Fatima Al Qadiri, the Gulf’s resident iconoclast, is known primarily for her electronic music in a genre that might be termed ‘apocalypse chic.’ Her early EP Desert Strike (2012), featuring such tracks as ‘War Games’ and ‘Oil Wells’, was an effort to recreate the terror, chaos, and despair of the Gulf War as she experienced it. War, strife, and displacement are themes to which the Kuwaiti artist and producer continually returns, although her repertoire has expanded to include almost every aspect of social life in the Gulf: queerness and gender relations, oil wealth and consumerism, and, most recently, global Orientalism. Falling between the cracks of Al Qadiri’s recent performances at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, popular column Global .wav at DIS Magazine, and upcoming appearance at the world-famous electronic music festival Sonár in Barcelona this summer, however, is a long-since forgotten film that affirms her potential as a mercilessly eagle-eyed documentarian of contemporary Gulf life.
Mendeel Um A7mad, produced with Khalid Al Gharaballi in 2011 and exhibited at the Contemporary Arts Platform Kuwait, is a fifteen-minute short that brilliantly captures the state of the contemporary Gulf middle class. As with most fictional works, it does not document so much as it caricatures, distilling the totality of bourgeois behavior into a sum of its parts: a silent Filipina domestic worker, staple of every well-to-do Gulf household; juice served in inordinately large wine glasses; conversation composed of two elements, gossip and Islam-infused idiom; and a peculiar counterpoint of boasting and one-upping, mostly centered on travel destinations.
These are the parts; their totality, meanwhile, is made intelligible by the manner in which they are presented. The four-party conversation takes place in a hotel ballroom rather than a living room, which serves to “illustrate the absurd spatial conditions of post-oil boom Kuwaiti interior aesthetics,” the creators told DIS Magazine, “where designing to human scale took a backseat to supersized ostentation.” The way the women are positioned in the room highlights their social isolation, with each seated several feet away from the other. Despite the familiarity implied by both the conversation topics and the women’s sibling-like bickering, any sense of intimacy is precluded by the stilted format of their conversation: one sequence features a montage of each character naming a particular medicine, reflecting both a “post-oil obsession with hygienic products,” according to Al Qadiri and Gharaballi, and a self-conscious preoccupation with brand names. Male actors are also used to portray the core female cast. While intended as a reference to a time when acting was seen as an unladylike profession, this artistic choice serves to emphasize the superficiality of the social interactions.
A large portion of the women’s gossip involves moralizing, which itself reveals underlying panic about deviations from long-held norms. They discuss the ‘boyah’, for example, a Kuwaiti slang term that refers to lesbian girls who dress as boys and who have apparently proliferated according to the women; the marriage of Kuwaiti women to foreign men and its potentially demoralizing effect on the indigenous population (“What’s wrong with our own men?”); and, on a less light-hearted note, domestic abuse. The script allows for a diversity of opinion on these matters. But there is also dissent, which is offered cagily by some, insistently by others. The filmmakers’ message appears to be that moral policing in Gulf society is becoming timid, giving way to a more equitable format of conversation, namely, that of open debate. In the case of the woman who has married an American, for example, one of the characters is scandalized (“Have all the Kuwaiti men evaporated?”), but another tempers her outrage (“What’s wrong with that, darling? He’s gorgeous.”).
For every utterance about the way things should be, there is an alternative proposal for the way things might be. Though this may be a universal characteristic of many discussions, Mendeel Um A7mad merits attention for selecting more disquieting, contentious topics of conversation, and for unsettling precisely those positions that are considered non-negotiable. Financial hardship, antidepressants, and non-normative gender identities are not customarily discussed in Gulf living rooms, but these transgressions are far more commonplace than sanitizing discourses about the Gulf would have us believe.