Kuwait drama on war unity contrasts current feuds

A 30-part television serial on Iraq's 1990 invasion has become more than just a retelling of the occupation and the brief but intense Gulf War.

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KUWAIT CITY // Each night for the past three weeks, families here have been transfixed by a drama in which they already know the ending: Iraq forces will be driven out and the shattered Gulf nation will rebuild. But a 30-part television serial on Iraq's 1990 invasion has become more than just a retelling of the occupation and the brief but intense Gulf War.

The series is being seen by many as a reminder of past national unity at a time when Kuwait is caught in a near endless cycle of tribal bickering and political showdowns between the ruling family and conservative Islamists, who want to impose measures such as banning public concerts and blocking women athletes from major sporting events. Tensions over the Gulf showdowns with Shiite power Iran also have brought pressures on Kuwait's minority Shiites.

The series Saher al-Lail - "Insomniac" in Kuwait's Arabic dialect - is the most ambitious attempt by a Kuwait television network to portray the invasion and six-month occupation. It follows the story of an extended Kuwaiti family: a Kuwaiti diplomat married to an Iraqi; their son, an army officer held in prison; and the diplomat's nephews and nieces in the resistance, including one who is captured and tortured by Saddam Hussein's soldiers.

Across the Muslim world, television series are a staple of Ramadan. The plots typically reach back into Islamic history for stories of bravery and betrayal. The Kuwait series, however, deals with a conflict whose wounds are still not fully healed over issues such as missing prisoners of war.

Fahad Al Aliwa, who wrote the screenplay, said he attempted to steer away from the political complexities and contradictions of the occupation - which included fabricated testimony in Washington about Iraqi atrocities recounted by the Kuwait ambassador's daughter pretending to be a refugee witness.

Instead, Mr Al Aliwa sought to celebrate the national myths of unwavering resistance and honour during the occupation, much like Hollywood's Second World War epics of the 1960s.

"During these troubling times when sectarianism is tearing apart our society, I found it to be vital to remind people of a time when all their differences didn't matter and what mattered was what they share in common: their country," said Mr Al Aliwa, who was 6 years old when Saddam's tanks rolled across the border on August 2, 1990. "It is not my role to discuss politics."

But indirectly, the messages of national unity stand as a counterpoint to the current divides in Kuwait.

Kuwait's parliament - the most politically empowered in the Gulf - is currently in limbo over disputes between the ruling family and lawmakers that include claims of widespread corruption. Boycotts by parliament members have pushed the country closer to possible new elections, which were won by Islamist-led opposition groups in the last voting in February.

Shortly after the February election, Islamist legislators said they would seek constitutional changes to replace the country's mix of legal codes with only Sharia. Kuwait's emir, Sheikh Sabah Al Ahmad Al Jaber Al Sabah, blocked the plan.

A Kuwaiti in his late 60s who would give his name only as Abu Nasser, believes the country has lost touch with its sense of national purpose, which many believe reached its zenith during the rebuilding years after US-led forces drove out Saddam's troops in early 1991.

"After more than two decades, we are still none the wiser. People talk a lot about how the differences were obliterated, but things improved after the invasion for a little while only and then got worse," said Abu Nasser, who volunteered to run a grocery store during the invasion. "I certainly hope that this drama series will have a positive impact on people."

He and several others interviewed refused to give their full names because issues about the occupation remain a highly sensitive topic in Kuwait.

Kuwaiti novelist and women's rights activist Laila Al Othman hoped the series would spur deeper study of the occupation by Kuwait's young population - with about than half the country below 30 years old and with little or no memory of the Iraqi invasion.

"It's important that they learn what happened and that they learn about the values of solidarity that helped the country get back on its feet after the invasion," she said.

Mr Al Aliwa took pains to avoid stoking tensions between Kuwait and Iraq. The dialogue refers to the occupying troops only as "they" without mentioning the word Iraqis.