Farah Al-Nakib in conversation with Todd Reisz
Historian Farah Al-Nakib's much-anticipated book Kuwait Transformed: History of Oil and Urban Life opens with a stabbing in a shopping mall. With such a jolted start, the book at once puts history to test, probing how much history can tell us about Kuwait's past promises, its current quandaries, and its future potential. In this interview, Al-Nakib addresses history's risks but also sets up an argument for history's place in shaping the city she also calls home. As Al-Nakib asserts, Kuwait is 'a 100% urban society', and yet we are just entering an era of writing of urban histories of the Persian Gulf. Al-Nakib's work might reveal to us that this accumulating historical work on Gulf cities will do more than merely shed light on these cities; it could actually in turn shape them.
Todd Reisz: I'm thrilled your book is finally out. It's at once a stand-alone success in terms of documenting the urban history of the Gulf, but it is also part of a surge of writing on the Gulf in the last few years.
Farah Al-Nakib: I remember when I first started my doctoral studies at SOAS in 2006, my adviser Nelida Fuccaro and I would discuss what work was being done on the Gulf. Her book wasn't even out yet, but it was in the final stages. There were some historical works that had been done on the Gulf, but there was almost nothing else at the time that explored the region from an urban perspective. But in these past ten years since, that has changed. In addition to Fuccaro's book on Bahrain, we now have Ahmed Kanna's book on Dubai, Pascal Menoret's work on Saudi Arabia, and so many other really great works. So, yes, it is an exciting time.
TR: What distinguishes your book from others is that you are actually giving us an account of life before oil in Kuwait, so that we can perceive of the transformations that have occurred since oil's discovery, and its exploitation. Your writing almost walks us through a foregone city.
FAN: That's great to hear you've read it that way because that's what I was hoping to do. Not so much to reconstruct life before oil, but I wanted to tell a story. Because that's how I heard it. Each section or time period of the book relies on the sources that were available from that time period. For the pre-oil period, much of what I used was oral histories – stories told to me by people about everyday life. So a lot of what I absorbed was already in a storytelling format.
TR: This book is based on ten years' worth of work, including your studies at SOAS. I'm aware of your breadth of knowledge about Kuwait, so of course, thinking about the fact that the book is a mere 250 pages that take us from pre-oil Kuwait to the city's contemporary form, I wonder if you have put material aside? Could this be a first volume of many?
FAN: It's a little bit of both. In a way the book is a culmination of ten years of research, but it is not the only thing that came out of those ten years. I used the first three years or so after my PhD to develop some of my dissertation research that I knew would not make it into the book into four or five academic articles, such as one about housing in relation to the hadar and badu in Kuwait.
There is another project that I started during my fieldwork in Kuwait between 2007 and 2008, when a period of mass demolition of the early post-oil modern city had begun. My time back in Kuwait inspired me to write about the relationships between demolition, memory, and the built environment. I have presented some of this work at conferences. Now I'm starting to revisit these themes in what I hope to be my next book project.
TR: I wrote down a sentence from the book: 'Urban life in the various spaces of the pre-oil city was thus characterized by diversity and simultaneity.' Diversity and simultaneity – it sounds like a beautiful and exciting place. I don't want to suggest that your book is sentimental or wistful, and you state clearly that this is not a nostalgic project. Nevertheless, I still want to hear more from you about nostalgia.
FAN: A historian can become closely attached to their topic. On top of that, I am a Kuwaiti. I grew up in this city. I mentioned in the book's preface that in many ways this was a very personal project. In terms of nostalgia, I definitely think that things seemed better before oil in certain ways. I've looked at how the community functioned before oil, and I believe my evidence backs up my conclusions. A nostalgic reading of the past would idealize that past. For example, it would state that people behaved a certain way out of the goodness of their heart or out of a natural inclination toward cooperation and neighborliness. It is easy to look back and see that everyone got along and everything was rosy. The reality, though, was that people behaved a certain way because they had to in order to survive.
If you strip away the nostalgia, you find that there were some very pragmatic reasons as to why things occurred the way the did, especially in times of scarcity. It's how you interpret the past and uncover what the reasons were for a certain kind of behavior that separates history from pure nostalgia.
TR: At the same time, almost every sentence you write about Kuwait's past seems to be charged with a question about its future. And in a way, this book is really about Kuwait's present. Do you wonder about what Kuwait could have been?
FAN: There's always this kind of 'what-if' thread weaving in and out of the story. Living in Kuwait has become difficult for me because I'm constantly seeing the what-ifs everywhere around me. I know the city and its history so well that it's as if I have X-ray vision. I can see what it is, what it was, and what it could've been, and it can drive you crazy because you're trying to live your own everyday life in the same city. I also realize it's very dangerous to fall into the trap of being gratuitously critical. I can easily say that there were a lot of mistakes made but I'm also saying that from the luxury of looking at it through this long historical lens. The people making those decisions didn't have that same luxury.
My intention was not to assign blame. I'm more critical of where we go from here, because now we have no excuses. We might make different mistakes going down a different path. That's fine. My frustration is that sixty years later we have the benefit of hindsight, and yet we seem to keep making the same mistakes.
TR: Your approach to modernization, and to modernism, seems to me pretty radical. Both concepts are often framed as being applied through top-down approaches. The task that a historian usually takes on is to reveal that there was indeed some resistance to any top-down imposition. But you've given us something different: that Kuwaitis were open to, and even excited about, change.
FAN: Modernity is always framed – not just in the Gulf's context but in general – as rupture, as erasures. What I argue is that Kuwait's embrace of change was not radically different than how people approached life before oil. I argue that Kuwaitis behaved a certain way before oil out of the pragmatic realities of poverty and the harshness of life. Kuwaitis approached modernity with that same pragmatic outlook: if something can improve your life, why would you resist it?
I can be critical of the 1950s and 60s, but, from another perspective, I also look at that period in a very positive light. You often hear that the changes in the 1950s and 60s were coming to us from the outside, which leads to a kind of delegitimizing of Kuwait's modernity. It's too easy to discredit all of this as imposed from the West or from the top. The reality was that Kuwaitis really embraced these changes.
When I interviewed people about leaving the pre-oil city and moving out to the new houses, I expected to hear more laments about the process. You might think that they were sad to leave their old neighborhoods, but their old houses had been dark and hot. Ten people might have been living in one room, and then suddenly they received their own villas. The nostalgia came later. When they look back now, they find that life was better before oil. That is when nostalgia comes in, but it's not about how they felt at the time of the move. It's more about realizing over time how their lives have since changed.
TR: With Kuwait Transformed, it is very clear you're a historian. But you've also taken on other roles. Would you consider some kind of role in urban-policy making?
FAN: Yes, absolutely. This book combined two of my interests: my interest in the city and my interest in history. The work I've done on urban space in the city has permanently changed the way I think. Kuwait is a 100% urban society. You can't study anything in the Gulf without considering an urban component, without thinking about things through the lens of the built environment. So having done all this work from that angle will always shape what I write about Kuwait because we are an urban society.
You're right, the next logical step is the urban policy route. I just got back from a six-month fellowship at American University in Washington, DC, where I was working on a Carnegie-funded project headed up by Diane Singerman focused on urban governance in the Arab world. I now know the city inside out: I know where mistakes were made, and I can see where potential is. My book's conclusion already suggests some possible ways forward for Kuwait, and now I'm trying to figure out how to bring the research I've done into the actual and current context of Kuwait. I've applied for a research grant here in Kuwait to pursue some policy work. I want to look at Kuwaiti cooperatives, which function as a kind of governance system within urban and suburban neighborhoods. This isn't an academic project. My proposal is to make real policy recommendations to Kuwait's planning institutions.
TR: You've cited some well-known urban critics in your book. I'd like to read another sentence from the book, which reminds me of one of them: 'This does not mean that [Kuwait's master] plans failed. Rather, it reveals that planning as a method of city formation itself failed in post-oil Kuwait.'
FAN: Henri Lefebvre.
TR: Well, maybe, but I was thinking Jane Jacobs, who also makes several appearances in the book.
FAN: Oh, right. Absolutely.
TR: As Jacobs might do, you seem to suggest that urban planning, as a tool of modernity, failed. It's not how it was done, but that it was done. There's the possibility to read a conflict here with your comments about modernity.
FAN: I see what you're saying in terms of the conflict. It has to do with how we interpret modernity. Modernist planning, I do believe, failed. British postwar modernist city planning as it was implemented in Kuwait – with its notions of suburbanization, functional zoning, central business districts, for example – was entirely state led. That is a universal component of this kind of planning, but there was also next to no public involvement in the process. Many of the planners actually wanted to involve local counterparts and invite public participation, but the municipality remained against the idea.
I'm not arguing against all planning. Modernization always requires some kind of planning or coordination, but the modernist planning we adopted – that is, for the purposes of order and control – created a segregated, frustrated, unsatisfied urban population.
The post-oil experience of modernity, however, encompassed a lot more than just modernist planning. For instance, I would make a distinction between modernist planning and modernist architecture. There was some modernist architecture that was successful. Some of the work of the architect Saba George Shiber, for instance, had a real functional suitability.
TR: One of the highlights of your book is learning more about Saba Shiber. It's fascinating to see him paired with Jane Jacobs in your book. They are both critical of the outside expert coming in and saying what needs to happen. And they both subsequently try to offer their own design solutions. You mention positive aspects to Shiber's work in Kuwait, but in your book we learn that there is also failure in Shiber's work.
FAN: Shiber is someone I need to return to, but I have written a more in-depth piece on him and his impact on Kuwait. As I mention in the book, his plan for the central business district required the demolition of an existing neighborhood and the forced relocation of its people. So, yes, Shiber did pursue a traditional modernist notion of a central business district for Kuwait. Henri Lefebvre argues that we should not look to architects or planners to bring about change. The change in any city has to come from social forces. The architect's job, then, is to help facilitate those changes. But we too often look to urban planners or architects to somehow come up with a spatial formula that is going to help bring about positive changes in society. Shiber is an example of an architect very much focused on change in a modernist sense, but whose goal was to integrate some elements of the traditional city into his plans not as pastiche but as a way of meeting existing and future social needs.
The only part of Shiber's central district business plan that was actually built is a section of the city that has survived until today, mainly a cluster of standalone block buildings that are well integrated with the existing urban fabric. They all came with off-street parking, and there's a good flow between them. They're colonnaded to offer shade from the sun. About ten years ago, a strip of these buildings was appropriated by small local businesses and redeveloped in Kuwait's first example of unplanned gentrification. Old storefronts were redeveloped and used by new, hip businesses. This was the only part of the city that had proven itself to be successfully adaptable. It would have made Shiber very happy to know that his buildings had proved adaptable to change. So on the one hand he was a modernist planner, but then he brought something of the old city back by creating a district that became adaptable to new social needs.
TR: You have investigated pre-oil models of living in your research, and there's something new and much needed in your work in this way. However, there are probably several architects right now in Kuwait pitching ideas based on pre-modern Arab ideas, like the fareej and the mashrabiya. I'm curious to know what you, as a historian, think of this.
FAN: In the pre-oil period architecture was an outcome of social realities, of people's everyday needs and desires. There are certain elements that could certainly be useful to us today, but not if you're just looking to capture 'authenticity'. Now we have shopping malls that use these architectural motifs to capture something of pre-oil architecture. But it's just an attempt to put a stamp of authenticity on the city.
What I'm interested in is the social reality of this pre-oil architecture. It performed well with our climate: the building materials, the thick walls, the way we situate windows, the mashrabiya, the colonnade. These cities that we look back on and think were pretty and quaint were first and foremost functional. They were tools of survival. People designed these cities in order to live life in a harsh climate, safely in neighborhoods when most men were generally out of town for nine months at a time.
Western literature on Islamic cities focuses on how these neighborhoods were designed to keep women out of sight. That was there to some degree, but most architectural features were based on climate, not gender separation. I'm not original in arguing this. Janet Abu Lughod argued against this kind of Orientalist reading of the pre-modern 'Islamic' city. One of my goals is to show how integral women were to everyday life before oil in Kuwait, despite how historians have tended to mis-read the built environment as a signifier of the stereotypical passive Arab/Muslim woman.
TR: I love the story you tell of the teenage girl who somehow negotiated her way through the architecture to flirt with a boy.
FAN: And, she was literate. She was able to write notes. Stories like these undermine the assumptions we had about the way people lived back then. Once again, I oscillate between my emotional attachment and trying to be an objective academic historian, but it broke my heart to realize how much more conservative we've really become socially, culturally, and politically. The stories people have told me of earlier life in Kuwait amazed me about how less strict life was, particularly among the population who were not the elite. We are handed such a sterile and monolithic image of life before oil. We don't think of those love stories and about teenagers being teenagers, which I heard an abundance of when I did my oral history interviews.
TR: It is a remarkable book, especially because of its legibility. It seems to me you're ready to have a more charged public debate.
FAN: Kuwaitis are my primary audience. Of course I have to write an academic book for my academic career, but for me it was a story that I really wanted to tell here in order to hopefully start new ways of thinking about our past, about our city, and about who were are as a society. Yes, there is some critique in the book. Yes, some parts are not entirely flattering, but I don't bring in those critiques to be gratuitously negative. My goal is to generate a new conversation and say, here are our problems. How can we work them out and move beyond?
 Nelida Fuccaro, Histories of City and State in the Persian Gulf: Manama Since 1800, Cambridge University Press, 2009
 'Revisiting Hadar and Badu in Kuwait: Citizenship, Housing, and the Construction of a Dichotomy', Int. J. Middle East Stud. 46 (2014), pp. 5-30, https://www.academia.edu/7913044/Revisiting_Hadar_and_Badu_in_Kuwait_Citizenship_Housing_and_the_Construction_of_a_Dichotomy