Between Urban Palimpsest and Etch-a-Sketch: Demolition, Development, and the Culture of Memory in Kuwait

By Farah Al-Nakib
Submitted to Session P2011 (Kuwait's Irreconcilable Knots, 2009 Annual Meeting
Urban Studies;
Since the advent of oil, Kuwait has undergone significant transformations through a process of urban development that constantly replaces old with new. The first cycle of oil urbanization (1950s-70s) involved razing most of the pre-oil town to make way for a new “modern” city. Following two decades of relative inactivity, a second cycle of urbanization started in 2003 and has initiated the demolition of that same early-oil urban landscape to make way for something newer.
The “destruction of past ways of living and being in the world” for the sake of progress is not unique to the oil modernizing Gulf but arguably does occur more widely and rapidly in the cities of this region (Andreas Huyssen, Present Pasts 2). In Kuwait especially, the cyclical and systemic erasure and reconstruction of the built environment makes it seem more like an “etch-a-sketch,” constantly shaking off the old to create the new, than an urban palimpsest with readable traces of the old lying beneath the new. However, along with the demolition and urban development of the last five years, an “overlapping yet irreconcilable experience” has emerged (Edward Said, Humanism 143). Kuwait has also recently seen a flurry of state-sponsored “historical” activity: a turn to what Huyssen calls a “culture of memory” (15). A few extant and dilapidated pre-oil buildings have been restored, museums have opened within old structures, and a new replica “heritage village” of the pre-oil town is currently under construction.
What has triggered this turn to memory in a country that has been and continues to be built on a process of forgetting? Is the timing coincidental or are the two processes intrinsically linked? My paper explores these questions through an analysis of “the mechanisms and tropes of historical trauma and national memory practices” (Huyssen 16). One aim is to demonstrate how the current invoking of memory culture in Kuwait is ultimately a project of state legitimacy linked to methods of political myth making and the invention of tradition. I also suggest that the overlapping yet irreconcilable experiences of heritage and destructive development in Kuwait can be explained in no small part by the lure of global consumerism. My study is based on the use of official state records, newspaper articles, oral testimonies, and on visual explorations of relevant sites in Kuwait.