Open Sesame Ola El Khalidi

Open Sesame

The stories of Kuwait’s Palestinian exiles, as told through objects

As Kuwait was being ‘liberated’ in 1991, angry nationalist ghosts were hunting Palestinians and Iraqis. The United Nations went searching in police stations, though they forgot to search the basements of schools. Alongside the scores of individuals tortured and murdered during the Kuwaiti invasion and the Second Gulf War was the displacement of thousands of Palestinians. In the smallest houses rented by Palestinians in every Kuwaiti neighbourhood, cars were seen loaded with bags and possessions. Mass deportations happened not only after Kuwait’s liberation, but also during the first months of the Iraqi occupation. As a result, many decided to flee in fear of the coming war. They were never welcomed back, nor were their stories seen as deserving to be told.

In search for the memories of these displaced individuals, Ola El-Khalidi organised an exhibition held earlier this year between January and March at apexart in Manhattan, NYC. Under the title Open Sesame, the Western take on the Arabic phrase Iftah Ya Simsim, famously uttered in the 1,001 Nights story of Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves of Baghdad – and which also lent its name to a popular American children’s television programme – the exhibition featured a series of works relating to the forgotten experiences of the Iraqi invasion. ‘Wars have shaped the future of a generation of teenagers from the region, whom I call the “Open Sesame Generation”, a generation of which I am a part [of]’, explained El-Khalidi. ‘Now adults, many [of their] lives were dramatically changed by the invasion in one way or another, and refer to it as a turning point – the end of childhood, the end of the age of innocence.’ In the context of the exhibition, I saw Open Sesame as referring to the shared experiences of watching the first broadcasted war, to the arrivals and departures and the countless possibilities to come.

After conducting interviews with some of those who left Kuwait for Amman, El-Khalidi asked various families and individuals to allow their objects to travel to the studios of several artists around the world. For those who left Kuwait, their personal objects, photographs, and writings were all they had left from their previous lives, irreplaceable and impossible ones. El-Khalidi took their words and carried away their objects in order to see how they would translate in the eyes of others. Subsequently, five Arab artists, as well as one Afghan-German artist strove to answer El-Khalidi’s question: What happened on the 2nd of August, 1990? And, using that as their starting point, they each narrated stories of their own.

Ganzeer

Ganzeer – Happily Ever After (courtesy the artist)

As I entered the small gallery space, my eyes directly focused on an artwork occupying the main wall: an illustration repeatedly printed as a 20 x 10 foot wall poster by the Egyptian street artist Ganzeer, entitled Tabaat we Nabaat – Happily Ever After. The illustration showed a seemingly happy family of parents and their children. As the illustration peeled off, however, the objects in the background came to mark the end of this family’s utopia, and the beginning of their departure. Ganzeer, best known for his political graffiti works, merged an Egyptian folk story of marriage, happiness, and fertility with the Palestinian reality of displacement and departure. He, however, did not live the experience of war and dislocation, and was only nine years old when the Iraqi invasion occurred. Nonetheless, the work was pertinent, as it focused on the common theme of the exhibition – objects that travel to become mobile memories for those who have lost their homes.

The illustration of a family showed the utopia Palestinians dreamt about with respect to Kuwait, before they found ‘[Kuwait] City … inaccessible’, as Ganzeer put it. When I asked Ganzeer how he created the work without having first-hand experienced displacement and war, he told me how he referred to El-Khalidi’s interviews with the Palestinian families, and envisioned their imagination of Kuwait. The memories of these Palestinians were not those of immigrants who were able to make it back to Kuwait in 1992; they were forever displaced, and their possessions now serve to resemble their expulsion. Perhaps this is why Ganzeer replaced the happy faces of his subjects with objects in black and white. The words of the Turkish-American Fine Arts scholar Zeynep Turan come to mind here, looking at Ganzeer’s work, as well as those of the other artists working with these objects: ‘Objects transmit memory, foster identity, and galvanise individuals’.

Makan Collective

Makan Collective – Twenty Two Years Today (detail)

Continuing with the subject of objects, the exhibition also featured a table displaying various possessions collected during El-Khalidi’s interviews with those who left Kuwait for Jordan. Among the objects were school memoirs, issues of Al-Arabi and the children’s Majid magazines, bags of bread, a caricature by Naji Al-Ali, a napkin featuring the iconic Kuwait Towers, and a small jar of Kuwaiti sand taken by a Palestinian to Amman. On the subject of her father’s return to Palestine after the 1948 Nakba (lit. ‘Catastrophe’) Lila Abu-Lughod wrote about the way in which stories and objects construct history. She thought of his stories and material remains as an insertion of memories and a different knowledge into a present history. Similarly, El-Khalidi’s interviews and travelling objects intervened in a present history of the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait that omitted the experiences and displacements and departures lived by non-Kuwaitis.

The transnational works in the exhibition gave another dimension to the experience of dislocation as a form of violence towards departed bodies and memories

As a visitor from the same generation and geography (I am originally from Kuwait), those objects invited me to imagine a history of war I did not witness, yet that I have constructed an image of, through the memories and stories of families and friends. Such an engagement is inviting when objects are situated to store experiences. From one experience to another, those of the ‘Open Sesame’ generation were reproduced depending on geography and memories. They captivated the viewer, inviting them to restore the memories and relive them.

Two artists, Samah Hijawi and Diala Khasawnih well tackled the issue of departure politically through their depiction of a large map of the route many took to flee Kuwait through Iraq to Jordan. Around the map, one could see a picture of Saddam Hussein as well as those of cars leaving Kuwait. To personalise this forced political trip, the artists played tapes of the Algerian singer Warda, as well as those of others, in addition to displaying family pictures and a bottle of whiskey. The result was powerfully political and humanising; there was no space for debating war – ‘Sesame’ (i.e. Kuwait) closed one night, and thousands could no longer go home. Hijawi and Khasawnih’s objects and illustrations created a mythical voyage from an imagined heaven to an unknown destiny.

Along the same lines, the Iraqi-American artist Rheim Alkadhi framed blank pictures to tell the story of an unspeakable departure of a woman named Amal K. Alkadhi wrote captions for blank images, or ones of families in their cars leaving Kuwait without showing their faces. Those personal pictures recalled the mass migrations that happened within weeks, and the dislocated bodies and objects that were never allowed to return.

Open Sesame

Samah Hijawi and Diala Khasawnih - A Journey (courtesy Ola El-Khalidi)

Just as Hijawi and Khasawnih incorporated written letters to speak of departure and dislocation, the Afghan artist Jeanno Gaussi used writing as a way to create new histories of different dislocated objects. Born in Kabul and now residing in Berlin, Gaussi invited 12 Berlin-based artists from different countries to keep objects given to them by families who left Kuwait, and later write stories about them. The 12 narratives were ahistorical and had no relation to the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, nor those who were forced to leave; they were ‘fictional memoirs’, as Gaussi termed them, that strove to create an ‘after-life’ of those objects by universalising the experience of dislocation. The writings met at one intersection: faithfulness to memory. They did not aim at imagining the experiences of the owners of those objects, but instead attempted to think of the possibilities that objects can create. The writings situated the possessions in personal narratives, in relation to their experiences as ‘hosts’ of those displaced objects, which helped the artists revisit and mobilise the memories of those who left Kuwait.

To visit such objects and artworks can be an overwhelming experience, especially if one has direct or collective memories of the 1990 Gulf War. On another level, the transnational works in the exhibition gave another dimension to the experience of dislocation as a form of violence towards departed bodies and memories. A massive portion of Kuwait’s population was literally replaced after the invasion as ‘Sesame’ decided to monitor its gates and select its [returning] visitors. Speaking of the experiences of those who left Kuwait before the arrival of war highlighted the marginalisation of certain departures, as history cares to only speak of the invasion as a nationalist experience told exclusively by state narratives.

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About the Author

Mona Kareem
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Mona Kareem is a blogger and poet from Kuwait. She has published two collections of Arabic poetry in Kuwait and Cairo, and is currently finishing her PhD in Comparative Literature at Binghamton University in New York.