In Ruins: Reflections beyond Kuwait

July 7, 2021
A photograph from inside a crumbling building that looks out toward the sea
Photos by Mai Al-Nakib / Courtesy of the author

Civilizations, empires, dynasties, and monarchies end, leaving behind ruins of their fabled splendor. Traces of achievements become more or less decipherable, contingent upon the mercy of elements and vagaries of time. Global ascents have been awesome. The point, however, is that no matter how accomplished or established the power, no matter how seemingly eternal, its passing is guaranteed.

In the shadow of World War II, Walter Benjamin described the angel of history with his face turned toward the past: “Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage.” Unlike most of us, the angel of history takes the long view. He bears witness to the rising debris, which periodically may initiate a state of emergency, such as genocide or war. Whether this state of emergency brings about radical transformation or more of the same cannot be determined in advance. A cursory archaeology of our planetary ruins reveals the latter to be the case more frequently.

Any citizen of a failing nation-state adopting the angel of history’s long view must ask herself a series of sobering questions. Given its recent past, the parameters of its present, and the constitution of its population and leadership, how likely is it that the kind of sweeping change a country needs in order to survive will occur? Have the sacrifices of the many over the last eighty years been enough to overtake the corruption and self-interest of the many, many more? Is there any stomach for ethical alternatives when xenophobia becomes the overriding national sensibility and Cavafy’s “barbarians” are projected as a “kind of solution”? When the measures required to ensure the state’s sustainability are endlessly deferred in the hope that a deus ex machina will save us from ourselves, can minority voices and modest actions pierce through the temporary comfort of magical thinking? Even if the responses to these questions are overwhelmingly negative—as they are in my particular case—this need not trigger despair.

Something always transpires. While unfolding events may not match our particular preferences or aspirations, the long view offers bittersweet solace. Benjamin, tragically, did not survive Hitler; but his writings did, as did his singular, outsider perspective on history and culture. Stefan Zweig wrote his stirring memoir of Vienna, The World of Yesterday, in a hotel room in London, without his books, without notes or letters, forcibly expatriated from his beloved city following the rise of the Nazis. Exiled in Istanbul, also in the wake of World War II, German Jewish scholar of comparative literature Erich Auerbach wrote his dazzling masterpiece Mimesis, equally bereft of his homeland and his library of books. Edward W. Said, Palestinian American scholar of comparative literature, applying his own experience of exile from Palestine after 1948, invented the discipline-defining practice of contrapuntal reading, writing, and thinking. For Said, exile becomes an ethical modality for parsing the world itself, never relying on any single perspective or ideological assumption. All this to say that even in the midst of inexorable circumstances, in one form or another, great ideas, actions, even places persist.

Two of the four scholars mentioned committed suicide—out of desperation, fear, hopelessness, or a lucid sense of claiming one last gesture of autonomy, we cannot know for sure. Individuals sometimes choose suicide, and many nations, my own included, seem to hurtle down suicidal paths for confounding reasons. (Of late, Western democracy itself—with its majority votes for antidemocratic parties and leaders—seems comparably suicidal.) In the ruins left behind, a few telling markers may poke through. In fact, we need not wait for the collapse to excavate these remains. With a little imagination, they can be prefigured, not as a cautionary tale—there are few ears to hear anyway —but in order to collect neglected shards in the present, even while looking back, as the winds of catastrophe blast us into the future. Whether that future is as doomed as the shards would suggest remains an open question.

Said cited Auerbach often and fondly on his diminished sense of the nation, a sensibility likely gleaned by way of exile.[i] “In any event,” Auerbach declares, “our philological home is the earth: it can no longer be the nation. The most priceless and indispensable part of a philologist’s heritage is still his own nation’s culture and language. Only when he is first separated from this heritage, however, and then transcends it does it become truly effective.” In a similar vein, Theodor Adorno—Benjamin’s friend, yet another Jewish scholar exiled from Hitler’s Germany, also a key influence on Said—had this to say: “It is part of morality not to be at home in one’s home.” To detach from one’s nation-home becomes an ethical move in the face of overwhelming odds. It is not an act of surrender or abdication of responsibility—or at least it is not only that. It can be a purposive shift, an attempt to about-face toward something as yet undefined, other than oblivion. This is where I find myself in relation to Kuwait today, adrift on an island apart—a position that affords me a future-perfect perspective among the ruins to come. After Kuwait, what are some of the things that will have come to light?

To detach from one’s nation-home becomes an ethical move in the face of overwhelming odds.

Photos by Mai Al-Nakib / Courtesy of the author

Among the ruins, what will have become obvious is that what mattered above all else was the ravaged environment. Struggles for power between leadership and parliament currently impeding any advancement in the country will seem laughably beside the point. Accusations of corruption while, at the same time, salivating over what’s left to steal will be registered, finally, as pathetic urgencies compared to our oil-choked skies, contaminated seas, and toxic deserts. These will be perceived—too late—as signs of the climate disaster that destroyed Kuwait, reducing it to a zone uninhabitable by humans. Fish, desert fauna, and fennec foxes, should they survive us, will no doubt celebrate. And Kuwaiti citizens, now climate refugees, will pound on the doors of countries such as India, perhaps, or Bangladesh, maybe the Philippines, desperate for sanctuary; and those countries—their own citizens remembering bitterly what it felt like to live in a xenophobic Kuwait—will answer, No.

Among the ruins, what will have been discerned is that, contrary to widespread assumption, it was the period just after the invasion and not the invasion itself that was the turning point for Kuwait. Under Iraqi occupation, Kuwait could claim the moral high ground. Accepting this requires a bracketing of Kuwait’s ill-advised, decade-long appeasement and support of Saddam Hussein, a dictator of Hitler’s ilk, who so obviously could not be trusted. But leaving this inconvenient history aside for our purposes here, we can assert that during the invasion, Kuwait was victimized. Immediately after liberation, however, Kuwaitis exercised their freedom by brutalizing innocents. Kuwaitis turned on the Palestinian community that had lived harmoniously, productively, and peacefully among them for over fifty years, blaming Palestinian residents of Kuwait for the words and actions of Palestinian leaders outside the country. A vibrant community of 380,000–400,000 was reduced to 70,000 in the span of a year.[ii]

Thirty years on, Kuwait remains the only member country of the Gulf Cooperation Council other than Qatar to continue to champion the Palestinian cause unequivocally. Kuwait’s political, financial, and moral support over the last decade has been admirable, and relations between the two peoples have warmed once again. However, its postinvasion turn against the Palestinian community in Kuwait has never been openly acknowledged by leadership nor by most citizens. No apology has ever been offered. What happened is rarely broached publicly by Kuwaitis; indeed, those born after the invasion have no knowledge of what happened—it is not a history taught in schools or discussed in society. Given the ongoing peril under which Palestinian exiles and refugees continue to live, it’s not surprising that few, if any, are in a position to complain openly about what was done to them. Out of sight and out of mind for all involved has been the response of choice. Yet I believe it is precisely this lack of atonement that accounts for Kuwait’s xenophobic turn in recent decades.[iii]

Xenophobia is a product of fear. In the guise of security, identity, privilege, or self-entitlement, xenophobia becomes a release valve allowing citizens to ignore what truly ails them. Fear is a legitimate response to the circumstances and conditions of life in a nonsustainable Kuwait. Environmentally, economically, and politically, we’re in deep trouble. The impact of the pandemic on Kuwait—an education system in tatters; businesses going belly-up without government support; oil prices plummeting; positivity rates never stabilizing; insufficient vaccines acquired to inoculate a population of just over four million—has laid bare our unsustainability to those willing to see. Many are not prepared to look because it’s frightening to face the thoroughgoing changes that must occur for the country to survive. Instead, noncitizen residents are blamed, making the country increasingly inhospitable to them. I connect this knee-jerk tendency back to our earlier displacing of blame onto Palestinian residents instead of reckoning honestly with what actually brought Saddam Hussein’s troops across our borders that hot day in August. We were, in part, to blame for the invasion; the Palestinians were not. Just as today we, Kuwaiti citizens, are to blame for the state of our nation, non-Kuwaiti residents are not.

Among the ruins, what will have emerged is that education was the key to everything else falling apart and that the system of education was purposely broken.

Among the ruins, what will have emerged is that education was the key to everything else falling apart and that the system of education was purposely broken. An educated citizenry would demand democracy, freedom, sustainability, accountability, better lives in the present, ongoing opportunities for future generations. An uneducated, docile citizenry accepts the corrupt status quo, happily bought off with subsidies and wages for minimal work in government-sector jobs, with no thought as to how this seemingly bottomless basket of goodies can go on in a world shifting away from fossil fuels. That question requires a capacity to think, which the degraded system of education has snuffed out.

A recent study determined that Kuwaiti high school graduates from the public school system (that is to say, the majority of Kuwaiti students) are at a seventh-grade level of academic performance.[iv] Kuwait University’s sharp drop in the QS World University Rankings for 2022 lends credence to the study. As a professor of comparative literature at Kuwait University, I can confirm this assessment anecdotally. Many of the students I teach at the undergraduate level cannot read, write, or think critically. Most register in the Department of English Language and Literature because the public-sector job market offers competitive salaries for English-language speakers. They join with no proficiency in English and display an overwhelming rigidity in their capacity to absorb complex ideas. One-dimensional thinking is the norm, and students are taken aback when exposed to nuance, paradox, or multiplicity. There is a discernible apathy, a lack of engagement with ideas, and a desire to be rewarded good grades without effort. Kuwaiti university students are paid $660 a month, regardless of merit, just for being enrolled; money rather than knowledge is the key motivator for many young people to attend university, which is free and has low requirements for acceptance.

Kuwait University professors are pressured to inflate grades by parliament members, who interfere in the institution, and by administrators, who don’t want to deal with parliament. Many professors give up trying to maintain standards, bombarded as they are with ever-rising numbers of admitted students, teaching classes of sixty or seventy without the help of assistants, drowning in endless and unnecessary bureaucratic tasks that make it appear as if real work is being done. Instead of hiring permanent academic staff members, available professors are seduced with bonuses to teach extra classes and summer courses. The catch is that for professors to be paid for their extra classes and summer courses, their classes must fill to capacity; the only way students will enroll to capacity is if they expect the professor in question will grade leniently. This transactional merry-go-round of inflated high grades for filled classrooms and extra pay is resisted by some, even as we recognize the futility of our stand.

What is true of the public university system is far worse at the primary and secondary school levels. Over decades, hundreds of excellent reports have been written by local and international experts on education, to no avail. The unyielding consistency with which these studies and suggestions are ignored confirms that the neglect is no accident. This is a choice Kuwait is making—leaders, parliament members, and parents alike—to keep education standards as low as possible in the hopes that the boat will not be rocked. The opposite, in fact, is what future ruins will have revealed. The annihilation of education brought us to our knees.

Acts of charity, bravery, activism, feminism, and creativity in cultural and other forms persist.

Mine is not a nihilistic view. If we affirm the doom surrounding us, it allows us to make space for alternatives. Small transformations are constantly underway in Kuwait, like anywhere else, pushing in directions other than our currently unsustainable trajectory. Acts of charity, bravery, activism, feminism, and creativity in cultural and other forms persist. These may be invisible to most but are perceived by those attuned or who share affinities. Marginal and marginalized acts may not interrupt our suicidal path—and I do not believe they will in the particular case of Kuwait—but they should not be discounted altogether. Among the ruins these too will be picked out as virtual promises of what can yet be actualized by those who survive the fall, wherever in the world they end up.

Kuwait University


Works Cited

Adorno, Theodor. Minima Moralia: Reflections from Damaged Life, translated by E. F. N. Jephcott (Verso, 1974).

Al-Nakib, Mai. “Kanafani in Kuwait: A Clinical Cartography.” Deleuze Studies 9, no. 1 (2015): 88–111.

Al-Turki, Fahad. “Khiryj al-thanawi yu‘adil al-sabi‘ al-mutawasit! (Secondary School Graduates Are at the Seventh Grade Level!).” Al-Jarida, April 7, 2021.

Auerbach, Erich. “Philology and Weltliteratur,” translated by Mariam and Edward Said. Centennial Review 13, no. 1 (1969): 1–17.

Benjamin, Walter. “Theses on the Philosophy of History.” In Illuminations, edited by Hannah Arendt, translated by Harry Zohn (Schocken, 1968), 253–64.

Cavafy, C. P. “Expecting the Barbarians.” In The Complete Poems of Cavafy, translated by Rae Dalven (Harcourt, 1976), 18–19.

Lesch, Ann M. “No Refuge for Refugees: The Insecure Exile of Palestinians in Kuwait.” In Exile and Return: Predicaments of Palestinians and Jews, edited by Ann M. Lesch and Ian S. Lustick (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2005), 161–82.

Said, Edward W. Culture and Imperialism (Vintage, 1994).

———. Representations of the Intellectual (Pantheon, 1994).

———. The World, the Text, and the Critic (Harvard University Press, 1983).

[i] The World, the Text, and the Critic, 5–9; Culture and Imperialism, 318, 335–36.

[ii] Lesch, “No Refuge for Refugees,” 172.

[iii] Al-Nakib, “Kanafani in Kuwait,” 104–5.

[iv] Al-Turki, Al-Jarida, April 7, 2021.

Mai Al-Nakib is author of the novel An Unlasting Home and the award-winning short-story collection The Hidden Light of Objects. Her fiction has appeared in Ninth Letter, The First Line, After the Pause, Markaz Review, and Rowayat; her occasional essays in World Literature Today, BLARB, New Lines Magazine, and Index on Censorship, among others. She is associate professor of English and comparative literature at Kuwait University.