Kuwaiti art, sheika show country's cultural heart


SHEIKA HUSSAH Sabah Al-Salem Al-Sabah settled into the quiet elegance of a women's club on Mount Vernon Place yesterday, sipped V-8 juice and recounted the casualties of Iraq's invasion of her country, Kuwait. She told of a friend killed by Iraqi soldiers for harboring Americans. She talked of her sister and brother-in-law, who are running the resistance movement.

Director of the Museum of Islamic Art at the Kuwait National Museum, Sheika Hussah has lived in Europe since the invasion. She was in Baltimore to pave the way for another Kuwaiti exile: an exhibition of 114 Islamic objects from her family's collection, which begins its American tour at The Walters Art Gallery on Dec. 9.

Amassed in less than 10 years, the 7,000-object collection is considered to be one of the finest in the world. Although Sheika Hussah says the Iraqi army has stripped the Kuwait museum of all of its treasures, "Islamic Art and Patronage" was on display in Leningrad at the time. She believes the show will reveal the beauty of Islam culture while speaking eloquently of the pride and determination of her countrymen.

"America is a country that cares not only for people but for art," she said in a soft voice flavored with a faint accent. "We have to show the quality of people and of art objects that are part of Kuwait. This shows the world that Kuwait is the country with culture, with cultured people, and that we are not just people who are swallowed up overnight. They cannot break us."

At 40, Al-Sabah is seven months pregnant with her fifth child. A member of one of the world's wealthiest families -- she is the daughter of the former emir -- she dressed for a series of press interviews in a long, blue, jersey skirt, a maize-colored silk blouse, comfortable suede shoes and a tweed jacket. She wore no jewelry except for a Kuwait pin that seemed a badge of exile.

She and her husband Sheik Nasser Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Sabah -- nephew of the current emir -- began collecting Islamic art in 1975. Traveling to flea markets and auctions all over the world, they intended to return Arab treasures to their homeland. They had the money, knowledge and passion to put together "the largest comprehensive collection in the Islamic world," according Marilyn Jenkins, curator of Islamic Art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Jenkins was one of the experts who helped create the Kuwait National Museum in less than a year. It opened in 1983.

The Al-Sabah collection, which was on permanent loan to the museum, includes one of the oldest surviving texts of the Koran, medieval carvings, jewelry, textiles, Ottoman ceramics, jewel-encrusted daggers worn by Mogul emperors, illuminated manuscripts, ornate metal boxes, paintings and ceramic tiles. There are 8,000 coins. The couple also purchased thousands of rare books, manuscripts and research books for the museum's library on Islamic art.

The museum quickly became the country's cultural heart and international showplace. A typical week might find Sheika Hussah squiring Prince Charles through the collection, talking with Russian scholars, organizing an international symposium of art historians, negotiating an international exhibition and overseeing the progress of museum classes that taught such traditional crafts as Bedouin weaving.

Her career took her by surprise. Although Sheika Hussah studied Islamic art briefly at Oxford University, she married at 19. Her four children range in age from 11 to 19.

Her eyes tear when she thinks of the stolen art. Also lost is a collection of jewelry, designed by Claire Bersani, which was lent to the Walters in 1987. She does not expect Saddam Hussein to relinquish the art treasures because of the hatred he bears toward her family.

"I have hopes," she says. "No plans, only hopes."

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