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.