March 20, 2017

Madeenah: Exploring Urban Development in Kuwait City

A tour with Madeenah in collaboration with Shaab Al-Khaled, "Grandmothers, Gardens, and the 66"
by Mai Alfarhan

Madeenah was established to capture the fast-paced urban development in Kuwait that has flourished since the discovery of oil. It attempts to generate a mindful sense of belonging to Kuwait City and its diverse inhabitants by curating public walking tours. Through its cultural tours, Madeenah cultivates an appreciation for urban development in the city. The tours explore different segments of the city, ranging from the old Souq Al-Mubarakiya, to residential neighborhoods, to stock exchange markets. Through this experience, the city becomes more than just a place of hustle and bustle. The tours offer hidden knowledge about the city and its urban planning so it becomes a personalized space that is filled with stories extending beyond urban facades.

AGSIW spoke with Deema AlGhunaim, managing director, about Madeenah’s mission and philosophy, as well as current issues in Kuwaiti urban development. AlGhunaim studied Architecture at Kuwait University and practiced at alpha-architects and Kuwait Master Plan Department. She co-curated the exhibition “Kethra,” Kuwait’s first participation in the Venice Architectural Biennial in 2012.

A tour with Madeenah in collaboration with the Kuwait Industries Union, “Tour into the Unknown”

AGSIW: How did the idea for Madeenah come about and what do you seek to accomplish through curating cultural walking tours?

Deema: The idea for Madeenah came about through our experiences in the city. Madeenah is a response to the need to document rapid urban changes happening in Kuwait and the region, as well as the need for a mediating entity to bridge the gap between urban stakeholders (government, real estate investors and developers, and the general public). Many people in Kuwait exclusively navigate the city by car, and spend their leisure time inside privately-owned spaces like the home, diwaniya, and malls. Madeenah helps challenge these norms by stepping outside, slowing down, and experiencing the city at a personal scale. The written and cartographic narratives we create are an essential part of this process, allowing us to better understand the value of the urban environment.

AGSIW: Tell us more about Madeenah’s educational activities. How is Madeenah telling untold stories about Kuwait City?

Deema: Designing a Madeenah tour requires us to think like curators in a museum. We trace the urban narratives connecting past, present, and future, and seek to find sense in the city, from its planned districts to its pockets of spontaneous use and adaptive reuse, to its vacant lots. Our resources are not just books and research studies, but the experience of those who live and work in the area of focus. Madeenah’s research is not final once a tour is launched, we continue to add observations and information from tour participants and those we encounter on the way.

AGSIW: What perspective does Madeenah aim to highlight through having architects, artists, and residents serve as tour guides?

Deema: Madeenah’s collaborations with curators from many different educational, social, and cultural backgrounds is part of our efforts to document the multiplicity of perspectives on and experiences of the city. Our vision for an archive or history of the city is one that is accurate, inclusive, and objective, while recognizing the importance of the personal and the subjective. Madeenah believes the city has a wealth of stories to tell.

AGSIW: I have noticed that Madeenah attracts both Kuwaitis and expatriates alike, how do you envision that adding value to a diverse culture in Kuwait City?

Deema: The diverse audience Madeenah attracts is a reflection of the diversity of Kuwait. We are working to add value through communication, mediating between different stories, experiences, and histories of the city. Through expanding our knowledge about the urban environment, citizens are better aware of the importance and value of diversity. This builds a foundation upon which citizens can actively engage in the planning, programming, and development of the city in a way that responds to the needs of all urban dwellers.

AGSIW: How do initiatives like Madeenah offset the rise of xenophobic sentiments in Kuwait through advocating for an equal “right to the city”?

Deema: I wouldn’t say that there is a rise of xenophobic sentiments in Kuwait, nor do we hear arguments about an equal “right to the city.” Kuwait is and always has been a very diverse place, and nowhere is that more apparent than in the city itself. Walking the city, you see Kuwaitis, residents, and visitors from all walks of life sharing the same space. That being said, we believe xenophobia is rooted in ignorance; interacting and sharing stories and spaces brings people together and allows for positive and constructive dialogue. The physical proximity of sharing the same space and the same city is a vital part of building these relationships, alongside the verbal and the visual.

Coffee shop at Souq Al-Mubarakiyah

AGSIW: On March 16, small business owners in Kuwait’s Souq Al-Mubarakiya, went on a strike to protest a 500 percent rent increase. Similarly, many historic landmarks, such as Al-Sawaber Complex, are now being demolished. How do you view these present changes and disputes in Kuwait City?

Deema: Souq Al-Mubarakiyah is an urban souq at the heart of the city. It is important for the souq to have room to grow and adapt with time, even as we strive to preserve its historical and cultural value, so it can remain a living and active marketplace and not simply a relic to the past. The importance and authenticity of the souq is more than an image of the past or a set of architectural elements; and the value of the souq is not only for trading goods, but as a place of social and cultural exchange. For Al-Mubarakiyah to retain is cultural, historical, and social value and also respond to the changing face of Kuwait City, the many stakeholders in the souq and the surrounding urban area must work together to create and implement building codes, municipal regulations, and business licensing requirements while providing support for culturally and historically significant businesses and craftspeople.

For more information, visit Madeenah’s website, or follow Madeenah on Instagram to learn more about upcoming tours.

Mai Alfarhan is a research associate at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.