The secret of survival in the harsh desert landscape of Arabia is to find some means of protection from the heat. Hundreds of years ago the people of Kuwait, long the avant garde of the region, invented air-conditioning …..
….. a pentrait by Omar the Outsider
Myself and Azuz, my best Kuwaiti friend and inexhaustible font of local knowledge, were kicking the dust around in Sharq about a block in from the sea-shore. Hereabouts there are some dilapidated Kuwaiti houses from the pre-oil era. To my untrained eye these old buildings had little architectural merit. Then I noticed a line of little square holes about head height along the side-wall of one of the old houses.
‘What are those?’
Azuz’s gaze followed my finger. He turned slowly and looked at me with the pity professors of arcane subjects reserve for the ignorant. I could see that my question was going to be answered in a roundabout way designed to benefit my general education about Kuwait and the extraordinary scientific, social and cultural achievements of its people.
‘We Kuwaitis are very smart, you know. We take things as they are and adapt them as best we can to suit our purposes.’
‘I am quite sure that’s correct, Azuz.’
‘Undoubtedly so, Ackhooee.’ Azuz looked down and flicked a pebble out of his sandal with his big toe. He smiled with professional pride as it pinged neatly off the wall.
‘You see, when our ancestors arrived here hundreds of years ago they brought with them the lessons they had learned in the Arabian deserts and used this wisdom when designing their homes and buildings.’
‘Very Interesting. Please explain.’
‘As you have probably noticed the climate hereabouts is very hot.’ Azuz glanced at the perspiration trickling down my face. It was mid-July, not the smartest time of the year for taking a mid-morning wander around Kuwait.
‘In order to survive people have to adapt themselves somehow to the climate.’ He swished his dishdasha and flicked his gutra about in a stylish manner. ‘We Kuwaitis wear clothes that ward off the sun while allowing some ventilation to keep the body cool.
‘Very efficient, I’m sure. And stylish too.’
‘We Kuwaitis are nature’s stylists,’ Azuz feigned annoyance at the interruption but I knew that he appreciated a little plamaas now and then. ‘The animals of the desert live by adapting the desert to suit them.’
‘Do you have an example, Azuz?’
‘Yes, I can always provide examples on any topic you wish. Take a look at the little rodents, for instance, who survive by living in burrows, underground tunnel systems they build to protect themselves from the heat.’
‘Inside the tunnels the temperature is much lower than it is outside in the open desert and the humidity is much higher. And what’s more, Ackhooee, the rodents can control the climate in their burrows by varying the length and depth. In this way they can survive in the desert.’
‘I see, they sound like very smart rats, Azuz.’
‘Of course! They are Kuwaiti rats. They have to be smart. The people of the desert survive in a similar way.’
‘Pardon me. Are you saying that the Bedouin live in tunnels in the desert?’
‘No, dipstick! The people of the desert live in tents. What I am trying to get you to understand is the principle of the thing. It’s called adaptation.’
‘Oh! I always thought that the reason they used tents is because they could easily be taken down and carried away when they moved on.’
‘That’s one reason, of course. But look at any Bedouin camp, if you can find one nowadays, and you will see what I mean. The tents will be pitched so as to take advantage of any shade, if there is some. The flaps of the tents will be open in the best direction to catch any little breezes. And on the inside, the dividers between the different parts of the tent will be positioned so as to take advantage of any cool breezes coming in and to let stale air out. It is always much cooler inside a tent than outside.’
‘Yes, I see now.’
‘Good. So hundreds of years ago when our ancestors became settled people in Kuwait, they used the same principles of adaptation to design and make the building in which they had their homes and businesses.’ Azuz looked towards the modern multi-storied City of Kuwait with its well laid out system of broad streets and avenues.
‘There’s not much left of it today,’ he mused, ‘but only a short time ago the roads were merely narrow lane-ways separating the houses. There was a purpose, Ackhooee, for having only narrow lane-ways between the houses. They created shade in the heat of the day. They were built like that to keep the sun out. Thus, like the rats in the desert, the people of Kuwait followed the principle of adaptation.’
‘Very good, Azuz, but surely these narrow streets prevented the natural movement of air? Maybe they created shade from the sun, but things would still have been pretty hot on the ground without air-conditioning.’
‘You’re correct, Ackhooee. The cooling breezes, when there were any, were lost as they passed over the roof-tops leaving the air below hot and undisturbed. So hundreds of years ago we Kuwaitis went one step further. We invented air-conditioning.’
‘Pardon?’ Knowing Azuz, I tried to keep the incredulity out of my voice and off my face.
‘Yes indeed, hundreds of years ago we invented air-conditioning in Kuwait. Of course it is not the sort of electrical air-conditioning we have nowadays, but our ancient Kuwaiti air-conditioning could be quite efficient in its own way.’
‘Can you explain how this wondrous air-conditioning, invented by Kuwaitis, actually worked?’
‘Of course I can explain, Ackhooee, and with pleasure too. Like the rats in the desert it was just another way of adapting the environment to suit ourselves better. We designed wind-catchers to trap the breezes and deflect them downwards.’
‘Wind catchers? Things to catch the wind?’
‘Yes, naturally. We Kuwaitis are quite inventive in our own way.’
‘So I can see. How did these wind-catchers work?’
‘Very simply, like all good inventions.’ Azuz took me by the hand and lead me towards an almost complete old house.
‘Take any room with a roof on top. The wind-catcher was a hole in the outside wall of the room.’ He stopped in front of a square shaped hole along the old wall which was just over head-height.
‘Sometimes the wind-catcher hole was rectangular. Inside the house, a few inches behind the hole there’s a back stop, another piece of wall if you like suspended behind the hole in the wall.’ He led me around the broken down wall. ‘The back stop was joined to the outside wall from the top of the back stop but was open into the room underneath.’
‘So when there was a breeze outside it would blow through the hole in the wall and be forced down to the floor?’
‘Ackeed, exactly. The wind catcher relied on the pressure of wind against the outside wall. The old rooms would have a horizontal line of them, a line of recesses, on the outside of the walls.’ Azuz pointed at another crumbling example nearby.
‘So a wind would create a high pressure on the outside of the wall and this would enter the room as a pleasant breeze?’
‘Yes, the wind catchers were positioned a bit above the floor, so that anyone sitting inside would feel a nice cooling movement of air across their bodies.’
‘I see! Marvellous! But what happened if the wind was not blowing against the wall outside? Suppose the breeze was blowing away from the wall?’
‘Very simple. The wind catchers had shutters, which could be opened or closed from the inside. If the breeze was blowing in another direction then the Kuwaitis would close the shutters of the wind catchers on that side of the room and open them on the other side, the side against which the breeze was blowing.’
‘So in old Kuwait, all the walls of a room had wind shutters?’
‘Of course, Ackhooee. In Kuwait, then as now, you could never be sure which way the wind was going to blow.’
‘Pretty inventive, these ancient Kuwaitis.’
‘Indeed, Ackhooee, and thank you. But as well as wind-catchers in the walls we also had wind towers. These jutted up through the roofs of the buildings.’ Azuz looked for an example among the old buildings but we could not find one. ‘The wind towers had openings facing in different directions which could be opened or closed with shutters as necessary.’ ‘How did these wind towers work?’
‘In quite the same was as the wind-catchers in the walls. But the inside of the tower had a vertical divider in it. One side was for the cool air coming in and down the tower. And the other side was for the hot air going up and leaving the house. The shutters would be opened in the direction the wind was coming from and also in the direction the wind was going to.’
‘Yes, it was. Kuwaiti genius. The cold air would come in and down the tower on one side of the divider inside the tower and into the room below where the people would be sitting in comfort. The warmer air, which in any room is higher up, would be pushed into the second side of the tower and up and out of the house.’
‘Very interesting. But did these things really work?’
‘Of course they worked. They would not have been used in Kuwait if they did not work!’
© Paul D Kennedy, 1995
These stories are based on a radio series written for Radio Kuwait’s short-wave service, called Life In Kuwait. The popularity of the 30-part series has ensured that it is broadcast each year. The purpose of the series was edutainment, ie to present Kuwaiti culture to the world at large in a sympathetic and nuanced manner.
Several pentraits based on the series have been published in magazines and newspapers in the Arabian Gulf region.