Here There and Everywhere

Expat wanderer

History of Architecture in Old Kuwait City (4)

This is my favorite section from The History of Architecture in Old Kuwait City by Saleh Abdulghani Al-Mutawa, Architect. It is quoted from the section called Social Customs, starting on page 206:

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Kuwait is a small nation, with population of one million, that actually has a large influence on people’s behavior; it makes the whole country like one unified family. In the neighborhoods, it is customary to see houses left open and without any security measures, always ready for visitors, which reflects the strength of the relations between neighbors, and the confidence they enjoy. The most distinctive customs are:

1. Large families; average size is eight members. The young generation is trying to minimize the family size. They live in rather large houses, seven to ten bedrooms, which is considered to be an average size house. The house provides privacy for the boys, when they grow up and have their own families.

2. Large family groups, either under one roof or in clustered dwellings, is noticable throughout Kuwait neighborhoods. That reflect the willingness of families and relatives to cooperate and help each other.

3. Newly married sons tend to stay in their parent’s house and share the cooking and dining, so houses have rather large kitchens and dining rooms.

4. Families and relatives visit each other on Fridays and stay for lunch, which is the main meal of the day. The number of visitors varies from 20 – 50 persons, depending on the size of the families. Men and women visit in separate rooms, since separation of males and females is part of the custom. (The author notes that he is talking about old habits and traditions that were prevailing in the old city.)

5.All houses have what is called “Dewania” which is a guest room. In well designed houses, two “Dewanias” were furnished, one for males and one for females, since separation between males and females is mandatory as far as the customs are concerned. The “Dewania” has its separate entrance from the rest of the house, which is to provide privacy for the inhabitants and prevent sudden interactions with guests. It is considered bad for a female to be seen by a male guest, and vice versa. In poorly designed houses, the “Dewanias” don’t have proper privacy and seclusion. The men have the habit of visiting the neighborhood “Dewanias” at night for socialization and discussion of daily matters. In the past the “Dewanias” were the only news sources for the people. Different “Dewanias” are known by the last name of the owners. Hot tea and Arabian coffee are served on a regular basis and in big events like celebrations, “Eads”, wedding parties, and so forth, big feasts held for families, friends and neighbors.

6. “Chay Aldaha”, or afternoon tea at which it is customary for women to visit each other and gossip. Hot tea and cookies are served for refreshment. “Chay Aldaha” is held in the female “Dewania” to ensure privacy for female guests and to prevent sudden embarrassing interactions with male inhabitants.

7. Women are dressed in conservative clothes when they go out; the face and the two hands are the only parts of the body which are exposed. (The author makes a note that he is talking about old habits and traditions which were prevailing in the city) Privacy for women inside the house is an important factor. They should not be seen from the outside while they are doing their daily housework, and should not be in the way when male guests are visiting in the house.

As you can see, the winds of change have blown through Kuwait creating many, many changes. This book captures a slice of time in Kuwait history, and a wealth of information you don’t even know you know. The ways Kuwaitis lived for generations have changed, just in the last 20 years. I was particularly taken with the author’s mention – several times – that women should not be seen tending to their daily housework – how many Kuwaiti women do you know who are doing housework?

There is a current controversy regarding removal of diwaniyyas constructed on public grounds – if this is an old and accepted tradition, perhaps some adjustment can be made, particularly where the diwaniyyas are not impeding public transport or walking paths? Perhaps some can be “grandfathered”, i.e. exceptions made because of historical location?

Meanwhile, my Kuwaiti friends, sorry for boring you with these descriptions of your family dwellings; you already know all this, but the rest of the world does not, and I wanted to share this with those who follow this blog because they find you exotic and fascinating. 🙂 You really need to add this book to your libraries, as a record of a way of life that seems to be slipping all to quickly into the past.

February 27, 2008 - Posted by | Arts & Handicrafts, Building, Community, Cultural, Family Issues, Kuwait, Living Conditions, Local Lore, Privacy, Social Issues, Women's Issues | , , ,

8 Comments »

  1. Most of the violating Diwaniya’s are actually fairly new, older diwaniyas were built as part of the house, now as real estate prices are rising insanely, people are building four-story houses (unheard of 10 years ago) then annex the sidewalk as a diwaniya to their house.

    The book you found is fascinating to me. (Would you know where I could find a copy?) So is the whole diwaniya, “this land is my land” fight.

    I’m really interested in how ‘space’, culture and law intersect to shape our lives. (Yes, I am clearly the world’s biggest nerd.)

    Comment by G.E&B | February 27, 2008 | Reply

  2. Arab architecture is something which is depleting at a very fast rate.I believe a lot of architects have put in efforts to bring that back

    Comment by Architects India | February 27, 2008 | Reply

  3. GE.&B – Well, sweetie, you will have to fight me for the nerd honor, and once others hear the swords clanging, they will come join the fight . . . haven’t you noticed, this blog-world is where the nerds rule? I love this book. I bought it with the idea of giving it to a Kuwaiti friend who loves his heritage, and I am really going to have to sacrifice to give it up to him. AARRRGGHH.

    It MIGHT be in the bookstores. If we can find the author, maybe he still has a few copies he would be willing to sell . . . . 🙂 I see his buildings everywhere, now that I know what I am looking at.

    You are right, AI. There are some places like Qatar that are preserving some of it while it still exists, but from what my friends tell me, it is individual buildings, not the neighborhoods where families had several houses built close together so they could send food back and forth, and children lived in all the families houses and had almost literally a village full of family raising them. What times those must have been!

    Comment by intlxpatr | February 27, 2008 | Reply

  4. Thank you Intlxpatr for posting! I adore history, old customs and architecture (as you can see from my comments on your Damascene posts) – am I a bit of a nerd in this respect too (I love museums, history walks etc etc) *holding up my sword*

    It would be much easier for Muslim extended families to live this way, especially prior to the widespread employment of maids and drivers. I could see my husband’s huge family living this way; it would be much easier, actually. I love the idea of a reception area, neat and available at all times for guests. I do have a majlis, one for males and one for females where I currently live, but when we move, we will not 😦

    I would love to get a copy of this book, though I’m sure I would never find it. Fascinating.

    Comment by Aliyah | February 28, 2008 | Reply

  5. Wooo Hooooo, Aliyah, here to join in combat for the nerd title! Instead of fighting, you know we will end up discussing ideas and experiences over coffee and chai! I really should have called this blog the Virtual Coffee Shop, where we can sit and talk. LLOOOLLLLL! We’ll have lots of good company.

    Comment by intlxpatr | February 28, 2008 | Reply

  6. […] History of Architecture in Old Kuwait City (4) « Here There and Everywhere […]

    Pingback by Mister Ian’s Weblog from Kuwait » History of Architecture in Old Kuwait City and more on Kuwait Culture | March 2, 2008 | Reply

  7. Sounds brill!! *looking around* Where’s my chai? *smile*

    Comment by Aliyah | March 7, 2008 | Reply

  8. Time for “Chai al Daha”, Aliyah! Know any good gossip? C’mon over here and sit next to me. 😉

    Comment by intlxpatr | March 7, 2008 | Reply


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