Being Modern in Kuwait: The Politics of Heritage and Memory Culture

By Farah Al-Nakib
Submitted to Session P6023 (Excavating Modernity in the Arab Gulf: The Case of Kuwait, 2020 Annual Meeting
Gulf; Kuwait;
LCD Projector without Audio;
In her work on museums in the Arab Gulf, Karen Exell argues that Gulf citizens today view the incessant influence of “global” culture on their societies as a “cultural attack” (2016: 68). Other scholars similarly examine the Gulf’s burgeoning culture industries that reify pre-oil heritage and folklore as evidence that citizens are seeking to “emblazon a sense of local traditionalism within a sea of change” (Fox et al., 2006: 266). Nothing constructs an image of a society that is at once becoming hypermodern and global while also longing for cultural anchoring than the photogenic scenes (which adorn many book covers) of courtyard houses, mosques, or camels foregrounding skylines of spectacular skyscrapers.

However, what this discourse misses is that these constructed tableaus juxtaposing the Gulf’s pre-oil past with its hypermodern present are the products of state discourses and practices that have willfully eliminated all trace and memory of everything that happened in between: namely, the experiences of early oil modernity from the 1950s to 1980s. There is much that occurred in those decades—from public demands for political participation and social reform to sluggish urban and economic growth—that contemporary Gulf states seek to forget. Like so many other “postmodern” acts of city building, the proliferation of pre-oil heritage sites on the landscape of the contemporary Gulf city, alongside the demolition of much of what was built in the early oil years, entails “a conscious attempt to eradicate modernism’s oppositional or critical stance” (Boyer 1994: 6). The recourse to tradition in present-day culture industries should not simply be read as a conservative reaction to globalization but as a product of the challenges of mid-century modernity (to the authority and legitimacy of the newly modernizing state).

This paper analyzes newspapers, magazines, television shows, plays, and other cultural products to excavate Kuwaitis’ myriad experiences of modernity between 1950 and 1990. It then examines the resurrection of “pre-oil” heritage throughout the past two decades as an example of what Paul Connerton calls “repressive erasure,” deliberate acts that edit out and silence memories of struggle, of a past that might pose a political challenge in and to the present (2011: 41). I also analyze how young Kuwaitis today are starting to actively resist this erasure (e.g. by demanding the preservation of modernist architecture), disrupting scholarly assumptions that Gulf citizens identify more with traditional national culture than with the modernist culture that defined the post-1950 era.