Posted by: Barrak Al-Babtain | October 17, 2010

Old Salhiya

In a recent post, Dr. Thomas Modeen talks about his observations of old Salhiya. He describes its ambience and says that because the place is truly cosmopolitan and free that you can just be yourself there:

“It’s the only urban locale in Kuwait that, at least for me, sounds, smells, feels like a city. A place for casual conversations, people-watching, a quick cup of tea or Turkish-coffee, that do not necessitate one to adapt ones mannerism to the more regimented social confines set by the persnickety establishments around the corner.”

He goes on to say that places like old Salhiya really can’t be designed and simply emerge because of the density and demands of a city. I can’t argue that old Salhiya really does embody that spirit of a city and is probably one of the few places in Kuwait that does so. The charm of the place comes from the fact that it’s so messy and people from all walks of life are there, but that same freedom also bring with it a certain level of danger.

People, and especially women and girls, feel more comfortable in shopping malls because that privacy offers a basic level of safety. I think that’s a critical issue for public space and the reason why most fail is because they lack security and order. Women who aren’t covered from head to toe will be leered at and made uncomfortable. The question then becomes how can we provide this level of security and public safety while still maintaining that spirit of freedom that makes the public space so enthralling in the first place.



  1. Shame on Dr. Thomas, he should have visited Jileeb Alshayookh, he would have been much more impressed with Kuwait. this is the part that Kuwaitis would prefer to forget about.

    • I really don’t understand what it is you want. Do you go to the dentist and shout at her for not trying to cure cancer? What you are asking for is purely political and no amount of complaining to architects and urban designers is going to fix that. If you really want to help them, use your boundless energy by lobbying the right people. I’m not the right person. Nothing I can do will help you or them. I’m sorry. I want to help, really, but this isn’t really the place for this.

      You can ask why some places have no security and why most public spaces fail. We can talk about why some areas are neglected and how we can help. But you cant go around criticizing people for making observations about life in the city.

  2. This segment of Salhiya is predominantly occupied by expats, who in general aren’t too fussed about the presence of strangers of the opposite gender in close proximity, as this in an unavoidable condition in most of the places (be this London, Istanbul, Sidney or Mumbai) from which they originate. The notion of safety in such places is often a culturally derived one, as these types of locales elsewhere are usually considered the ‘safe’ ones due exactly to the presence of a crowd with their ‘eyes on the street’ keeping the bullies in check… This condition of ‘public leering’ is thus more of a cultural trait than a urban one. Having lived both in Oman and Qatar, in addition to Kuwait, it unfortunately seems like this habit of public crudeness, be it in cars on the 2nd Ring-road or a local co-op, is more of a Kuwaiti based trait rather than something that pervades the region.

    Why is it that, even amongst a very dense and varied crowd in Korea or London (on a small alley shopping street or a crowded metro), my middle-eastern female students feel more at ease moving around, being themselves, than they do at home?

    This is more about codes of conduct and manners than the safety of urban places…

  3. p.s. Thanks for featuring me on your site… It’s good to debate…


  4. You’re absolutely right, Tom, in saying that it’s a cultural trait. But it’s still a safety issue, right? This just means that we can ‘solve it’ by either making the public spaces safer for people or by understanding the deeper, psychological reason for this behavior and ameliorating that.

    I think the reason why most girls feels slightly safer in malls is that there’s security there, making it much less likely that any sort of inconvenience will develop into anything more malicious, say aggression or unwanted physical contact. But you don’t have that same safety net in public spaces with no real security. There’s a danger there that things may get out of hand, you know?

    I do sort of agree that it’s sadly a very idiosyncratic problem in Kuwait. Girls feel safer abroad than they do at home. I’m not sure why this is, exactly. I think it’s mostly because of a volatile mixture of religious dogma and a strictly male-dominated society and the faulty reasoning that if a girl doesn’t conform to being covered then she’s sort of giving people the green-light to abuse her.

    I guess what i’m saying is that it’s true that you get safety in numbers, in more eyes on the street, but when those eyes turn blind to sexual misconduct and aggressive behavior then there’s no real value in it, right?

  5. I worked in the area and I, a Kuwaiti Female, in all my office clothes and high heels frequently walked in the very area on my breaks. I would go to the supermarkets, I would look at the exotic fruits, I have even bought from there a very old copy of Watership Down, an old favourite book of mine.

    And first hand, I can tell you there are females there. Lots of them. Granted, they are all expats, but they are there, everyday, and if you want to see more just go there on a Friday night and see.

    And yes I got looks, but they were more looks of curiousity at the fact that I am obviously out of place. I felt no danger. No one was leering. I get more leered at at the malls and supermarkets by Kuwaitis.

    So the question really is : is it danger or discomfort that we feel when we venture to walk in close proximity with the labour force?

    Jeleeb Alshyoukh that’s a different story, a crisis that spawned from our own mishandling and indignity that is sometimes inflicted on ‘those’ people.

    Don’t forget that before we had malls, some of you are too young to remeber those days, Salem Alubarek Street had a similar feel to this road. The genders mixed in the street and walked and loitered and shopped and had coffee and people watched. We didn’t consider it dangerous then.

    I have walked in ‘this’ Salhiya and thought if Kuwaitis would only open their eyes and see the potential of this area. I have looked into the lobbies of the neglected residential buildings and saw the most amazing sweeping grand staircases. The areas in between the buildings served as little piazzas where people gathered. This area is amazing and the expats are the only one to see it. They have found a place where one could experience an interaction with the city. And for now, we Kuwaitis have to remain content with viewing fleeting images of a city from the sanitized comfort of our cars.

    • M, reading your reply made me feel very silly for what I wrote. I was probably a little racist and very insensitive when I said that all girls feel that way in those places. How would I know? I apologize for making that assumption.

      I think you’re right, it’s more of a discomfort than a real sense of danger. Discomfort about being ‘out of place’, this being probably felt on both sides by the people who ‘belong’ and the ‘outsiders’. If you put a bunch of rabbits next to a place where they think a fox is, they’ll feel in danger. But there’s not necessarily a fox there, and maybe it’s all in our imagination?

      I absolutely agree that most of the best spaces in Kuwait are those that can be found in the most neglected areas of the city. Architecture was designed in a much more egalitarian way back in the 60’s and 70’s. There wasn’t such a direct boundary between indoors and outdoors and lots of transition spaces were dealt with so much care in their design. Now, anything beyond the front door is considered an afterthought. Public space is dead. I actually think some of the blame should lay at the foot of the efficient and ever present air conditioner.

      Oh, and I remember Salem alMubarak Street being the ‘it’ place. I’m not that young. Although I do feel that it was only that because of a lack of alternatives. It wasn’t designed with pedestrian comfort in mind at all, really. Very few places in Kuwait are pedestrian friendly.

  6. Oh, now I feel bad you feel bad!

    Actually this cultural matter is a seperate issue. the discourse should remain architectural and so I add:

    You’d be surprised how these area could clean up if one made the effort. In any other city in the world it would take a few young professionals to purchase one of the appartments there, clean it up, and before you know more will follow suit and they would be the most coveted properties in the city. This is how the hip and expensive King’s Road, Notting Hill, Maida Vale and other areas developed in London and down town New york.

    Even in Kuwait this has already been done at the Behbehani Complex (Beit 7, Casper and Gambini etc. ) This area used to be inhabited by bachelors of the working class in close to squalor, the place was falling apart until it was cleaned up and rented with the condition that the lessee renovate the property. What the old houses had going for them is their obvious historical relevence. What needs to be realized that Kuwait is one of the few countries in the Gulf where we have developed a more contemporary architectoral history, granted not all of it is to be proud of, but some of them had far more sensitivity in their design than anything we see being built today.

    There. No judgement culturally, only architecturally. 🙂

    • This gentrification debate would normally be a touchy issue, because it means that we’re ultimately increasing the cost of living in that area, which makes it impossible for the lower income people that lived there to be able to carry on living there.

      I don’t think that’s a problem in Kuwait, because the people that do live there are not long term dwellers (I think) and maybe i’m making some insensitive assumptions, but would they really mind it if they had to leave and live somewhere else?

      There’s a lot of those kinds of places near my office. It’s such a weird juxtaposition with the towers around them.

      Then again, most of the charm of the places that Tom described stem from the people themselves, and not really the physical space they’re in. It’s the grittiness of the space and density of the people that creates that feeling of urban life. If you lose the people, you lose the life.

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