Richard Whitelaw on Kuwaitscapes: part 2

5.30am alarm this morning to get to a television studio to be on a popular breakfast TV show called Sabah al Watan. No danger of a hangover in Kuwait and I felt fine after a swift Bounty and a cup of coffee in the studio cafe. The studio is deserted when we get there but we are allowed to head straight on in. We are clearly British, clueless and carrying synthesizers: a danger to no one. I loved the studio. One stage was set for the breakfast show but behind us in the semi-darkness lurked the set for another show which was either a ‘Hard Talk’ style discussion show or a live Action Learning group broadcast. There was also a sports show, something else that looked like a game show, and a tiny sound stage. I managed to shoot a video in the silent studio before the crew turned up.

The lady you can see in the video is Leah Zakss. Leah’s a Music Advisor for the British Council. She’s visiting from London too and she’s been pivotal in setting the whole thing up. She’s flying back to the UK unspeakably early tomorrow.

When the crew turned up the host shook our hands with genuine politeness and the show started quite quickly. Roshi and Graham where set up and ready to go within minutes but it took about two hours and an emergency call to pull the chief sound engineer out of bed to get them plugged into the PA. They were on after the cooking demonstration, which smelled a lot to me like fish and chips to me for some reason, but I don’t think it was. The performance was great despite the stressful set up and the unforgiving lighting.

You can watch the actual show here, Roshi and Graham are on at 01:36

The lady you can see being interviewed is Mais Montazar, she’s Assistant Director (Partnerships and Marketing) at The British Council Kuwait. My Arabic isn’t up to much but it was clear that Mais was totally on message and I was glad not to be up there mumbling about sound art.

By the time we got clear and back to the hotel it was 2pm. I was starving and ordered a chicken tikka masala from room service. It was one of the best I have ever eaten. There are a lot of Pakistani and Indian people here working in service industries and many curry houses. I was a bit snotty about this division of labour to start with, it’s quite evident from the moment one arrives, but I’ve checked myself. My wife’s just started working in a London university where all academics are white, all the admin staff Asian and all the service staff black, so I’m a hypocrite for thinking it’s much different back home.

If you are very British like me there is one thing that is immediately appealing about Kuwati society: people are very polite, in a kind of old school 1950s way. I like to hold doors open for people, get out of the way and generally be mindful of people’s personal space and I’m quite judgemental about those who fail to do this. I assume they must be stupid. I’ve not once been irritated by another person since I have been here, people are considerate. It’s wonderful. Also it seems to be ok to say hello to children here without people thinking you are dodgy. The children I have met have been very well behaved and seem to be able to wait for hours for things to happen without tearing the place apart. This is helpful because little here happens on time. There are reasons for this but it is potentially stressful for British people, particularly art administrators, as I have learned.

By early evening we are at the Scientific Centre for Roshi’s audio walk. Leah and I had tested the walk with Roshi the day before so I knew what to expect. The walk itself was a great success, Roshi had very cleverly created something accessible that really spoke to the audience that experienced it. Listening on headphones the audience are guided by a range of sounds and voices including academics, artists, children and hotel service staff. The audience were mostly young people and they were very enthusiastic about the work. There is nothing here that British people would recognise as an arts organisation and the arts scene here is in a very early stage of development. I guess it’s like living in a small town in the UK, when events happen everyone turns up. It’s very different from the arts saturation of London.

Here’s Roshi talking to the audio walk audience and a picture of some of the audience listening and looking at the Kuwait City skyline during the walk.

Here are six things that you can’t do outside the Scientific Centre

6 Things you can't do outside the Sci Centre

My last day in Kuwait was spent in the Avenues Mall where the Sound Vessels part of Roshi’s series of works here was having its culmination. Avenues Mall makes Westfield Shopping Centre feel like Abergavenny market. It’s huge (8 km long!) and I am actively scared of breaking off from the group and getting lost. There is even an entire fake Souk with cod winding streets. Avenues is a low crime zone and people feel free to leave their phones and valuables on tables whilst they go to order in the café. Children wander around without screaming, parents refrain from shouting at their children. It’s busy but without the enforced haste of UK malls. People are dressed modestly, many women wear the niqab and men the thawb. The citizens are neat and tidy but relaxed.  It somehow doesn’t feel as competitive and ugly as the UK shopping experience. I’m not sure where women go to feed their babies though: maybe they stay at home.

Roshi has been working with local kids to record their names and wishes for the future, the kids have then made and decorated boats that will sail in one of the many fountains in the mall. Some of the boats were equipped with portable loudspeakers that played back field recordings and the voices of the children themselves. This was a really wonderful event. Many traditional Kuwati families really engaged with the project, made boats in the mall with their kids and joined our procession to the fountain. I’ve done similar events in public spaces in the UK and been sworn at, used as casual childcare, abused by shop managers and staff and been asked what I am selling. No such cynicism here.


On the way back to the hotel Moustafa our driver showed us a square where he goes to hang out with his Indian mates on the weekend drinking tea and chatting. It was packed with people. Graham remarked that it’s as busy here as Shoreditch on a Friday night but without people with silly hair stumbling into the road on ketamine. We all agreed that this is a good thing.

I’m flying back to the UK tomorrow and have enjoyed another fine meal in the Souk with Roshi and Graham. The food here is really fantastic. The Souk is beautiful but it’s not a place to photograph. I see very few people who might be active tourists, not one is using a camera. I met a Kuwati photographer in London last year who explained to me that all his photographs were clandestine. Seemingly it’s not something you do here. All of the events I have been at over the last few days have needed to provide very clear signage that photography as taking place.

I’d like to thank all of the wonderful people I have met in the last few days for being so welcoming and for working around the clock to make the project happen. Roshi now remains in Kuwait City for another week preparing for a choir performance in a major fish market here. I am sad to miss this event, another first for Kuwait that has taken quite a lot of British Council negotiation to set up. Amin has brought me a very fine State of Kuwait mug with an oilrig on it. I will drink my tea out of it at work. I’ve not brought any tat yet but will attempt to do so at the airport tomorrow. Then it’s back to the office on Tuesday.






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