Here There and Everywhere

Expat wanderer

History of Architecture in Old Kuwait City (5)

One last quote from this wonderful book by Saleh Abdulghani Al-Muttawa, because it summarizes his ideas on what makes house practical for the weather and customs of this region:

Cultural Response

. . .the major critical cultural and customs problems which concern housing are;

1. Privacy for female inhabitants

2. Separation between female and male guests, and separation between guests, in general, and house members.

3. Future family expansion

. . . The approach to solving those critical problems are as follows:

1. To assure privacy for family members, and especially female members. The family part of the house has been pushed all the way to the back; in other words, it is on the north side far away from the street. It is difficult, or impossible, for anyone passing by the house to be able to look through and see the inside, especially with all those trees and plants placed in front of the house. Another conservative step has been taken by separating the family entrance from the guest’s entrance, and placing the family entrance close to the driveway and the garage for easy and private access. All that gave the female members of the family more free and secured mobility inside the house.

2. The prototype design provides a separate quarter for the guests, “Dewania.” The “Dewania” is placed on the southern side of the house away from the family entrance, to provide privacy for both family members and guests. The “dewania” is actually divided into two “dewanias,” female “dewania” and male “dewania.” For more seclusion and privacy of both sexes, the entrance of the female “dewania” is placed on the west side and the entrance of the male “dewania” is placed on the east side. Both entrances are close to the main road to make it more convenient and easy for the guests to come in and out. Each “dewania” has its own bath. There is only one dining room, because most of the time only men stay for dining. (Women have to go home to cook for their families.) If it happens that both sexes stay for dining, women can be accomodated in their “dewania.” A collapsible partition is placed in between the two “dewanias.” In big events like wedding parties or feasts, the partition can be collapsed, so the space would be large enough for a sizable number of people.

In a post last week, How decisions are made in Kuwait we had a long discussion about diwaniyas in the comments section. What I like about al-Muttawa’s concept is that collapsible wall in between the female and male diwaniyya. It could allow the females to listen in on major political discussions – what? You think we aren’t interested? You are wrong! – and participate.

“How can they participate while separated?” my western friends will be asking.

There are emmisaries. When sitting with the women, in Saudi Arabia, I wondered at first how my husband and I would both know when it is time to go. In western society, we have a meeting of the eyes and my husband will give an almost imperceptible nod and I know it is time to begin to make our farewells. As the hour got later and later, and still later, I finally asked one of the women how I would know when my husband wanted to leave.

“You want to leave?” she gasped in horror!

“No, No!” I assured her, “I just don’t know how I will know when my husband wants to leave!”

“Your husband will send for you! The children will tell you!” she laughed, and I stopped worrying. The children were running back and forth from room to room, reporting on the happenings in the men’s diwayya, where a holy man was discussing morality and requirements of morality.

This was one of my favorite places in Saudi Arabia, the house of friends. In the women’s majlis, there was only a TV, and seating around all the walls. There was nothing on the walls, nothing, not a picture, not a calligraphy, nothing, but the furniture was strong and comfortable, and the hospitality never-ending. When dinner time came, we went to an adjacent entirely bare room, bare except for the lavish dinner laid on the floor, where we all sat and ate, and one huge cupboard, full of mattresses. The dining room became one of the sleeping rooms when all the guests departed.

I didn’t get a tour of the house; I only know what I saw from my entrance through the family entrance into the female part of the house, my brief glimpse of the kitchen area – large and utilitarian. What I remember most clearly was the love and joy in the family, and that all the walls were totally devoid of anything decorative.

+ + + + + +

When I came to live in Kuwait, the real estate people showed me 20 villas and one apartment. The villas, each and every one, were HUGE! Most of them were three or four floors, more than one had an elevator, and several had their own swimming pools.

Most of the houses had a large kitchen – separate from the house, outside! Alongside it were the quarters for the maids, the drivers, the guard, etc. Most of the houses had at least five bedrooms, at least two diwaniyyas.

In the newer areas, there was barely two feet between houses, so windows on the sides of the houses were non-existent, or heavily curtained over, making those rooms very dark. In the older houses, the bathrooms were small and the spaces were divided strangely, by western ways of thinking.

Mostly, though, the villas were lovely, full of luxurious materials and beautiful touches. As I would walk though, sounds bounced off the thick cinderblock walls and the marble floors.

AdventureMan works long hours. I would think of me and the Qatteri Cat bouncing around in the huge house like two little peas in a big bowl, and where would I find him if he hid out for a while? The villas were just too much space for our little family, and we opted for the apartment, although the apartment is bigger than many homes in the United States. AdventureMan and the Qatteri Cat still look at me accusingly from time to time; they always enjoyed an hour or two together in the garden on Friday mornings, and now we have no garden. . . all we have (I can’t even keep a straight face as I write this) is that glorious 24-hour-a-day 180° view of the Arabian Gulf. 😉

+ + + + + + +

If I ever see this book for sale, I will come back here and update. If YOU see it for sale, please come back here and let us know!

February 28, 2008 Posted by | Arts & Handicrafts, Books, Building, Community, Cross Cultural, ExPat Life, Family Issues, Kuwait, Living Conditions, Privacy, Saudi Arabia, Women's Issues | , | 4 Comments

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:


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