A letter from Kuwait (December 2006)
I was awoken at around 6:00am by what I thought was the usual mosque call, but thought it was either too early or too late. I tried to drift off as I thought it was just the usual Friday rantings about Amrikiyah (America) or Falistiniyah (Palestine) which went on at some length. Actually it went on until I got up around 7:20am and I just assumed that maybe it was in celebration of the beginning of the Eid. I turned on the BEEB (BBC) and saw the headlines that Saddam had been executed shortly before 6 am (Baghdad time) which is the same time as here in Kuwait. So, I got to feeling that perhaps the excitement in the air was that the mullahs may have been passing judgment on the much-heralded execution of the little Satan to the north of here in former “Republic of Fear” or as it is now known—“Occupied Iraq”.
Yesterday, my wife (in Kenya) had asked if the execution of the old executioner (Saddam) would cause any problem in the Gulf area, especially Kuwait and Iraq. I texted her back and said— “Could there be any more chaos in Iraq?”
Having said that, I am sure the US, UK and Canadian embassies have sent out holiday missives with the caveat that we must be vigilant against suspicious activities; avoid large public areas, be mindful of tinted window on vans (like all of them here) avoid loud and aggressive people for they are a vexation to our spirit …etc. On that point—could there be anymore security here in Kuwait? Since first coming to the Crowne Plaza gym three years ago, there have been ongoing installations put in place to safeguard the hotel users and gym users. I guess I should mention that some US and a handful of Japanese troops use the Crowne Plaza for R&R from time spent in Iraq. Originally there were a few jersey or concrete barriers in place in case of a car bomb attack, and then over recent months, they have erected these huge concrete barriers that must be 25 ft high and could stop a 747 jumbo jet in its tracks. These wall barriers ring the perimeter of the hotel and you must squeeze between then to get into the main hotel entrance. To go to any of the other big hotels, i.e. Hilton, SAS or Shiik Flamingo involves stopping at a barrier and having someone check under your car with a mirror, plus under the hood or in the boot for possible explosives.
Moreover, going to the gym has taken on new meaning at Crowne Plaza Hotel, one must drive by the security folks who wave you on, then to enter into the gym from the side entrance, you have to pass through an x-ray machine plus have your bags put through the machine. Then you must use finger print identification to gain access. If you come through the main hotel entrance, then you sometimes have to go through two x-ray machines.
With regards to Iraq, a number of friends have written to ask me about what would happen in Kuwait if Saddam was executed or just how are things here generally, given the proximity to Iraq. Actually, the border with Iraq is only a mere150 kms from here. Hence, the speedy invasion of Kuwait by Iraqi armed forces in 1990. As a remembrance to some of the atrocities committed during those days, the usual custom here during the Eid is to go to the graves of the departed and pray for their memory. Here in Kuwait this is special as many Kuwaitis went to pray for those who were martyred in the Iraq invasion. The Kuwaitis were mad that the new Iraq government executed Saddam on a day when they should be thinking of their own loved ones and not Saddam.
Well, for starters, there is no love lost here for either Saddam or Iraq. If anything, Kuwait is, for a lack of a better word, a bastion of America and things western. Most people would be shocked if they came here: there are no camels, except those locked away on someone’s farm. There no black tents in the desert, unless you mean the ones that Kuwaiti families go to on weekends during the winter months here pretending that they are nomadic once again whilst a generator purrs away in the background as they watch CNN and Al-Jezeera live on their satellite TV. They don’t even have a traditional wood fire, but an electric warmer—it’s quite decadent.
The one thing that is dangerous here is driving. According to one paper, Kuwait has the highest rate of road fatalities in the world. Some 550+ people died last year on the roads here and they weren’t from car bombs. The problem isn’t the roads but the drivers. The roads here are probably in better shape than most roads in North America. They are definitely better than the potholed tarmac that my wife has to drive on daily in Nairobi, Kenya. The majority of Kuwaiti driving deaths were in the age group of 17-25 years and probably the majority of deaths were guys, young guys. For the most part Kuwaitis are quite polite and are respectful, and there is no real individuality per se perhaps because of Islam and it’s dogma of equality amongst people. However, get these same shebab (boys) out of the polite classroom or shisha joints/Starbucks and get them into a car and they become Mad Max. It’s as if they have dual personalities. Moreover, their cars are martyrs to their cause. My good friend Brian Rose said it best when he mentioned that in the United Arab Emirates or UAE, it wasn’t “right of way” that counts, but, rather “right of weight”—the same applies here in Kuwait. As a result, if you own a Hummer or Pajero, then you are given some latitude for passing or pressing other cars. For the record, there are no road rules that I can see and no one to enforce them. It is not unusual to be in the driving lane (for slow moving cars) and to be flashed from behind by a speeding demon so that you get out of his/her way. That being the case, the shoulder is not a desired driving lane is it? Passing lanes are passé as every lane is considered as a passing lane. Having said that, many ex-pats either refuse to drive here or are scared shitless to—can you blame them! Road rage is common and without it you couldn’t survive I guess. What irks or confounds me is the fact that even though someone is driving a brand new Jaguar, Cayenne or Mercedes, they still drive it like they were driving some old bomb or gerryrigged pickup truck.
Many of the newer cars look like they have been to Iraq and keeping your car looking nice is not a pre-requisite here. People drive as though their cars are bumper cars. As regards to traffic violations and traffic fines, this depends on where you are from and if you are from one of the status families in Kuwait or you have some relative working in that department. If you have ‘wasta’ or influence, then you probably won’t be fined at all. As a westerner, I have no ‘wasta’.
Kuwaiti society: a real polyglot
For the most part, GUST is not only a meeting place for guys and gals but you can also make a fashion statement here. It has been said that GUST is actually one of the few places where male and female can meet without fear of reprisals from family members. There are no ‘mercy killings’ here like they have in Jordan or Pakistan. If anything, GUST may be a place where potential marriage partners can be checked out. The idea of dating someone from the opposite is quite foreign here or ‘haram’ or forbidden for many of the traditional families. But, one wonders why the girls and guys have so many phones. When one of my girls answers her phone in class, I usually embarrass them by asking “Which boyfriend are you talking to now?” They quickly turn off the phone. Quite often the clip clopping of high heels and entrance (albeit late) into classes can be more for effect and to show off latest fashions—these girls have money and style!
You can sometimes tell the student’s ancestry, or at least I can now, from their surnames or family names, i.e. Al-Omani means from Oman. The Iranians students who are mostly Shia are easy to tell because of their big families here, i.e. Al-Behbehani (a village in Iran), Al-Isfahani (from the city of Isfahan), Al-Kandari (means ‘water carrier’), Al-Sadegh (means ‘goldsmith’) and my old travel agent and photo company Al-Ashkanani (which sounds close to Ashkenazi). I was just reading “In the Rose Garden of the Martyrs” (about Iran) and the author mentioned a ‘reformist’ Ayatollah Taheri, a close associate of the martyred Ayatollah Montazeri. I bring this up because one of my older married ‘girls’, Huda Taheri, has the same surname. I mentioned this to her in class about the late ayatollah Taheri, she nodded and said that her ancestors were from Iran—she was Shia. I know that there are many Shia in the student population and teaching staff because most of them would come by my shared office door to look at pics I had put up on our door. One was of a mural from Shiraz (Iran) depicting Ayatollah Khomeini and the basijis (martyrs) from the Iran/Iraq war. Most students came to see pics of me chewing qat with my old Yemeni staff from my days working at Nexen in the Hadramawt. Our office door has become something of a curiosity as many Profs, deans, students, cleaning staff, the president and other staff have come to see what I have up today. Of course, there are pictures of Jessica baby and old shots of me in the Bedouin market in Beer Sheva which raises some eyebrows more because I look like one of the Taliban with my full beard! My latest is a wanted poster of the three stooges from the Sudan: Sadiq and his cronies.
There is every form of Christianity represented here in Kuwait: Egyptian & Ethiopian Coptics, Syrian Orthodox & Catholics, Marthomite/Carmelite Indians, Pakistani Anglicans, Indian Roman Catholics from Kerala and Goa and Lebanese Maronites & Catholics who all worship at many locales and have a special Christian area with many churches in Kuwait city. You wouldn’t know an Egyptian Copt unless you fell over one. Many of them run the small bucalis or corner stores here where I live. They usually reveal themselves by discreetly pulling back their shirt cuff to reveal a cross tattooed on the underside of their wrist. There used to be a Jewish community here, but they are long gone or keep to themselves, even though there is some secret Jewish cemetery near Kuwait City that we haven’t found yet.
On the whole, Kuwait is the land of petro dollars, highrises, paved highways, really expensive cars, luxury goods, Starbucks, Pizza Hut, KFC, Second Cup, TGIF, Applebees, Virgin Megastore, IKEA, covered and uncovered women, a traditional and modern society, arranged marriages and marriages for love—Kuwait is the polyglot of the Arab world, its culture and its religions. I have students whose family ancestors can be traced to the Levant: Egyptian, Syrian, Jordanian, Palestinian or Turkish. Some are from the Near East: Iraq, Afghani and Iran. Many familial lines originate from the subcontinent: Indian, Baloochi, Bangladeshi, or Pakistani. Then you have some girls who have an exotic blend of English, Russian, Brazilian, Spanish, and Moroccan parents. Even other striking guys and gals have African roots: Somali, Zanzibari, Swahili, Omani, or Sudanese and many from mixed marriages. Naturally, many Kuwaitis come originally from Saudi Arabia and Yemen. Having said that, the idea that all Kuwaitis are Semitic-looking is not true here—you can throw that notion out the window (preferably whilst driving).
Bedoon or Bedu
There is every colour of the rainbow here at GUST; some of my girls look African, talk Arabic or Kuwaiti and dress either American or in traditional garb depending on their family. Other girls look Spanish, some look like the beautiful Lebanese singers, many are Egyptian, those of Iranian descent are very Aryan-looking, some have blond hair, have whiter skin than me with green eyes, some look Indian or Pakistani with Arab names and some are Bedoon. The Bedoon are an interesting facet of Kuwaiti life. In simple terms, bedoon actually means ‘stateless’ or ‘without state or citizenship’ and this should not be confused with the more common term, bedouin or bedu which really means ‘nomad’. In layman’s terms, the bedoon are the remains of a once nomadic Bedu people who travelled all over the Arabian Peninsula, but some of these folks have settled down in the urban areas. However, many of the ‘bedoons’ have no passport or citizenship, either here or any other country in this region (Saudi Arabia, Syria, Jordan or Kuwait). Many of the Bedoon have settled down, but many are still without citizenship. A reliable Kuwaiti friend told me that many of the families that have settled down in Kuwait may have some branch of the family that is still bedoon.
Kuwait is made up of many tribes who belong to a much larger tribal confederation. Typical family names are Al-Enezi, Al-Mutairi, Al-Azmi or Al-Ajmi and Al-Shammari. The Shammari were once nomadic but are still part of the larger Arab confederacy of the Al-Shammar tribe whose territory once included the desert regions of Arabia, Jordan, Iraq, Syria and Kuwait. Last year, I had two Al-Shammari sisters in my class and their cousin. The cousin I called Beyonce, because she was drop dead gorgeous and dressed like her, but the two sisters were quite different. The older one was covered, but in colourful and trendy modern hijab, whilst the younger sister came in the latest hip hugging fashion. Normally if a girl goes from uncovered to covered this usually means that she has got married and this covering is at the husband’s request. This was another interesting topic for discussion as I asked a number of uncovered girls what would happen if they got married and their husband wanted them to be covered. A couple of more brazen girls said that—“He can go to hell!” The simple fact is that these girls would not want a ‘traditional husband’ anyways and would marry someone who was more liberal. He could still dress up in traditional thobe or dishdasha, but she may be dressed ‘modern’. In the case of the two Shammari sisters, the older covered one just decided that that was what she wanted to wear. Point in case, it could be ‘peer pressure’ as a number of uncovered girls did cover up this past semester. The girls want to be called girls or ‘banati’ (my girls) or ladies, but not women. The reality is that I have mixed classes of uncovered to fully covered girls, teenagers to mid-20s and some who are married. Some are shy (mostly the covered ones) and others are quite vocal and brazen, and touch on being hussies at times, especially when they want extra marks!
Most of the girls who are covered are from traditional Bedu families and there are varying degrees of coveredness: just the black hijab or head covering with jeans and pumps underneath, and some fully covered in the black chador with only the eyes peeking out. Some Iranian girls are covered and some are not. Some look like they should be on Fashion TV. One of my girls came dressed in a different wardrobe every day—she had panache! One day when she didn’t come in I asked—
“Where’s Aisha today?”
“She hasn’t been here all day.” Said one girl
“Oh, did she run out of clothes?” I asked cheekily.
“No sir, she is a clothes designer.”
Hence the explanation for her flamboyant flair and the many new clothes, belts and shoes she wore to class everyday.
We are in the midst of Final Exams, jammed between Christmas (one day off) and the Eid (9 days off). Because it is that time of the year, there will be many long faces (and hopefully no long knives) and usual lineups at my desk asking in convincing tones no less about grades.
From one of my girls—“Sir, my father will kill me if I fail!” or another nugget—
“Professor, if I don’t pass, my father will kick me out of school.”
“Sir, please I need a C- or I will lose my scholarship.”
Which begs the question—“How can you get a scholarship with a C- average?”
One of my cuter girls is a dead ringer for a young Kyra Sedgwick, but I call her Miss Fahaheel. Her family name is Al Dabbous. She came to my office to complain about the C+ grade I had given her.
She made a motion where she flicked her thumb from her front teeth—
“Sir, you are bakheel.”
“What’s that mean?”
“You are cheap!”
“Why, because I gave you a C+ average?”
“Yes” and then she clicked her tongue off her teeth in disgust.
“I’m not cheap.” I said in protest.
I think she was thinking of the English expression of “mean”.
Or there is the usual routine where a brother or near relative will come to act as an interpreter and ask about the low grades.
My favourite response is one I borrowed from American economics professor Dan.
Student pleading—“Sir, why did you give me an ‘F’.”
“Because they wouldn’t let me give you a ‘G’.
No love lost between brothers.
In some quarters, there is an underlying lack of sympathy for the Palestinians here as well. Occasionally we have student rallies or awareness days for the plight of Palestine. This is mostly because of the Arab ideal of charity or support, but more because there is a large percentage of Palestinians in both the student body and teaching staff. Many of the Palestinians and other nationalities have been here for ages and Kuwait has given some of them Kuwaiti citizenship. Since 1948 and there after, many Palestinians have come here for work and many don’t have citizenship and for the most part are stateless or have refugee status. Many of these poorer Palestinian folk were jealous of their rich, Kuwait brothers who had become wealthy though the rising price of oil. At any rate, one of my better male Kuwaiti students last year came up to me in class and made sure that no one heard him—“I will not support those bastards!” This caught me by surprise, but then Ali told me his story—“They killed my father.” When Iraq invaded Kuwait, most Kuwaitis fled to the US, UK or UAE but many thought they could stay behind and hide—until the Americans came! During the Iraq invasion, those Palestinians who remained behind in Kuwait, allied themselves with the Iraqi secret police who had come to Kuwait prior and during Saddam’s invasion in the hopes of helping Iraq re-capture its ‘lost province’. In a number of circumstances, albeit bad, some of the Palestinians ‘ratted or finked’ on their Kuwait neighbours to the incoming Iraq army. Some of these Palestinians and others, would then loot the homes of the richer Kuwaitis who were dragged away, tortured and killed by the invading Iraqi forces. Many of the Kuwaitis who fled during the invasion, didn’t have time to collect their valuables and many left everything behind. You can imagine that Kuwait is not that big and we are talking about a huge invading force basically on your doorstep within minutes. The Kuwaiti Emir, Sheikh Jaber still issued radio calls from the desert to all Kuwaitis to— “make the aggressors taste the chalice of death.”
Moreover,—“We shall fight them everywhere until we clean their treachery from our land.”
The Emir’s younger brother, Prince Fahd did stay behind to fight the Iraqis at Dasman Palace. Unfortunately, Prince Fahd died under a hail of bullets and is a revered Kuwaiti martyr who I have a huge respect for in the face of such an adversary.
Later on, after the US drove the Iraqis out of Kuwait it had been reported that many poorer Egyptians (probably watchmen), and Palestinians were seen driving around in expensive Mercedes. At any rate, many Palestinians and Yemenis were subsequently kicked out of Kuwait for their support of Saddam. Most of the Kuwaitis who were captured by Iraqi forces were taken to the ‘killing fields’ of southern Iraqi deserts just north of here—Salman Nugra. Ali’s father was one of the Kuwaitis who was taken away to be killed. That is why there is no love loss over the death of Saddam in Kuwait and thus explains Ali’s bitterness towards the Palestinians. To date, there are still over 500 Kuwait martyrs missing and their remains have been coming back in dribs and drabs as families have tried to identify missed ones from small DNA samples and clothing. Quite often, students go missing in class and then they tell me a few days later that the remains of their family member had come back so they had a funeral. I don’t think Ali has had that form of closure yet.
 I remember listening to CBC radio news in the remote bunkhouse in Field, BC when Iraq entered
Kuwait, thinking that this would be the end of my career as a Near Eastern archaeologist and that
many university Phd candidates had just lost their research on Iraqi sites.
Kuwait, thinking that this would be the end of my career as a Near Eastern archaeologist and that
many university Phd candidates had just lost their research on Iraqi sites.