Luis Vazquez/©Gulf News
It is poignant for the late Kuwaiti star Abdul Hussain Abdul Redha to pass during the Qatar crisis; the ongoing diplomatic rift between Qatar and, principally, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, UAE, and Bahrain. He came of age during the forgings of a modern Gulf identity. He died during its most serious ailment, if not its death. He died now. And the rest of us will watch the credits run.
Khalijis once defined themselves by their cultural identities, today they are condemned to sort themselves politically first. It used to be songs and now it’s ideologies. It used to be jokes and now it affiliations. It used to be hopes and now it’s destinations.
Abdul Hussain (1939-2017) is incomparable to anyone that ever stood in a Khaliji theatre. To Egyptians, I would say he is our Adel Imam. To Brits, I compare him to John Cleese. He was part of a generation that didn’t make art for the sake of the money but to find a Gulf identity in those shaky days of pan Arabism and resurgent Islamism. Before the GCC there was Darb Al Zalag (slippery way), a comedy series about two poor brothers who suddenly find wealth when the government buys their home for a major project and start searching for investment opportunities. They eventually go to Egypt — because Abdul Hussain is depressed his mum married their neighbour — where he decides to buy the pyramids and bring them to Kuwait as a tourist attraction. His brother’s advice is to get one first and see how it goes.
Then there was Bye Bye London, a comedy of a Kuwaiti man who has a midlife crisis born of new found wealth philandering in London. There he finds other nouveau riche Arabs and is chased by his wife and daughter. In a pivotal scene, he tries to explain, in broken English, where he comes from: “Me home Kuwait. Me Petrol. You drink milk? Me Petrol”. Here is a man that captured Khalijis pre-and post-oil, but always Khaliji. Always a specific cultural sub group that self identified as those who were not traditionally the heirs of high Arab culture and who found (too much?) wealth when others could not. What was a Khaliji? Abdul Hussain knew, Abdul Hussain was.
After the invasion of Kuwait by Iraq, the country’s most difficult crisis, Abdul Hussain wrote and starred as Iraqi President Saddam Hussain in Saif Al Arab (Arab’s sword) — Saddam’s self-proclaimed nom de guerre — and through comedy emasculated his ideology and invasion. So powerful was his play in going some way in healing Kuwait’s trauma from the invasion that there was an attempt to assassinate him, which he attributed to the Iraqi intelligence service.
The Gulf is not what it was. The Gulf is multiple gulfs among each other. It is simply not anymore. There was an idea around this place. Perhaps reflexive, perhaps forced, perhaps populist but pursued genuinely into what indeed was the product of its context and time. Through, oil, the Iranian revolution, and the Carter doctrine — all temporary things, yes — something was born, songs were composed, grand festivals were held, and a truth was found. Here were a people who — thrusted upon by history and geopolitics and elevated by wealth — would be come upon by all the others and so, come together.
Politics killed culture
Today Khalijis are splattered across their shores. Some gather here. Other disperse there. No longer eyeing others, they stare each other. Politics killed culture. The outside subsumed the inside. Once again, the future replaced the past.
This Qatar crisis will resolve itself one day, some way. But every Khaliji is paying in precious social dinars, riyals, and dirhams. To whom does this culture now belong? How to share what has been crushed to many pieces? Upon Abdul Hussain’s death, there were calls by some Sunni clerics that one couldn’t wish for peace upon his soul because of his sect. Among those who rebutted such calls was Saud Al Shuraim, the Imam of the Grand Mosque in Makkah, saying that those who deny peace prayers on people are disputing God’s greatest gift to all humanity: mercy. A fitting defence for a man who transcended sects and nations alike. Everyone knew Abdul Hussain was Shiite but no one remembered. He was Khaliji.
I am not qualified to write an obituary on Abdul Hussain. I can only try to eulogise the Gulf he personified. We will miss it as much as him. It is now suspended in his plays and shows. It is now, like him, past.
— Mishaal Al Gergawi is founder and managing director of the Delma Institute, an interdisciplinary research house