Monday, April 17, 2006

A brief history lesson

Old Kuwait Town. Photo courtesy of British Petroleum Archives collection.

I love driving and walking around Kuwait City. It's my favourite part of the country. I'm shocked at how many new buildings are coming up in the city - the crane:building ratio is starting to compete with Dubai!

But the new stuff is not what makes me love that part of town so much - it's actually the old buildings that I get so attracted to everytime I drive around. I'm glad that so many of the old original buildings that were on the verge of collapse have finally been renovated - like the nurse's residence near Amiri Hospital and the old American Mission Hospital. I'm hoping that the palaces of Sheikh Khaz'al (behind the British Embassy and new diabetes hospital - the smaller palace of the two is more commonly known as Qasr al-Ghanim) get fixed up as well - they used to be beautiful but have almost completely disintegrated. It's such a shame that our government waits so long before finally deciding to preserve such significant bits of our history. They either tear everything down or wait until it completely falls apart, and then they decide to build a "replica village" to recreate what they tore down or neglected all these years.

There's so much history in Kuwait City that so many people, especially young Kuwaitis, just don't know about. So I'm gonna take a few minutes now to share some random little historical tidbits about Kuwait City (and environs). Many of you might already know some of these, but I'll only include facts that were unknown to at least three people that I have previously shared them with.

* The old Kuwait Town used to be built on a hill, with a gradual incline leading up from the sea toward the soor (old town wall). Both the wall and the hill were leveled after the advent of oil urbanization.
* The sea actually used to reach the first line of houses that are now on the non-sea-side of the Gulf Road (where many old diwaniyas still stand, and where the front gate of the Dickson House is). (I'm surprised at how many people I encounter don't know this!)
* In the old town, the old mudbrick houses built directly along the seafront were usually painted a bright white, and as you went further up the hill towards the desert the walls of the houses became progressively duller, until reaching the houses along the soor which were mostly unpainted and brown (mudbrick). This progression from white paint to brown mudbrick reflected the affluence of the families living inside the town (the most affluent lived on the sea, and so on up the hill).
* Four out of the five original gates of the old town wall are still standing today (the fifth was destroyed during the Iraqi invasion in 1990). Most people drive past at least one of these gates on a regular basis, on the Sheraton round-about (known as Jahra Gate), which many non-Kuwaitis actually think is just some fake monument that was built to beautify the round-about! In fact, the round-about was built because of the gate's position.
* Speaking of which, Jahra used to actually be a beautiful desert oasis. So was Fahaheel.
* In the old Kuwaiti mudbrick houses, it is usually 10˚ cooler when standing in the central courtyard (although it is outdoors), than when standing outside the gates of the house (the walls were built extremely thick to absorb the heat).
* Most old mudbrick houses consist of long and relatively narrow rectangular-shaped rooms of similar width. This is because they always used to use chandal (wooden) beams on the ceilings that were imported from India, all of which were delivered pre-cut into the same size (hence the uniformly narrow width of all rooms). The first house to break this pattern was the Dickson House, formerly the British Political Agency - in the very early 1900s Captain W. Shakespeare, one of the first PA's to Kuwait, added the second storey to the Agency in which he built a large drawing room, that had to have much larger chandal beams custom-made, and which held Kuwait's first ever fireplace (much needed too, as Kuwait's winters used to be freezing in those days!).
* Kuwait's first airport was in Nuzha.
* Ever wonder why, until recently, Kuwait had such strict laws concerning visitor visas? According to Zahra (Dickson) Freeth, in the 1960s, Western hippies used to transit in Kuwait on their way to India, and they used to leave the airport and "hang out" on the streets around town, waiting for their connecting flight. A bunch of free-loving hippies on the streets of a just-barely-modernizing Kuwait...what an interesting image!
* I could go on like this for hours, so I'll end here with a photo. This is of the gate of the old Seif Palace, and this quote was added around 1918. In Arabic it says "Low dammat lighairek ma ittasalat ilaik" which, in my own crude translation, is: "If it was left to others it would not have passed on to you." It has been speculated that this quote alludes to the way Sheikh Mubarak I came to power (I'm not going to enter into controversy here - not yet - not until I am armed with my PhD!). Anyway, of course, the quote will always remain subject to interpretation, and different people have different explanations for it. If you look carefully when driving past you can see the quote from the street, but be careful because you kind of have to crane your neck while simultaneously keeping your eyes on the road!


  • whoah thanks for the mini history lesson, interesting info.

    A question though, will your dissertation be related to Kuwait's history by any chance?

    By Blogger B., at 4/19/2006 6:03 pm  

  • Very cool...I'm always up for a history lesson, especially on Kuwait.

    I'm wondering if the hippies that had connecting flights were actually going to Goa, the little island off of India...ahh, Goa music... ;-)

    By Blogger Caffeinated, at 4/20/2006 8:56 am  

  • kleio - What an interesting post! You make me love Kuwait ;)

    caff - Goa is actually not an island - it is a state on the coast of India :) Sorry to be picky, but I consider India an important part of me (through family and close friends and the Hindi language that we grew up speaking) so I had to clarify!

    By Blogger Raine, at 4/20/2006 12:29 pm  

  • b: Another personal question! ;) Actually, for academic reasons I prefer not to share my dissertation topic for the time being. But glad you enjoyed the history lesson!

    Caff: In those days the hippies were going all over India. It's only been in more recent years that Goa has become the primary tourist hotspot. According to many Goan friends of ours, Goa is slowly turning into another Dubai-type experience, where the local culture and people are getting eclipsed by the mass tourism and film industries.

    Raine: I think I love Kuwait so much because I can still see its history around. I can see how we got to where we are today, and because of that, to me the answers on how to fix the Kuwait we live in today are so simple. Again, if only they would make me "president" (or an enlightened despot)! :)

    By Blogger Kleio, at 4/20/2006 12:46 pm  

  • I used to (and still do) go to Souq el Qadeem with my dad. I remember the whole place was made of rusticating "chinko" now the only thing left is soog il `3arabali; you can still see the bullet wholes from soog il sla7 on the chinko. I hate the modern/old look. A7es may7i6oon qeema 7ag il torath. Oo madry laish 3arait bil kwaiti :P But post much MUCH appreciated (Ah! Appreciation! That's what we're lacking...poo)

    By Blogger Erzulie, at 4/21/2006 8:41 am  

  • Oops sorry, my bad.
    But I am glad that someone as young as you is taking an interest in Kuwait's history.

    and yeah about demolishing Kuwait's heritage and building instead fake "traditional" villages, buildings, etc. yeah very annoying....

    By Blogger B., at 4/21/2006 6:40 pm  

  • Erzulie: I love the Souq al-Qadeem! And yeah, the old/new look is annoying. If only they had preserved the original min ilbidaya they wouldn't have had to totally rennovate it and make it look so new. Oh, another interesting little fact. In Souq al-Mubarakiya, there is a litte shop that sells fried food (like samboosas and all) with a Pepsi sign. Above it, the original building upstairs is extremely old. It was one of the first original seats of executive power in Kuwait (diwan al-amiri). One of the Amirs in the early 20th century (I can't remember which one) opened two Amiri offices, one on the east side of the souq and one on the west, where he could meet with locals from the town and address their grievances. The buiding above the food stand is one of them. I can't really describe how to get there because I need to actually be walking, but I think what you do is go through the main market area toward the date market, go through the date market walking on the right side of the hall, and if you keep going straight you should reach the store (on the corner on right) - it's the last stop before you are fully outside again in a little square.

    B: A couple of my close friends in Kuwait are history buffs like me and we can sit for hours talking about old Kuwait, and walking around the city exploring old sites. It's fun (geeks at play)! As for building these heritage villages, I'm worried it's going to look like Disneyland - with those fake "villages" they have all over the place. Or, like a mini Vegas - with its replicas of the Pyramids and all. If they open one single Starbucks in that heritage village....!!! Grrrr!

    By Blogger Kleio, at 4/22/2006 4:20 am  

  • Thank you Kleio,
    I really feel happy & proud when I found more people interested in the history of Kuwait, especially among bloggers, because what they write & talk about will be documented for those who search, study and love to know more about Kuwait.

    Personally, I found some interesting pecies of info in your post, especially the “hippies” one!

    -The Palace of Sheikh Khaz3al:
    there’s a big sign infront of it now that reads “Mashroo3 Al-Mbarikeya”, honestly I don’t know what it is for, but I suppose it has something to do with renovation & preservation of historical buildings (wishfully).

    Mona Jaber Abdullah Al-Jaber Al-Sabah published a book/album about her grandfather Sheikh Abdullah Al-Jaber (available in Virgin Kuwait), in this book there is a map of Dasman area that shows the locations of Qasr Khaz3al & Qasr El-Ghanim (and many interesting, valuable & rare pictures about Old Kuwait).

    - The Gates of Soor Al-Kuwait:
    If you have noticed, Al-Magsab Gate still preserve the old “muddy” colour, but unfortunately Al-Jahra Gate is white now.. it looks bad :(

    I pass by those two gates on a daily basis (by car) and the “whiteness” of Al-Jahra gate really annoys me!

    Bneid Al-Gar Gate is the destroyed one, right?

    BTW, talking about the 3rd soor of 1920, reminds me of a song by Abdul Kareem Abdul Qader:
    يا ام الثلاث اسوار... يا كويتنا

    - Nuzha Airport:
    Q80 demon had a post about the urbanization of Kuwait in the 60s, more:

    and Nuzha Airport is visible in the 3 pictures he posted.

    - Sheikh Mubarak’s controversy:
    You don’t have to wait for your PhD!
    Sheikh Yousef bin Easa wrote about it in his book “Safahat min Tareekh Al-Kuwait”, just quote him ;)

    Good luck with your study and I think I deserve an “Old Kuwait Tour”, don’t I ?!

    Thank you again :)

    By Blogger iDip, at 4/22/2006 5:58 pm  

  • iDip: First, thanks a ton for the link to q80demon's post. That was great. The most disturbing thing about those pictures, as Q points out in his comment, is the visible dredging of land from the sea. It's hard to tell what's going on there though - I need to study those more closely.

    I've seen those signs outside of Qasr Kaz3al and I too hope it's part of the new reconstruction projects. But I hope they do it well.

    As for the gates, is al-Jahra gate white?? For some reason in my mind I see it painted brownish (more like a terracotta, still artificial but at least closer to reality). I'll have to pay closer attention next time I'm in Kuwait. But you're right, they shouldn't be painted at all because they never used to be. From what I know the gate that was destroyed was the Maqsab gate, the smallest of the five - the other four are Dasman, Sha'ab (originally called Brai'si, or lizard!), Na'if, and Jahra gates. I'm not exactly sure where the gate was - it might have been Bneid al-Gar. Also, I never knew about that Abdul Kareem Abdul Qader song, thanks!

    I would love to do "Old Kuwait Tours"! My friend and I have thought about it. We used to have tour days for people with friends visiting from out of town. We'd start at the Kuwait Towers and stand up on the revolving deck and watch the entire country go by and point out important spots, giving their history and significance. Then we'd go visit some of those spots.

    I just remembered that you sent me an Email about my paper that was published! So sorry I haven't replied and I promise to do so soon.

    By Blogger Kleio, at 4/22/2006 8:10 pm  

  • Hello there, just a small input re the subject, and re the quote on the gate of the Seif Palace, I always thought it said “law damat li ghayrika ma wasalatka” (apparently I’ve been wrong), but I’m sure I’m not wrong in thinking that your translation is not quite what they wanted to say...no offense!
    I’d roughly translate it to “if it belonged forever to another, it wouldn’t have reached you” - bel msharma7i it said “ma 7ada ra7 ykhalled” - it was to remind the rulers of the country that there is an end to everything, therefore encourage them to be tolerant and humane while ruling their country (were they thinking of religion or did they fear revolution?...you tell me!)
    Either I’d read about this somewhere or someone had explained it to me, any case true or not, I prefer to think of it this way, it gives the feeling that someone actually cared!!

    By Anonymous Sleepygal, at 4/22/2006 10:26 pm  

  • Sleepygal: Actually, the "controversial" story goes as follows: Mubarak I seized power in 1896 by killing his brothers Mohammed and Jarrah (Mohammed was the Amir and Jarrah more or less ruled in tandem) in the middle of the night. Mubarak was worried about his brothers' complacency and appeasement towards the Turks (as well as their inability to maintain law and order inside Kuwait). Mubarak believed that the only way to stop the encroachment of the Ottoman Empire into Kuwait would be to get rid of his brothers and take control. That is what is alluded to with the inscription above the gate to Seif Palace: "If it had been left to others (i.e. Mohammed and Jarrah), it would not have passed down (or come down) to you (i.e. it would have gone to the Ottomans and would no longer be in the hands of Kuwaitis)." It is supposed to justify Mubarak's actions. The reason I said that this story is controversial is because, while nobody denies the fact that it happened, Mubarak's palace coup d'état leaves a bloody mark on the al-Sabah reign. Despite this fact, however, he is simultaneously lauded for saving Kuwait from the grips of the Ottoman Empire - hence he is known as "Mubarak al-Kabeer", or the "father of modern Kuwait."

    By Blogger Kleio, at 4/22/2006 11:50 pm  

  • nice article... would love to visit kuwait some day

    By Anonymous rohit, at 5/30/2006 3:29 pm  

Post a Comment

<< Home