Part of the intrigue of visiting Kuwait was the mystery itself. I was eager to set foot on less-familiar land, a place I felt had been subjected to oversimplified images often created and reproduced by outsiders. Others reacted with surprise and questioned why I chose to visit Kuwait. My answer, I hoped, would be captured in the photos I shared.

I was well aware of common perceptions of Kuwait that limited the country to nothing but a sandy terrain, oil, high levels of wealth, and the now decades-over Gulf War. Even if the images I saw in the media were true in some form, I wondered what they looked like from inside Kuwait itself.

When I arrived, I set off to meet a group of photographers who were visiting Failaka, a nearby island with a range of activities and sites of Kuwait’s visual history, much different than Kuwait City’s urbanized scene.

Upon joining a boat cruise, I met two Kuwaitis, one of whom, Osama, seemed just as eager about my visit to the island as I was. As someone who often forgets that it’s possible to travel within my own home country, Canada, I’m always inspired by locals who remind me how important it is to make time to your own country with new eyes. Osama offered to show us around the island and his strong sense of direction and awareness of suggested spots were greatly appreciated.

Failaka’s existence served as a reminder of a piece of Kuwait’s history. Former inhabitants included several Mesopotamian civilizations, the Greeks, and over two thousand Failakawans, who, upon the invasion by Iraqi forces in 1991 during the Gulf War, fled to the mainland. The Iraqi military then used the island for training purposes until it was reclaimed by allied forces.  

Our day’s exploration began on foot, initially passing by well-preserved buildings with Osama as our guide. We stopped to find the shade near a school, which, in contrast to the structures we passed earlier in the day, was in ruins almost beyond recognition.

As travelers, we often admire the visual aesthetics of a new place in favor of recognizing the historical significance. However, it is important to think beyond the beauty, and realize that humanity often has something to teach us, even on an island seemingly frozen in time.

Early in the trip, I was impressed by closeness and welcoming nature of the Kuwaiti photography community, a mix of foreigners and locals.

As we walked around, I also noticed that some of the best-preserved structures were mosques. I wondered, is it belief — or respect —which spares such structures from harmful invaders?

Unsurprisingly, I was immensely pleased to find my favorite animal — camels — thriving on the island in large herds, some partly enclosed, others roaming free. Their resilience and ability to survive are traits I have always admired, and which seemed to mimic their home as well.  

There was a man nearby, who I assumed was caring for the camels (enclosed or not). He waved his hands at us, seemingly annoyed with visitors. I was curious, and wanted to hear his story.

In talking with him, I learned that he was, in fact, an expatriate from Sudan, and I was glad to find we had both experienced some of the same places in his home country. During this exchange his mood improved and he obliged for a portrait. As we departed I said, “fursa saeeda!” which, in English, roughly translates to “nice to meet you” or “happy chance.”

Everywhere I looked, I found evidence of war. Such memories were in full sight at a ‘graveyard’ for tanks and other battle-worn vehicles. Because it was only a short stop on our itinerary, I was not able to fully reflect on these war machines. Every used gun, tank, and other form of weaponized machinery has a similar tragic story, in that they likely have been used to inflict suffering. Looking at the dents of gunfire and physical damage on some of these vehicles opened a discomforting side of my imagination. Seeing my friend pose on a tank shooting with a camera (instead of arms), I wondered if these images could help one reflect before deciding to use violence.  

In the afternoon, storm clouds threatened with a grey, slightly depressing tone. It was fitting that this mood was upkept upon walking up to the long abandoned National Bank of Kuwait (NBK), which evokes perhaps one of the most strikingly painful images of the Gulf War. Even though there were visitors around, the feeling of this place was absolutely desolate, with gunshot holes covering parts of the wall, which was, remarkably, still standing.

Adel, a new friend, Kuwait-born photographer, and a co-moderator of IGers Kuwait, alerted us to some of the bullets still littering the ground and one potential landmine near the bank.

I carried a bullet home with me, as I wanted to remember the heartbreaking reminder of war this trip offered me.

Aside from the war, “T,” a Kuwaiti friend and photographer, admitted that she knew of some of the stereotypes about Kuwait, such as oil and riches. But she also knows there is much more diversity to Kuwait and still finds new discoveries when revisiting sites such as Failaka.  

The darker it became, the more disheartening the scene looked. Walking by the destroyed buildings, some with only interior remains, and striking objects such as a lone, dusty football, gave off an eerie feeling that the human rescue had arrived too late. A fellow photographer even shared her story of the evacuation and passed on the violent memories that remained, years later. Though I remained silent with these thoughts, another fellow visitor and photographer, Salma, remarked on how important it is that one reflects on how destruction is too often caused out of greed and power, and erases much of what was once a beautiful place.

After a long day of exploring the island, we used the darkness to “light paint” in the remnants of the school we had visited earlier in the day, which provided a break from the day’s intense thoughts. As some of the group helped others set up, prepare equipment, and arrange, I felt inspired by the positive interaction and welcoming nature I had witnessed.
Beautiful and depressing as it was, I was thankful for this seemingly timeless reminder of war and conflict, which inspired important reflections on humanity for everyone on the trip. In a fine twist, a place that been ripped apart by the hunger for power, wealth, and resources in the past had now become a source of learning, exploration, and generosity because of those who made me feel welcome there.

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Marcus Tan de Bibiana
Marcus Tan de Bibiana is a Canadian-born, nomadic artist who shares as a photographer, poet and creative writer. By traveling, he’s quietly driven by reflections of the flawed beauty of humaneness and desires to better understand the social and psychological challenges humans face. Through creating and thinking about images and their reflections is how he relates best to the world. Find him on Instagram and Twitter.

1 COMMENT

  1. I was so surprised to see Kuwait through your eyes ! Kuwait is more than that . Your tour guide should’ve taken you to other historical places to show you the real history & culture.
    Failka island doesn’t have much cause its residents weren’t Kuwaitis so it doesn’t hold much of real kuwait culture .
    I would love to take you in tour some day .

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