The gulf that unites them

3 November 2009

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“I’ve experienced war; I can tell you it’s not pleasant.”

Those were the words of the Kuwaiti woman recollecting her memory of the first Gulf War — a bloody battle triggered by her country being invaded by its powerful and threatening neighbour.

The memories of the atrocities which took place during Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait are still very much alive in this oil-rich country, and we hear it almost everywhere we go.

As this woman spoke of her and her family being held hostage in their own home, her eyes filled with sorrow and she was forced to pause momentarily.

Yet it was clear from the way that she was explaining this horror that her pain was beyond her personal experiences — it was that which was felt and shared by a proud nation.

These feelings are evident in so many of the people we have spoken to over the past week. However, it is somewhat difficult to convey them as they are experiences that are so far removed from those that we encounter as Australians.

This has become a common theme of our trip.

For example, we visited Kuwait University where we met with media students and asked them about their lives, desires and aspirations.

We also asked them how they viewed the world and their country, and what their frustrations and annoyances were.

Almost every time, they responded with an admirable passion, illustrating their dedication to preserving Kuwaiti culture, customs and traditions while adapting to the ever-evolving world.

It is this complex identity of the Kuwaitis which has fascinated us during our time here.

Like many developing nations, Kuwait has dealt with the onset of a consumerist lifestyle which has become almost unavoidable in our globalised world.

It is the fourth-richest country in the world and 90 per cent of its export revenue is generated from oil.  It markets much of this oil to Western Europe and the United States.

But interestingly, Kuwaitis have managed to display the courage to resist the influences of extreme Western consumerism.

It has preserved its strong culture of communality, passion and ability to construct a shared identity – notions which once existed in uprisings around the world, such as the Cuban and Chinese revolutions.

Yet with post-Cold War Western imperialistic influence, combined with post-modern capitalist thought, many countries and societies have lost some of the values they once stood for — the globe was connected through technology and ignorance became bliss.

Suddenly, everything was about the economy, profits and pop culture.

Life revolved around activities of the merchants and the bankers, and the emphasis on education, democratic thought and intellectualism slowly faded away.

And thus the plight of the Kuwaiti people becomes even more fascinating.

A visiting scholar at Kuwait University — quoting from author Albert Hirschman — told us that Europe changed when it stopped pursuing its passions and turned to its interests.

This is something which Kuwait has resisted. It is the timeless creed of its people, and its belief that change can happen, that has developed its society.

One which is willing to share a common identity of being Kuwaiti, despite strong political disagreements and ideological differences.

The country of Kuwait is more than just a physical reality for the Kuwaiti people.

The love of their country is beyond the embodiment of its traditions and history.  It is a love which is so deep-rooted that, as Australians, we struggle to relate.

For the Kuwaiti woman who experienced the tragedy of war, she sought solace working for some time in the United States — a place where she wants to return. But like the Arabic saying that she is well aware of, one day, all Kuwaitis will return to their homeland.

It seems the wounds inflicted on the heart of Kuwaitis still bleed.

And for this people, the healing will go on for some time.

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