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Kuwait's Klatch of the Titans

Movers and shakers meet everyday citizens in diwaniyas, which are male social clubs and incubators of reform. But family life can suffer.

February 12, 2003|Tyler Marshall | Times Staff Writer

KUWAIT CITY — Shamlan Essa was in a hurry.

The Kuwait University political scientist had already spent an hour at an evening gathering of relatives. Now he was off to another meeting, this one with a group of lawyers as hosts.

For Kuwaiti men, especially those such as Essa from prominent families, life after work is often defined by the rhythm of these loosely structured diwaniyas -- informal clubs where they sit in groups, ranging from five or six to more than 100, and sip tea.

Some meetings are little more than that -- a chance to relax, exchange gossip, play cards or watch TV. Others are more weighty affairs, where businessmen network and politicians press the flesh or float national policy ideas.

Occasionally, diwaniyas have been the midwives of great political change. The clubs helped give birth to Kuwait's limited democracy nearly a century ago and were the font of political pressure that caused the country's rulers to restore parliament in 1992 after a six-year hiatus.

But with some men attending as many as 25 such gatherings a week and new diwaniyas springing up all the time, social scientists here worry it may all be getting out of hand. They say diwaniyas take up so much of the evening that many men have become absentee husbands and fathers, opting out of their children's upbringing.

With war looming in neighboring Iraq and diwaniyas livelier -- and longer -- than ever, even the country's traditionally silent homemakers have started to speak out.

When Kuwait University sociologist Yagoub Kandari offered to field questions on the subject during a recent television call-in program, he was inundated. The reaction, he said, was a collective cry of frustration and rage from wives and mothers who felt abandoned.

"The calls kept coming in long after the program ended," he said. "One woman started to cry, saying the only time she saw her husband happy was when he was headed out the door to his diwaniya."

Essa, who says he normally attends two or three diwaniyas a week, explained that he goes to see friends and relatives and to keep up on the latest gossip.

"Sometimes, you just feel like talking," he said.

But Kandari and other observers of Kuwaiti society say the increased absence of fathers from the home is one reason for the rising use of hard drugs among youths.

"We've got a drug problem here, and part of it is that diwaniyas take too much of the fathers' time," said Ali Tarrah, dean of Kuwait University's College of Social Sciences. "If a man is out until midnight most nights, he's just not seeing his children, and that is when things can go wrong."

Others are convinced that this absence of paternal attention has helped give fundamentalist Islam a toehold among younger Kuwaitis in a culture traditionally shaped by values considered relatively liberal in the Arab world.

Last month, locals were stunned by a third armed attack against Americans in less than four months. The shooting north of Kuwait City left one civilian employee of the U.S. armed forces dead and another seriously wounded. The two were ambushed as they drove to work, apparently by a lone assailant. Two days later, Saudi authorities detained a young Kuwaiti they said admitted to carrying out the attack.

Two young men who shot to death a U.S. Marine and wounded another in October were well-educated, middle-class Kuwaitis who investigators discovered were part of a cell of militant young people. The youths were killed by other Marines.

Though Kuwaiti authorities insisted that the attacks were isolated incidents, an informal debate has already started in which the fundamental values of society are likely to face new scrutiny. Ironically, much of this discussion will unfold in the diwaniyas, a fact that could add further to their draw.

"People feel they have to go to drink tea and talk," Tarrah noted. "We now have diwaniya addicts."

Alcohol is outlawed in Kuwait, and female company is rare at these clubs. The men find it easy to pass the time together, however, sometimes with endless card games.

Some diwaniyas are centered around family or friends, some around careers or special interests, while politics drives others. Most groups have a single host who will offer a visitor regular entry with a simple "Let's see you again soon" at the end of the night.

Although diwaniyas usually convene during the evening in a room set aside for such gatherings at the host's home, they can also occur in the morning or afternoon and at other places. Some, for example, meet in large reception halls built by rich hosts.

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