Kuwait: country without history?

I am in Kuwait, a small oil state situated between Iraq and Saudi Arabia. Two years ago I did my internship here, and in six months time this country managed to win my heart. I spent my first real salary on a ticket back: I am spending my holidays in the Gulf this year.

My fascination for the region is hard to understand for both fellow students and locals. Arabists often see the Gulf as a place without history and prefer countries like Egypt, Iraq or Syria: ancient places of civilization that flourished when we in Europe were still living in huts. People from the surrounding countries for the same reason look down on the Gulf Arabs, the Middle East’s nouveau riche. Before the oil Kuwait was one of the poorest countries in the world. Kuwaitis today are born with the proverbial silver spoon in the mouth, and the government takes care of them from the cradle to the grave. It is hard to imagine that the grandparents of the kids who have all their hearts’ desires – from the most expensive cars and clothes to trips to Europe – lived in dire poverty not too long ago.

My fascination for Kuwait has not gone unnoticed. I am invited for a meeting with a Kuwaiti scientist in the capital. It is clear that I have been away for long, because without giving it a second thought I take place in the front seat next to the taxi driver who will take me to Kuwait City. Within half a minute I realize my mistake: women sit in the back of the taxi. My taxi driver however doesn’t seem to consider this much of a problem. Quite the contrary, for him this seems to be a sign that I am up for a talk! After having exchanged the first pleasantries (‘What are you doing in Kuwait?’, ‘What is your job?’) we start talking about the history of Kuwait.

Although born and bred in Bangladesh, my taxi driver has been living in Kuwait for over 20 years. He immediately has my attention. ‘What was it like here, 20 years ago?’, I ask him. And he starts telling how very different Kuwait was when he first came here, some two decades ago. Kuwait City was only a village compared to now. We pass a small hotel. ‘The first hotel to be opened in Kuwait’, he nods. That was long before he was here, some time in the 1960s. We pass the suburbs. One by one he comments: ‘this wasn’t here, and that wasn’t here, and that area wasn’t here either’. Everywhere around us construction is taking place, and new buildings emerge everywhere. The National Bank of Kuwait constructs a futuristic new building next to the existing one. A lot has happened in the past 20 years, but Kuwait is clearly not done yet.

Kuwait has no Medieval palaces and castles, ancient mosques or ruins of pre-Islamic times and cultures. For the tourist interested in history there is very little to see or do here. That however does not mean that Kuwait is a country without history. Over the past 60 years the country has developed itself rapidly, from a nomadic community to a society oriented towards the West – ruled by Starbucks, Louis Vuitton and Porsche. The traditional dhows are substituted for yachts and jet skis, and camels can only be found when leaving town and entering the desert – of course by your expensive SUV.

But for those able to see beyond the skyscrapers, neon lightening and shopping malls, there is also another Kuwait. A country that heavily invests in the preservation of the own musical traditions, where you can attend classical music concerts for free on a weekly basis. A country that names the latest park after the martyrs of the Gulf war. A country where the traces of that war are still everywhere – visible and invisible. A country where a large part of the population still proudly wears the traditional clothing – instead of the jeans and t-shirts. A country where even the most recent mall still reminds you of a traditional souq. A country that builds traditional boats for show. No country is without history, if only you wish to see it.

 

A Dutch version of this column earlier appeared on Jonge Historici.

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Photo credits: Hamad M (CC-BY-NC 2.0)

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31 thoughts on “Kuwait: country without history?

  1. When I think of Kuwait, I think of the Gulf War. It does sound like an interesting place to visit. It would be nice to see how the country recovered.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. This is a fantastic post, it is so interesting to hear how much the country has changed in one lifetime. It amazes me how the people now will never want for anything due to the oil. Fascinating country!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. There is a good amount of south asia and Indian population there. isn’t it? Every place has something unique to it, be it nature, culture, history or geography, So yes . I can understand your fascination

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  4. Remnants of civilizations in Kuwait have dated back 10,000 years. Kuwait has always been a port and part of the trade route into Iraq and Iran. Historically, inhabitants made their livings either from the sea (known as “hather” people) or from the desert (“Bedouin” or nomadic people). Sea people traded in pearls and goods from other countries or were fishermen. Bedouin traded in livestock (sheep, goats, camels) and products which were made from them (wool items, weavings, clothing, tents, etc.).

    Here are some museums and cultural information. This time of the year is the best to visit – when it is cool!

    Tareq Rejab Museum – http://www.trmkt.com/

    Dar al-Athar al-Islamiyyah (The Al-Sabah Collection) – http://darmuseum.org.kw/

    Yes, we do have pre-Islam!
    Failaka Island – Ruins from settlements of the Bronze Age Dilmuns and Hellenistic Greeks. The Greeks arrived in the 4th century BC in the form of a garrison sent by Nearchus, one of Alexander the Great’s admirals. A small settlement existed on the island prior to this, but it was as the Greek town of Ikaros that the settlement became a real city. The Greeks lived on Failaka for two centuries. The centrepiece of the island is its temple. (Many of the relics found on Failaka are now in the Tareq Rejab Museum)

    New Jaber Al-Ahmad Al-Sabah Cultural Center – http://www.sshic.com/projects/sheikh-jaber-al-ahmad-cultural-centre

    I enjoy reading your blog. I’ve been here for over 2 decades and have seen the country grow (FAST!). Once Kuwait is in your blood, it is hard not to come back here.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you for the tips and for making even clearer that Kuwait is not a country without history! Unfortunately I find myself back in the blistering cold of Hamburg again, but when I come back (soon, inshallah!!) I will make sure to visit the new cultural center. And what you say about Kuwait being in your blood, it is so very, very true. Not a day passes by that I don’t miss it… ahh, soon, inshallah, soon again!

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  5. Thanks so much for the post! I haven’t read much about Kuwait so it’s a great insight. Wished there had been some pictures to go with the post, though 🙂

    Jacky

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  6. How interesting! I agree, no country is without a history, you just have to do some exploring to find it. It’s wonderful that the city holds weekly classical music concerts, name their parks after important figures and keep their culture of building traditional boats alive.

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    • Women in the front of the taxis, it’s not a rule set in stone, more of a cultural thing. In many parts of the Middle East separation between men and women is still a thing, and Kuwait is particularly conservative. In the back you are as far removed from the driver as possible, and since there are no female taxi drivers (well, there might be, I never came across them) this is the best you can do, so to say. It’s not just that though, it’s also a safety thing.. a taxi driver can’t just touch you when you are in the back!.

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  7. Really enjoyed reading this article! We visited Dubai last year and we kept hearing the same thing – this wasn’t here, and this is new… It’s also a place that looked very different 50-60 years ago. It’s amazing how rapidly big cities are being built and how some oil money completely changed the region!

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  8. This is really interesting. My favorite places in the Gulf so far are Abu Dhabi and Oman: they went from poverty to wealth very quickly, just like Kuwait, but history is still very much present everywhere you look, and treasured. Kuwait must be interesting. Thank you for this post!

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    • Thank you!! I have a special relatiionship with Kuwait because I did my internship there, so I can’t really call any other place in the Gulf my favourite.. but Oman is by far the most beautiful! I didn’t know there was so much history present in Abu Dhabi though! So far I’ve only been to Dubai (and passed through Sharjah), but it seems I should put Abu Dhabi on my travel list then!

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