KUWAIT CITY, KUWAIT — Nibbling on tiny pastries and sipping tea, the gathering at the diwaniya chats the evening away, discussing topics du jour, from the meaningful to the mundane.
In the historical fabric of Kuwait, diwaniyas have been men-only political salons - a local equivalent of neighborhood pub and town-hall meeting combined. They serve not only as parlors for chit-chats, but governance, too. Diwaniyas are so integral to Kuwaiti culture that during election season, candidates don't go door to door, but diwaniya to diwaniya. This is where business deals are made and marriages arranged.
While in recent times, two such parlors have been set up to include women, this ancient Bedouin tradition seems to be slowly falling out of favor among a young generation that moves on Rollerblades.
Traditionally, most men have an open invitation to attend a diwaniya on any given night, and wealthy families have a large, long room adjacent to their homes expressly for their diwaniya. Some neighborhoods have a common diwaniya, much like a community center.
At a typical men-only diwaniya, once occupied by Iraqi soldiers as a barracks during the Gulf War, the attendees lounge among the partitions of a never-ending couch that follow the contours of the room in one giant U. They usually gather once a week, starting at 8 p.m. in the evening and sometimes going past midnight.
As they discuss issues ranging from the intricacies of Arabic poetry to the youth being swamped by baggy pants, they twirl smoothly polished beads around their fingers and worry aloud whether change has come to Kuwait too fast. The presence of malls and movies, they fret, is breaking down social norms like the taboo against premarital dating.
"Traditional values are melting," says one Kuwaiti.
"We don't want to just get rid of our whole culture," complains a second one.
"The young people speak differently now - I don't understand half of what they say," adds a third.
What sounds like a group of grouchy retirees is actually a clique of young fathers.
To hear them tell it, life here has changed so much in the 10 years since Iraq invaded Kuwait that adults can't comprehend their children's lingo and music, or their baseball hats and Rollerblades. They blame the influx of American influences partly on the influx of shopping malls with movie theaters - previously unknown in this conservative Muslim nation.
With a mixture of humor and disdain, the men frown on youth who don't feel comfortable in their dishdashas, the traditional long white robe.
"I see the way they leave the office," says Fallah al-Kharafi, the diwaniya host, shaking his head at how his younger colleagues at the National Bank of Kuwait feel uncomfortable in their dishdashas. "After work they get to the car and rip it off as quickly as they can."
Many teens also say they have no interest in wearing the dishdashas, donning it only on holidays to please their parents.
"We look more cool like this," says teenager Abdullah al-Shalby, dressed like a Calvin Klein ad. "You can't move in a dishdasha. It's too much fuss. You certainly can't play soccer in it."
At the Al-Fanar Center, with its bevy of Body Shops and Benettons, teenage boys say they also have no interest in chattering the night away when they could be flirting.
"We like to follow around girls without hijab [veil]," says teenager Abdul Rahman Al-Tarket, roaming the mall with his two friends and ogling winsome young women in snug jeans sans head scarf.
Meanwhile, mixed diwaniyas are still anomaly. "For me, the diwaniya is a very comfortable place to have people come and see me," says artist Thoraya al-Baqsami, who co-hosts one mixed gathering. "I know many people don't like it, but we are in the 21st century now," she says as she gives a tour of her adjacent gallery.
Ms. Baqsami, whose grandfather ran a diwaniya, decided to begin hosting one with her diplomat husband in 1991, after the end of the Gulf War. The only other mixed diwaniya is held by Rasha al-Sabah, the undersecretary of higher education and a member of the royal family.
Many women here say they're happy to leave the diwaniya to the domain of men. But more problematic is that it is the diwaniya at which much of the country's decision-making and networking takes place. It is also is a forum where a constituent can meet his parliamentary representative and consult him about major problems or minor potholes.
The importance of diwaniyas to Kuwaiti society cannot be understated. Kuwait's parliament emerged from a 1921 proposal by diwaniyas. And Sheik Jaber al-Sabah, who dissolved the assembly in 1986 restored it in 1992 following pressure from diwaniyas.
And since that is a male-only world, even liberal-minded youth say they can't see allowing a woman to represent them in office. A bill to give women the right to vote and to run for parliament lost by a narrow vote of 32 to 20 last November.
"I was stopped for driving without a license, and a friend of my father's got me released," says one teenager. "If we elected a woman, what would she do? She can't come to the diwaniya and she can't have those kinds of contacts, so she can't represent us."
Some here say they wouldn't mind seeing the decline of the diwaniya. Says Kuwait University political scientist Shamlan El-Issa: "The positive aspects are that it helps democracy - men meet every day and talk and complain for two or three hours. The negative is that it replaces the family - men go to work and diwaniya, and never see their wives."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society