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‘Sadaaqa’ is an independent attempt at celebrating the long history of friendship that Kuwait has shared with India. For centuries, the subcontinent has had a long and historical relationship with this region. Archaeological excavations on the mainland and Failaka have revealed artefacts dating back to the Indus Valley Civilisation, confirming the civilisational ties between the two countries. It is a relationship rooted in history strengthened by geographical proximities trade links, and cultural affinities.
There are many aspects to this relationship. One of the most important is people to people connection. Indians make up the largest demographic among the expatriate community in Kuwait. Some Indians like the Jashanmals migrated to the Arabian Gulf after the First World War. Mr Jashanmal’s father came to Kuwait long before it became a powerful oil-producing nation. He was a pioneer, who saw an opportunity and opened a store that became the foundation of the strong retail chain that followed.Many others followed in his wake. Together along with the Kuwaitis and other expatriates, they transformed Kuwait from a port city to a powerful, wealthy emirate. On the other hand, many Kuwaitis continued to travel to India for education and commercial reasons. They lived and worked there, became an important part of the society. With time, they shifted back to Kuwait but continued their close connections. Sadaaqa tries to document this people to people connection by speaking to both Kuwaitis and India.
Sheikha Souad Al Sabah has a close relationship with India. She is a renowned fashion designer and artist who is also the first Kuwaiti designer to win the Arab women awards. She later joined the Arab Women Awards as a Jury Member. Sheikha Souad has a deep and abiding love for India. In fact, her close connection with Mumbai, India’s commercial centre, is well known. She loves Mumbai’s colours, textures, vibrancy and spirit. Here, she speaks to Arab Times about her relationship with the subcontinent. Arab Times: Tell us about the work that you do.
Sheikha Souad: I am a caftan designer. Caftan is a regular wear of Kuwaiti women. I started it as a passion or hobby, and now it is my work. AT: You won the Arab Women Awards, a prestigious award for your work. You are the first Kuwaiti woman to win that award. What was that experience like?
Sheikha Souad: It was a day I will never forget. It’s always nice to be acknowledged and appreciated. The award was given to me by Zuhair Murad, a very famous fashion designer. It was a very special moment.
AT: We now come to a subject close to your heart, which is India. When did your special connection with India begin?
Sheikha Souad: It began when I started working as a fashion designer, which was, I think, 22 years back. I started visiting India to buy my fabrics. I remember going to Bombay the first time. I just woke up on the first morning, and there was the city.
AT: It was almost love at first sight, I think.
Sheikha Souad: Yes. I bought some fabric on that first trip. After returning to Kuwait, I found the same materials here at the local market. But I didn’t tell my mother. I needed a reason to go back.
AT: What is it about India that attracts you so much? Your Instagram account reflects your fondness for India, especially Mumbai. You know places in Mumbai that even Indians don’t know.
Sheikha Souad: I like everything about India. The culture, the artistic flair, the people. The first thing you notice about a country is its people. And it is the same with me. I love the people.
AT: What about your extended family? We know that the Al Sabah’s have a very old and close relationship with India.
Sheikha Souad: It’s a very long history of friendship based on trade. Sheikh Abdullah, the former Amir, used to visit India often. He would go to Bombay during Ramadan. He would spend Ramadan there. The Al Sabahs had property in Bombay, including the Al Sabah Court on Marine Drive. There were a lot of Kuwaiti families who had property and homes in India. They knew Indian languages and spoke them.
AT: I recall meeting a Kuwaiti who speaks fluent Malayalam. How influenced are you as a designer and a creative by India?
Sheikha Souad: I am influenced all the way. When you go to India, you are absorbed by the culture, the colours. It could just be somebody crossing the street. The sounds, colours, textures and the culture — everything is interesting. How can you go wrong with that?
AT: So, what kind of Indian fabrics do you like to work with ?
Sheikha Souad: I like hand block. I visited the factory in Rajasthan where they make those fabrics, and I did it myself. Beautiful fabrics. I used to bring them when they were not available in Kuwait.
AT: As far as I remember, your love for India is shared by your mother and your husband. While writing about you in my book ‘Women of Kuwait: Turning Tides’, I quoted you as saying ‘For some, their favourite travel destination is Istanbul and London, but for me, it will always be India. And my family shares my love. Together we visit Bombay, Delhi or some other place.’ Is it still like that?
Sheikha Souad: Of course, it is still like that. In the last two years, I have really missed going to Bombay. That’s my favourite place. The minute I land there, it feels like home.
AT: What are the places you like to visit in Bombay?
Sheikha Souad: Bombay is a shopper’s delight. There are boutiques in Bombay that sell some really good designers. I don’t prefer any designer in particular. I like to mix and match, pick up different designs. One year I was into Punjabis, so I picked up some kurtas. Then there are restaurants like Trishna which serve some great food.
AT: What you are wearing now looks like a saree.
Sheikha Souad: Yes, this outfit is inspired by a saree design. The work on this outfit is a traditional Kuwaiti embroidery, which, earlier, was brought from India. Now it’s locally available.
AT: As a designer, I am sure your atelier employs artisans from the Indian subcontinent. These people live in Kuwait year after year, working and contributing. I am sure it would be difficult for you to execute the designs without the help of these people.
Sheikha Souad: It would be difficult. And definitely, we need them. Who else would do such good work? They are gifted and experienced. And you know, let’s be realistic. I don’t think we will find enough skilled people with growing education. I mean, artisans are not very easy to find. We are lucky to have these people helping us.
AT: Coming back to Mumbai, I think you were there during one of India’s most challenging times in modern history. I am talking about the 26/11 terrorist attack on the city. How challenging was that experience? Where were you staying?
Sheikha Souad: We were at the Oberoi right next to the Trident where the attack happened. Both hotels are connected. We closed ourselves in our room, the moment we realised something was wrong. At first, we thought it was a wedding but then realised it was something else. And then the bombing, explosions and shooting started. There was confusion all around. Nabeel, my husband, called the lobby many times, but there was no answer. It was around 4 in the morning. We were supposed to leave the next day. When we opened the door, it was pitch dark outside. My husband came back in, took a towel, put water on it, and asked me to hold it close to my nose. He asked me to follow him down the stairs. We were on the highest floor. We held the wall in the dark and just slowly continued down the stairs. There was smoke all around. I didn’t even take my bag with me. I just took my mobile. Once we reached the ground floor, we found a side door open and one man calling out, ‘Anybody out there?’ We went out through that door.
AT: Looking back, and the fact that you experienced something like that firsthand, how important is it to put up a strong fight against the menace of terrorism?
Sheikha Souad: For me, I think there should be no terrorism anywhere in the world. People should live in peace, regardless of their religion, colour and nationality. You know my father passed away a long time back, but one thing I learned from him was that when you meet somebody, you just meet him as a person regardless of where he’s from, his religion, and his job. This is how my upbringing is.
AT: Going back to Mumbai, a place you love, I remember you telling me that you took your mother to Mumbai for eye surgery sometime back. Was it a good experience?
Sheikha Souad: I believe in Indian doctors. They are very well educated and very skilled. We had gone to India for a holiday, and one day we realised that there was something wrong with my mother’s eyes. She was losing her sense of colour. A friend of ours told us to take her to Dr Shroff, an eye specialist. Dr Shroff is an amazing doctor. His grandfather was the doctor of Sheikh Abdallah Salem, and his father was Sheikh Saad’s doctor. So he had a Kuwait connection. In fact, there are many Kuwaitis even now who fly to Bombay to show him. He treated my mother and solved her problem.
By Chaitali B. Roy Special to the Arab Times