The Iraqi Invasion & Occupation

The Iraqi invasion and occupation of Kuwait began in the early morning of the 2nd of August 1990. With Tareq away in Jordan and his two eldest children, Nur and Ziad, travelling abroad, his wife Jehan and their youngest son, Nader, would remain in Kuwait for the entire duration of the Iraqi’s brutal occupation of Kuwait. The invasion had come as a surprise to many in Kuwait, with Jehan only finding out what had happened after being woken by the sound of explosions and sustained gunfire. After managing to telephone both her daughter Nur and husband Tareq during the first day of the occupation, the international telephone lines were cut, and neither Jehan nor her son Nader, whose wife was pregnant with their first child in England, heard from anybody in the outside world for over seven months. However, Kuwait’s internal telephone lines remained working, ensuring that news spread around Kuwait very quickly.

On the first afternoon, Jehan, her son Nader, and their neighbours rushed to pull off and hide as many street signs as possible to confuse the invading Iraqis. Kuwait can be a confusing place to drive through at the best of times, and it was hoped that this would only add to the army’s problems. What to do about the museum was now at the forefront of their minds. It was common knowledge that the Iraqis had headed straight into the National Museum along the beachfront during the initial invasion, and it, like much of the rest of Kuwait, was pillaged and looted. From the very first day of the occupation, right up to the day before the liberation, there was a constant stream of trucks full of stolen goods heading back to Iraq.

It was obvious that the family’s museum needed to shut and be hidden, and fortunately, the museum was located below ground level. The museum’s heavy carved Indian doors were bolted shut, and the signs above it were taken down and hidden before Jehan and Nader walked down the museum’s steps to try and decide what to do with the exhibits. It was decided that the manuscripts and ceramics, located to the left after entering the museum, would be the first to be packed up and hidden. Although many of the maintenance men from the family’s nearby school, the New English School, attempted to leave Kuwait, they came to help Jehan and Nader with the packing. What ensued was described as “frantic though purposeful”. A guard was left upstairs to watch the road to the museum so that everybody down below could be warned of any unwelcome visitors. Jehan had called Tareq’s foreman, Nasser, and arranged for carpenters and builders to come immediately to the museum. Whilst packing up the manuscripts, someone had asked Jehan what to do with a small 19th-century grain of rice inscribed with the writer’s name and verses from the Holy Qur’an. Jehan replied that she would put it somewhere safe, and it was hidden so well that, to this day, it has never been found. Tareq remained in Amman for a short time, looking after the New English School there. During the occupation, he was able to write letters to Jehan and other family members, which were smuggled into the country by one of his drivers, who was a Palestinian and who was, thus, able to drive into Iraq and down to Kuwait. He would smuggle letters from Jehan on the return journey back to Jordan. After a while, however, Tareq began to face increasing animosity from people in Jordan, even those working at his school, so he left, moving to London.

Within a few days, the left side of the museum was full of boxes, suitcases and bags, and the showcases were now empty. All the boxes were hidden in various side rooms and a large space behind one of the bigger showcases before being blocked off and concealed from prying eyes. Areas with doors were bolted shut, and carpenters from the school used sheets of wood to seal the doors before painting over them to match the other walls. David Roberts lithographs, likely to have been of little interest to any Iraqi soldiers, were then hung on the false walls to complete the ruse. Storage cupboards beneath the display cases received the same treatment and, like the hidden doorways, were covered and painted to look purely decorative. By the end of the occupation, it was clear that Iraqi soldiers enjoyed forcing open cupboards and tearing everything apart. The soldiers who had taken over the family’s nearby school did not leave a single cupboard or drawer shut, locked or unbroken.

With all the manuscripts and ceramics from the left side of the museum now hidden away, the next problem was the five or six thousand pieces of jewellery, costumes, textiles, embroideries and stringed instruments on the opposite side. With nearly everybody who had helped with the left side now trying to leave Kuwait or unable to reach the museum, it was up to Jehan, Nader, Rawa, Tareq’s niece and his foreman, Nasser. With just four of them, and the likelihood of army house-to-house searches becoming more of a daily threat, the only option was to completely block off that entire section and pretend it did not exist. However, the Gold Room located in this area was sealed off and hidden as a further precaution; the marks from the false wall are still visible today. The museum was sealed, and the Rajab’s waited for the arrival of the Iraqis. While something could be done to at least hide the museum, which was fortunately underground, the New English School would not be so lucky, being too large and in a particularly prominent location. The Iraqi army took over and occupied the school for entire occupation, using it as a base. They installed pillboxes and anti-aircraft weaponry on the roof, which shook the whole neighbourhood when it was fired. What wasn’t stolen from the school was destroyed. In the school stores, Tareq had stored between three and five hundred hand-woven Iraqi carpets, which he was in the process of studying and curating. Tareq and Jehan had collected these rugs from the Marsh Arabs of southern Iraq, having visited, photographed and written about their experiences with them on their travels. By the 1980s, they had amassed a vast collection of these rugs. Interestingly, many of the rugs were embroidered on blankets left behind by the British Army after the First World War. The entire collection was destroyed, and after liberation, many bits of rug could be found around the school.

Soon after the initial invasion, the Iraqis began rounding up foreigners as prisoners. Around this time, Jehan received a phone call from Keaton Woods, the American general manager of the Meridien Hotel. Keaton, his wife and their two children were planning to leave the American embassy to go on the run and needed a place to hide. At this stage, the American embassy staff were leaving Kuwait and heading for Baghdad. Jehan agreed to shelter the family and, with help from Nader, hid them in her eldest son Ziad’s house next door until women and children were allowed to leave Kuwait. Keaton was to stay hidden next door for another four months. On two occasions, Keaton was within but a hair’s breadth of being caught by the Iraqi soldiers during their house-to-house searches of the family’s properties. On one occasion, Nader stalled the soldiers as long as he could, talking to them loudly to let Keaton know they were there, giving him enough time to slip into an air conditioning vent and hide. He lived a monastic life during the occupation, always dressing in a Kuwaiti dishdasha, staying away from the window’s and never leaving the house. He was only visited at night. The Rajab’s are just one of many Kuwaiti families that hid close to one thousand Westerners from the Iraqis until they were permitted to leave the country towards the end of the occupation. Jehan was not the kind of person to sit back and hide, and although she did not take unnecessary risks, she did go out, but made sure to always wear a shayla and abaya. One of the events she took part in was the demonstration in Jabriya on road 101, which went past the police station. It was mostly made up of women and a few men. During the demonstration, Iraqi soldiers began shooting into the crowd. Jehan had joined the demonstration with her niece, Rawa, but in the ensuing chaos, they lost each other, and people scrambled to escape the gunfire. Houses throughout Jabriya opened their doors so people could hide in the aftermath. It was at this demonstration that Sana Al-Fodari was shot and killed.

While their home had been searched and Iraqi soldiers had tried to rob them during the night on multiple occasions, as the end of the occupation grew nearer, Jehan and Nader’s plan to hide the main body of the museum from the Iraqis had so far been a success; however, that was to change. Just before the start of the ground war, the Iraqi secret police and army arrived at the family’s home, blocking the road with a machine gun mounted vehicle. After searching the house once more, the secret police put a gun to Nader’s head and demanded he show them the basement. Unlike previous visits, they seemed to know that behind the blocked door at the bottom of the stairway was the actual museum. They then proceeded to force their way in through the internal door (the door on your left). During the occupation, there were many stories and reports of Iraqi soldiers shooting men and children in front of their mothers, and Jehan feared the worst. The Iraqis were not there to loot but to search for arms and munitions, of which there were none, and occasionally inquired at the jewellery on display but were satisfied when Nader convinced them that they were worthless. After searching the museum for over an hour, the Iraqis left, stealing only two cartons of cigarettes and three cassette tapes, but promising both Jehan and Nader that they would be back the next day. However, the following evening, the ground war began, and Kuwait was soon liberated. Fortunately for the Rajab’s, the ground war started just in time, and the Iraqi soldiers and their accompanying secret police never had an opportunity to return.

During the Iraqi occupation, many people were taken as hostages, and many were taken back to Iraq as prisoners of war, never to return to Kuwait. We will never forget them.


After liberation, Jehan was approached by the French Foreign Legion, who had asked her if they could use the school as their headquarters in Kuwait. The New English School was entirely trashed, the interior being completely destroyed and looted by the Iraqi army. However, thanks to the French Foreign Legion, with help from relatives, friends and staff who had remained in Kuwait, the school was completely cleaned. It was an enormous task, but receiving support from a few hundred soldiers was a real stroke of luck. With help from the commander of the Foreign Legion, Tareq was also able to board one of their aircraft flying to Kuwait from Riyadh. By this stage, Jehan had already set up a tent in front of the school to register people for the 1991-92 academic year, and as soon as Tareq arrived, he set about re-equipping the school and staffing it in order to open the doors in the autumn, which they did.

While the school was being used as a base, Jehan met many military people, including those from the American Army. There, she met Colonel Jeffery Greenhut, an American Officer charged with evaluating all damage to cultural sites around Kuwait, including her own museum. Colonel Greenhut’s unit was responsible for reopening all the false walls around the museum and even helped to provide generators for electricity. Jehan got to know him well, and he invited her to fly to Failaka on an American helicopter, where the photo of her with the Iraqi AK-47 was taken. Failaka had always had a special place in her heart, and upon seeing what the Iraqi army had done to the island and the rest of Kuwait, she was utterly devastated. What pained her the most was that, apart from the cultural damage, a whole community had been uprooted, and their way of life had been destroyed forever. Failaka, although a part of Kuwait, and Kuwaiti in its way of life, was, nevertheless, different. A community had lived there for hundreds if not thousands of years, and now there was nothing.

After the liberation of Kuwait in 1991, the Hungarian government asked Géza Fehévári, British but of Hungarian origin, to be the ambassador to Kuwait and Riyadh. Géza was a professor of Islamic Art and Archaeology at the University of London (SOAS) and a very frequent visitor of the museum, developing a close relationship with Tareq. After Géza eventually retired from the diplomatic service in the mid-1990s, Tareq asked him to become the curator of the museum, a position he held for almost fifteen years until he passed away in 2012. The pair had many adventures together.

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