The fragility of culture, even of culture wrought in the hardness of masonry, is one of the themes of the ten short stories in Mai Al-Nakib’s first book, The Hidden Light of Objects. The second story, “Echo Twins,” is set after oil was discovered but before its exploitation. It is backdropped by life in traditional mud brick houses around courtyards and bunched in groups separated by very narrow winding alleys leading, mostly, to the nearest souk, or market.
Over dinner on her book-tour stop in Providence, Mai told me she thought this story would tickle my own interest in the natural rhythms of traditional architecture.
Throughout the Middle East, old residential patterns are being eradicated, leaving the culture and social mores in tatters. This is happening not only in Kuwait but in Mecca itself. The latter is not just a regrettable but an outlandishly sinister phenomenon, as I discussed in “Kismet, but not in Mecca” – a post that, unlike others that amount to digital bird-cage liner, has been read continuously since I published it on Oct. 2.
I heard Mai read on Tuesday at Symposium Books downtown. I’d known her since she moved into a condo where I lived in the Thomas Peckham House (1824) on Benefit Street. After I moved downtown to the Smith Building (1912), Mai moved there too – she was not, alas, stalking me – until she got her doctorate in English lit at Brown, moved back home to teach at Kuwait University, and now has published her first book of short stories.
As I say, I’d known Mai for years but not her work as a student. So I was not only pleased but astonished by the gentle but penetrating depth of her introduction to her reading from Objects. The passage itself was equal to the expectations set up by her intro, an exercise in profundity expressed in simplicity. Brilliant! I was relieved not to be called upon to mask disappointment at the work of a dear friend. “Echo Twins” plumbs the sorrow of change at a multiplicity of levels, but for this post Mai’s description of the mud houses of Kuwait is key:
The thick, mostly windowless outer walls enclosed a charming open courtyards overrun with pots of purple and yellow flowers reaching out to the sun all day, then tightly folding up their petals in the late afternoon. … Bright rooms with windows and paned doors opened onto the central courtyard which could be seen from every corner of the house. The courtyard was bordered by a shaded, arched corridor surfaced with tiles hand-painted blue, green, and rust. Burnished teak beams, likely scavenged from one of the dhow-building yards nearby, supported the roof.
As the photo on top suggests, this settlement type spread like vegetation. I recall a train ride for miles along a ridge overlooking the Rhine, enthralled by how the villages seemed to creep up the slopes of the valley as if they were a biological growth, as in certain ways they actually are. (The magic was briefly shattered by the appearance of a single BP gas station, its pump roof seemingly designed by some sub-cartel of OPEC.) Mai describes the mechanisms by which the house handled the climate’s onslaught of heat:
The kitchen, like every other room in the house, was cooled by wind tunnels designed to suck in the sea breeze. Even during the hottest days of August, the temperatures of their home remained tolerable, even pleasant, the tiles refreshing under [the twins’] cracked bare feet. The sound of the wind wending through the rooms and corridors was constant, a familiar fourth member of the household. The family slept together upstairs in a loft with paned doors that opened onto a terrace. On summer nights, when the wind was still and the temperature hot enough to boil a pot of water, they would pull their mattresses out onto the terrace to sleep. … Spending the night on the terrace under the stars was part of summer life in Kuwait. In the days before air conditioning, everyone slept out on their terraces during the long, scorching months. It was like a slumber party to which the whole country was invited.
So the oil boom put the kibosh on the national slumber party.
The mad fantasy of riches would come, but it would come on a wave of seismic destruction. Long after the echo twins were wafers in the memory of only the oldest Kuwaitis, the destruction still rained down, harder and harder. Crystal waters no more. Bluest skies no more. Delicate white truffles bursting in the desert no more. Sidr trees no more. Razed and replaced. Out with the old. To this day nobody knows for certain what has come instead. In with some vicious, damaging thing. In with perplexity. In with loss.
They say change is inevitable, and so it is. Must it eradicate the best blessings of life long offered by a culture? Who is to blame? The neo-imperialists or the stewards of the societies they victimize?
To deplore what has happened to Kuwait and so many other cultures is not to suggest that Araby should have remained a place of camels and tents. But it is to sigh an inchoate regret, at least, and I think this regret is part of what Mai Al-Nakib expresses with impressive depth and elegance in the tales of The Hidden Light of Objects.