First published at BIKYAMASR
In 1992 David Douglas directed a short documentary about the Kuwaiti oil fires in the course of the First Gulf War, under the title “Fires of Kuwait”. His documentary, rich in apocalyptic imagery – that since then has become popular and almost mainstream in TV documentaries – takes the viewer through a carefully documented tour of the indescribable damage suffered by the tiny Gulf state during the war.
From all the tragic events recounted in this already legendary film, there is one Kuwaiti casualty left out and that has seldom received any attention in historical accounts of the war; of which Bill Badley reminds us briefly in the Rough Guide to World Music: “One of the less reported tragedies of the First Gulf War was the loss of Kuwait’s national sound archive, which held a treasure trove of music recordings from the whole region.”
The aboriginal music of Kuwait was traditionally well-recorded until that war, when Iraq invaded the country and destroyed the archive. This traditional music, known as fidjeri, is an age-old repertory of vocal music sung by the pearl divers of Bahrain, Kuwait and Qatar. The nahham, or pearl diver singers, were backed up by a chorus of singers and clappers accompanied by the mirwas – a small drum – and the jahlah – a clay pot.
This music, strange and distant as it seems, is the most vivid recollection of the lifestyle of the pearl divers, singing praises to Allah, sometimes erotic poems, sometimes hymns to the sea; and with it we are able to imagine the boats and the annual pearl diving seasons, the rudimentary but elaborate pieces of clothing used by the divers that preceded the modern diving suits by many centuries, and perhaps conjure up images of what Fuad Khuri described in his now classic “Tribe and State in Bahrain”; mixing scholarship and narrative prose to tell us about the life of the pearl divers long before the oil economy.
Most of the music archives in Kuwait were lost, and the only extant recording known internationally, of the fidjeri music, is the musical atlas of Bahrain published by UNESCO in 1979. In it we can see, listen and read the curious songs of the pearl divers and get a glimpse of what life was like in the Gulf in those days.
Kuwait however, surprised the world when a film by Khalid Al-Siddiq, “The Cruel Sea” – better known by its Arabic name, “Bas Ya Bahr” – appeared in 1972, representing artistically the pre-oil life of pearl divers in the country and probably the only film in history to have done so. For being a country without any experience in cinema, the film demonstrated great talent and immediately became a master piece of Arab cinema.
Even though theaters existed in Kuwait since the legendary Al-Sharqiah cinema opened in 1954, in the early days of cinema the country was still too poor and populated entirely by tribes that roamed the sand and dived into the sea for pearls; later on after the first oil boom, what began was a culture of film watching rather than producing, hence the surprise when Al-Siddiq’s film – made independently and certainly free from the film celebrity culture of Cairo, Beirut and Teheran at the time – hit the international scene and even won a prize at the Carthage Film Festival in that year, 1972.
Undoubtedly it was the first film made in the Gulf – with the exception of a state-sponsored film made in North Yemen in the 1960’s that never reached outside Yemen – and for a long time considered the only, even though Al-Siddiq won an award in Cannes for his 1976’s film “The Wedding of Zein” based on a novel of Tayeb Saleh, and produced some other films. Nevertheless the film industry in the region remained dormant until 1990, when Bahrain released a full-length feature.
“The Cruel Sea” was and is still of interest today not necessarily because of its first film status or because of its depiction of the life of the pearl divers; set in Kuwait prior to the discovery of oil, it is highly unlikely that the most celebrated of all Kuwaiti films wouldn’t have been banned, had it been released today. For years it was sent repeatedly to film festivals – all the way to 2011 – even though it is rarely screened in Kuwait and it has never been released in DVD. A few years ago, the director himself claimed that not even he had a copy of the film.
The film revolves around two central thematic edges: On the one hand, it is an aesthetic representation of the Sea as a persona – treacherous, mysterious, sensual – whose qualities stand in apposition if not, deliberately in opposition to the traditional milieu on which it moves or that it serves; on the other hand it is also a critical representation of life in Kuwait before oil. However, the film is not short of gumption in its radically savage criticism of a feudal society too much contented by its ancient privileges, no less than the miser condition of women in that society and the exaggerated role of religion. The visionary social realism of Al-Siddiq is unparalleled in Arab cinema, and accordingly, the film contains some very violent scenes that could be said to be, by far, the most daring and accusatory in Middle Eastern cinema, up to this very day.
In the plot, a crippled pearl diver forbids his son to go into the sea to dive for pearls, wanting for him a much better future than that he had for himself in the turbulent sea at the mercy of the inclement weather and the dangers associated with pearl diving – money feuds, ruthless overlords and greed. Mussaid, the young son, is in love with a woman from a wealthy family and needs to make enough money to marry her. Her father is a rich merchant who desires nothing but her to marry for money.
But the story soon turns to tragedy, and a very particular type thereof, because there are no moral lessons to be learnt or any victorious heroes, not dead or alive, not redeemed or forsaken; the message remains absent from the screen but yet written on the wall. Out of this tremulous convulsion of events, there is no survivor or witness other than the sea, treacherous, unmovable, unchanged and eternal.
There is always something almost mythical about the cultures of the Sea that in the Middle East, are all of them, at least in their formative periods. In the Gulf, a great deal of prosperity came from the Sea, from fishing and pearl-diving, from sea-trade and even from piracy. Only in later periods as the learning centers of Islam turned inwards into the land – as did the souls of the peoples – the passion for the water receded somehow, but a cruel sensuality remained somewhere; somewhere in the language, always so naturally sensuous, in the atavistic prayers, in the largesse of the embraces and the laughs.
In his book “Trial by Ink”, Egyptian writer Yahia Lababidi makes a case for the sensuality of the sea-men: “I began to think that living by the sea – with its rhythms and vastness – spawned more unruly, free spirits. That it fostered an amorality, a sensuality even, beyond good and evil. In fact, the more I observed these remarkable creatures, the more I found myself thinking of another sea-loving, sun-worshiping people: the ancient Greeks. Here’s philosopher Nietzsche in rhapsody: Oh those Greeks! They knew how to live. What is required for that is to stop courageously at the surface, the fold, the skin, the adore appearance… Those Greeks were superficial – out of profundity!”
Amorality here may not be necessarily immorality or bad judgment, but rather, no judgment at all. This is precisely what happens to the viewer of Al-Siddiq’s film, who is invited to join the sea as a witness, without consequence of the results – unruly and free, however tragic. Mussaid eventually receives permission from his father to go to the sea, and there he works with the man to whom his father owes money – a story commonly heard among pearl divers; while he is away Nura, the rich merchant’s daughter and his beloved, is forced by her father to marry a rich and old suitor.
In the end the amoral – that is, unable to teach anything – tragedy unfolds when Mussaid dies in a diving accident while Nura is being raped by her husband on their wedding night. And here one cannot help but ask himself whether the social criticism leveled by Al-Siddiq was not perhaps ahead of his time? The answer is definitely no, since his powerful imagery and dialogues were not even set in his own time, but rather, decades before him. The question that remains is, how have the times changed after all?
The same structure of the feudal society is reproduced almost in its entirety into the oil-based economy with thousands of stateless citizens in their midst and few policies to promote a healthy balance of economic and political modernity. The role of religion remains unchallenged and if anything, has been nothing but accentuated since the discovery of oil – and not only in Kuwait – and lastly, the situation of women, though improved, leaves many at the mercy of the still patriarchal society, in which these rapes are common, and following from the sharp commentary of Lababidi on the sex culture of Egypt – “issues are further complicated in a culture that discourages premarital sex, and where a woman’s virginity is governed by a kind of gift shop morality – you break it, you buy it”, it is often the case that women that are raped, end up being forced to marry their rapist in order to follow this logic of honor.
Modernity is often understood in the Gulf as economic and structural policies, in which the social tissue remains unchanged. A great degree of laws – divorced from justice – exist to prosecute people for crimes more or less imaginary and that would strike most people as fiction, such a practicing magic or imitating the other sex are in place; while many stateless, women and homosexuals cannot have their basic rights granted. One keeps wondering here what was it that led Al-Siddiq to his passionate vision, and how through telling a simple story he would bring into full view hundreds of years of Kuwaiti history, looking into both the future and the past. One is reminded then of the great Pasolini, who in the same years that Al-Siddiq filmed his debut film, was in the Old City of Sana’a shooting a documentary that would help save Sana’a from cultural oblivion and after which he said, with sadness:
“To reach the standards of living of the West, the peoples of the Middle East will abdicate their ancient tolerance and will become horribly intolerant”. His words, though somewhat Romantic, were prophetic in their own way and can certainly describe the vision of Al-Siddiq: To witness the unfolding of a collapsing structure of the past and tradition clashing against the limitless possibilities of a modern world ever so new and changing.
After the death of both lovers, there’s no morale other than perhaps it is not the feudal society, or the religion or the father or ultimately the sea, what can bring change into a person and a nation’s life, but small acts of courage, unprecedented and miraculous as they may be. Perhaps that is all what it will take to have a Kuwaiti Arab Spring: That one man will say no to his fate and will choose to transform it into his destination. All what Mussaid and Nura could not do. In the meantime the sea remains impassive, indifferent, eternal, unchanged; or in the words of Lababidi, in his description of Beirut:
“Behind this wondrous-strange, triptych, bristling with contradictions – mosque-shrine, music store-temple, and inscrutable skateboarders – stood the amoral sea, reconciling all differences.”