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Drama on Iraq invasion critiques Kuwait’s disunity today

KUWAIT CITY: Each night for the past three weeks, families in Kuwait have been transfixed by a drama in which they already know the ending. The 30-part television serial on Iraq’s 1990 invasion has become more than just a retelling of occupation and war.

The series is being seen by many as a reminder of past national unity at a time when Kuwait is caught in a cycle of tribal bickering and political showdowns between the Western-backed ruling family and Islamists – who would ban public concerts and block women athletes from major sporting events.

Tensions over the Gulf Arab showdowns with Iran have brought pressures on Kuwait’s minority Shiites.

The series “Saher al-Lail” (“Insomniac”) is the most ambitious attempt by a Kuwait television network to portray the invasion and six-month occupation.

It follows the story of an extended Kuwaiti family: a Kuwaiti diplomat married to an Iraqi; their son, an imprisoned army officer; and the diplomat’s nephews and nieces in the resistance, including one who is captured and tortured by Saddam Hussein’s soldiers.

Television series are a staple of Ramadan, which draws to a close this weekend. The plots typically reach back into Islamic history for stories of bravery and betrayal. The Kuwait series, however, deals with a conflict whose wounds are still not fully healed.

Screenwriter Fahad al-Aliwa said he attempted to steer clear of the political complexities and contradictions of the occupation – which included fabricated testimony about Iraqi atrocities, recounted by the Kuwait ambassador’s daughter pretending to be a refugee witness.

Instead, Aliwa sought to celebrate the national myths of unwavering resistance and honor during the occupation – much like Hollywood’s 1960s World War II epics, in which the Yanks always emerged victorious.

“During these troubling times when sectarianism is tearing apart our society, I found it to be vital to remind people of a time when all their differences didn’t matter and what mattered was what they share in common: their country,” said al-Aliwa, who was 6 when Saddam’s tanks rolled across the border in August, 1990.

“It is not my role to discuss politics.”

Indirectly, the messages of national unity stand as a counterpoint to the current divides in Kuwait.

Kuwait’s parliament is currently in limbo over disputes between the ruling family and lawmakers that include claims of widespread corruption. Boycotts by MPs have pushed the country closer to new elections, which were won by Islamist-led opposition groups in the last election.

Shortly after the February polls, Islamist lawmakers said they would seek constitutional changes to replace the country’s mix of legal codes with only Shariah – blocked by Kuwait’s emir.

Hard-line conservatives have tried to exert themselves in other ways, including closing down an art exhibition deemed “profane.” The works feature men and women mingling and include images of liquor bottles.

The emir, Sheik Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah, issued a thinly veiled warning to the political opposition Monday, saying he would “not tolerate” groups that impede “the process of development in the country.”

A Kuwaiti in his late 60s, named himself Abu Nasser, believes the country has lost touch with its sense of national purpose, which many believe reached its zenith during the rebuilding years after U.S.-led forces drove out Saddam’s troops in early 1991.

“After more than two decades, we are still none the wiser. People talk a lot about how the differences were obliterated, but things improved after the invasion for a little while only and then got worse,” said Abu Nasser, who volunteered to run a grocery store during the invasion.

“I certainly hope that this series will have a positive impact on people.”

Abu Nasser was one of several who refused to give their full names to the AP, because issues about the occupation remain highly sensitive here.

Kuwaiti novelist and women’s rights activist Laila al-Othman hoped the series would spur deeper study of the occupation by Kuwait’s young population – with about than half the country below 30 years old and with little or no memory of the Iraqi invasion.

“It’s important that they learn what happened,” she said, “and that they learn about the values of solidarity that helped the country get back on its feet after the invasion.”

What took place during the invasion, including stories of torture, rape and summary killings, are clouded by rumors and conjecture. Very little has officially been documented aside from numbers of executions and stories of martyrs – whose oral retellings often blur fact and embellishment.

Aliwa also took pains to avoid stoking tensions between Kuwait and Iraq. The dialogue refers to Saddam, and the occupying troops are simply referred to as “they” not “Iraqis.”

A Kuwaiti man in his late 40s, who gave his name as Abu Yousef, says he vividly remembers the killings.

“A young man from our neighborhood ... was lying on the floor in front of his house in a pool of his own blood,” said the man.

“I couldn’t believe my eyes. I stopped the car and got out ... I remember how his grief-stricken mother sobbed loudly ... how she sat next to his body as if waiting for him to wake up.

“It was as if all differences have melted away,” he continued. “People helped each other out in every way they could. We operated the bakeries, cleaned the streets, helped those who needed money, and issues like sect and background didn’t come between us. We all learned the value of our solidarity.”

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on August 17, 2012, on page 16.

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