Desto3: Postcards from The Middle East: Kuwait
The Desto3 team spent the better part of November and December traveling throughout the Middle East. Join us virtually until you can go yourself. Next stop? Kuwait
Ask the average American (myself included in that group) what they know about Kuwait. I’ll bet you a fiver that all they can tell you is … “something, something, Gulf war … something else, something else, Persian empire … oil, oil, oil …” And they couldn’t find it with anything like speed on the globe. Can we just admit that, on the whole, we (most of us in America) are pretty ignorant when it comes to the rest of the world and extraordinarily ignorant when it comes to the Middle East? I can admit it. And I’VE BEEN THERE.
Kuwait City at Sunset
I don’t know what I expected of Kuwait. And, I’m still not entirely sure what I saw. Or, really, if what I saw and was told is all that accurate. Not that I think we were lied to. Well, okay, maybe a little bit. They don’t get a lot of American tourists in Kuwait. (Compared to some of the other countries in the Gulf.) The ones they do get are, by and large, Americans on holiday who are working either in Kuwait or elsewhere in the Gulf’s “energy sector” (oil). Also, a generous number of military personnel who are stationed there and off duty at the time of siting. Educated American and European teachers are imported to staff the private schools for the expat workers in those fields who have brought their families to live with them. Those three groups are the “tourists” you see in Kuwait. I don’t think we saw one group of American tourists or even European tourists that would fall outside those narrow populations.
Kuwaiti schoolgirls giggling at the Western Photographer
And us. Just us. We were definitely the anomaly.
Since we’re both a tad bit gray of the hair and long of the tooth we are obviously not there working and not military, so, as one Kuwaiti said to us, “Why are YOU here?” Or, maybe it was, “Why are you HERE?” Either way we took it to mean that we were a relatively unexpected sight. Not just for being American. For being THERE for no other reason than because we could.
The Souke in Kuwait City
If I had to synthesize all I learned in the Middle East in general, it would be that for the most part people in the west have NO real understanding about what the people and the place are like. All of our preconceptions are inaccurate. Even the ones we’ve seen in the movies. Maybe especially the ones we’ve seen in the movies.
Let me tell you of some observations and impressions starting with Kuwait specifically.
From the vantage of the airplane, you can see that most of the coastline has been dedicated to industry (oil). It’s kind of screwed up the coastline if you want to know the truth. Instead of what probably was, pre-oil discovery and exploitation, miles of pristine beach, you see miles of refineries instead. So, nary a 7-star hotel or even a modest resort for the Russians. (No Russian tourists spotted in Kuwait. If they want to go to an oil-spilled beach, they’ll stay home, thank you very much.)
Although we were assured that Kuwait was extremely safe, there was a heightened sense of … I don’t know … I couldn’t put my finger on exactly what. Maybe it was that we were such an oddity. There was something in the air that was definitely NOT present in any of the other Gulf countries. It’s different there. Maybe it’s just that they don’t really have their groove yet when it comes to broad scale tourism and what I sensed was their suspicion of us and why we were there. There was just an uneasiness that we felt nowhere else. It was as if, wherever we went, we caused a stir. People stared at us, not with enmity, with naked curiosity.
Another difference between the other Middle Eastern nations and Kuwait is that the poverty in Kuwait is visible. Or maybe it’s just that there IS poverty in Kuwait. The population of the country is about 4.5 million and fully 70% are expats, (all of them expat “workers”). It seems that, in general, a few people have fallen through the cracks. Maybe it’s that the other Middle Eastern countries have a better handle on controlling poverty via governmental assistance and maybe it’s that the other countries ship you back home pronto if you become undesirable. We shall never know.
Yes, Kuwait is rumored to be safe. Trip Advisor, among other sources, will say so. (“You can go anywhere.”) It’s also rumored to be “modern,” both in terms of cultural norms and in general. Women have more rights and more visibility than among other Muslim nations. (No booze though. None. Not even in the hotels. It’s illegal in the country. They serve “mocktails.” I’d rather drink battery fluid.) However, here’s an interesting factoid: we were told that everybody, and by “everybody” I mean all 4.5 million Kuwaitis, typically has easy access to home distilled beer and wine, and some of it not godawful so they say. We did not get offered any and if you’re caught you can go to jail, so, nah, we’re good. Several people were quite amused at our naiveté in believing there was not any at all to be had and they delighted in our surprise. In fact, every interaction we had with average Kuwaitis was marked by what can only be described as “delight” (plus a smidge of the already heretofore mentioned suspicion).
As elsewhere in the Middle East, Kuwait has a considerable population (nearly a million and mostly expats) that practices other forms of religion than Islam. We visited a large Catholic church right in the middle of Kuwait City. A respectable number of folks, presumably Catholics, were lolling about on the premises, and one scruffy-looking priest looked up when we entered before he jumped inside a confessional booth. There are also a few Buddhist and Hindu Temples and likewise a fair representation of adherents in proximity. Unless this is some clever governmental plot to encourage people to believe in a successfully ecumenical harmony, then one has to assume that the freedom to practice whatever religion you want is indeed alive and well in Kuwait.
The souk was interesting in that it was clean and orderly and very chill. Not an aggressive store clerk to be found. A very personable pharmacist helped me diagnose a sinus infection masquerading as a brain tumor and then he helped me acquire some over the counter heavy-duty antibiotics and an anti-inflammatory for the mere asking. (Who needs a doctor?)
Kuwait fresh fish market “auction”
Although the Kuwaiti skyline has some impressive structures, and for sure the Al Hamra Tower (the tallest sculpted tower in the world) impresses, it is the system of water towers thirty-four in total, headlined by the three known as The Kuwait Towers, that are the pride and joy and maybe even the symbol for modern Kuwait. You may (and we did) take an elevator (for a fee) up to the top of one of the towers and look down through a glass floor. Only one other party of tourists accompanied us, and they were foreign visitors not from the west.
Which brings me to my conclusion. Kuwait is one of those places that other Americans don’t go. So, if you’re like me, it’s the very best time to go. Because you are an anomaly, you will feel not only welcomed but cherished and it will surprise you in a hundred different wonderful ways. (Pro Tip: Instead of taking offense when people take your picture with their phone on the street, just pretend that you’re a celebrity obliging the local paparazzi.)
A picture of the king was everywhere in Kuwait
Serious Negotiation at the Souke
The beach with the skyline of Kuwait City in the background
Leaving Kuwait, at the airport, we took separate customs lines. No particular reason, just a burst of autonomy. My station was “manned” by two customs officials, one male and one female, head fully covered. Not a single hair in view. They were engaged in a lively discussion in Arabic and barely took note of me. When the exit stamp was stamped and the young man told me to have a nice day, I addressed the young woman.
Me: “Excuse me, may I ask you a quick question?”
Customs lady: “Of course. What is your question?”
Me: “Well, we’re leaving for Bahrain and I was wondering if you know if I have to cover my head when we leave the plane in Bahrain?”
Customs lady (grabbing my hand and pulling me slightly to the side): “Listen, it used to be that in these places you had to completely cover, but now, no. You don’t have to cover your head or anything else. Anything goes now. Now, you could take off all your clothes in the middle of the street and no one will say a thing to you.”
Me: “Oh, trust me, honey, NOBODY wants to see that! They WILL say something. They’ll say, PLEASE PLEASE for the love of all that is holy, be merciful and put your clothes back on!”
Cracked them right up.
And, so, I began my stand-up career in the Middle East.
Kuwait City at Sunset