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Viewpoint: Before & After the War
February 23, 2015, 2:04 pm

Mai Al-Nakib is Associate Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Kuwait University. Her collection of short stories, The Hidden Light of Objects, will appear in paperback in April 2015 (Bloomsbury). It won the Edinburgh International Book Festival’s First Book Award in 2014. She is currently on a book tour in the US, and will be presenting at the upcoming Emirates Airline Festival of Literature in Dubai, as well as at the Global Art Forum 9 in Kuwait. For information visit:
How did the Gulf War influence your view of life? 

For me and, I think, for others of a certain generation, there is a distinct ‘before the war’ and ‘after the war’. I think of ‘home’ in much less defined or fixed terms than, perhaps, I once did. After the war, the idea of home came unhinged for me. Home is less rooted, less tangible. It’s something I carry with me rather than something I take for granted. I don’t want to romanticize the notion of displacement. I recognize how lucky I am — unlike so many of our neighbors in the region — to be a citizen of a place that is not unravelling. But to feel the way I do about home produces a restlessness that can be productive, especially for a writer. Writing becomes a kind of home.

In your opinion, how has the country progressed economically and politically since the war?

Kuwait had to rebuild much of its infrastructure after the invasion and it has managed to do that successfully, for the most part. It’s been twenty-four years since the war. Twenty-four years of political and economic change that cannot be linked to that single, no doubt important, event. There are a wide range of factors — local, regional, global — that affect development and transformation. It goes beyond the scope of this short interview to unpack their complexities. What I can say is that in making economic and political decisions, insufficient attention has been paid to the environment and to the role of education in structuring progress.

Do you think the younger generation appreciate the freedom gained after the invasion?

I’m not sure how important the invasion is to Millennials or how aware they are of its impact. I don’t think the invasion is studied in school from a historical or socio-political perspective. From what I understand, it’s covered in a rather general and nationalistic manner. This is a missed opportunity for young people to learn something of value from the past in order to avoid similar patterns in the future.

However, I do not believe the invasion should be taught as a way to harbor continued resentment or anger against others.  In general, I think young people always feel like they want more freedom, more opportunities. They may (or may not!) take a second to appreciate what they have in terms of national, social, political, or economic freedoms; again, it’s hard not to compare Kuwait to other places in the region and to be thankful. But in general, the young want to push against restrictions and limitations toward their own versions of freedom. That’s part of what it means to be young.

On the National and Liberation day, what is the most important memory you have of your life in Kuwait?

This is an impossible question to answer! I spent the formative years of my life in Kuwait and most of my key memories were made here. To be honest, I don’t think it’s possible for anyone to select a single most important memory and, even if it were, it would be difficult to share with strangers. A vivid memory I have in Kuwait is of playing in the ditches of what would become the Fifth Ring Road. I would spend hours after school climbing down into the ditches behind our house, wandering back and forth, pretending to be a solider in the trenches of World War I.

I must have been about eight or so. I’m not quite sure what I knew about World War I, surely something I read about in a book. What strikes me now is how different Kuwait was then; it was a place where it was both safe and completely acceptable for a young girl to play alone for hours in a vast construction site.

Another thing that has stayed with me about that time is how happy I felt to be alone in those ditches, to be allowed the space and time to explore and play and, above all, imagine other worlds. I think that kind of empty space and open time might be missing from kids’ lives today. Everything feels so overly structured and codified, which is a bit of a shame. For me, the memory of getting lost in my imagination as a kid in Kuwait is something I truly value and continue to draw upon in my creative work. 

Do you have a message for Kuwaitis on the occasion of the National and Liberation Day?
To all residents of Kuwait — Kuwaiti and non-Kuwaiti alike — I wish you a happy holiday. Drive safely!


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