Farah Al-Nakib, Kuwait Transformed. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2016.
With Kuwait Transformed, Farah Al-Nakib makes a welcome contribution to the growing literature on Gulf cities. Recent works, including books by Nelida Fuccaro (Histories of City and State in the Persian Gulf, Cambridge, 2009) and Mandana Limbert (In the Time of Oil, Stanford, 2010), have established that the Gulf region had a vibrant town life prior to the rise of the commercial oil industry. In the pre-oil era, trade, pearling, and migration through the Indian Ocean arena shaped city dwellers’ experiences and cultures.
Kuwait Transformed is driven by an anguished question, illustrated by haunting anecdotes of people dying in public in Kuwait City while bystanders watched apathetically: Why are Kuwaitis, most of whom live in urban areas, so closed off from one another? In response, al-Nakib tells, as one might expect, the familiar oil-state story of how a port economy dominated by influential merchants was replaced by one in which power and wealth are concentrated in the government (in this case, the al-Sabah monarchy). But this story is secondary to her impressively detailed analysis of Kuwait City’s metamorphosis from a port town to a sprawling, suburbanized, anonymous city fueled by oil. Al-Nakib’s sustained focus on urban planning, architecture, and ground-level lived experience amid those physical spaces makes this study unique—and uniquely valuable.
Al-Nakib’s account of life in the port town in the early twentieth century is synthesized from a huge number of diverse sources, including oral histories that she collected, urban planning documents, newspapers, memoirs, British colonial files, and archival photographs from aerial and ground perspectives. These sources often provide only fragmentary, fleeting references to certain elements of everyday experience, such as outdoor film screenings or the typical sounds one might have heard while trying to sleep on a rooftop on a hot night. Al-Nakib draws all of these references and images together with a detailed understanding of the physical development of the urban fabric. She also incorporates an analysis of pre-oil residential architecture, which was limited by the material constraints of local resources and the physical dimensions of what could be obtained through trade. As a result, most homes in the town at that time looked uniform from the outside, with class differences becoming apparent only in interiors and courtyards. Traditionally, studies of the “Islamic city” have assumed that it was shaped by the need for privacy, especially gendered privacy. Instead, al-Nakib finds a common pattern of “publicization of private space,” by which the residents of traditional firjan (neighborhoods) were always aware of what their neighbors were doing and frequently met with each other in semiprivate, semipublic “spillover” areas outside their homes (66). Through this remarkable array of evidence, in which social, economic, and architectural histories must be understood as fundamentally intertwined, al-Nakib is able to imagine how Kuwait’s geography and materiality would have brought people into interactions of friendly difference, as well as interdependence in times of economic difficulty.
The advent of the oil industry in the 1940s divides the two halves of Kuwait Transformed. Kuwait City, now portrayed in the monarchy’s official discourse as an impoverished space that required modernization, was razed and rebuilt. This transformation was the result of the new centralized structure of revenue and land ownership, as well as the new modernist ideologies of urban planning, that oil modernity brought with it. Across several decades, famed European and American urban planners came up with multiple plans that were applied incompletely and spasmodically, leaving vast spaces empty for use as improvised parking lots for the growing number of cars. Furthermore, these plans paid more attention to the appearance of “order” than to the need to make urban life functional. Al-Nakib argues, quoting a Greek architect, that modernist planning killed Kuwait’s “primordial quality of urbanity”—that, essentially, a city in which people are no longer able to have spontaneous interactions and collectively build an urban life is no longer really a functional city (196). Kuwait developed ethnic, sectarian, and national enclaves for the first time—perhaps even by design, as the government may have benefited, in al-Nakib’s view, from gerrymandering electoral districts in this manner. Such divisions have led to intercommunal tensions becoming bottled up, rather than being faced on a daily basis and resolved as they were in the firjan. Mutual reliance amid poverty in the pre-oil era has been replaced, in the post-oil era, with opulence and conspicuous consumption, symbolized by the vibrantly colored, mushroom-shaped water towers advertising the fact that fresh water is no longer scarce.
One of al-Nakib’s central arguments is that demographic diversity, on its own, does not make a city open-minded and convivial. A city is not cosmopolitan simply by virtue of having inhabitants from many countries, or of several religious or linguistic communities, or of divergent socioeconomic strata—all of which Kuwait has, as do many other cities in the Gulf. Rather, the members of those demographic groups must interact with one another on a regular basis in all of their difference in order to generate a culture of diversity. Here, al-Nakib cites the idea of “agonistic pluralism” (interactional difference as opposed to antagonism), particularly as it has been developed in an urbanist context by Ash Amin and Nigel Thrift (205). If a city’s inhabitants do not regularly come into contact with people with whom they are in “dissensus,” anomie and parochialism can take hold in that city’s everyday life regardless of its superficial heterogeneity (177). Significantly, this conception of urban diversity does not romanticize difference or obscure power dynamics.
The argument against urban segregation is not new, of course, but al-Nakib’s methodical construction of this case through examinations of specific areas, neighborhoods, and public squares is a fresh approach in the literature on the Gulf. She is also conscious of the common assumption that urban self-segregation is a natural, even desirable, process, and works persistently to debunk it. At one point, she tracks down evidence that Kuwait City residents drove out of their way to the oil town of al-Ahmadi in order to use its superior parks and pools, proving that there was not a lack of demand for mixed public spaces. Kuwait Transformed, therefore, presents a useful model for those seeking to understand other cities that have been popularly considered paragons of multiculturalism or cosmopolitanism, but have been studied in the academic literature for their characteristic intercommunal tensions and segregation. These places include many cities in the Middle East (for instance, Alexandria, Baghdad, Beirut, Dubai, Istanbul, Jerusalem, and Kirkuk), as well as beyond it (for instance, London, Los Angeles, Mumbai, New York, Paris, and Singapore).
Al-Nakib concludes her book with a brief but compelling ethnographic account of how, in recent years, Kuwaitis have begun spontaneously to reclaim certain city spaces from privatization, foreign businesses, and externally imposed planning that fails to meet their needs. She describes, for instance, how the opening of local, small businesses in the center of the city has attracted Kuwaitis back into that area, often on foot amid streets that cannot easily accommodate parked cars. This has brought some Kuwaitis into closer physical proximity with the lower-income non-Kuwaitis who dominate the city center than they would normally have on a daily basis. She also relates an account, based entirely on interviews, of a recent community gardening project in the commercial district of Salmiya. These are stories that could only have been told by a historian with a deep, personal familiarity with the city. Al-Nakib’s quick deference in her preface to those who might regard her perspective on Kuwait City as having “inherent biases” is probably unnecessary (x). If there remain any social scientists laboring under the impression that scholars with an emotional distance from their topics usually do a better job of writing about them, Kuwait Transformed should lay that idea to rest.
Kuwait Transformed breaks new ground, providing a foundation for further historical study of Kuwait. Al-Nakib creates this foundation by demonstrating how social, economic, and material changes occur in interplay with Kuwait’s urbanism in a society in which the overwhelming majority of the population lives in cities. Her ground-up history of city dwellers’ lived experience deliberately decenters major external political developments that affected Kuwait’s state-level politics, including the influence of Arab nationalism on the opposition to the monarchy, the impact of Iraqi claims to Kuwait prior to the 1990 invasion, and the immigration and emigration of Palestinians. These topics, and others like them, are treated briefly in this book, but the question of how they might be better understood through a lens that takes Kuwait City’s development into account remains open for future researchers to explore.
This well-written book will resonate with any scholar of urbanism, architecture, development, extractive industry, and the discourses surrounding these practices. It is a significant contribution to the literature in modern Middle Eastern history, reflecting recent trends in that field toward the critical study of materiality, space, and place, as well as the relationships between social phenomena and political economy. Published in spring 2016, this book has already found its way onto the syllabi of graduate seminars, where—with its clear prose, theoretical underpinnings, and explicit grounding in global histories of urban planning—it will form a fruitful basis for discussion even among students who know little about the Middle East.