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Hanging on to heritage.

One of the most telling signs of Kuwait's return to normality has been the re-establishing of the country's cultural and leisure facilities. Shock waves went through the Islamic art world when it was learned that in the early weeks of their seven-month long occupation of Kuwait the Iraqis had dismantled the contents of the National Museum and burned the building, also home of Kuwait's multi-million dollar planetarium.

Among the many hundreds of items plundered by the lraqis were a selection of priceless Islamic treasures collected and loaned to the museum for display by Sheikh Nasser Sabah al Ahmed al Sabah and his wife Sheika Hussa.

According to observers, Iraqi soldiers packed the artefacts securely in cases, loaded them on to open-backed trucks and simply drove them away. Later, it was confirmed the items had been transported to Baghdad.

Other horror stories that leaked out of Kuwait at the time concerned the city's zoo. During the term of the invasion, the zoo was used as a camp by some of the occupying troops. The animals were stolen, some were shot and eaten, while others were left to starve in their cages. "We lost approximately 95% of our animals during the occupation", said Musa al Khashti, the zoo director.

Returning to Kuwait after the invasion in early March 1991, Al Khashti found the zoo in ruins. Debris from bombs lay everywhere and many animals were decomposing in their cages.

"The only survivors were Dalal, the elephant, who although alive had severe injuries, buffaloes, one Arabian camel and two bears," the director confirmed.

Entertainment City, the popular theme park situated just outside the capital was also destroyed. Children's rides, dodgem cars and merry -go round horses were reduced to hunks of melted plastic and twisted metal. Grotesque, disfigured and fire-blackened statues of favourite cartoon characters littered the bombed out park.

Art galleries and Kuwait's new theatre where productions were beginning to attract growing and enthusiastic audiences were all targets for the rampaging Iraqi troops. "The Iraqis knew exactly what they were doing," an expatriate living in the country at the time of the invasion noted. "The newspaper headlines at the time called it the |rape' of Kuwait and that would not be too strong a word. They tore the heart out of the city, despoiling everything they could get their hands on: buildings, people, works of art. It was almost as though anything of beauty was an offence to them."

Three years on the situation is very different. Many of Kuwait's artists are again exhibiting in rebuilt galleries, hotels and even shopping malls. "It is important to show that our culture is still here, that it is alive and continues to thrive in spite of what happened. Where we exhibit our work is not important. The important thing is that it is seen," a local painter explained.

At the National Museum the feeling is much the same. Thousands of items stolen from the museum were returned from Iraq under the auspices of the United Nations following the 1991 ceasefire agreement, but it is likely to be some time before they can go on display. The planetarium alone is expected to cost $5m to restore and re-equip. Not all the treasures were restored to the museum. "We think at least 30% of the total collection is missing, possibly destroyed," explained Bazza al Dawoud, the assistant director. However, in an attempt to show Kuwait's heritage is still very much alive the the musuem authorities will concentrate on setting up travelling exhibitions in countries around the world, until their own national showcase is restored.

Work on rebuilding Entertainment City has been put out to tender and if projects go ahead as scheduled it should not be long before weekend trips to the theme park are re-established as an important part of life in Kuwait.

Meanwhile at the zoo, the director, Musa al Khashti, has much cause for optimism. Many gifts of animals have been given to help restock the zoo. Dubai has contributed more than 25 species, Bangladesh donated antelopes and tigers and many new animals have been purchased from countries like Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Qatar.

Before the invasion there were plans to extend the zoo over an area of two square miles. Those plans went to the wall with the advent of the war but now once again planning is under way and a new zoo could be in existance by 1995. This month a special children's section will be opened at the zoo, where children can "meet" a variety of small animals and birds. Local art, priceless national antiquities, childrens theme park rides based on the story of the Arabian Nights and a zoo featuring many indigenous species - all contribute to Kuwaiti culture in a different way.

Over the last few decades as Kuwait's oil wealth has increased, much of the traditional way of life - such as the sight of working pearl fishermen or dhow building - has virtually disappeared. The Iraqi invaders could have wiped out yet more of Kuwait's heritage with their thefts and mindless vandalism. Fortunately, the Iraqis proved no match for the Kuwaitis' determination.
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Title Annotation:Kuwait
Publication:The Middle East
Date:Sep 1, 1993
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