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Published: February 28th 2012
When I walked through the door I was almost blinded. Outside, the day was quite uncharacteristically – for Kuwait – grey and rainy. Inside this house, tucked into the non-descript residential area of Qadisiya, all was ablaze in light and color, refracted off every possible surface.There was no hiding the fact that this was the House of Mirrors.
The life’s work of Lidia al-Qattan, an Italian-born, British-educated woman who married a Kuwaiti man (Khalifa al-Qattan, who became one of the most famous Kuwaiti artists), the House of Mirrors is just that: a house covered inside and out in mirror-fragment mosaics. This vivacious septuagenarian woman, a widow since 2003, gives private tours of her home if you ring ahead.
Originally, I had planned on joining my hosts, Hamlet and Anita, for an excursion into the desert, but when we woke to find the weather so dreary, those plans were scuttled. Anita suggested I give Mrs. Qattan a call; she picked up right away and invited me over.
Twenty minutes later, and only seconds after I rang the door bell, I was swept by this diminutive firebrand – I still have a hard time believing she is in her
mid-70s; she has more energy than many 20 somethings and could easily pass for someone in her fifties – into her dazzling, glittering living room, where she sat me down on the animal-print divan. I looked down to find that even the floor was covered in mirror. As I gapped at the mirrored surfaces of the room, she pushed an enormous slice of apple cake in front of me and offered a cappuccino, and then she launched into what would be the start of a two-plus hour conversation that ranged from her art – the house, as well as her more “traditional” pieces – to her life story to Kuwaiti history to astrology/cosmology. If the mirrors didn’t make me dizzy enough, the fascinating stories she spilled sent my mind a-twirl. I hardly noticed when she slid another slice of cake and another cappuccino in front of me…
Of late, I seem to find myself in the company of fascinating women who took paths uncharted in the 1950s and 60s. Here was a European woman who had moved to a Kuwait unrecognizable from the Kuwait of today. Mrs. Qattan knew Kuwait just as it was transitioning
from an obscure desert British protectorate to an independent, oil-rich Gulf state. She has witnessed its dramatic transformation – as well as its dramatic destruction during the Iraqi occupation of the early 90s. Obviously a strongly independent, opinionated soul, she remains an active voice in contemporary Kuwait, both within its arts community and more broadly as a writer and journalist (indeed, she writes a regular column for the Arab Times). Kuwait is her beloved home, even if she mourns its more “innocent” days.
After guiding me through each room, often being provided with a multisensory experience – lights and music to enhance the visual display – and telling all her wonderful tales, Mrs. Qattan insisted on driving me back to Hawalli. How many museum guides would go to such lengths for their visitors? It was a charming end to my visit to the House of Mirrors.
It was a privilege to have met Lidia al-Qattan. Perhaps someday I will have the opportunity to write her story more fully. Her House of Mirrors seems an apt physical metaphor for both her life and her adopted home, Kuwait: many disparate pieces, sometimes with jagged edges, brought together into
one shining whole.
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