By Geoffrey Martin
Rai Insights Contributor
Kuwait: ‘Acculturation’ is a word used to describe the process of cultural and psychological change that results from the meeting of different cultures. Kuwait is a perfect place to discuss these processes, as it is a relatively new settled country with long-standing Arabian, Persian, Indian, Egyptian and Palestinian traditions entangling together to create what we see now as ‘Kuwaiti’.
Generally, news in Kuwait about the development in the arts, cultural, and social dimensions of the country is filled with negative images of the Parliament and the lack of improvement.
One of the most recent scandals has centred around the grilling of the Minister of Information and Youth Shaikh Salman Al Humood Al Sabah on issues related to financial and administrative irregularities in the information ministry related to the cultural and social events the Islamic Capital for Culture in 2016 (among the wider ‘sporting’ scandal).
From the political dimension, a lot of the criticisms and grilling’s in my point of view have less to do with the running of cultural events and more to do with ‘piling up pressure’ on the government to deal with the fiscal difficulties facing the country. Cultural events like the Islamic Capital events are an easy target for the opposition in comparison to the controversial hike to the prices of petrol products, electricity and water.
From a social dimension, I hear on a daily basis a lot of complaints about life in Kuwait is ‘super boring’. The lack of development – or a perceived lack of development as I see it (as one recent Arab Times article explained) – makes many people feel as if they have a harder time enjoying life than their Bahraini, Qatar, and UAE neighbours. To many people, Kuwait is frozen in a ‘time warp’ while the rest of the region develops at a much more rapid pace.
I argue that this a completely inaccurate way of looking at the situation. There has always been many cultural and social events in Kuwait.
Cultural events and infrastructure are not new to Kuwait. If anything, they are just poorly publicized. Like most institutionalized social activities in the Gulf, Kuwait set the standard in the 1950s and in many ways is well ahead of their counterparts even today. For example, in 1956, the Kuwait Folklore Preservation Center was established to collect, record, and classify Kuwaiti folklore, to protect the cultural traditions of the area. There are also specialized cultural events, most significantly, since 1969 “Al-Masrah Al-Aalami” (Global Theatre), a series of global theatrical plays from foreign languages, translated to Arabic.
Kuwait also has approximately 50 locations where art and antiquities are on display. The most prominent of those is the Kuwait National Museum, opened in 1957. Kuwait has several other, smaller museums as well, most notably in my mind the Tareq Rajab Museum, which houses some of the most interesting examples of Arabic calligraphy, Islamic art and artifacts, as well as poetry, musical instruments, and precious jewelry.
Since 1973, The National Council for Culture, Arts and Letters (NCCAL) was established by Emiri Decree as an independent public body, protects and oversees the various cultural and historical activities in the country. While it is chaired by the Minister of Information and a board of representatives from other ministries it is a very inclusive representation, with many notable members from all segments of Kuwaiti society.
Over the last forty years ago, the Council’s role has grown. Initially it promoted and developed relations with its Arab and international partners. One of its first major undertakings was the Kuwait International Book Fair, which has now been running since 1975. Since 1994, the Qurain Cultural festival has become a well known literary and artistic festival in the GCC, with participants coming from all over the region to take part.
Most notable in my mind at present is the Dar Al-Athar Al-Islamiyyah (The Museum of Islamic Arts) has a collection of more than 20,000 items of rare Islamic works, including thousands of books on Islamic history and history. This private collection belongs to Sheikh Nasser Sabah Al-Ahmed Al-Sabah, the former Prime Minister, and his wife Sheikha Hussa Sabah Al-Salem Al-Sabah, who personally oversee the museum. Many of these stunning pieces, especially those from the pre-Islamic period, are housed at Amricani Cultural Centre, the old American mission hospital that now houses a museum and concert hall.
In the last several years there has been a massive increase in cultural and social events as well as increased infrastructure for creating more space for cultural exchange. These developments have raised awareness of the already existing cultural centers and museums as well as the addition of numerous new activities, many of them brought from outside the country to showcase the latest international art, music, and theatre.
Part of this increase is due to recent government policy. Sheikh Salman Sabah Al-Salem Al-Humoud Al-Sabah, Minister of Information as well as the Minister of State for Youth Affairs said organization of the Al-Qurain festival in 2016 as well as Islamic Capital events “were intended to affirm Kuwait’s keenness on maintaining its cultural role; a role that has been characterized with moderation, openness, advocacy of peace, noble humanitarian values.”
Two new cultural centers, Jaber Al-Ahmad Cultural Center (opened now) and Abdullah Al-Salem Cultural Center, opening later this year will give Kuwait the top notch facilities required to develop many different types of cultural events. Jaber Al Al-Ahmad has already had numerous events, and many more are to come.
We have much to be excited about for the culture and arts in Kuwait in the near future. Kuwait’s infrastructure in the cultural sector has developed at a significant pace since independence and the recent surge in activities will finally highlight much of what was already there but what little known to the public.
* Geoffrey Martin is a PhD student at the University of Toronto and currently is a visiting researcher at the American University in Kuwait. He currently resides in Kuwait.