The other islands in Kuwait are soooooo worth a trip. My favorites are Qaroh (where there is a reef around the island and turtles nest every year), Um Al-Moradem (where there is phosflorescent algae that looks like fairy lights in the moonlight), and Kubbar (partyland on the weekends in the summer).
This is an article I wrote for a local magazine in 2004 that I thought I would share since I went there at about the same time that year. I need to get back there soon...
Fourteen years have passed since the pink and red flowering rhododendron bushes have been watered and tended to on Failaka Island, and yet they bloom every year, as if waiting for their caretakers to return. The flowering plants seem symbolic of an island expectant of renewal.
Driving through Failaka with a real Failachawi (former resident born on the island), Abdulwahab Al-Taher, it wasn’t hard to see his longing for a former way of life. He spoke of growing up on the island, of going to school, spending time with his friends and fishing. He showed us the land that his family still owns and the land that they sold when they relocated to mainland Kuwait. His speech was paused by times when he had a far-away look in his eye; as if he was looking into his own past to remember what was there on a particular spot in the past.
Abdulwahab’s older brother, Bu Nasser, is Sherif (Mayor) of Failaka and spends most weekends there with a small troop of older men, reminiscing and playing cards. The small house they occupy is a collection of furniture, pieced together to provide basic comforts. A generator whirred in the background, providing electricity. Their house wasn’t difficult to spot, as it was one of the few houses on the island with functioning vehicles parked in front.
Failaka is a contemporary ghost town. The houses, streets, and lamp posts stand as they did years ago when 5,000 people inhabited the island, then left suddenly when the Iraqi invaders took over. Rusting cars (mostly 80’s models) sit abandoned in front of houses with no windows. Street lamps line the streets, still intact with their light bulbs and glass coverings missing. The 472 cabana resort is empty; doors banging in the wind make the only sound. The resort’s enormous pool is empty except for the brackish water accumulated at the deep end; its metal fixtures stripped off and several pieces thrown into the water. The school and the mosques are all empty. Uncut grass sways in the wind. Playgrounds stand silent. Stretches of long sandy beaches are empty. The ferry has gone for the day and there are very few people on the streets and no women or children anywhere. There is an eerie silence that hangs over the island as if you have just walked onto a movie set where the actors have finished for the day and gone home. Or perhaps it could be the scene from an apocalyptic movie; it is the aftermath and all the humans are long gone.
In sharp contrast to mainland Kuwait, Failaka still shows many signs of the 1990/91 Iraqi occupation. Houses and buildings are pock-marked by bullets or chunks of buildings have been ripped off by mortar rounds. The damage is indiscernible – either from Iraqi occupiers or from American and Kuwaiti military forces who have used the island over the years for urban warfare maneuvers. Barbed wire lies collectively on beaches and here and there throughout the town. Although it is said that the land has been cleared of mines, it remains dubious.
Also in contrast to mainland Kuwait, Failaka still bears witness to Kuwait’s architectural past. Hundred-year-old mud brick houses are abundant. Several appear to be cared for or in the process of renovation. Several Kuwaiti families still spend the weekend on Failaka – some in their former homes. As a former Failaka resident remarked, “They just can’t leave their memories behind.” A motel is being built close to the seaside incorporating many of the homes into a renovated complex bringing history to life. Many of the houses on Failaka have small windows or face away from the seaside; seemingly strange to a Western foreigner visiting an island with breathtaking sea views, yet a reminder of extreme temperatures during summer months.
Newer homes – either recently-finished in the late ‘80’s or which were still under construction at the time – tower over the lower, older homes. These newer homes look as if they could be situated in any mainland neighborhood of Kuwait, yet they are lonely places without any human warmth.
Prior to the Iraqi occupation, inhabitants of Failaka lived on the island or visited there for weekend day trips. Before 1990, Failaka was an easy 1 KD ferry ride away; “Business was good as the ferry made 1 million KD per year from frequent trips,” Abdulwahab told us. He spent over twenty years running the ferry and two years running the rental chalets at the Touristic Enterprises Company resort. “The chalets used to be full to capacity every weekend. People came in different groups and gathered and played music in the evenings.” Many mainland families built weekend chalets on Failaka, where the beaches are clean and dolphin pods make summertime migrations following zubeidi (pomfret) up the Arabian Gulf from India. Visitors and resident families could have had a pleasant buffet dinner or lunch at two large restaurants; either at the port or at the chalet resort. Failaka was a convenient change of environment during hot summer months and a wonderful spot for fishing in the cooler months.
Failaka of the ancient past: Greek soldiers arrived on Failaka in the 4th Century, BC, sent by Alexander the Great. Failaka town was then known as the city of Ikaros. The Greeks lived on Failaka for two centuries and the island remained a maritime trade route. The remains of a Greek temple can be found there today. Many artifacts have been found over the years – many put into a museum on the island which was looted by the Iraqi soldiers during the occupation. The Greek ruins, which were once a major tourist attraction, have been walled and closed to the public, as there are no longer guardsmen to watch over their contents.
Today, the ferry still makes trips to Failaka at times determined by high tides. The ferry port has been left as it was since the occupation; heavily damaged. The inlet has not been dredged, so ferry schedules must be made when the water is highest (schedules can be obtained by visiting the ferry port at Ras Salmiya). Private boats are tied to the island dock and passengers must make their way from the boat up a rusting metal ladder to the top of the dock. Cars can be brought over by the ferry and there is an operational KNPC gas station on the island.
Amazingly, there is a taxi stand right at the port to greet the few guests to the island – mostly Westerners – visiting for a few hours during the day on the weekends. Perhaps the taxi stand it is a hopeful indication of things to come – economic growth returning to the island.
Fourteen years have passed since the families moved away and yet almost nothing has been done to develop or renovate the island. News agencies periodically post articles that proposals have been received from companies and that teams are preparing to do something, leaving residents of Kuwait to wonder when the construction will actually start. As you move throughout the houses and streets in Failaka, you can’t help but think, ‘what a terrible waste.'