Ever since Kuwait's unregulated stock exchange, the Souk al Mankh, started making billionaires overnight, wild tales have been told of their new-found wealth.
And when the market collapsed last year to the tune of $91 billion, a whole new set of stories circulated.
Now a hit comedy on the subject is a top ticket with the very people it was written about, a colorful group:
* The taxi driver who--the rumor goes--bought a 50-foot yacht;
* Brokers who sold offices the size of postage stamps for the price of Manhattan skyscrapers;
* The former civil servant who distinguished himself by buying shares with more than $5 billion in checks . . . dated several years forward.
After the crash, one heard about the sheik who set his white robes on fire to escape the dishonor of almost certain bankruptcy, and the auction for impounded Rolls-Royces, and the broker who attempted to escape from Kuwait with a suitcase filled with cash only to be snatched off a plane by a government minister.
All this uproar is the subject of "Fursan al Mankh" ("Knights of the Mankh"), now playing the Persian Gulf. It seems to provide a kind of catharsis by getting the gulf citizens involved to laugh at their own greed. This is no small feat, because many--at least in the Kuwaiti audiences--may have lost the keys to their million-dollar homes.
"Everyone who lost money thinks, 'That's me up on the stage,' " explains Kuwaiti actor-writer-director Abdul Hussain Abdul Reda. "And everyone was involved."
Abdul Reda, whose expressive, large, dark eyes flash under his traditional white headpiece, says that though he, too, lost in the market, he was able to turn his loss to gain by staging the popular play.
Remarkably, even government ministers--who have been lambasted in the media as responsible and are featured in the play--have shown their approval of the cleansing process by attending its performances. And in a part of the world where pages from Time magazine often are ripped out because of material that is considered politically offensive, there has been no censorship.
Abdul Reda says he ran the play past the Kuwaiti ministry of information and all scenes remained intact. He adds that he sent a ticket to Kuwait's commerce minister, who came. The prime ministers of Kuwait and Bahrain took front-row seats. It is possible that being seen in public laughing at the play is an astute political move for gulf government leaders. People in the region are proud that their ministers can take criticism, even though they still blame them for the Souk al Mankh crisis.
"They the ministers don't take it seriously, they take it with a big heart. Kuwait is a democratic country. We can criticize. In the end they, too, are concerned with public opinion and the public benefit."
The play also ran--uncensored--in Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates. In Bahrain it was even sponsored by the ministry of information.
Abdul Reda is convinced it is the mandate of theater in the gulf to address "the problem of the day," not to shun political controversy. One of his other plays, "Bye Bye London," is about a spendthrift Kuwaiti on a trip to England.
Each scene of "Knights of the Mankh" is a vignette depicting excesses of the buying-and-selling spree: A young man rushes home to give his wife a flashy diamond necklace he has purchased with his profits. Young speculators appear in wildly tacky costumes; one wears a robe cut in traditional Kuwaiti style, but it isn't white, it's black and gold. Brokers try to peddle stocks of obviously nonexistent companies with ridiculous names. The traders are never without their calculators. When one wonders whether he'll be able to sell so many shares at such exorbitant prices, he is told not to worry: Doctors, policemen, Egyptians, Palestinians working in the gulf and even women are buying at the Souk.
One scene involving the commerce minister implies that he knew what was going on but did nothing to prevent it. "We are an open country," he says. "And this is an open market. Because it is open I shouldn't try to do anything to stop it."
But he also warns the traders: "You traders should remember that God has been very generous with you . . . You shouldn't take your wealth for granted." When he adds that they should be aware of their responsibility not to harm the Kuwaiti economy, one trader responds that the Kuwaiti economy is like "a mountain. Whatever wind comes will not be able to shake it."