There are many people who recall Kuwait’s times past. Every memory becomes a personal view, and over time there is no doubt that these views become distorted, and perhaps even selective. For this reason Kuwait will be eternally grateful to the work of Tareq Sayid Rajab, who has served as Director at the Department of Antiquities and Museums in Kuwait, established its foremost private museum of historical artefacts, the Tareq Rajab Museum, and who currently holds the position as Kuwait’s Representative to the World Heritage Committee at UNESCO.
Rajab has also travelled the region photographically recording views of cities and lives now changed and gone forever - a number of his images illuminate these pages. Created over a period of more than 55 years, they tell a story of a corner of Arabia which has had vast wealth and massive changes thrust upon it over a relatively short period of time.
Certainly, Rajab laments many of the changes that have overtaken Kuwait. For everything the country and the people have gained, he feels a very high price has been paid.
“This is a young country with a young population,” he says, “and much of the population is not old enough to remember the Kuwait of old.” By ‘old’, Rajab refers to anything that would have existed prior even to independence. Only half a century ago. It is all too easy to forget, or possibly never even to have learned, that what constituted Kuwait in those times was a really rather charming and architecturally handsome city.
It is to his great regret that today there is little of Kuwait’s heritage and folklore that is taught in schools. “The youth of today aren’t encouraged to remember the past, so as the changes have happened and old neighbourhoods have been removed, nobody felt a passion to mourn them”.
Indeed, to look at Kuwait today as the dynamic and modern global city that it has become, it appears the objective to town-planners has been simply to turn the page, and to ignore our noble Arab heritage.
“For a time in the early 1960s,” Rajab recalls, “even palm trees were despised, and they were cut down. We faced a terrible time in convincing people that these were integral to our past, and in some specific instances played a key part in our history. “As palm trees were removed, they were replaced with trees that some considered, perhaps, more ‘progressive’.” These were trees that were not indigenous and which he describes graphically as being ‘alien’ to Kuwait.
He talks of the Red Fort in Jahra. During the famous siege the defenders were shot at by attackers who had taken up positions at the top of the trees. “They chopped down all those trees.”
As the years passed by, this hunger for modernisation accelerated. More of Kuwait’s heritage was lost, and more symbols of history were removed forever.
Of course today there is, thankfully, an increased awareness of the importance of retaining the fabric of the past. This realisation doesn’t extend necessarily to regret for what has already gone, but perhaps the tide is changing.
Rajab is doubtful of the substance of this movement for the preservation of the elements of Kuwait’s past that still remain. Without his extensive portfolio of images from the last half-century, it might only be possible to guess at what treasures have been destroyed.
Ultimately, Rajab used his voice to publically call for preservation one last time when demanding to secure the future of Kuwait’s old town, Qibla. As part of a modernisation program, the government offered land and opened new residential areas outside what were once the city walls. Residents of the old town were given inducements to move to these new areas with their modern facilities. It is a plan that is not entirely without merit and one that can be well defended on many levels.
However, it was the destruction of the newly vacated old town that proved too much for Rajab, and he resigned his position as Director of Antiquities and Museums.
But he didn’t give up the battle. From then on he set about recording and sharing hundreds of images, and in 1980 opened the Tareq Rajab Museum, which gives an intriguing and unique glimpse into our past and also the history of our many neighbouring countries and trading partners.
Today, when we look at Kuwait we see a nation with eyes firmly fixed on the 21st century. A wise society will only grow with substance whilst it recalls its roots and celebrates its pioneers and great forefathers.
Without doubt Tareq Sayed Rajab has created a legacy which will live on into Kuwait’s future by not allowing us to ignore that past. Perhaps this monumental year of 2011 will be the year that a larger slice of the population learns also to look to the future whilst importantly learning from the past.
Image sources and further reading: Glimpses from Kuwait 60-06 by Tareq Sayid Rajab
First published in Men's Passion issue #27 December-January 2010-11