Which Comes First: Changing Laws, Or Changing Thoughts?

I attended a cultural gathering where the Minister of Education and Higher Education, Dr. Bader Hamad al-Essa, spoke about Kuwait’s artistic vision.

Specifically, the meeting revolved around the new arts academy, which now includes both the Higher Institute of Dramatic Arts and the Higher Institute of Musical Arts, and which will subsume any newly formed artistic institution that offers higher education.

The arts academy project preceded the invasion, since it was planned in 1989. It required an amiri decree (an executive order issued by his Highness the Crown Prince) in 2010 to finally attain a legal status.

The audience, an assortment of writers, actors, musicians and academics, had two major concerns. The first pertained to visible and lengthy stagnation. For instance, they mentioned that almost 6 years have passed since the decree had been issued and that al-Essa was the sixth minister to oversee the application of the decree, yet no palpable progress had been made.

The second pertained to the law itself. Teachers at the higher institutes wondered why the academy was not associated with a university — as is the case in different parts of the world. What was the reasoning, in other words, behind creating a cultural center that was supervised by an administrative entity (the government) and not an independent or academic one (i.e. a university)? They mentioned that Kuwait University already includes the infrastructure necessary to help grow the academy. By placing the academy under the umbrella of the university they argued that they could make use of inbuilt laws, for instance, laws regarding promotions, since the academy currently suffers from nepotism. More importantly, they could utilize the expertise already available in the university. Since they contract professors to teach subjects (such as psychology) which students are required to take, but which are not offered by the academy’s staff, they argued that it depletes their budgets.

Al-Essa also mentioned the cultural center, the largest in the region. It includes an opera house, a theater, a music center and a library. It is already facing opposition, however. While Kuwait created the first local opera in February of 2015, certain movements have already mobilized to denounce the opera house as un-Islamic, and therefore un-Kuwaiti. Thus, al-Essa highlighted the importance of the ideological battle. He mentioned that fixing the legal issues, (the stagnation and the issue of the academy’s dependency on an administrative/governmental branch) won’t matter as long as the public fears or despises culture. What is required in this stage, he argued, is a massive marketing campaign.

In a way, I disagree. The law has to support progress from the outset. Otherwise, growth might occur, but like a single plant shooting out of a crack in concrete, it will be in spite of the restrictions. And here we need to be honest with ourselves and ask, what then is the law meant to achieve?

And yet I also agree with his statement. I have seen, in the last national book fair, an episode that filled me with anguish. In Kuwait, to publish a book and to market the book, both in general bookstores and in the national book fair, require approval from the ministry. In the previous book fair, and with mounting pressure from the international community on the Kuwaiti government to lessen its censorship restrictions, a variety of books were approved that would have been banned in the past. And before we had time to celebrate the “progress”, a lawyer, displeased with the pornographic content of some book, filed a law suit against its author. A heated discussion broke out in the cultural circle. One side argued that the answer to reading a book you disagreed with was writing a negative review not seeking to imprison its author, because art is subjective and what might be offensive to some people might not be to others. I supported the argument. When it comes to national security — and the region is pretty unstable — I can understand, even if I don’t agree with the behavior, why governments ban some politically motivated books. An author who follows the legal channels and acquires the ministry’s approval to sell and market his book should not then fear for his freedom. But what do you do when the people reject laws that ensure freedom and progress? The answer is changing their thoughts.

One might ask for laws to be inclusive first and to focus on altering public consciousness after. But if the people who will fight progressive laws outnumber the amount of people who will support or defend them, then I can see why governments need to be crafty in inscribing their laws. If more plants grew out of solid ground instead of soft soil maybe they will be strong enough to fight back dogmatic thinking.

I’ll conclude with this interesting note: In July 7, 1939, the first play was staged in Kuwait. Jaber Ahmad al-Jaber al-Sabah, the previous Crown Prince, was a member of the cast, and his father, the ruler of Kuwait at the time, Ahmad al-Jaber al-Sabah, attended. The play, which was staged at the al-Mubarakiya School, was called “Islam Omar.” There was a specific scene that disturbed the actors during rehearsals. It was a scene in which one of the characters declare, “If you err, we will depose you with our swords.” The actors were anxious about the way this scene would be viewed by His Highness and the general public. They argued back and forth about removing it from the play. Finally, a group decided to visit the Crown Prince himself and ask him about his opinion. He said they should leave it. It’s art. If people misinterpreted the line, it’s on them.

Let’s hope, through determination and a shared vision, we can channel this perspective in Kuwait again.

Leave a Reply