Culture in Kuwait: Between tradition and contemporaneity

Ambassador Qais Shqair, the head of the mission of the Arab League in Brazil, pens article on Kuwait’s challenge to preserve its identity while remaining a cultural trailblazer.

Artigos ANBA

*Qais Shqair

While pioneering is a striking feature of the state of Kuwait for its cultural contributions to the region of the Gulf and the Arab countries, this puts a great pressure on the shoulders of the country’s cultural elites to retain and perpetuate this leadership in a moment fraught with changes in the most diverse political, economic, social and scientific fields.

This said, how can one keep pace with the changes in a networked world while preserving their cultural identity, characteristics and leadership?

This is not a question to be answered in an article, but if we look at the reality of our beloved Kuwait throughout the decades of leadership in the cultural scene of the Arab Gulf in particular and the Arab world in general, we see Kuwait in a worthy place in the Arab world as part of a wider world, including the contributions of the countries where unique and particular features of each one blend together.

To delve into the cultural reality of Kuwait, we should start by emphasizing its contemporary history and emergency as a state with a political, economic and national presence in the Arab, regional and international media, as well as a multi-faceted cultural reality.

The history of contemporary Kuwait dates back to over 400 years ago when the Kuwait City was founded in the 17th century (1601-1700) and thrived with the arrival of the Al-Sabah family in 1128. Archaeological evidence indicates that the history of the region as a whole dates back to periods before Christ, when the Hellenes colonized the Failaka Island in the 6th century BC, and then the forces of Alexander the Great, who took the island they called Ikaros. In the 16th century, the city was founded, and most of island’s inhabitants were pearl divers and sea traders who worked between India and the Arab Peninsula, which helped Kuwait become a trade hub in the North Arab Peninsula and a major port for the peninsula and Mesopotamia. After the oil was discovered the exports begun in the mid-20th century, Kuwait saw a urban rebirth, and this was a turning point in the contemporary history of the country.

When addressing the cultural life in Kuwait, the first thing that comes to mind is delving into the environment where this culture emerged and the hot weather that embraced it together with the rugged terrain where the sea waves lick the desert sands, putting out the hotness of its embers and anointing the Kuwaiti citizens with a touch of distinction and creativity so that they could combine the softness of the sea breezes and the stringency of the heat and embers of the desert, thus giving us a sweet art and culture inspired by the tradition of Kuwait and its people and the tradition of the Gulf, which represents the incubating mother of this culture that is so distinct from other cultures in the Arab world stretching from the Arab Peninsula to Iraq and other Levant countries, the Land of Al-Kinanah [Egypt], Sudan and the other countries in our Arab Maghreb.

The history of the culture in the modern state of Kuwait starts when the Al-Mubarakiya school in 1911 was founded to make Kuwait into a leading country in the region in the provision of education on the initiative of the people of Kuwait, who wished to develop the education in the country, going from the stages of groups gathered in mosques for preaching and the Katatibs [primary schools that used to teach kids reading, writing, grammar, and Islamic studies] to the formal education. The first dean of the school, the late Sheikh Youssef Al-Qenaei, took the initiative to collect donations from the Kuwaiti people, and the school opened on December 22, 1911. The school doubled as a cultural center and, together with the Al-Ahmadiya school founded in 1921, represented formal education during the era of the late Sheikh Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah. Since then, the state took on the role of overseeing the official education by establishing a knowledge council, then Kuwait underwent a major change in the education and overall cultural life. Students started studying overseas. The first delegation of students in 1939 was made up by four students who went to Cairo’s Al-Azhar Al-Sharif, which was the headquarter of the first Kuwaiti cultural office abroad.

The National Council for Culture, Arts and Letters represents the very top of the country’s culture, and since its creation in 1973 it seeks to develop the cultural life in all respects. Sheikh Jaber Al-Ahmad and Sheikh Abdullah Al-Salem cultural centers in Kuwait play a major role in keeping abroad with the cultural development in Kuwait.

The culture changed to include most arts and literature. In this regard, it’s noteworthy that the art of theater, deemed as the father of all arts, has kept pace with the emergence of the formal education since 1912. The theater movement in Kuwait started in the early 40s with the foundation of the improvisational and experimental theater by artist Mohammad Al-Nashmi and featuring his colleagues: Oqab Al-Khatib, Saleh Al-Oujairi, and Abdullah Khreibet. It was improvisational not only towards the text but the props, too, which were made by the actors themselves.

The theater work developed in 1957, when the Ministry of Social Development officially oversaw it, electing a board for it, and the popular theater began to win acclaim in October that year. The story of the theater works took place in two stages: the improvisational and those written in classical language. Both addressed the popular social concept. Founded in 1961, the Arab theater heralded the beginning of a new era of the theater arts, taking classic grammatic Arabic stories. This trend was reinforced in 1963 with the creation of the Arab Gulf Theater, which was made by experts who sought renovation, opening space for the participation of women, and the following year the Kuwait theater was established.

Just as the theater in Kuwait is marked by its pioneering, the tradition and folklore have its apriorism. Al-Malid and Al-Jalwa are two folk arts related to religious and social events in Kuwait. The first is held to celebrate the birth of the Prophet, which means it’s similar to Mawlid in the Levant and Egypt, while the latter is held in weddings. Malids are held with the meeting of two rows of seated people singing religions sons, with huge drums on their hands giving off a unified sound while the shoulders of the participants lean to right and left, while chanting prophetic hymns and Dhikr poems [Islamic devotional acts, in which phrases or prayers are repeated] called Shielat or Gallat or Tanzilat, and this type of traditional singing is widespread in some Arab Gulf countries.

There are other aspects of folk arts such as Al-Samari, Al-Khamari and Al-Ardah, all which are prominent in the musical tradition of Kuwait and the Gulf in general. Al-Ardah is marked by its association with times of war, showing men and machinery and uplifting the morale to face enemies. Al-Ardah is a one of the richest and most diversified types of traditional dance, including Al-Ardah Al-Barriyah (Najdiyah) and Al-Ardah Al-Bahriyah, which bring up the morale of seamen to set sail. There are other types of Al-Ardah, such as Al-Razif and Al-Aiyala, all which are under the care of the State in order to preserve the legacy of the ancestors and maintain the ties between the newer generations with their history and culture.

The sound art is the lyrical singing, which is most prominent and widespread in Kuwait and the Arab Gulf. In Kuwait, the artist who plays this type of song was met with a special prestige and appreciation in the artistic and literary circles. The sound art is an ancient Arab art that lost its brilliance in the Levant, Mesopotamia and Egypt and was embraced by the Gulf countries, and its traces are still present in Mecca and Medina. This art has historical roots that stretch back to the Levant’s Umayyad dynasty in and Egypt’s Fatimid dynasty in Egypt. The historians say that the beginning of the sound art took place in Hijaz and Yemen, and then it spread across India, Indonesia and Malaysia.

The Kuwaiti are emotionally attached to the art of Aden [Yemen], whose music was spread in the popular concerts (Al-Samrat) of late Yemeni artist Muhammad Jumaa Khan. The Kuwaiti singing was influenced by the Yemeni music, and the 70s gave rise to a group of Kuwaiti singers who took on Adaniyat as a chanting style, including artists Rashed Al-Hamali, Jumaa Al-Tararawa, and Hamad Senan. The singing in Kuwait was shaped by the nature and geography of the society, therefore the sea shanties have played a key role in shaping the music, which paved the way for the folk songs of the Gulf, which has now become very popular outside the limits of the Arab Peninsula and the Gulf Arab countries. Bahriyah folk songs are composed based on the nature of the work and life of the seamen and varies between Al-Zuhairi and Al-Muwaili, from which many lyrical schools were established, including the heptatonic, hexatonic and pentatonic scales. Sea shanties have a collective character, and its songs are called Sheila.

How could we not remember the Al Arabi magazine, which was the ambassador of Kuwait across the Arab world, bringing the Kuwaiti culture to all, and remained in the heart of the 60s and 70s and still stands today as a beacon for the culture since its first edition was published in December 1958. The Al-Arabi magazine was awarded among the similar magazines in Kuwait and the Arab world, and its first editor-in-chief was a figure of the modern literary revival in the Arab world, the great Egyptian writer and thinker Ahmed Zaki. Its editors included Taha Hussein, Naguib Mahfouz, Abbas Mahmoud Al-Akkad, Nizar Qabbani, and other masters of culture, thinking and literature.

Books hold a major share of the Kuwaiti interest for the culture in all regards, and here we highlight the Kuwait International Book Fair, which was first held back in 1975 and is now seem as the second largest book fair after Cairo’s. Kuwait holds several cultural events every year, including Quran Cultural Festival, which lasts for three weeks and includes several forms of arts and literature, as well as the International Music Festival, Kuwait Film Festival, and so many other cultural activities.

Kuwait attaches great importance to the preservation of its tradition, so it has carried out, through the National Council for Culture, Arts and Letters, many renovations of traditional buildings that tell the history of Kuwait and created many museums that preserve the history, tradition, and historic and cultural monuments of the country, as well as environment, science and space museums. Visual arts also deserve a special mention, as they date back to the 50s and 60s, when the movement of visual arts thrived, reaching its splendor between 1970 and 1981 and representing the boom of plastic arts in Kuwait.

This is just a drop in the ocean of the Kuwaiti cultural aspect, which cannot be fully addressed in this article alone where I aimed to highlight a bit of the culture of Kuwait in the hopes that we’ll soon continue this approach.

*Ambassador Qais Shqair is the head of the mission of the Arab League in Brazil


Translated by Guilherme Miranda

The opinions expressed in the articles are those of the authors.

Related Posts