An old-fashioned Orientalist in Kuwait

Visiting friends abroad does have some advantages. As you are there only for a short time, everyone wants to make you happy and you get to pick the places you want to go to. Being an old-fashioned Orientalist with a fascination for everything Middle Eastern (sorry, Edward Said) I usually ask for Arabic places. After all, we also have a Starbucks or Costa in the Netherlands or Germany.

In countries as Egypt or Tunisia you will find such cafes on every street corner. In tea or coffee houses local come together not just to drink coffee or tea, but also to read newspapers, to play board games or in general, to escape from home. It is here where the jobless and unmarried men spend most of their time and many a revolution started in such a place, as political discussions too are frequent.

In Kuwait, asking for an Arabic place however seems to be somewhat of an odd request. Indeed, my request not rarely created quite a bit of a panic on the hosts’ side, as real Oriental places are few and far between. Here locals gather in diwaniyas – a special room next to the main house where the host entertains guests. Enjoying a cup of tea or coffee and some snacks Kuwaiti men discuss a wide range of topics. Typically off-limits to women, I was lucky enough to get invited to the diwaniya of an English friend’s family-in-law a few nights ago where she and her husband pampered me with delicious Arabic sweets and insightful conversation on Kuwait. Even though there were no other people around, seeing a real diwaniya provided a nice glimpse into Kuwaiti culture.

For the Orientalists without access to the diwaniyas, there seem to be only two other options in Kuwait: there are shisha places and there is the Mubarakiya, the old souq. Shisha places are usually mixed, although the cheapest normally attract a male-only crowd. These combine the functions of tea house, shisha place and sports bar. During the weekend these places are full of football fans, cheering on their favourite teams from the Spanish and English leagues. Although Kuwait does have a number of football clubs, the locals much rather support a Barcelona or Real Madrid. In the higher-end cafes you will find many a girl smoking shisha as well. Indeed, for women smoking shisha can be as much as a social activity as for men!

The Mubarakiya is as close as it gets to an Orientalist’s dream in Kuwait, but like anything in Kuwait it does look terribly modern for a place going back some 200 years in history. It here that you can find anything from fresh fruit and vegetables to meat and fish. The many small restaurants have a large selection of Oriental food – from Lebanese and Egyptian to Palestinian and Iraqi. Some menus even include the odd Kuwaiti dish, but admittedly, there aren’t too many of these. There are also a few small tea shops, no more than a couple of benches and tables out on the street. If you fancy trying anything local they serve Darseen, a tea-like drink with cinnamon and spices. It is here that men wait for the women to finish their shopping. Men, all dressed in dishdashas. Did I already mention that this is a rather good place to be?

Ever balancing the modern and the traditional, Kuwait does have some charm not only for those who are interested in the glitter and glamour of the Gulf. It really seems to be a matter of two sides of the same coin. Much more than in the Emirates in Kuwait you still get the feeling that you are in a Middle Eastern country here. As an old-fashioned Orientalist, this is exactly what I appreciate about this country so much.


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