Sunday, September 21, 2008

The End

I spent a wonderful year in Kuwait and my time there came to end. In review of my activities, I had accomplished much of what I had set out to do. I distributed surveys at Kuwaiti colleges and universities on their opinions regarding the recent entry of women into politics and other general views. I interviewed several women and some men on the subject. And I made several good friends who helped me understand the perspectives of the youth. My Middle Eastern sojourns have now come to end and a new chapter has begun, my PhD studies in molecular microbiology at Cambridge University, UK. I thank God for all the wonderful and immense bounties that have been showered upon me. May I combine my various interests to lead a life of service, hopefully in the development of the Middle East. May this blog have been of use. Adieu.

Saturday, December 1, 2007

Glancing at Societal Decay

I do not often leave my abode less it be to complete some task or affair. In fact, I disdain driving through the streets of Kuwait or even when I was living in Atlanta through its streets during the two popular nights of the days at the end of the week, that being Friday and Saturday in the US or Thursday and Friday in Kuwait.

Yet tonight I had remembered at the last moment that I needed to purchase a gift for an individual’s birthday tomorrow that I was forced to leave in the midst of the evening revelry to depart my home for the 3-4 mile trip to Marina Mall primely located on Gulf Road which unfortunately is often filled with vagabond youth cruising on it aimlessly and recklessly.

This brief excursion lasted 1 hour from the time I left until I returned. The normally 5 minute trip to Marina Mall lasted on this night for 20 minute for I left at the peak of the cruising rush hour. To my amazement, in these brief moments I witnessed what could be described no less as the decay of society.

In learning about the cultural norms and practices of the youth, I’ve been told by several sources that a popular way for young men and women to meet in pursuance of romantic intimate relationships with each other is through the car chasing method. I was struck by the primeval cave-man like nature of the practice that I found it very difficult to believe that such a thing occurred save but with perhaps a fringe and desperate element of society. Though not more than a week ago did I receive the same reply to this question.

Yet as I drove on what little stretch of road was necessary to arrive at my destination did I find to my great astonishment that what I had been hearing was the clear truth. I recall the silver sleek mustang with the lone male youth driver cruising parallel through the slow moving traffic to a car full of young women. In front of me, I could see him with his head cocked to the side transfixed on his prey and as though with the growling of the car’s engine I could hear the rapacity of his desires. There appeared to be some communication and then in a sudden spurt of speed he cut in front of them while I had to drive by unable to continue observing the outcome of the incident. I then began noticing the other male youth aimlessly and at times recklessly driving in the street looking at the various cars with young women judging who would be most pliable for their desires. I passed by a car standing in a turn lane where a male youth had perched his upper body fully out of the window cavorting himself in a manner unsettling. Likewise did it seem that the type of car was a telling sign of the character of the individual driving it. The red hot but compact Mercedes convertible with its lone forlorn driver indicated a withdrawn figure who was searching for a materialistic ideal of love while the muscular SUVs and Hummers with their added artistic details to provide a seemingly unique and fresh element of sophistication matched the cavorting drivers wild and erratic behaviors both in their driving and the manner to which they seemed to be writhing to and fro to the music, which from time to time was either Arabic or the latest imported hip hop or rap song.

It seems those that spoke of the changes that have taken place in the past 5 years with regards to the loosening morals and decaying manners of the youth in Kuwait were conscious and aware as I was reminded of their words in this brief but telling outing. Not coincidentally have the recent years when these changes occurred overlap at the same time the rise and spread of the internet; and who else to have learned its uses better than the youth, specifically my generation of 20-30 year olds. The two phenomena are undoubtedly linked and result from the introduction of unlimited and free means of communication and information through the internet in circumventing traditional barriers and institutions that monitored and constrained the behavior of youth.

As I drove further along to my destination I came up a clouded scene of smoke and two cars on the left side of the road along the pavement as though the two had narrowly missed a terrifying accident through a screeching of their brakes. A car pulled to the side to provide assistance as I continued to my destination.

Finally I arrived and strolled through the mall in wonder of the youth who busy themselves with the adornments of their appearance, though it be inwardly the mud and clay of this world, and who come not for any specific task save to fritter away the precious days of their youth in mindless affairs. I then settle on a store and purchase my gift. As I return home I find the drive to be quicker though I pass a second accident where a car hit the one in front of it that was standing at a stop at a red light. I arrive home safe, thankful, and a little bit wiser.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Social Justice for Migrant Workers

The abuse of migrant workers and domestic servants is often a prevalent topic of discussion in reference to the Persian Gulf countries. While physical abuse occurs in the worst cases, it is often the cheating of these workers of their salary and benefits that is more wide-spread. Domestic servants who work in the private homes of Arabs and expats are female migrant workers from India, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, or the Philippines. Their tasks range from cleaning and cooking to childcare. Although they are involved intimately in maintaining the affairs of house, they are often ignored and treated and not given due consideration as full human beings. There is even a website offering domestic labor service that allows a person to search for a suitable servant based on nationality and religion

Domestic servants are brought to Kuwait from their home countries on a certain type of visa that only permits them to work as domestic servants. Agencies act as the middle-men to bring the workers and arrange their visas and to find them employers. Normally, the domestic servant signs for a two-year contract to work in a person’s home at a salary of about $160 with food and clothing paid for by the employer. After the two years she is entitled for a paid airline ticket by her employer to return to her home country for a vacation.

One particular story I heard recently smacked of avarice. A non-Kuwaiti Arab couple both of whom were doctors had been nice to their maid. Yet as the two year mark approached and the maid wanted to travel, the employers began changing their attitude towards her and telling her that she could only travel for less than the normally granted time. Also, the maid was seeking to be released by her employers so that she could find more profitable work in a store or restaurant. A release requires the employers to sign a document releasing the domestic servant from their employment in order for her to change her visa status so that she may work in more well-paid jobs in a store or restaurant. However, the employers of this maid, who lived a comfortable life and were well-off, attempted to extort money from her by demanding that she pay them an exorbitant amount such as a $1,000 for them to sign the release paper. She refused and was returned to the agency before her two year contract ended allowing her employers to forego the expenditure of her rightfully deserved plane ticket per the stipulations of the contract.

Though it is unfortunate that such incidents occur and there is little recourse for justice for the domestic servants, even in the extreme cases of violence and rape (see this Al-Jazeera English news report that highlights two Indonesian servants that were abused by their sponsors in Kuwait), there is hope that there is a growing awareness among Kuwaitis for the need to redress these abuses and promote social justice. The granddaughter of the current Amir of Kuwait, Bibi Nasser al-Sabah, is involved in the Social Work Society of Kuwait which provides various forms of assistance to migrant workers such as helping detained workers return to their home countries, helping them get medical care, and promoting reforms in the labor laws. She runs a blog promoting social justice for migrant workers.

It is important to note that the problem of domestic worker abuse is not restricted to the Gulf Arabs but is rather a widespread problem stretching from Africa to India to East Asia the roots of which lie in a traditional mentality veiled from the light of education. I remember watching a program in the US that documented abuse of African domestic servants in the US by their African immigrant employers. Though seemingly slow, but yet surely, the light of education will pierce the veils of ignorance as humanity acknowledges the oneness of mankind and the implications thereof.

The tabernacle of unity hath been raised; regard ye not one another as strangers. Ye are the fruits of one tree, and the leaves of one branch.” –Baha’u’llah

Friday, November 9, 2007

Islamist Member of Parliament visits AUK

The American University in Kuwait is viewed as a bastion of liberalism that attracts the most liberal-minded and the children of some of the wealthiest Kuwaitis. There you will find male and female students sporting the latest styles at what seems to be almost any expense. Thus, when Kuwait’s probably most well-known conservative Islamist Member of Parliament, Dr. Walid Tabtabaie, came to AUK on Sunday, 4 Nov, to speak about the Kuwaiti constitution on the pretense of a lecture entitled “Serving the Community,” it was a surprise to many.

Dr. Tabtabaie seems to be a young looking man in his forties. He sports a jet black beard and noticeably short dishdasha (the white dress of local men), both signs of a strict fundamentalist or literal understanding of Islam. He received his PhD in Islamic Law from Al-Azhar University in Cairo, the leading bastion of Sunni Islam education. Al-Azhar has been in operation for a little over a thousand years but ironically it started out as a Shi’ite institution under the Fatimids.

The session started out politely with an explanation of the verities and virtues of the Kuwaiti constitution. But after Tabtabaie had finished his talk, the session was opened to the real and unofficial topic of discussion which was the lack of exercise of personal freedoms such as freedom of press, the view that women should not be playing football, and the preoccupation with separating boys and girls in universities and schools. Students were allowed to ask questions and I was surprised by the number that were out-spoken. There was especially one student who seemed to give his own speech in railing against the state for I think the detention of two journalists recently before asking his question. The problem of listening to conversations in Arabic is that I understand the main point but don’t often pick up on the details.

It was certainly an interesting session and an illustration of the main tension in the Middle East, tradition versus modernity which in this case was played out by the actors of Islam and liberalism.

There were a few questions to Tabtabaie about why women shouldn’t be playing football by some of the AUK female players as he is against that. It came to the point where he said that his reasoning was because women’s uniforms was too light, meaning that it was too revealing, and that that was simply his opinion.

But the most interesting scene was at the end when the organizer of the session shared that her favorite section of the constitution was freedom of thought or belief at which one point someone commented how can that be when the parliament wants to limit people's freedom, with the example given of Tabtabaie’s opinion that women playing football is immoral. Then Tabtabaie asked for the constitution, turn a few pages and read the section that stated that the state of Kuwait is based on Islam and Sharia which he explained meant freedom of thought was bound within that stricture. It was a nice encapsulation of the tension in Kuwaiti and Arab society between tradition and progress, religion and modernity.

The Persian Gulf and the Environment

I recently just watched the documentary, “An Inconvenient Truth,” by Al Gore and found it quite moving and well-produced. He brings together various pieces of evidences for global warming into a stunning and compelling presentation. As a Fulbrighter living in Kuwait, I wonder if the message of the film, that global warming is a serious and real phenomenon that requires immediate attention, is understood by the people of the Gulf Arab states.

I remember being shocked and appalled by the blatant wasteful consumerism when first arriving to Kuwait. I think it would be safe to say that just by observing the types of cars on the roads that Kuwaitis have any other country beat for the highest per capita ownership of Hummers. It is disgraceful and quite frankly revolting that the people in the Gulf in general wastefully spend their money to the detriment of the environment at this critical hour on large, bulky vehicles that are unnecessary and consume large amounts of gas. Yes, gasoline is cheap in the Gulf, but that should not be an excuse to buy a Hummer or SUV. In Syria, a much poorer country where I was studying Arabic, I was told there were only 4 Hummers in the entire city of 6 million whereas in Kuwait with a population of 3 million you will see just driving through the streets on a normal day at least 4 hummers.

While most of the pollution contributing to global warming is undoubtedly from the US, the recent development in the Middle East means that this region in the future will have a larger share in the pollution as new high rise buildings and luxury hotels are built, more cars are added to the streets, and new desalination and power plants are built to run the redeveloped and expanded cities. Indeed, already global warming has had its effects in Kuwait. When my mother was growing up in Kuwait 50 years ago, the weather was much cooler and some people used to sleep on the roofs of their houses in the summer. However today, average temperatures are higher during the day and evening so that it would not be as comfortable sleeping outside on a summer night. I read that average temperatures in May this year were the highest on record.

It does not surprise me considering how much heat is being produced by the power and desalination plants, the AC units and cars. I remember standing in a building overlooking a desalination plant and noticed that so much heat was coming out of one of the exhaust towers which I could tell from the air above it that was superheated giving a hazy, blurry image when looking at it. Additionally, because power is so cheap in Kuwait due to government subsidization, some homes and buildings are so cooled in summer that it is cold inside and require the wearing of a light jacket when temperatures outside are between 45-50C. Thus, due to the wasteful use of electricity on AC, Kuwait has experienced brownouts and this summer the government organized a massive campaign to make people aware to conserve electricity. There were electric meters displayed during programs on TV indicating the percentage of output being consumed and signs along the streets, especially very large ones on the way to the airport, reminding people to conserve electricity and lower the AC and turn off the lights before traveling.

It seems Arabs are unaware of the seriousness of global warming. The marine ecosystems of the Gulf have already been ravaged and coral communities destroyed. Diving in one particular area I saw a sea of sea urchins that had destroyed the coral in the area. Additionally, in speaking to a professor in Bahrain focusing on the marine life, he frankly stated that financial interests grossly outweigh a desire to preserve and protect environment. Hence the leaders of the Gulf countries are so quick to reclaim land such as for new business and luxury housing developments in Bahrain and the Emirates.

It’s safe to say that the people here and in other Arab countries rarely think about environmental interests. I wonder if they are simply are not conscious of it. People are so easy to throw their refuse into the streets. In Damascus and Aleppo when I went to sightseeing points to take in city views, there were piles of trash below where people would sit. I remember clearly in Aleppo a group of two or three adolescent girls sitting to the right of where I was standing throwing their empty soda cans and a plastic bag of trash on to the slight drop off in front of them. I do not understand why there such little respect among Arabs for the environment. Why is it so difficult for them to throw their trash in marked receptacles?

In Kuwait, the lack of car for the environment is on display when one goes to some of the beaches. One can often find plastic bags, bottles, cans, batteries, and once I found a small piece of carpet. Even when I went on a boating trip to a popular island of the mainland were there numerous clearly marked receptacles not far from the beach, I still found refuse along the beach and floating in the water. It seems it was too inconvenient for the Kuwaitis to gather their refuse and walk the 10 meters to deposit it in the waste bin. Such is the environmental degradation and apathy that I no longer desire to go to the beaches in Kuwait and witness their spoilage. Of course there are private, well-kept beaches but they are not as easy to access. Additionally, what is ironic is that a Kuwaiti I spoke with working as a director in one of the government departments tasked with monitoring fishing noted that Kuwaitis when they travel to Europe are aware of the rules against littering and abide them whereas the same person is more likely to litter in their country when they return home.

Another sign that today’s Gulf Arab leaders do not give sufficient consideration to the environment is the wasteful manner in which they spend their resources. Take for example the Emirates. The emirate of Dubai already has a large, established international airline. However, the rulers of neighboring emirates felt the need to start their own airlines to spur economic growth in their emirates which is understandable since you want airlines to bring tourists. Yet wouldn’t a much cheaper, more effective, and environmentally friendly solution be to develop high speed rail service between the major cities of the emirates. After all, when Dubai is only a 20 min drive to Sharjah, an hour drive to Abu Dhabi, and a 45 min drive to Ras Al-Khaimah, a high speed rail service connecting Dubai’s airport with the other emirates would be the ideal and practical solution rather than to have a country with 4 national airlines. While Dubai established Emirates Airways in 1985, Abu Dhabi started Etihad airways in 2003, Air Arabia was founded in Sharjah in 2003, and Ras Al-Khaimah’s RAK Airways is set to launch later this year.

Does a country as small as the Emirates with a population of 4.5-5 million people in real need of 4 airlines based in 4 separate emirates with the associated redundancy in infrastructure (i.e. airports) needed to support them? Is it greed that is driving the leaders of the emirates to establish unnecessary airlines while a rail system would be just as sufficient and with the added benefit of reducing traffic on the Emirates jammed roads, a growing problem?

I hope that the next generation of Gulf Arabs will be more conscious in their planning and preservation of the environment and not succumb to greed and materialism for the Earth is groaning under the oppression of the negligent and unconcsious.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

The First Lady of the US, Laura Bush, Visits Kuwait

It was Tuesday, Oct 23 when I received a text message stating that a meeting I was to attend the following day was canceled because Laura Bush was to visit the US embassy in Kuwait. That was the first intimation I received that the First Lady was coming for a visit. The following day when I was having a previously scheduled lunch with another Fulbrighter and a past Fulbrighter to Kuwait who remained around after her Fulbright to work at the AUK (the American University in Kuwait), the AUK employee received a phone call from the cultural attaché at the embassy, who is in charge of overseeing the Fulbrighter program, inviting her and the Fulbrighters to come to a meeting that afternoon to a meeting that Laura Bush was to attend. It was 12:30 pm and we were told to show up at 3:00 pm at the venue. There was a bit of excitement amongst us that we would be meeting the First Lady and speculation as to whether we would be personally introduced to her. But we were still left in the dark as to the purpose and nature of the meeting.

After lunch I went home and changed into something smarter looking; though suit and tie wasn’t required. I then met up with the other Fulbrighters and AUK employee at AUK at 2:30 pm. We drove to the venue which was located in an area of Kuwait called Jabriya and held in a building belonging to the Kuwait Education Ministry. We arrived at 3 pm and were among the first to enter the auditorium.

It was quite a spectacle in itself to see the preparations that went into securing the facility. By chance I had just watched a portion of a documentary on the National Geographic Channel days before about the preparations that the Secret Service make to secure a facility where the president is to make an appearance. The documentary featured the operation of securing a covered arena at Louisiana State University where President George W. Bush gave a commencement speech. I was surprised the Secret Service would allow National Geographic the chance to detail their security procedures to the degree that they did. When I attended the meeting with the First Lady, I noted many similarities between the security that went into protecting her husband and her.

After we entered the doors the security was completely handled by the Secret Service that had accompanied the First Lady in her Middle East tour. The metal detector looked just like the one in the documentary that travels with the Secret Service. We then walked into the relatively small auditorium and grabbed some excellent seats near the front and center. Inside, positioned around the stage, there were more Secret Service agents monitoring the crowd coming in. But one thing that surprised me was the lack of a guest list of approved attendees. Anyone who walked in off the street could have entered the venue. Most of those attending seemed to be Kuwaiti of a liberal persuasion and some Americans. There were a handful of the fully veiled women. I wonder what must be the thoughts of the First Lady and the Americans traveling with her about the women wearing headscarves and some face veils. This was Laura Bushes second visit to Kuwait, her first being with her father-in-law George Bush Sr. in 1993.

We had to wait some time until the program started. Although we arrived at 3 pm, the program didn’t start until 4 pm. But then the auditorium quieted down as the First Lady entered the auditorium with the Education Minister, Nouriya Al-Sabeeh who is the only female minister in the government. They first went and sat down in the center front row. One had to have been there to experience the thirsty hound of press photographers and cameramen who were busy craning for the perfect shot. They certainly seemed to be the most excited group of people in the auditorium at the presence of the First Lady, but I suppose that is due to the dependence of their salaries on these types of occasions. I felt it to be such a waste of resources to have what seemed to be about the 20 press photographers and cameramen taking repetitive shots and footage. I wonder if it would be possible to choose a few photographers and cameramen at these official occasions and distribute the photos and footage to whoever desires.

But as to the nature of the meeting, we were still uninformed. I thought surely the First Lady who had traveled so far to Kuwait from the US on a Mid East tour with what appeared to consist of a small plane load of people including aids and Secret Service agents at significant expense would surely have something important to say. But the meeting was not what I expected since it was not intended to be a forum for her to speak. Instead the director of the Kuwait chapter of AMIDEAST (America Mid-East Educational and Training Services Inc.) hosted the event which focused on the importance of English language education and the opportunities provided by new English language scholarships from the US Department of State. The director, an American woman, first went up to the podium and began the presentation. She then spoke about the various opportunities offered by AMIDEAST to Kuwaiti high school students studying English and the effect of their experiences traveling to the US. It was an excellent example of an exercise in soft power and the lustrous attraction the US still maintains in the eyes of the Arabs. For after the director’s introduction, she invited 3 Kuwaiti high school students one after the other to the stage to read what they wrote about their experiences.

There seemed to include some editing of their work, which was expected, so that they all thanked the US Dept of State at the beginning of their speeches for the opportunity to study English and visit the US, but there was still a refreshing quality of originality that gleamed from their happy hearts as they spoke about the impact of the program in terms of helping them to learn how to express themselves, opening their eyes to America and the educational opportunities it offered, and the joy they had in learning English.

After their speeches it came time to call the First Lady to the stage along with the Education Minister. Laura Bush appeared to me as she did in television. The two Secret Service agents stationed by the stage were constantly searching the crowds with their expressionless faces for anything out of the ordinary just as it was shown in the National Geographic documentary. The Education Minister introduced Mrs. Bush with an official statement of welcome and hospitality in Arabic that was translated into English. Afterwards Mrs. Bush spoke for a short while about the MEPI (Middle East Partnership Initiative) program and fostering democratic values through English Education. She also included a blurb about breast cancer awareness which was the purpose of her trip in other countries that she visited. Apparently, Kuwait had not signed onto the US-Middle East partnership for breast cancer awareness and research and so she focused mostly on the importance of education. Yet still, she had not spoken more than 15 minutes before returning to her seat and allowing one more Kuwaiti student to recount their experience learning English. Afterwards, she left the auditorium to depart, but the presentation hosted by AMIDEAST was still to continue. Seeing though that it was now late in the afternoon, around 4:45 pm, we departed as well. Yet we couldn’t leave immediately as per the security regulations the First Lady had to leave first before we could. We loitered in the welcome area with others until we could leave at 5 pm. I saw the First Lady’s entourage leaving the area which included two limousines, some black SUVs, and one SUV with tall antennas perched on the roof of the car the use of which I could only guess.

I then returned home by 5:30 pm about 3 hours later from when I left. Unfortunately I had to skip the Arabic lesson I intended to have that evening. Was it worth the 3 hours to go see the First Lady and hear her speak for only 15 minutes? Probably not, but since this was my first time to these kinds of official events I can say it was worth the experience which leaves me sufficiently satisfied from wanting to attend a similar event in the future.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

A Visit to Faylaka Island and a Chat with Kuwaiti Soldiers

On Oct 7, 2007, I visited Faylaka Island off the coast of Kuwait City. A Canadian couple who both teach at an American School picked me up at 7 am after which we drove to the port in Salmiya to catch the government ferry to the island. The ferry was scheduled to depart at 8:30 am, but my hosts wanted to get there sufficiently early to ensure that they and the car we were taking would get a spot on the ferry. Fortunately traffic during the month of Ramadan to Faylaka is much less than usual and there was plenty of space on the ferry. We drove onto the ferry, which had room for about only 15 cars, hence the reason to come early if a person plans on taking his car during the normal crowd.

The Canadian couple were staying at a hotel on the island in the style of an Arabic home with a courtyard for 3 nights during their Eid holiday. They were joined by another car of their friends who were also teachers in the same school as them. But I was going just for a day visit to have a look around. The journey to Faylaka lasted about an hour and a half.

When we arrived, there wasn't much to welcome us save a ghost town in the most literal sense of the word. Prior to the Iraqi invasion in 1990, Faylaka was inhabited by Kuwaitis living in modern neighborhoods with schools, shops, and other supporting infrastructre. When the Iraqis came, they evicted everyone off of the island onto the mainland to use Faylaka as a defensive outpost against the UN coalition. Saddam at the time thought that the US would launch a Normandy style invasion by beach. After the war, the former residents’ properties were purchased by the amir, save for a handful that refused, and resettled on the mainland. The island was left closed off to the public and has been used as a military base by Kuwaitis and previously though not any longer by Americans.

The city of Faylaka stood as though frozen in time from the first Gulf War. The houses, now empty and dilapidated, remained standing in their neat rows along the streets and surrounding cul-de-sacs. There was an empty playground here and there as well as an abandoned school. Some of the buildings bore the scars of war such as bullet holes pockmarking their facades. It has been 16 years since Kuwait’s liberation and I was surprised to find the city of Faylaka seemingly unchanged since then. It appeared as though the Kuwaiti government had not decided what to do with the empty buildings and houses, whether to demolish or refurbish them. Perhaps that was due to the uncertainty that always seemed to pervade the area regarding the possible machinations of Saddam Hussein. I am told that since Saddam’s departure from power, real estate prices in Kuwait have risen reflecting a new sense of optimism. However, that optimism is dampened by the tempestuous situation nearby in Iran which fuels the prospect of another war in the area between the US and Iran. It is a fear that grips other Gulf Kingdoms as well such as Bahrain, Qatar, and Dubai. Should such a war occur, the economies of the Gulf will undoubtedly take a severe plunge simply due to the fearful nature of investors. But for the time being, life has never been better in the Gulf and I return to my trip to Faylaka.

After we drove around the ghost town a bit, we then went further out into the desert where we passed a refuse dump and waste metal compacting machinery. Further along we saw some leftover aging Iraqi armaments from the first Gulf War such as tanks and artillery. Then we came upon a train of camels moving through the desert, a very iconic image. We came near them and the breeze brought their scent with it. I took a few pictures and then we were off again for I had to make it back to the port to catch the noon government ferry back to the Kuwaiti mainland. There was supposed to be a private faster ferry running later in the day but it wasn’t operating during Ramadan due to the decrease in traffic and so my time was cut short. But in reality the few hours I spent that morning on Faylaka was sufficient to see all that it had to boast.

I managed to squeeze a visit to the archeological ruins of a supposed Greek temple and settlement dating from the time when Alexander the Great and his army moved through the area when they were conquering the known world. Instead of going through the main gate to visit the site, which was located near the beach, we parked the car near the beach adjacent to the site and walked into the premises to visit. My Canadian hosts told me that last time they tried to visit the site they were arbitrarily told it was closed to the public. Nevertheless, there wasn’t much to see and I wouldn’t recommend anyone to make the trip to Faylaka Island just to visit it. I couldn’t see the semblance of a temple instead beheld some simple rooms that had been unearthed. Apparently all the interesting finds were moved to a museum. However, just as we were about to walk back to the car, the guard at the main building noticed us and began to walk toward us. We then made our way in the direction of the car. Seeing this, the guard picked up his pace and started calling out to us. Eventually he ran towards us and we stopped and turned to him. He tried to get us to go back with him to the main building and told us we weren’t allowed near the site. He spoke very poor and broken English and only knew Arabic. I didn’t say anything and let my Canadian host handle the situation. He had visited the site surreptitiously before and experienced a similar run-in but with a different guard who was calmer and more relaxed. My friend made it clear that we just came to take pictures and that we were going back. The guard, who was Egyptian, seeing that we weren’t going to submit to him, became angry and said in broken English, “You make big problem for me!”

After we left, my hosts then dropped me off back at the port to catch the ferry. I could see there were many soldiers embarking along with me, and I noticed them on the morning ride to the island as well. I resolved, since I would be alone on the ferry, to pass the time by making conversation with them. After calling and arranging for a taxi to pick me up at the port in Salmiya when I arrived, I ascended the stairs to the seating area and found a place near the soldiers. I began chatting with them in standard versus Kuwaiti Arabic, as I always speak in standard Arabic out of principle. They were very easy to talk to and of course they were interested to learn more about me, a half-Kuwaiti half-American student who spoke standard Arabic which is considered strange and unusual. Yet as the conversation developed, a man to my back interjected and I turned to find that it was the guard that had confronted us at the site of the ruins. What a coincidence! I didn’t expect to see him again and wondered why his work shift ended so early before noon. But there he was exclaiming to his surprise that I was now speaking fairly fluent Arabic whilst a short while before I had remained silent when he struggled to communicate with my Canadian friend in English. I was slightly embarrassed and returned to speaking with the soldiers. At the end of the ferry trip I approached the guard and apologized in Arabic for any trouble we had given him. He said it wasn’t a big deal, which he was probably right and made me wonder why he made such a big deal in the first place.

But back to the soldiers, they were an interesting bunch of about 6, but I spoke mainly with three of them: Fahd, Suleiman, and Khalid. Their ages were between 24 to 27 and all were married save Fahd who was divorced. They were all high school dropouts and told me that they receive a monthly salary of 1000 KD or $3,550, which is too high to believe. But it is still undoubted that a high school dropout in Kuwait does much better than an equivalent person in any other country for Kuwait provides plenty of artificial jobs that require very little or no work with artificially high salaries to its citizens. When I asked them if they were in the military to do their obligatory service, they replied that about 10 years ago the government stopped requiring male Kuwaitis to serve for a year in the military as the demand to join was high. They told me that they ‘work’ 2 days a week at an air defense station on Faylaka Island. However, when I inquired about the nature of the work, they said their superiors usually allow them to go swimming in the ocean. So I wouldn’t depend on Kuwaitis to protect Kuwait. But then again I don’t think the average Kuwaiti does either after the US was given the responsibility of Kuwait’s defense after the Iraqi invasion.

I enjoyed speaking to the guys. It was an ideal example of cross-cultural communication as there were many differences that we helped each other understand. Khalid began by first asking why in America two guys holding hands are considered homosexual since it is an accepted custom in the Middle East for men to hold hands while walking. I explained to him that I understand what he was talking about and that in America it is not an accepted custom for heterosexual men to hold hands since it is not a sign of close friendship but rather a romantic and intimate relationship between two people.

Seeing that they were open to questions, I asked them about their beliefs and customs regarding marriage. All of them told me that they had never seen their wives until the day they got married. It was very hard for me imagine that two people who would be meeting each other for the first time would be expected to get married and engage in intercourse, the most intimate of physical acts, on the same day. I explained to them that this was incomprehensible to me as I and others consider compatibility and the building of a spiritual relationship of prime importance prior to marriage and intimacy. Yet they all told me that their parents had arranged their marriages or had a hand in choosing their brides. In the case of Khalid, he had followed the most traditional custom of marrying his first cousin. It was very common not too long ago and is still prevalent in the most traditional areas for siblings to promise their children in marriage to each other. The purpose was to preserve family unity and keep the wealth within the family. I mentioned that this custom led to the appearance and recurrence of genetic diseases. Khalid replied that Arabs aren’t dumb and for that reason he and his wife had visited a doctor and had a genetic screening prior to getting married.

I asked though what happens if a young couple is not compatible and bicker and fight. They told me that because marriages are often within the family, there is often a strong incentive for the young bride and groom to be accommodating to each other so as not to involve the parents into the dispute. However divorces due still occur as exemplified by Fahd, who seemed to be the most materialistic of the bunch interested in drinking and womanizing. He mentioned to me how he would go to bars in London and party, a quite ordinary thing for a Gulf Arab youth visiting the West.

Then I turned to the question of the hijab. I asked them if their brides where hijabs, the head scarf covering only the hair and ears of a woman, or the niqab, which also covers the face of a woman save the eyes. Khalid said that his wife wears a niqab and had asked him when they got married whether he wanted her to also wear a niqab in front of his brothers. He said he permitted her to wear the hijab in front of them. Suleiman said his wife wears only the hijab. He also showed me a picture of his toddler daughter.

I found it quite peculiar how these young men and their wives were so acquiescent in the roles they were groomed to fulfill. It seem as if they were actors in a play and they all knew their lines and didn’t venture to stray a centimeter from what was expected. The men were the head of their families. They expected their wives to have complete responsibility in raising the children and caring for the home and the woman were raised to believe and accept that. They were even briefed by the older men to expect blood during the wedding night when they first or soon after have intercourse with their wives and told the reason for its occurrence; for it was humorous and awkward at the time to hear this explained in Arabic. Yet it is no wonder change seems to happen so slow in a region where family relations are so strong.

But I delighted in speaking to the young men and we exchanged phone numbers at the end of the trip to meet up again. They had offered to take me out two days later, but not surprisingly as the young lads became occupied with other things they soon forgot their previous intention save for Suleiman who did call to ask me how I was doing and if I needed anything from the supermarket. The latter wasn’t a serious question of course but a courtesy offered after stating he would be going to the supermarket.

The young soldiers were also impressed with respect to my focus on learning and reading and lack of attention paid to frivolous activities of drinking and womanizing normally associated with western youth.

The encounter was a wonderful example of cross cultural interaction from a segment of the Kuwaiti population that probably makes up the traditional minded masses.

As we arrived closer to the port, two Kuwaitis on jet skis pulled up close to the ship and started jerking and twisting their crafts from side to side to try and splash the lower decks. Kuwaitis as a people have a lot of disposable income to spend on recreational activities like jet skiing, joy riding in expensive cars, etc.