Al Qabas, Kuwait.
In November 2022, a spy novel titled “Our Man in Kuwait” was released by the British author Louise Burfitt-Dons. The title is reminiscent of the famous novel “Our Man in Havana” (1958) by Graham Greene. While browsing through an online bookstore, I stumbled upon this book, which quickly gained a lot of admiration and positive comments, receiving high ratings. For me, the fact that the novel is related to Kuwait is reason enough to buy it immediately and start reading it on the same day it arrived. I then proceeded to write my impressions about it directly after finishing it a week later.
Here is my quick impression after reading it once.
The novel “Our Man in Kuwait” consists of 319 pages in a medium-sized format, divided into 58 chapters. The story primarily takes place in Kuwait, specifically in the area near the oil fields known as Ahmadi. Ahmadi was home to an English-American community that worked for the Kuwait Oil Company (KOC). The company had been drilling oil wells and exporting oil since 1946. The Ahmadi area also housed Kuwaiti, Indian, and Palestinian workers who had their own residences there.
The events of the novel take place in the second half of 1960, during the Cold War between the Western camp led by the United States and Britain, and the Eastern camp led by the Soviet Union. It coincided with the formation of the United Arab Republic, which included Egypt and Syria. Most importantly, it was a year when Iraq, the northern neighbour of Kuwait, was ruled by Abdul Karim Qasim, a communist military leader who overthrew the ruling Hashemite monarchy and executed them in 1958. These events, along with others like the Tripartite Aggression against Egypt, pushed the Kuwaiti society to engage more in politics and pay attention to ideologies, listening to the active Arab nationalist media. Nationalist ideas spread strongly among Kuwaitis and Arab residents, while Kuwaiti local ideologies were weak or absent, limiting and balancing the nationalist thinking within acceptable and reasonable boundaries.
The author chose Kuwait as the backdrop for one of the espionage operations between the two camps. At that time, Kuwait was still under British protection, while Iraq was supported by the Soviet Union with its communist ideology. The events of the novel unfold amidst the concerns of Kuwaiti and Western societies in Kuwait regarding a possible Iraqi invasion to expel the British and Americans and replace Western influence with Soviet influence.
The novel tells us about the activities of secret groups with political loyalty to Iraq that infiltrated both Kuwaiti and British-American societies in Ahmadi. Their members were among the employees of the oil company, and their mission was to pave the way for the Iraqi invasion by conducting espionage on Kuwaiti oil fields, sending maps and photographs, monitoring the movements of senior British and American officials, planting explosives, smuggling chemical weapons from Iraq to Kuwait, assassinating certain figures, burning oil wells to darken the sky and prevent British air forces from targeting the Iraqi ground forces, distributing publications inciting against the ruling family in Kuwait and casting doubt on it, and other publications inciting the expulsion of the English. Additionally, they attempted to recruit Kuwaiti elements to join the Iraqi project and reject Kuwait’s future independence.
The author captures the essence of Kuwait’s strategic position, which has been established by its geographical location in the centre of the world, on the dividing line between the superpowers. Since pre-Islamic times, Kuwait (and the Arabian Peninsula) has been a battleground for conflicts between major powers, witnessing political and military operations driven by this struggle. History has recorded many battles fought in Kuwait between the Persians, Romans, and Kindah over influence and caravans. In the Islamic era, the villages of Kazma and Failaka, populated by civilized people, fell victim to the Abbasid Jannabi (Qarmatian) conflict in the early 10th century AD, a period I personally wrote a novel about titled “Hadith Kazma,” which will be published soon. The list goes on, mentioning how Kuwait’s land has been affected by international conflicts throughout history.
However, what concerns us in this article is the novel “Our Man in Kuwait,” in which the author delves into the events by shedding light on the daily lives of several English and American families consisting of parents and children attending the Ahmadi school. The author portrays the daily routines of these families and describes their lavish lives filled with parties, sports activities, and social events in the numerous clubs they have established, the most important of which is the Hubara Club where Western families gather. They enjoy swimming in its large pool, dining on the finest cuisine in its restaurant, drinking alcoholic beverages from its bar, and dancing to fast and slow-paced songs. The author focuses intensely on the interests of English housewives, their fascination with gossip, rumours, typical domestic and telephone conversations, reciprocal visits, and the relationships between their children. The author not only depicts the social lives of the English, but also vividly portrays the landmarks of Ahmadi, describing its small houses with gardens and Indian servants, and providing detailed descriptions of its streets, hospital, laboratory, central market, golf courses, tennis courts, and other landmarks.
The Author in Ahmadi
It is no surprise that the author herself, Louise Byres (later Burfitt-Dons after her marriage), was a member of this community in the 1950s and 1960s. She was born in Ahmadi in 1953 at the Southwell Hospital, and grew up in 5 Main Street, Ahmadi, attending the Anglo-American School of Ahmadi. Her father, Ian Byres, of Scottish origin, worked in the Preventive Health Administration of the Kuwait Oil Company. Her mother was the director of the kindergarten in Ahmadi. Louise Burfitt-Dons states that she and her family experienced fear from the threat of Iraq to Kuwait in the period before and after Kuwait’s independence, and rumours circulated among them about Abdul Karim Qasim’s intention to invade Kuwait. The author describes the events of her novel as fictional but based on facts. Among these facts is the visit of the famous novelist and author of the James Bond novels, Ian Fleming, to Kuwait at the request of the Kuwait Oil Company to write about the prosperous country. The author recalls that her father received Fleming in their home and went on a desert hunting trip with him.
The main protagonist of the novel is Gordon Carlisle, who works, like Louise’s father in reality, at the Southwell Hospital in Al-Magwa, which is part of the Health Administration of the Kuwait Oil Company. He keeps a collection of wild animals that he studies in glass cages at his workplace. He is a newlywed man married to a beautiful and headstrong woman named Anita, who has political and social ideas that differ from his own. Despite that, he is infatuated with her and turns a blind eye to her peculiar behaviour. Gordon works with a group of Palestinian employees, the most important of whom are Mansour and Najib. His manager is John Dickson, who suddenly sends a British journalist and secret agent from British intelligence named Pip Foster to turn Gordon Carlisle’s life and the English community in Ahmadi upside down. Gordon discovers that the Soviets have established a small facility in the northern Kuwaiti desert to store chemical materials that can be used as weapons. He also discovers outbreaks of anthrax bacteria and begins to trace their source, leading him to the carpet market in Kuwait City and some Bedouins who weave the Sadu rugs across the Iraqi border, as well as to that secret desert facility.
The novel tells us about the increasing activity of communist agents loyal to Iraq of Palestinian and Iraqi nationality in Ahmadi and Kuwait, and their connection to a Soviet agent residing in Kuwait named “Alex,” who manages their intelligence and military activities aimed at destabilizing security and paving the way for the Iraqi invasion supported by the Soviets. In November, the author of James Bond novels, the renowned writer Ian Fleming, visits Kuwait to write about the country. Additionally, he maintains a relationship with the British Naval Intelligence, and he evaluates the security situation in Kuwait and has a conversation with Gordon Carlisle. Fleming meets Gordon and they go together to the desert for a hunting trip.
The story becomes more complex after the assassination of one of Gordon’s friends, who was an operative with British intelligence, and who revealed to Gordon about a sabotage cell. This is followed by the death of John Dickson’s wife (Ophelia), who was previously involved in a romantic relationship with Gordon, and then an explosion at the storage facility of Southwell Hospital where Gordon works, resulting in the death of one of the Palestinians inside. Later, Ian Fleming himself becomes the target of an assassination attempt in the desert during the hunting trip. The novel reaches its climax with the terrorists kidnapping an English girl who witnessed the assassination of Gordon’s friend. Gordon is accused by the Kuwaiti and British police of being the Soviet agent and the one behind all these troubles. Then a rapid series of surprises unfolds at the end of the novel, revealing the mysteries that were introduced at the beginning and middle. The novel ends in December, six months before the “Operation Vantage” after Kuwait’s independence on June 16, 1961. In this military operation, British forces arrived at the request of the Emir of Kuwait, Sheikh Abdullah Al-Salem Al-Sabah, to defend the country after the Iraqis had gathered their army on its borders.
The author relied on the omniscient narrator as a storytelling tool and transitioned through scenes. However, the majority of the text was dominated by dialogue. The dialogue stands out for its smoothness and adherence to the way English was spoken in the 1950s. It seems that the author’s memory is vivid, and she succeeded in utilizing what remained in her memory to write this fascinating and convincing narrative. She was also inspired by the character of Kim Philby, the famous British spy who defected and betrayed Britain to join the Soviet Union. It has been said that Kim Philby worked in Beirut, which was a hub for spies, and visited Kuwait and some Gulf Emirates.
Mustafa Al-Sabah.. A fictional character
The author refrained from extensively portraying the lives of Kuwaitis in the city and instead introduced the character of Kuwaiti officer “Mustafa Al-Ramz Al-Sabah,” who is a fictional character. She tells us that he studied at the prestigious Sandhurst Military College in England, is fluent in English, highly intelligent, diligent, patriotic, and works on maintaining security in Kuwait and preparing special military forces (commandos) to defend Kuwait against a potential Iraqi invasion. He also participates in monitoring and arresting communist sabotage groups loyal to the Iraqi regime. The novel also hints at the urban and cultural renaissance in Kuwait in recent years.
The author’s political orientations and inclinations are prominent in this novel. She stands with Britain and its values against the Soviet Union and its principles. In reality, the author is a member of the Conservative Party, has participated in parliamentary elections in her country, works as a social activist, leads an anti-bullying media and educational campaign, and has initiated a media campaign to support Britain in various fields. She has also worked as a playwright and novelist and pursued acting in Australia, where her New Zealand husband resided, before settling in London.
Will it be translated into Arabic?
The novel “Our Man in Kuwait” is truly enjoyable, well-crafted, and intelligent. It skilfully blends reality and fiction, deserving careful reading and detailed critical analysis. I hope to succeed in translating it into Arabic in the near future after signing a contract with the publishing and distribution company, “Thāt al-Salāsil,” a month ago.
This novel reminded me of a Kuwaiti novel titled “No Music in Al-Ahmadi” by Kuwaiti novelist Mona Al-Shemari, which was successfully adapted into a television series. I hope that all regions of Kuwait receive the stories and novels they deserve, infused with spirit and charm. In conclusion, I would like to thank Louise Burfitt-Dons for sharing her memories and imagination about Kuwait during one of its pivotal historical periods.
Palestinians and the Kuwait crises of 1960 and 1990
The novel also reflects the author’s scepticism about the loyalty of Palestinian elements who, according to her description, were willing to sacrifice Kuwait in order to reclaim Palestine. This idea is conveyed through the words of the Kuwaiti police commander, whom she portrays as aware of this Palestinian inclination. However, the reality was different, as Kuwaitis placed great trust in Palestinians, especially their leaders, officials, and intellectuals. Despite the negative stance of the majority of Palestinians during the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990, the Palestinian cause continues to be their top priority in terms of political interests, and it remains a winning card for their politicians. The significant resemblance in the behaviour of some Palestinians during the Kuwait and Iraq crises in 1960 (as portrayed by the author in the novel) and in 1990 (as described in the documents of the Kuwaiti resistance) is remarkable. It seems evident that the author benefited from the information about what Iraq did to Kuwait during the Iraqi occupation of Kuwait in 1990-1991, and she projected some of the destructive details and behaviours onto the communist saboteurs during the 1960s era. The author mentioned at the end of the book that she read and gained insights from John Levin’s book, “Days of Fear,” about the Iraqi occupation of Kuwait in 1990-1991.