Ever since Kuwait was founded as a modern city-state in the year 1613 AD, Kuwaitis have enjoyed social freedoms unlike any other country in the region.
Just as Kuwait derives its proud name from the diminutive of the Arabic word Kuwt (meaning fortress), the diwaniya derives its proud tradition from the diminutive of the Arabic word diwan (meaning opus). Moreover, just as a diwan is a collective assembly of multiple pieces of poetry or prose, the diwaniya is a collective assembly of (mostly) men who gather on a (typically) weekly basis to discuss current events (politics, business, sports, culture), let off steam, and above all else; keep the tradition kicking.
It is common for a diwaniya to be tied to a certain family or patriarch. There are also cultural, political, social (i.e. non-profit social benefit society), religious, trade orientated (from fisherman to foodies or diplomats to doctors) as well as sports-focused diwaniyas (either for local or international clubs across different sports). Architecturally, diwaniyas are either annexed to a house (usually with a separate entrance) or can also be inside the house’s outer wall). Some diwaniyas are even purpose-built as a villa or strip-mall sized complex, with multiple rooms for weekly gatherings and larger (banquet style) halls for more official events (such as wedding receptions or Ramadan ghabga feasts).
Beyond the mere metaphysical majlis feature of a social gathering, diwaniyas are a primary source of information sharing. This was especially true before the days of technological (and social) media outlets, where the diwaniya circuit (as well as the funeral and wedding circuits) was the fastest way for information to travel across Kuwait; keeping Kuwaitis in the know all the while chiseling the community closer together.
According to well-known Arab traditions of hospitality, everyone and anyone is welcomed into a diwaniya. This is in stark contrast to gatherings elsewhere in the region, where permission must first be sought from local authorities before a large group of people can assemble (most of the time, even indoors).
Traditionally, most “official” Kuwaiti diwaniyas preferred to meet on a Monday as this used to be the middle of the week back when the weekend was a Thursday and Friday. More contemporary diwaniyas prefer to meet on a Tuesday as the new Kuwaiti weekend shifted to Friday and Saturday on September 1st, 2007. Generally, there are just over 1,000 official diwaniyas in Kuwait registered with hundreds (if not thousands) more unofficial or casual diwaniyas.
Entering the Diwaniya — Between Protocol and Practicality
Most modern diwaniyas offer comfortable cushioned couch seating, so taking off one’s shoes is not necessary, unless the diwaniya is more traditional and maintains a carpeted seating arrangement.
Once a guest enters, he (or she) must first turn right and greet each person inside the diwaniya with a firm shake of the right hand, those inside the diwaniya must honor the guest by standing (elderly and special needs patrons are obviously excused from standing). Cheek kisses are reserved only for the familiar; the more kisses, the more familiar the relationship (or the longer it has been since the two people have seen each other), with a kiss for each cheek usually the golden rule. It is customary for the host to be seated in the middle of the diwaniya, however, the more humble hosts tend to offer this prized seat for honored guests.
The guest is then encouraged to take his (or her place) in any empty seat. If the diwaniya is chockablock full, it is encouraged for the more regular patrons of the diwaniya to give up their seat(s) for first-time guests. Many Kuwaitis visit multiple diwaniyas in a single evening so it is very common for some guests to hop between different diwaniyas, sometimes not even staying long enough to enjoy a cup of tea (or even water).
Once the guest is seated, he is encouraged to offer a general greeting to the entire gathering, usually along the lines of “Good Evening” or more specifically مساكم الله بالخير as diwaniyas are usually held during the evening, typically after either sunset or evening prayers. Not sure what to discuss once the greeting is out of the way? Stick to the weather perhaps (Pygmalion protocol) or seek Sprachgefühl Smalltalk. Simply listening to the general conversation is another option.
Diwaniya Drinking and Dining Protocol
Back to the diwaniya protocol. Usually, the guest(s) is first offered a cup of traditional Arabic coffee. Again, it is important to receive the finjan (traditional Arabic coffee cup) with the right hand. You will notice that the coffee cup is not filled to the brim and is actually barely half full. It's not because Arabs are stingy, quite the contrary, it is instead due to the Arab hospitality of wanting a guest to stay longer and drink many cups of coffee to their heart's content. Typically three cups of coffee is considered within etiquette, but it is also OK to simply refuse the cup, simply lift your right hand to excuse yourself as the coffee cup is offered (even if the coffee has been poured already). It is also important to note that the person pouring the coffee would hold the dallah (traditional Arabic coffee pitcher) with his left hand and pour the coffee into the small cups he holds in the right hand. Again, the host usually offers the finjan, with his right hand. In more traditional settings, it is important that the coffee server stands at attention next to the guest(s) until he is done drinking coffee. You will notice that if you simply hand the finjan back, the server will simply pour you another shot. This can go on (essentially) forever until the guest simply shakes the finjan from side to side to signify the slaking of his coffee thirst. This tradition has an interesting origin story. Imagine a traditional Bedouin tribal tent during the years of yore. Arabs were known for their notorious raiding (and trading) ways and would usually discuss their military aspirations amongst each other in a majlis setting. To prevent their plans from leaking to neighboring tribes, our forefathers decided to employ deaf (and sometimes even mute) servers. Since a deaf person only has their eyes to rely on, the shaking of the finjan became the universal symbol for that's-enough-coffee-for-now. Another interesting factoid from back during the halcyon tent days, that is still very much applicable today amongst modern Kuwaiti’s of Bedouin origin, is that placing one’s finjan on a table or floor (if the diwaniya is traditional carpet seating) is basically making the equivalent of “a request you cannot refuse” to the host. One would hope, all within reason.
Back to our modern-day diwaniyas. Dates (or other sweets, either traditional or modern) are usually offered immediately after the first sip of unsweetened Arabic coffee. A glass of water is also usually served immediately after (or concurrently with) the first shot of caffeine. When it comes to dates, it is an Islamic tradition to eat an odd number of dates as this was the tradition of the Prophet Muhammad PBUH. Guests can either drop the date pits in a receptacle or rolls them up in pieces of tissue paper. Sweets are usually followed by juices or a variety of teas (either sweetened or unsweetened).
Savory finger food is also sometimes served to guests during the diwaniya discussion. However, most of the eating (feasting) is usually reserved until most of the patrons arrive, or for some predetermined celebration (e.g. a patron’s wedding, the birth of a patron’s child, or the victory of the diwaniya’s favorite sports team). Dinners can range from a couple of friends arguing over which last-mile delivery service to use to elaborate catered spreads from cinque-stelle hotels.
The Digital Diwaniya
Today, as traffic continues to curse Kuwait’s ring roads, Kuwaitis young and old enjoy a different (completely) digital diwaniya experience through WhatsApp Group chats or other social media platforms. Text, photos, videos and voice notes are shared at a fire-rushed pace. Thankfully, despite this digital 24/7 connectedness, Kuwaitis are still beating the heat or bitter cold to meet up in person on either a weekly, monthly, or sometimes even daily, basis in physical diwaniyas.
Indeed, these modern-day Metaverse Diwaniyas have yet to figure out how to virtually deliver that same wholesome goodness than can only be enjoyed while digging into a mountain of rice and meat. Food, it seems, is keeping this uniquely Kuwaiti institution alive.