Kuwait drama on war unity contrasts current feuds

Each night for the past three weeks, families in Kuwait 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 Western-backed 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 Arab 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 TV 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 the Ramadan holy month, which draws to a close this weekend. 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.

The screenplay writer, Fahad al-Aliwa, 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, al-Aliwa sought to celebrate the national myths of unwavering resistance and honor during the occupation, much like Hollywood's World War II epics of the 1960s in which the Yanks always found a way to pull it out.

"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 al-Aliwa, who was 6 years old when Saddam's tanks rolled across the border on Aug. 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 lawmakers said they would seek constitutional changes to replace the country's mix of legal codes with only Islamic Sharia. Kuwait's emir blocked the plan. But hardline conservatives have tried to exert themselves in other ways, including closing down an art exhibition deemed "profane." The works feature men and women mingling and include images of liquor bottles.

The emir, Sheik Sabah Al Ahmad Al Sabah, issued a thinly veiled warning to the political opposition on Monday, saying he would "not tolerate" groups that impede "the process of development in the country."

A Kuwaiti in his late 60s who would give his name only as Abu Nasser, or Father of Nasser, believes the country has lost touch with its sense of national purpose, which many believe reached its zenith during the rebuilding years after U.S.-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 by The Associated Press 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.

What took place during the invasion, including stories of torture, rape and summary killings, are clouded by rumors and conjecture. Very little has officially been documented aside from numbers of executions and stories of martyrs, which are retold as part of an oral tradition where fact and embellishment are often blurred.

But al-Aliwa also took pains to avoid stoking tensions between Kuwait and Iraq. The dialogue refers to Saddam, and the occupying troops are simply referred to as "they" without mentioning the word Iraqis.

A Kuwaiti man in his late 40s, who would give his name only as Abu Yousef, says he vividly remembers the killings.

"A young man from our neighborhood — younger than I — was lying on the floor in front of his house in a pool of his own blood. I couldn't believe my eyes," said the man. "I stopped the car and got out, and to this day I remember this scene very well. I remember how his grief-stricken mother sobbed loudly and I remember how she sat next to his body as if waiting for him to wake up."

He tempers his war stories with praise for the solidarity that comes from crisis.

"It was as if all differences have melted away," he said. "People helped each other out in every way they could. We operated the bakeries, cleaned the streets, helped those who needed money, and issues like sect and background didn't come between us. We all learned the value of our solidarity."