out, the house was surrounded, and the twelve resistance members who were within were killed. Today the ruined building is a museum, were you can see all the holes made by bullets and shells, as well as the van which transported the Iraqi troops and the white Iraqi intelligence car. In the bottom room are also copies of documents from the occupation, outlining Iraqi orders to destroy all houses in which they found Kuwait flags or other national symbols, send to Iraq for punishment a six-year old boy who was running in the street with a Kuwaiti flag, or deal with a demonstration by waiting until all the demonstrators where there and then opening fire.
After I left, I found out there was also a “Museum of the Crimes of Saddam Hussein” somewhere, as well as graffiti thanking American and other coalition troops out on the road which became known as the “Highway of Death” as the coalition kept bombing the Iraqis after they were already in retreat; the remains of Iraqi military vehicles are allegedly still visible near Mutla Ridge. It is easy to say that the Gulf states are lucky because they have so much oil, and Kuwait in particular is ridiculously wealthy in that commodity. At the same time, the Kuwaitis have clearly had a national trauma, one commemorated all over, but most notably in the city’s tallest structure, Liberation Tower, a communications tower finished in 1993. I suspect that these events will come to play the same sort of identity-defining role that the “Great Siege” seems to in Gibraltarian history, one which will ultimately be unknown to the rest of the world, but which to the inhabitants represents the moment when their independence was finally directly challenged and hence confirmed.