By Ghadeer Ghloum

Host of formal diwaniya Dr Fahad Al-Basri (left)

Gathering at diwaniyas is a remarkable tradition that continues to occupy an essential part of the lifestyle and culture in Kuwait. A diwaniya is a reception area that is either near or inside the owner’s house, where patriarchs gather to discuss various issues such as politics, economy and society. Such issues are mostly discussed in formal diwaniyas, which open in the middle of the week, usually on Mondays and Tuesdays. During the weekends, patriarchs gather at informal diwaniyas for entertainment and light communication.

Unlike any other local gathering, an invitation is not necessary for guests to visit the diwaniya. Anyone is welcomed to visit the diwaniya as long as they adhere to the norms of Kuwaiti culture in terms of dressing and behavior that shows respect to all the attendees. Through such traditions, the Kuwaiti culture maintains its unique identity despite the onset of social media and other manifestations of modernization that might have an effect on such old traditions.

A brief history of diwaniyas

Chairman of Kuwait Heritage Society Fahad Ghazi Al-Abduljaleel said diwaniyas have been connected to Kuwait’s culture and society ever since Kuwait was founded in the 17th century. In the past, rulers of the state, notables and locals used to exchange visits to each other’s diwaniyas and discuss political issues of the state. The economy used to be discussed too. The al-nokhatha (sea captain) went to the diwaniya whenever he needed to pick a boat or a team to sail with, especially since the sea was the main source of the state’s finances. Businessmen also used to meet at the diwaniya for finalizing business deals.

In addition, diwaniyas had an impact on culture and arts, as they used to gather poets and writers, which resulted in building the first formal school in Kuwait. “Al-Mubarakiya School was founded in December 1911. The idea of creating this school was born in Yousef Eissa Al-Qinae’s diwaniya during the commemoration of the Prophet’s (PBUH) birthday, where Sayed Yaseen Al-Tabtabaei was talking about the importance of education. Consequently, Yousef bin Eissa decided to build this school with the support of businessmen in Kuwait,” Abduljaleel told Kuwait Times.

Chairman of Kuwait Heritage Society Fahad Ghazi Al-Abduljaleel

Like in the past, the diwaniya remains an essential part of Kuwaitis’ social life today. According to Abduljaleel, during Ramadan and Eid and also during marriage and death ceremonies, Kuwaitis still visit each other’s diwaniyas. “Compared to other traditions that have been negatively affected by social media, diwaniyas are the least impacted. I see social media attracts more people to the diwaniya today, because circulating an announcement about events at diwaniyas has become easier, while in the past, it was slower and limited,” Abduljaleel said.

Depending on the preference of the host, each diwaniya has a system. Some diwaniyas are open daily, while others weekly. The host announces the date and time his diwaniya is open and everyone is welcomed accordingly. Dr Fahad Al-Basri is a Kuwaiti who has been hosting guests at his weekly formal diwaniya since the early 2000s in Jabriya. Diwaniyas are usually named after the host’s surname; however, some hosts name their diwaniyas differently. For instance, Basri’s diwaniya is called “Mujamaa Abnaa Al-Jabriya” meaning “gathering of Jabriya residents.” It is also known as Diwan Al-Basri among locals.

This type of diwaniya is usually visited by political figures, such as the National Assembly speaker and other members of parliament to discuss political affairs involving Kuwait, and giving them an opportunity to nominate themselves among the residents of the area during elections. According to Abduljaleel, such important meetings used to be announced in the past through newspapers, since they were the only source of information for people in the past. Today, hosts like Basri no longer need to go through the previous slow process and send an announcement ahead of time with regards to events or opening times of the diwaniya.  Not only politics are the focus of such diwaniyas, as entertainment is also part of this tradition. Basri said: “Multiple activities are organized for residents and regular guests, such as planting saplings, playing games and other activities that are specific to the holy month of Ramadan.” He also highlighted the diwaniyas’ role in emergency situations. Basri said during the pandemic, diwaniyas took part in distributing essential medical equipment to locals, which highlights citizens’ role in uniting and participating for the sake of supporting Kuwait at various levels. Again, social media continues to ease the speed of announcing such activities, which helps both the host and the guests to communicate.

Pros and cons

Mohammad Al-Ansari, a Kuwaiti youth who follows the tradition of visiting diwaniyas on a regular basis, sees the impact of social media is a double-edged sword. On one hand, Ansari said social media has allowed for greater exchange of ideas and diverse perspectives. People can now connect with others outside of their immediate social circles and engage with a wider range of opinions and experiences. However, social media often causes the spread of misinformation. This can negatively impact the quality of discussions at diwaniyas and can undermine the credibility of the gatherings.

“It’s great that we have access to all these different perspectives and opinions, but we need to be mindful of the role that social media plays in these gatherings to ensure that diwaniyas continue to provide a valuable space for discussion, debate, social connection, and most importantly, having fun,” he said.

Hasan Mohammad, an elder Kuwaiti, has experienced attending diwaniyas before and after the spread of social media. He said the diwaniya is no longer limited to discussing local news and community events. It is now discussing wider concepts, because social media has introduced people to the entire world. Despite that, verbal communication has reduced due to social media, because people no longer elaborate a lot about the topic or news that is being discussed.

Nowadays, guests only mention headnotes of whatever topic they want to point out, because all the news is available on everyone’s devices. People basically send the news to each other via social media apps rather than explaining verbally, which reduces the quality of socializing and communicating, which is the main reason behind attending diwaniyas.