LAILA AL HAMAD
on the demise of Khaleeji craftmenship and the deconstruction of traditional identity
Laila Al-Hamad is the founder of Zeri Crafts in Kuwait, a store that aims to reconnect with the region's crafts heritage.
Tell us a bit about yourself and how you came to work in the field you are in.
I grew up in the Kuwait of the 1970s and 80s, and like most Kuwaitis of that generation, I straddled two worlds; the world of my father’s Bombay stories and my grandmother’s hand-crocheted tablecloths, and the world of emerging highways and fast food restaurants. This cultural crossroads nurtured in me and many of my peers a nostalgia for a simple yet solidary and cosmopolitan past, and a sense of discomfort with a fast-evolving and contrived present. In places like Sadu House and Souq Mubarakiya, I felt at home but over time, even those places grew into soulless shells.
My studies and professional interests took me overseas, and eventually my professional path was shaped by my interest in international development. Although I never worked on Kuwait per se, my country of birth always seemed a bit of an anomaly. How could a country with such a high level of income be lacking on so many levels of economic development? Why were productivity so low and entitlements so high? I always upset myself with these questions, unable to square the circle of contradictions that characterized this small but unique country. Two decades later, I returned to an even glossier version of the country I had left behind, and my sense of disorientation was more pronounced. Looking to the landmarks that defined my youth, I found only a few. Of the two schools that I had attended, only one was standing, and even then just barely. My neighborhood, once lined with palm plantations, had become a construction site for a string of food malls.
The new generation of Kuwaitis was either excessively global or alarmingly local, with a tendency for consumerism and narcissism. Within this alienating context, I put myself to work on a topic that had become dear to my heart. In my years of working in international development, in Morocco, in Lao, in Cambodia, in Yemen, I grew fascinated with the role of crafts and cultural heritage in general. Harnessing one’s cultural capital was not simply a path to economic development, but an awakening of sorts. The journey I embarked on in 2008 when I started researching crafts and culture in Kuwait and the Gulf was truly humbling, stirring in me an almost religious reverence for my forefathers and a deep respect for the power of nature.
What explains the declining numbers of Khaleeji craftsmen? And, do you think, that there is perhaps a resurgence of interest in preserving local crafts?
Two major shifts heralded the decline of Khaleeji craftsmen; the first one – on a regional scale – being the transformation of Kuwait and the Gulf countries from maritime to oil-based economies, and the second one – on a global scale – being the mechanization of production processes throughout the developed economies. While the former brought in massive oil wealth, the latter created a new type of consumerism based on cheaper mass produced objects. Overnight, the craftsman became dispensable, his once prized craft, now frail and tired looking, quickly becoming undesirable. In this quickly changing context, Kuwait and its Gulf neighbours failed to do the necessary to salvage the crafts and trades, or to incorporate them into the new economy. To complicate matters, Kuwait adopted a policy of oil- wealth redistribution that involved – among other things – public sector employment for all of its citizens. Although this increased the overall standard of living of Kuwaitis, it also stemmed the growth of a viable private sector that could absorb many of the skills enjoyed by local artisans and other professionals. A recently published book titled The Old Crafts, Trade and Commercial Activities in Kuwait documents 600 pages worth of crafts and professions existent in Kuwait before the emergence of the modern nation state. My search for Kuwaiti artisans a few years back sadly only yielded a handful. Much could have been done to preserve and transform the crafts if the right policies had been adopted. The situation we have today is unsustainable.
The country still relies on one main source of income, oil, and diversification is proving an uphill battle. In pre-oil Kuwait, every person had a role and function in society, and together they built a thriving port on a barren land. Today, wealth abounds but productivity is amongst the lowest in the world. There is a healthy desire among some of today’s youth to fulfil the productive instinct that was annihilated 60 years ago, but the context is very disabling. Between the poor educational offer at hand and the structure of the economy as it stands today, I don’t feel optimistic.
In your description of traditional Gulf culture in production and consumption you used the terms “Utilitarianism, asceticism, and modularity”, all terms that point towards minimalism and puritanism. However, today’s Gulf is often described as taking the extreme opposite attitude, which shifted towards materialism and excessive consumption. What do you think triggered this departure, and what are your reflections on contemporary “excessive” consumerist culture?
There is an intrinsic simplicity to our ecological and material culture that would delight the most austere minimalist. A lone palm in the desert, with its vertical majesty, is enough to fill a whole landscape. Life in our lands has always been very harsh, and survival entailed the need to move distances in search of water and shrubs, carrying as little as possible. These constraints developed a culture of utmost utilitarianism. Objects had to fit in the pockets of a camel saddle, and there could be no excess. As the famous Egyptian/Armenian artist Chant Avedissian once said, “The Arab Bedouin culture, it’s magic because the whole thing ends up in a box.” In a true less is more fashion, value was given to a select group of objects: the loom, the tent, the coffee pot, the water carrier. Mobility governed the lifestyle of the bedouin; even his poetry, his most lasting legacy, was passed down orally, necessitating neither pen nor paper. There is a lightness to this lifestyle that is truly refreshing in these times of hyper-consumerism, and it would be a shame to lose the opportunity to seize upon it and find a way to not only internalise it into our everyday lives, but also to build on it.
Staggering wealth and US-style urban planning triggered a departure from this erstwhile simplicity. Today, shopping malls line our coastal and desert ways, giving shape to a culture of excess, obesity, fast food, and cars. It would be wrong to romanticise the difficult life of generations past, but the cultural rupture that has been imposed on Kuwait and its neighbours for the sake of an artificial modernity is also misguided. Finding strength and inspiration in nature and a simpler lifestyle would go a long way into transforming our societies from mere consumers to producers of culture.
How can we reinstate the importance of craftsmanship in the region rather than keeping crafts as a nostalgic tool and token of the old and traditional? What tools do we need locally to nurture a design economy, and are there any examples of steps that have been taken towards this direction?
Although it is too late to bring the crafts back to life, it’s not too late to convey the spirit behind our crafts and build on those in order to address some of the pressing issues that we face as a society. I believe that we continue to underestimate the role of education in spreading this awareness, and to shackle our educational institutions instead of empowering them to drive change. Why are there no departments or curricula teaching sustainable design and architecture? Why do we not promote nomadic design? Why do we not offer to study creative shading solutions or designing shelters for extreme heat? By tapping into the sustainable aspects of our heritage, we can stir away from the unsustainable nature of our current system and help put in place an economy based on high-value jobs and innovation. The Scandinavian countries, also affected by climactic extremes, have demonstrated how with some thoughtful planning, you can turn your constraints into opportunities: “Art and design education has been given a great symbolic value in the curriculum and … have been understood as a part of national cultural capital. The developments of visual art and design education curricula are attached to the general values of Nordic societies, such as … social, cultural, economical and environmental sustainability¹.” This approach, although successful in Scandinavia, can only succeed in Kuwait and the Gulf if we change the current structure of the labor market and cut the umbilical cord to an inefficient and ineffective public sector.
¹ Mira Kallio-Tavin. European Art and Design Curriculum (Scandinavia and Nordic countries). In K. Freedman 1 (Ed.), International Encyclopedia of art and design education: Curricular aspects of art & design education. London: Wiley-Blackwell.
Why do you think it’s important to go back to one’s self and “revalue our cultural capital”, what is in it to be preserved?
A few years ago, on a warm October day, with temperatures hovering in the 30s, I remember receiving a text message announcing the arrival of a new collection of children’s winter clothing from France. Although of seemingly no consequence, I was irked by the message; wasn’t it absurd that in a country with the hottest summers and the balmiest of winters, our lifestyle and needs were shaped by the climes of Europe? Has our sense of agency become so dulled that we have become mere consumers of the latest and trendiest products without regard for need or context? I think this small anecdote illustrates our current predicament. The rapid pace of change brought on by the economic windfall of oil coupled with the decimation of a productive private sector and an overly-subscribed public sector intended for wealth redistribution has rendered us a society of consumption and not of production. Productivity in the Kuwaiti context is predominantly dependent upon foreign labor, and work (the act of engaging in a physical or mental activity to produce a result) once a pillar of our maritime economy – has been devalued to such an extent that public employees merely show up to work (a physical location rather than a place of productivity) to lock in and out. Thinking of our crafts, our music, our architecture, our cultural capital as expressions of human effort, we can distance ourselves from the absurdity of today’s context. Whether the hands that weave palm fronds or break sea coral, it is human effort that gives birth to culture. Music in Kuwait was not invented behind a computer but as a way to motivate seamen during the long and arduous boat voyages. The superb architecture of black tents is a credit to the heightened awareness of desert dwellers to their ecological reality. In this regard, revaluing our cultural capital is a matter of going back to a value-based society. In building a healthy society, we need to consider the kinds of values that will make us respectful and hardworking human beings, with the intent of adding and not extracting value as we do today.
In what ways can we learn from the past for a more sustainable future? How can we encourage this type of learning and have there been steps taken to promote this in the Gulf currently?
When you give weight to your cultural capital, it becomes a source of economic and social empowerment; you are building on a base, a foundation that sustained you for generations. In the case of Kuwait, that foundation was weakened by the country’s rapid transformation to an oil economy. Although Kuwait has managed to maintain some of the social capital inherited from previous generations, it has lost much of the grit and spirit of resilience that defined earlier times. The government’s paternalistic attitude and policies have created an unproductive and entitled citizenry. More importantly, this attitude is not sustainable in the long term. There is an excessive reliance on the state for everything from housing provision to finding a job; this stifles the creative and problem-solving instinct of humans and goes against the quality of self-reliance that defined older Kuwaitis. By understanding the values that we’ve inherited, we can reconfigure the path we want to take. Crafts impart values and reconnect us to our landscape; the sand, the clay, the coral, the sheep, the palm.
When I started researching Gulf crafts, it filled me with a sense of pride, not because of the elaborate nature of these crafts but rather because of the scarcity of our natural resources, making the quest for survival even more noteworthy. We need to be recognise our cultural inheritance, give it the value it deserves and nurture it. The famous architect Hasan Fathy insisted that every line you draw “has to come from the given geography of the land.” We have gotten used to borrowing ideas, technology, lifestyles, and so much else that our quest for searching has gotten in the way of our quest for being. When you start appreciating the value of things, your behaviour will inevitably adjust to absorb and internalise these values. Ultimately, we need to reflect on where we are today, and what kind of society we strive for in the long run.