Workshop at the University of Exeter: “Alternative Sources and Perspectives on Kuwait’s History and Sociology” 16 October 2019

A recent workshop organized by the Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies at the University of Exeter in England brought together a group of academics to present their research on Kuwait’s history and sociology. The aim of this interdisciplinary workshop was to “revisit the history of the processes of state- and nation-building, as seen through the eyes of those excluded or marginalized from the current tropes of studies on Kuwait”.

The workshop began with an introduction from Dr. Claire Beaugrand (University of Exeter) whose own work on the stateless or bidun people of Kuwait was published in her recent book Statelessness in the Gulf: Migration Nationality and Society in Kuwait (2017). This was then followed by the first panel “Alternative Sources” where Dr. Abdulrahman Alebrahim (Independent Researcher) gave a new historical perspective on the role of the ‘ulama and pearl divers in Kuwait at the beginning on the 20th century. His new book Kuwait’s Politics before Independence: The Role of the Balancing Powers was launched at the Centre for Gulf Studies in Exeter the day after, on 17 October 2019. Wafa Alsayed (LSE) gave the second talk of the panel on Kuwait’s foreign policy and the need to use local sources for a more comprehensive understanding of the country’s political behaviour.

The second panel, “Transnational Circulations”, consisted of two presentations which shed new light on Kuwait’s relationship with other Arab states through the circulation of social movements and intellectual ideas. Kanwal Abdulhameed (University of Exeter) spoke about the role of Palestine as a liberation ideal in shaping the political landscape in Kuwait, particularly through the movement of people and ideas between the two countries in the first half of the twentieth century. After that, Dr. Talal Al-Rashoud (LSE and Kuwait University) traced the development and increasing presence of the muthaqqafun in Kuwait from the 1930s until the 1950s. A counterpart to the effendiyya in other Arab countries, this group of middle-class intellectuals played an important yet forgotten role in Kuwait’s process of modernization.

The last panel, “Alternative Voices and Spaces,” consisted of three papers based in the field of literary and theatre studies. Dr. Tareq AlRabei (GUST) analyzed the representation of neglected spaces in the writings of bidun authors by focusing in particular on the work of Sulayman al-Flayyih. Nadeen Dakkak (University of Warwick) analyzed a number of Kuwaiti novels which represent the experiences of non-Kuwaitis and their feelings of belonging to Kuwait. Finally, Faisal Hamadah (Queen Mary University) began by posing the question of the decline of Kuwaiti theatre and followed that by an analysis of New Jibla, a forthcoming play set to be performed in December 2019 at Jabir Al-Ahmad Cultural Centre.

The workshop concluded with a theatre screening and a discussion of Sulayman Al-Bassam’s play Petrol Station (2017).

The workshop was attended by many researchers and students from Exeter and other Universities. It opened a much-needed space for discussion on the challenges and methodologies of conducting research on Kuwait, but it also gave voice to fresh perspectives and approaches evident in the work of all the researchers who presented their work.

As one of the presenters, I found this workshop a great opportunity to share my work on how non-Kuwaitis’ feelings of belonging to Kuwait are represented in literary works. My paper was based on one of my PhD chapters where I explore Arabic fiction tackling themes of belonging and diasporic identities amongst migrants in the Arab Gulf States. Because of the narrow focus of the workshop on Kuwait, it was possible to trace similarities and shared themes between all the papers as well as to receive constructive feedback.    

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