Coffee and cardamon Kuwaiti style

30 October 2009

Written by: Tom Cowie

As Doctor Sa’ad Al-Ajmi welcomes us into his house, it is not hard to believe that Kuwaiti citizens are some of the wealthiest in the world.

His house is an opulent dwelling – tastefully decorated with plush, long couches and enormous pieces of Middle Eastern artwork.

As we take our seats, a Kuwaiti man offers us some gawa – a kind of Arab coffee – to settle the nerves.  Apparently, the calming effect of the cardamon-infused drink will come in handy.

On this particular evening, Doctor Sa’ad Al-Ajmi is one of many Kuwaitis hosting a diwaniya, where men meet to debate the issues of the day.

The diwaniya have been a key part of Kuwaiti culture for centuries. In essence it is a social occasion, allowing for a unique form of communication that galvanises the intimate nature of the Kuwaiti people.  Friends, family and occasionally, complete strangers will meet regularly to discuss pertinent issues.

Debate can become quite passionate at the diwaniya, where different topics ranging from politics, religion, family and economics can be covered.

For many Kuwaitis, the diwaniya are an integral component of life’s routine.  It is not uncommon to attend several in one week.

Typically, a diwaniya is held at a Kuwaiti man’s house, in a separate room to the rest of the living quarters.

It offers an opportunity for Kuwaiti men to engage in discussion on pertinent issues within society, in the process defining what it is to be a Kuwaiti male. Furthermore, in a display of hospitality similar to dinner parties in Australia, the host of the diwaniya will supply food and drink for his guests.

In a culture that is often heavily patriarchal, custom dictates that women do not attend the diwaniya. While this canon has been relaxed in recent years, women can still be made to feel uncomfortable at these events. Our Kuwaiti guide provides the perfect example, she has never attended a diwaniya in her life.

This is not to say that the diwaniya are always serious. Young Kuwaiti men, for example, will often steer clear of serious topics – instead  preferring to play cards, smoke shisha and discuss pop culture. In a country where alcohol is illegal, they don’t socialise at the pub with a beer, instead they interact at the diwaniya.

Importantly for the Kuwaiti people, no man is above the diwaniya. Members of parliament, religious leaders and even the emir of Kuwait attend diwaniya, allowing Kuwaiti men the chance to truly engage their leaders. Through the diwaniya, Kuwaitis have an access to their leaders far removed from anything offered in the West.

To someone from Australia, where social interaction between males usually involves the bottom of a beer glass, the diwaniya is a fascinating insight into the psyche of the Kuwaiti people.

The importance that Kuwaitis place on communication and togetherness via the diwaniya is completely foreign to the feeling of social alienation cultivated by Western society.

The Kuwaiti diwaniya; it just goes to show, you don’t need a cold beer to help foster debate.

Tom Cowie is the upcoming editor of upstart. He is currently on a journalism study tour of Kuwait with current editor Erdem Koc and contributor Kelly Theobald.