The State of Kuwait
But to even begin answering this question, the question of what it means to be Kuwaiti, we must first examine the assumption it carries so lightly: that Kuwait is a predefined entity in which one can then proceedingly be Kuwaiti.
This is an excerpt from Yasmeen Khaja’s larger thesis portfolio, titled “Liminal Places: Mapping a Kuwaiti National Identity in Global Cyberspace.” This work can also be found in the Class of 2019 publication, Everything That Rises: Thinking about Design in Precarious Times.
What does it mean to be Kuwaiti?
A seemingly straightforward question—yet, one of present urgency. In only 14 years, the population of Kuwait exploded, doubling in size from 2.1 million people to its current population of over 4 million people, of whom 70% are not Kuwaiti. Kuwaiti nationals make up 30% of the population, making them a minority in their own country. A Kuwaiti national identity, by virtue of these numbers, is almost inevitably under threat—vulnerable amidst the exponentially complex changes in global relationships. The understanding of a national identity at all, and the mapping of a Kuwaiti identity across the global sphere, has become a monstrous task. But to even begin answering this question, the question of what it means to be Kuwaiti, we must first examine the assumption it carries so lightly: that Kuwait is a predefined entity in which one can then proceedingly be Kuwaiti.
Of course, pragmatically speaking, Kuwait is an oil-rich country in the Middle East. It, along with Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Oman, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates, is a part of the Gulf Cooperation Council (the GCC, or, in the everyday vernacular, al-Khaleej). It is bound by the borders of neighboring nation-states—Iraq to its northwest, Iran to its northeast, Saudi Arabia to its south—and its eastern border surrounded by the waters of the Persian Gulf. The national territory was once a British protectorate, and gained the state of official independence during 1961. In 1991, the country was liberated from the Iraqi oppositional forces of the Gulf War. This is the kind of Wikipedian information that tends to define the nation of Kuwait. But when someone identifies as Kuwaiti, surely, it is not by the latitudinal qualities of the land. When the question of what it means to be Kuwaiti is raised, the inquiry invites us to imagine a Kuwait, to imagine the nation of Kuwait as an idea. Furthermore, I believe that a Kuwaiti is the individual who is able to project the idea of Kuwait, regardless of whether these very ideas are a fact of reality, or a projection of a false one. While what does it mean to be Kuwaiti? is a very telling question—its rhetoric revealing the obviously inconclusive and the obviously subjective—perhaps the more productive question to ask, now, is: why does the Kuwaiti subject exist?
I often entertain: if there is any answer at all, it is to completely discard the notion of a cultural identity altogether, to rid of the counterproductive processes of becoming in order to finally be. Of course, the hum of enlightened despair is very quickly drowned by the noisy presence of the emotionally-loaded realities that come with being part of a nation… the imagined community swims deep. There is, however, the strong urge to unpack the landscapes that I find myself surrounded by—the ways in which I, through so many faults of my own, am perpetuating the very creation of culture-identity-nation narratives by the images I project onto the world around me as Kuwaiti and non-Kuwaiti… or, rather, as anything at all.
I sat down with Bandar, a candidate for a PhD in Middle Eastern Studies at Columbia University, over a morning coffee. He is currently investigating the presumption that frames “that” side of the world (the Arab world) as built on specifically anti-colonial histories. Of course, all colonial histories are far more complex than a master narrative of exploitation inflicted by “one group” on “another” (surely, this diluted explanation is the single most discernible form of colonialism, one which offers a complete lack of remorse). But I believe these master narratives are, evidently, not only a mirror that was held up for the Middle East to come to new terms with its sense of self—they are also the fact that a mirror was held up at all. The one question I have not found an intelligible answer to, is that of what is meant when something feels Kuwaiti. I am able to illustrate national affect, to map it, to show it, and yet, I cannot translate it. Studying the idea of a national Kuwaiti identity became an exercise in globalisation studies. The two are inseparable, I told Bandar during our meeting, and yet, I feel so Kuwaiti, still, as if it is indeed an absolute. “Yes, me too, I feel Kuwaiti. We are national subjects, and we don’t hide from that. But, we can be national subjects and still be critical of how you became one.”
What is in the name of a country?
The term Kuwait is a derivative of akwat أكوات , the plural of kut كوت Arabic for a small fort. A fort insinuates a limit: there is inside the fort, and there is outside the fort. The existence of an inside and an outside is made possible by a boundary. Kuwait carries a sense of existing within, or in relation to, a boundary. In Arabic, the State of Kuwait (the officially observed name of the country) translates to dawlat al-kuwait دولة الكويت Dawlah comes from dawl دول relating to the notion of alternating, literally, the state of something. The State of Kuwait, or dawlat al-kuwait, implies change, or rotation. The state of Kuwait, then, is not fixed.