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Thursday
Dec162010

A Well, A Tree, A Storehouse

Eighteen floors below my office window is an ancient cemetery, the only sign of true permanence in Kuwait City. Sure, there are large buildings and some notable landmarks. But nothing explains why here, why still? The obvious answer would be oil; however, that is too easy. It is like saying the city of Washington exists because of government. Beyond the business of either city, there was once a reason why people stopped and said "This is now home." Washington features a unique tidal basin and point of refuge. Before the early American colonialists settled the heights above the Potomac, the native Algonquin long occupied the once sandy shores of the Anacostia. For each, there was an original reason to keep coming back: protection and trade routes, respectively. Then a city slowly flourished. In all accounts I've read or heard, Kuwait City's origins in the 17th century consisted of a humble gathering centered on something practical:

  • "...a collection of Bedouin tents around a well..."
  • "...a few mud huts around a tree..."
  • "...some tents clustered around a storehouse..." 

A well, a tree, a storehouse: water, shelter, food. Desert nomads making permanence on a subsistence basis. Over the years, despite the camps becoming a Kūt (كوت)—or fort, the root of Kuwait—the city never truly became a city. Even a wall to define it could not be completed. Bedouin wandering, developing trade through the natural harbor, and the eventual oil boom compounded rapid organic growth. Urban planning never took hold. And so the elements that make up cosmopolitanism—culture, cuisine, architecture—are now cheap decorations on a tent city that seemingly could vanish overnight. In the early 1990s, it almost did. That fright, however, didn't settle the city. It only increased the unease of an inherently restless society. Indeed, the only restaurants to be found are American fast-food chains. Below the surface of this place there must be something more to life here. The question is how deep must one dig? Because the only thing below the permanent and story-less inhabitants of Salhiya cemetery is oil. And as I said, that's just too easy...isn't it?

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