In memory of Abdulhussain Abdulredha

The popular Kuwaiti actor, director, playwright and producer left a legacy of laughter, unity and defiance.

Abdulhussain Abdulredha left behind a legacy of laughter, unity and defiance, writes Shehabi [AFP]
Abdulhussain Abdulredha left behind a legacy of laughter, unity and defiance, writes Shehabi [AFP]

Abdulhussain Abdulredha, a hugely popular actor, director, playwright and producer passed away in London on August 11, aged 78, after going into a coma.

His body arrived in his native Kuwait on Wednesday, on a private plane charted by the Emir of Kuwait Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah. Thousands of mourners gathered in the scorching heat to say farewell, with several of them fainting as his casket was carried to his final resting place.

Mourners from across the Gulf, from Jeddah to my Bahraini village of Diraz, travelled to Kuwait to pay their respects. It was a scene of collective grief on a scale not witnessed in decades, demonstrating the power of art to transcend the divisions and discord that ravage the region. It also shows how the vestiges of free expression accorded in Kuwait, during a particular period at least, harnessed both criticism and good will, and most important of all inclusivity. Abdulredha touched the rich and poor, the bidoon, the Shia and the Sunni, the regime loyalists and the opposition, and in fact, royal family members themselves – even as they were caricatured.

Throughout his life, Abdulredha was seen as legendary in his political courage, wit, powerful charisma and unique characterisations through defiant cultural productions. I am only one of the millions of fans who grew up on a staple of VHS tapes of Abdulredha’s performances.

Abdulredha’s art influenced people all over the world, but his timeless works are even more relevant where political progress has stalled and much of the same issues he tackled are as pertinent today as they ever were. In their grief over the loss of such an insurmountable figure, GCC citizens also mourn the loss of authentic artistic expression in an age of innocence, before the depoliticisation and corporatisation of the entertainment industry.

After his death, social media saw over two million tweets about the artist and hashtags such as #Kuwait_mourns_Abdulhussain_Abdulredha (in Arabic) has been trending. His former colleagues, heads of states and activists took to social media to express their sorrow. Some Wahhabi and Salafi figures tried to sectarianise his death, but these attempts met swift rebuttals and in some cases, punitive action, even though such toxic discourse is normally permitted on these platforms.

Abdulredha, born in 1939, performed and produced over 30 plays and television series over the course of his a half-century-long career. His huge personality, witty scripts and powerful charisma captured the public conscience on stage and screen, cementing his position as the founder of a political and social genre. One of the founding members of a theatre movement led by Zaki Talaimat in the sixties, Abdulredha eventually established his own entertainment television channel, and also gained state recognition. One cannot but also mention his other talents as he also sang and composed most of his on stage songs. 

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Today, Abdulredha’s plays serve as historical records, addressing everything from life in the pre-oil era, the democratic transition in Kuwait, the impact of sudden oil wealth on individuals in the 70s, to Kuwait’s political fragility especially after the Iraqi invasion, and wider themes of identity, corruption, and pan-Arabism.

As censors grew more aware, and media conglomerates started to dominate the entertainment landscape, the space for political critique was gradually removed. This made Abdulredha’s earlier work even more endearing, as political issues he addressed during those times stayed relevant and even got progressively worse. This memorialisation is, therefore, deeply intertwined with the nostalgia for a time when political and religious debate was more free and open, and society more inclusive and liberal.

Abdulredha's death inevitably leaves one question, would it be possible for someone like him to emerge and thrive in today's environment?

One of Abdulredha’s memorable works called “Bye Bye London” satirised the 1970s stereotype of a Gulf tourist to London, in his neon yellow tie, he referred strongly to themes of the oil era (“we drink it and swim in it”, he gesticulated) and colonialisation, (“Oh hello, you English, oh hello our [overlords] of the past, all your goddamn lives you’ve played around with us, if only I could fool around with you for one night only” he said as he chatted up an English woman over a whisky drink).

In another favourite play, entitled “Sword of the Arabs”, Abdulredha played Saddam Hussain during the invasion of Kuwait. It was a tragi-comedy par excellence that served as a nationalist revival of pride and goodness in the face of the brutal dictator. He survived an assassination attempt on his way to one of the performances by suspected Iraqi mukhabarat.

During these major turning points in Kuwait’s history, Abdulredha cleverly wove the moral, religious and political contradictions and ironies afflicting the Gulf from the viewpoint of ordinary people, “bringing the dreams of the small people to the big people”, as one of his obituaries described him.

Because of the high-comedy value, popularity and pride embued in his work, the ruling families of the Gulf, including the emir of Kuwait, tolerated him. But the emir did, at times, find his work went too far politically, and his play “Hatha Saifooh” (1987), was a turning point. The play, which was never televised, addressed the dynamics of the pre-oil era (the 1950s), and the relationship between merchants and a British agent. The play was stopped and along with the cast, Abdulredha was put on trial. He was given a three-month suspended sentence. The red lines were drawn.

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In his last physical appearance on stage in October 2016, at the opening ceremony of a newly constructed state opera/theatre and in the presence of the emir, Abdulredha picked up one of his most popular roles “Hussainooh”, a failed entrepreneur from one of his earliest plays “Darb Alzalag” (The slippery path) (1977). Hussainooh had ambitious businesses plans including selling same-sided shoes, selling shares in the pyramids and importing canned dog food in the original tv series. In this resurrection, nearly 40 years later, Hussaino lost none of his mischievousness, and in the interregnum between the two plays, he says “he was the last person to be reprimanded by the shuyuukh and everyone else has been let off ever since”.

Abdulredha’s death inevitably leaves one question, would it be possible for someone like him to emerge and thrive in today’s environment? His legacy is a testimony to Kuwaiti relative freedom and coexistence and how an ordinary common person was able to make it to the top purely due to his talent and not family connections or wealth.

An artist needs an ecosystem and an infrastructure that can sow the seeds for talent to emerge or for natural talent to thrive. The popular response to his passing is evidence of the desire of the people in the region for figures, narratives and the freedom to imagine and to express their hopes and dreams, and their fears and nightmares, without repercussion.

According to friends and family and pictures that circulated online, in his last few days, Abdulredha insisted on paying visits to other Kuwaitis in the hospital. He reportedly bid his close friend Souad Abdullah farewell before he left Kuwait, and he frequently joked about his death. This was a man at peace with his legacy. A legacy of laughter, unity and defiance is a hard act to follow.

Ala’a Shehabi is a Bahraini independent writer, researcher and economist. She currently works for a think-tank in London and is cofounder of Bahrain Watch, an investigative platform.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.

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