I was four years old when I began questioning myriad topics, from my gender to my national identity. The year was 1990. Saddam Hussein’s Baathist army had stolen into the Kuwaiti borders in the dead of night. When my parents, their friends, and neighbors woke up on the 2nd of August they were instructed by Saddam’s cronies to eschew their Kuwaiti identity. For seven months, Baathist mouthpieces proclaimed on radio and television channels that Kuwait was no longer a sovereign state, but merely a province of Iraq. The 19th, in fact.
My parents and their acquaintances morphed overnight as well. They went from showering exuberant prayers on Saddam Hussein – whom they had heralded as the savior of the true Muslim faith, for a decade – to spitting at his posters. They hurled insults when they spotted his gargantuan mustache on the news or heard his staccato laugh. Over the years, Kuwaitis conflated Iraq itself with the dictator, and their memories of visiting beautiful landmarks, or indulging in one of civilization’s oldest cultures, was also rewritten with contempt.
Ambivalence became my bedfellow over the years, not only because I lived in a region in which political allies turned into ogres in split seconds. The day my parents decided to escape the threat of death at the hands of a sadistic enemy (a few months after the invasion), I was sandwiched between two male siblings in the backseat of a grey Chevrolet. My father, who was quick to anger (and who, I deciphered in my adulthood, had been struggling with bipolar disorder), lost his temper on the way to Saudi Arabia, where my family had hoped to reconnect with other relatives that preceded them. My most salient memory of the war is of my father pulling up next to an Iraqi soldier, voluntarily, and asking the occupant to take me away from him. Basically, to “unburden him.”
My mother, an unlikely ally herself (for she embraced the role of the antagonist in my bildungsroman), was in fact my salvation in that moment. She inveigled both men to drop the issue and to carry on with their tasks – the soldier, to man the border, and my dad to drive us to our rendezvous spot in Saudi Arabia. This memory owes its palpability to my parents themselves, who recounted the incident frequently – at barbeques in the desert, at dinner parties with strangers – and for years the punchline, which channeled merry tears in the corners of my parents’ eyes, and awkward chuckles on the lips of family members who couldn’t help but notice my grimace, only deepened my existential crisis. The more my parents teased, “Imagine, if the soldier had taken her, she would have grown up as an Iraqi!” the more I snuggled with my bedfellow, pondering the porosity of the self.
What does it mean to grow up as an only daughter in a sexist home, or as a Kuwaiti in a turbulent yet globalized Middle East? What does it mean to love a father who breaks limbs as unconsciously as coughing in the middle of a conversation? Or praying gratefully for a mother who saved your life at the age of four, and who led you to attempt suicide at seventeen? While the questions commenced in 1990, the answers only began unfolding thirteen years later, in 2003, when I vowed after the failed suicide attempt to grab my life’s steering wheel with my own trembling fists and to choose my escape route myself. I assumed that if Kuwait University’s College of Arts lacked answers to my queries, it contained at least the methods of rationalizing ambiguities and examples of co-existing with confusion in poetry, fiction, and plays.
As I read more on philosophy, psychology, and literary history, I became more acquainted with grey areas, the shifting paradigms, and the slippery slopes of desire. I adopted a life consecrated in literature and I sought to build a new community where identity would grow organically, rather than be imposed from above by unstable and limited interests.
I shaped my community’s safe spaces with English literature in order to nurture a new identity: “Anglowaiti.” No longer apexes of one side or another of a vicious binary that oscillates like a pendulum, but rather a flexible, conflicting middle. Anglowaiti identity is comfortable with multivalence, heterogeneity and layers.
Artists claim daily that literature can change the world. I endeavored to apply that axiom. It started with a college event. With the help of likeminded students and professors, Kuwait University’s first “English Day” was born, a cultural event that showcased students’ artistic talents in disparate creative fields. The “English Day” had been blocked previously by conservatives, who refused the mingling of the sexes in general, and who loathed even more the potential pathos evoked in creative engagements.
This was the start of a new era in Kuwait. The success of “The English Day,” drew talented students to the college of Arts. When I graduated, I worked at the university’s administration to maintain its liberal vision. When local entrepreneurs built private universities years later, they too organized their own English Days.
In 2013, I spoke at Gulf University for Science and Technology on “Anglowaiti Literature.” I urged amateur writers, artists and musicians, who worked outside the dominant culture in the language of globalization to join one another in a conscious and systematic undertaking. The aim was nothing less than rewriting national identity with a tolerant quill, and to establish a new socio-political sector, namely, a creative industry, which would handle the demands of the future.
Since then, I have published articles, fiction and poetry on Anglowaiti literature, and I have lectured all over the country, gathering young artists into this safe space from which to mold new forms of being. Today, this space pulsates with a nascent passion, yet history has shown that thieves who pilfer triumph in the dark are ready, crouching at the corner, waiting for a signal to strike. Hence, the battle for self-hood is ongoing, but it is absent of monsters or villains. Rather, it is waged in the realm of ambivalence, using art to heal differences, not bombs to end them.