IN 1966 the Chinese leader Mao Zedong unleashed the Great Cultural Revolution which held as its four pillars the annihilation of the old (old traditions, old customs, old ideas, old culture) and their replacement with the four pillars of the new. These ranged from new hair cuts, to the changing of street names, to the destruction of ancient cultural artifacts, and the forced resettlement of millions of urban dwellers to work with their hands in the countryside. The impact on the education system was equally seismic and institutions of higher learning were closed for five years. When they re-opened, students were admitted into colleges and universities on the basis of recommendations from farmers and collective managers, rather than on the merit of their grades.
We will not blame the reader who — if they are confused, as I am — might be led to wonder if, here in Kuwait, we are living through a Mao Zedong revolution, without realising it.
We see before us school buildings and streets that previously carried the names of great thinkers from Arab and Islamic history being renamed after MP thing-a-me-bob, or Court Favourite so & so; we see entrance requirements for higher learning being smashed to smithereens by ‘wasta*’. This is particularly pronounced in the Theatre, Music and Arts academies that are regarded as easy prey, to the point that we find ourselves in front of endlessly shallow cultural output, at odds with the glory that Kuwait had previously generated in the cultural sphere.
We have witnessed in the last two years the creation of two enormous, world-class cultural buildings (Jabir Al Ahmed Centre & Abdullah Al Salem Centre), a positive step, long overdue. But how do we interpret that during this same period we are witness to the breakdown of the only official state cultural body, namely the National Council for Arts and Letters, whose work has been marginalized and powers neutralized? It is as if, in the creation of the cultural centers, the government has chosen to abandon the national cultural project and transform the National Council of Arts into a phantom institution, filled with bureaucratic diseases and political maneuvering.
Some assumed that through the establishment of the two Cultural Centers, there would be the possibility to create a parallel cultural system, able to operate free of the bureaucratic rigidity and local political pressures that for so long dogged the official cultural channels. Yet, despite the valiant efforts of the Artistic Director of the National Opera, Faisal Khajah and his team, this is an entirely misguided assumption.
The Cultural Centers are primarily spaces to present produced work and their existence can in no way compensate for the absence of a cultural infrastructure in the long term. And how, one wonders might these institutions (the Cultural Centers & the National Council for Arts) even work together, given that they are entirely separate entities that have no legal or administrative connection at all?
The real question that presents itself is this: does the state have a vision for a national cultural strategy that might respond to the demands of the new generations, the accumulation of knowledge and the needs of the current regional political moment? Do we have a cultural policy to guide us? Do we want to be like the Red Army, blinded by loyalty to an ideology? Or do we want to re-ignite the singularity of Kuwait as a nation that celebrates freedom of expression and diversity and pays more than lip service to its constitution that advocates the centrality of cultural expression and defines the state’s role in encouraging it?
There are many solutions worth exploring and I intend to explore some of them across the next two articles, taking the views of both optimists and pessimists- or as the novelist Emile Habibi has it, the ‘pessoptimists’- that we might know our arse from our elbow!
*wasta — nepotism, or favours given through who you know.
By Sulayman Al-Bassam