May 14, 2013
by Veronica Gockenbach '14
A Knox College senior from Kuwait, Rana Tahir explores many passions that have contributed to her understanding of cultural identity in her Honors project, which uses original poetry and paintings to represent life under occupied Kuwait. Her project tells the story of the Iraqi occupation that began in August 1990 in her native country and how it affected the people living there.
Tahir, a double major in political science and creative writing, describes her art as "confused but with purpose." Her paintings and poetry are emotionally driven, derived from her interactions with people who talked with her about the occupation and conveying a multitude of perspectives. She has produced dozens of poems and 29 paintings for the project, which was funded by a Richter Grant.
"It was a lot of trial and error," Tahir said. "Whatever angle I found, I went with, and if it didn't work, I moved on to the next thing."
Tahir says that her education at Knox inspired her to learn more about her family's history. A First-Year Preceptorial course, for example, analyzed a novel in which cultural differences affected the medical treatment of an immigrant family's daughter. Discussing conflicts between two cultures reminded Tahir of her own family history. Both sets of grandparents witnessed the India-Pakistan partition in 1947, and her parents were forced to evacuate Kuwait during the Gulf War in the early 1990s.
For her Honors project, Tahir set up 14 interviews with family members and other Kuwaiti residents to discuss the Iraqi occupation. She spent hours in Kuwait researching at the Center for Research Studies and the Al-Qurain Martyrs' Museum.
The interviews were emotionally taxing for Tahir and her interviewees, many of whom had never shared their stories before. Some asked why she wanted to hear about the occupation in the first place.
It was a question Tahir struggled with for months. The Iraqi occupation was a very real part of many people's lives, she said, and few outside the country understood the extent of its impact.
The people Tahir interviewed described the six-month Iraqi occupation as a surreal nightmare. Hundreds of oil drums were poured into the sea and burned, which blocked out the sun and caused ash to fall from the sky. People looted stores and homes and destroyed many buildings.
Today, there are few physical remains of the occupation. Even though Kuwait was able to rebuild itself physically after a year, Tahir said, the toll on Kuwait's collective psyche has been enormous.
"Not enough has been done to heal emotionally, politically, psychologically. That changed the country's dynamics completely," Tahir said. Despite Kuwait's determination to forget the occupation, she added, suspicion and fear linger.
Tahir's solution is to share Kuwait's stories with the rest of the world. She drew inspiration from the late Asrar Al Qabandi, a member of the Kuwaiti Resistance who secretly contacted U.S. broadcast journalist Barbara Walters and brought heightened attention to the conflict.
Tahir hopes that her project will help Kuwaitis begin to face their "ghosts." She wants Kuwait to look back on its history with understanding not with fear.
"Art is a good way to deal with and understand things," Tahir said. "It can allow us to bridge gaps and heal things together."
Tahir says that before coming to Knox, she never would have thought to explore her family's history. Her coursework gave her a new perspective on the Iraqi occupation and was vital in constructing her Honors project. "[Knox] can color the way you see the world," she said.
In addition to her academic work at Knox, Tahir has assumed many leadership positions on campus, including president of Women of Influence and Islamic Club, co-founder of Oriental Hipsters, member of Mortar Board, and co-writer of an op-ed column in The Knox Student.
She said she is especially grateful to Knox faculty members Nick Regiacorte and Monica Berlin, both associate professors of English, and Lynette Lombard, associate professor of art, who served on her Honors project committee. Tahir also appreciated the input of her project's outside examiner, Iraq War veteran and poet Brian Turner.
"You can always find support [at Knox]," she said. "There are always resources available because the professors here genuinely believe in you."
Tahir was recently accepted to -- and plans to attend -- a summer graduate program at the University of Denver Publishing Institute and a two-year Master of Fine Arts program in poetry at Pacific University.