Kuwait is known for its oil, the Gulf War, the Daguet division, and the “Desert Storm” operation. But what most people are not privy to is its rich history, heritage, and architecture.
It is a country where more than 90% of the population lives in its capital, Kuwait City, where the demolition of many historic sites has taken on such epic proportions that soon, no trace of history will remain erected, leaving room for even more new buildings, malls, and other business centers.
2021 is the 60th anniversary of the country’s independence and the 30th anniversary of the end of the Gulf War. With the help of professor Hasan Ashkanani, this series aims to tell the history of the country and its people, and build a cultural archive composed of images and testimonies of a heritage soon to disappear.
The Palace of Sheikh Abdullah Al-Jabir was damaged during the Iraqi invasion. The site is a prime example of the vivid cultural and social exchanges between Kuwait and its neighboring countries. Although today this site lays in a state of ruins, it represents the ability of the people of the region to embrace diversity and change while highlighting Kuwaiti cultural versatility and dynamism in conversing with the world. The palace is one of the four sites considered for candidacy in the UNESCO World Heritage program since its inception in 2014. The Diwan escaped the vast plan of destruction of the old city in the 50s, designed to create the image of a country considered at the time, as the most modern of the Gulf. It thus became one of the last historic buildings in the country and profited from the growing enthusiasm for Kuwait’s lost history after its independence in 1961.
Muhammad Hussein Nasrallah Marafi, founder of the Marafi Hussainiah.
A Hussainiah is a typical place to celebrate religious events, especially related to the Mourning of Muharram. Different from a mosque, a Hussainiah can also be a place for accommodations of passengers and pilgrims. It was recently re-engineered in order to offer optimal comfort to guests during events, and now subtly merges new lighting, sound system, and air conditioning with original mud stones, wooden columns, and traditional windows.
His Highness the Emir Sheikh Jaber Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah – the thirteenth Emir of the Al-Sabah family and third ruler of Kuwait after its independence – remains one of the most beloved and distinguished leaders of Kuwait and earned the reputation of being the “shepherd of the community”. His portrait is still very widely displayed, like in this abandoned palace that used to belong to one of his relatives.
The Fahad Al Salem palace is one of the few historical residential complexes located in the heart of Kuwait City, just a few meters off the seashore. In 2018, the government approved to turn over the property to the Ministry of Health who planned to demolish the complex and transform it into a car park extension for the Amiri Hospital. As a good example of the Kuwait heritage conservation, the NCCAL (Kuwait National Council for Culture, Arts and Letters) exercised the power and right over the property and began full restoration of the building three years ago.
The construction of the palace represents the typical architecture of Kuwait in the early 1950s; a period of Kuwait modernity and flourishing that benefited from the oil income just after the first oil exportation in 1948.
The Kuwait Towers are the most important landmark on the Gulf Road in Kuwait. They were designed by the Danish architect Malene Bjorn and inaugurated on February 26, 1977. Water is contained in a sculptural form that imitates the traditional Arabian perfume containers. The project became a symbol for the city and the state of Kuwait with its huge spheres hung on pointed towers.
A Diwaniah is a social event traditionally reserved for men that is still held very regularly in Kuwait. The term is a nod to the Bedouin tent section dedicated to welcome and entertain their guests. In dedicated reception halls or in their own homes, the hosts, often from large Kuwaiti families, receive numerous guests each week, offer tea, and debate multiple subjects, individual and collective. The Diwaniahs are key to Kuwaiti social life but even more to political and commercial negotiations, as they are a main source of introduction and strategic decisions. In this dynamic and for more than 250 years, Diwaniahs have been promoting the development of Kuwait, in particular by rapid communication and the search for consensus in a formal and friendly context.
Built in the 1950s, the Fahad al-Salem street was the first modern commercial street in the Gulf. Along the street, over 30 concrete buildings featured four floors of apartments and offered a variety of restaurants in the ground level, as well as fabric stores and imported goods vendors.
In the 80s, the buildings were quickly turned into commercial offices after being determined as not favorable for living, and the stores were abandoned for better locations and newer constructions.
In downtown Kuwait City, the Al Sawaber complex is a sad example of what may happen to the conservation of heritage in the country. With more than 500 apartments, the 60-acre residential compound was demolished in 2019 upon the request of the Ministry of Finance. Built in 1981, Al Sawaber was a relatively recent construction but originally built as a model of collective living, taking part in shaping the modernization of Kuwaiti architecture while incorporating ancestral techniques like allowing intimacy and protection for the harsh summer sun and sand storms. Despite local communities teaming up to try and save the complex by expressing their support and raising interest via social media about urban heritage, 70% of the tenants were quickly evacuated and relocated soon after their efforts. The lack of maintenance and the increase of the land values finally led to the demolition even though the government has never expressed any clear vision for the future of the area. The complex has now completely disappeared and left an enormous empty space in the heart of Kuwait City.
Mr. Gholom Jafar Mohammad Ashkanani owns one of the five remaining date stores in Mubarakiya, the traditional souq (street market) of Kuwait City. Because of the importance of dates for Kuwaitis, there is a whole area dedicated to them in the middle of the souq. In North Kuwait City, the Jahra farms provide dates for the market but most of them are brought to Kuwait from Basra, in Iraq, which was the 5th biggest producer in 2018 with more than 600,000 tons. Most of the time the date sellers buy directly from the Iraqi traders but they can also collaborate with dealers called Qata’a. He explains that in the beginning, the most important date customers were the Kuwaiti sailors who used the dates as their main source of sustenance during trips to Indian and African coasts, where they went to trade or pearl dive. Bedouins were also important purchasers as they used to visit the city regularly. Today, most people buy dates by the kilogram, and sometimes they are available in sealed pockets that allow for better conservation. Kuwaitis eat dates throughout the year, but especially during the holy month of Ramadan. Considered a traditional opener for breaking the fast at sunset, dates are eaten with milk, yogurt, porridge (Tahina) or used as a main ingredient for the traditional food mix called Tamryia, which consists of flour, oil, and nuts.
Abdullah Al Tamimi is the oldest seller in the market. He sells traditional dishes and pots that became hard to find in other stores as the demand drastically decreased over the years.
Another example in the country, The House of Amin, a famous estate in the heart of Kuwait City, is now abandoned because three families proclaim ownership and the case has remained open for years due to its unique complexity. The rooftops are deteriorating but the house, built of concrete instead of traditional mud bricks, still stands as a prominent symbol of Kuwaiti heritage and innovation.
The souq is a symbol of Middle Eastern lifestyle. Located in the city center of Kuwait, the Mubarakiyeh souq is critical for the preservation of city’s heritage. Its history is represented there by the incredible diversity of trades and traditional Kuwaiti products, including dates, platters, spices, prayer necklaces, rugs and more.
Due to the wealth pumped into the city from the oil industry, inexpensive labor and vendors generally consist of Egyptian and Iranian immigrants, making the souq one of the last places where one can still meet and exchange with Kuwaiti vendors.
About the author: Jerome Poulalier is a 34-year-old French photographer based in Lyon, working worldwide (mostly Middle East, USA, and Europe). The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. Eight years ago, after receiving the prize from the Nicolas Hulot Foundation, awarded by PHOTO magazine, he made photography his full-time job and has since worked on numerous photo projects. For the past few years, his work and his artistic research have revolved around two dynamics: humans and their environment. Different people, different environments, from the challenges of blindness in Texas to falcon hunting in Jordan, the place of technologies in social relationships (France), or new spaces and lives of nomadic populations (Italy). You can find more of his work on his website.