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.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Pleasant Discussions at a Diwaniya

I went today to a diwaniya which is the Kuwaiti custom of men gathering in a certain parlour room of a house or a tent. I had a pleasant evening filled with thoughtful and stimulating discussion. The parlor room for the diwaniya was decorated in a very elegant and refined manner. When I first entered, my friend Badr was not at the moment present which was a little unusual since I didn’t know anyone else there. But shortly later Badr came and introduced me to those others sitting and explained that I was here in Kuwait on a scholarship to do research. It seems when I explained to him that that Fulbright Scholarship was funded from US State Dept he took it to mean that it was somehow connected politically with the US government for he stated or implied a few times that evening that my interlocutors ought to be giving me an idealized image of Kuwait as I am here as researcher for the US government. I should make a greater emphasis that there is no political connection with my research, perhaps stating next time when asked that the Fulbright scholarship is awarded from a the International Institute of Education.
Nevertheless, I struck up a conversation with an educated man who appeared to be in his 30s. He had a very clean-cut dark black beard on his rather white complexion. It was correct to presume by his appearance that he was an Islamist or a strong Muslim. He studied Sharia and Islam and was currently doing his PhD in Morocco. He spoke excellent Arabic which I wished everyone else could speak. It was very noticeable the drop in the eloquence of speech when someone else spoke.
When we spoke about the topic of women’s rights, he immediately asked me if I was judging the situation in Kuwait based on a western or eastern viewpoint. He of course took the notion that the women in Kuwait do not want to imitate women as in the West with regard to the women’s rights movement, because women in Kuwait have their rights as Muslims and Islam guarantees them that. In that regard he truly spoke from an Islamic perspective on the issue. He believed that, as according to Islam, men and women had their proper roles in societies. It is for women to stay home and raise children and men to be the breadwinners and provide for their families. He mentioned how in the West women who are independent and working are seen in a more respectful light than women who remain homemakers because the working women are seen as having greater influence in trying to contribute to and improve society. He countered this notion with the argument that women at home are likewise having an important role in the shaping of society in her work to raise children with good characters and an education.
He also noted the irony that after women in Kuwait were given the right to vote, in the subsequent parliamentary election most of the women’s vote went to the very same Islamist candidates who had opposed giving them the right to vote. His other arguments against women entering into politics other than that her primary role is the raising of children, is that she lacks the mental constitution and qualities to be a leader. He said that a woman is more emotive than a man and is indecisive.
However, when asked what I thought of women entering into politics in America, I mentioned that according to his logic, that women should not enter into politics because that would distract from their role as caretakers, that if a woman in the US after having raised her children and they have left the house, there would be no harm in her choosing to use her experience and education to want to aid in the ruling and improvement of her society. I was simply trying to argue that women should have a welcomed voice in government in principle. I also noted that women, in general, have different priorities than men. They emphasize issues such as healthcare and education while men focus on national security and military spending. Thus, to have women in parliament advocating these issues would be a positive thing. It was at this point that it was fortunate that another person should criticize the US that although women have had the right to vote for 80 years, the healthcare system is in a poor condition as based on the movie Sicko by Michael Moore. I easily used this point to my advantage by stating that the major figure at the moment in American politics who wants to correct this issue of unequal access to healthcare is a woman, Hillary Clinton, and that is this woman who is renowned for seeking reforms to address this issue.
Throughout the course of the evening, a few other issues were treated as well. I was asked about how life is in Kuwait and my thoughts on the country. Rather than give the usual positive and reassuring answer. I highlighted two issues that were pressing on my mind these past few days. One was the lack of literacy or reading in Kuwait. I mentioned that if the reading level of an average American child and average Kuwait child from the same grade level were compared, it is undoubted that the American child would read with much greater fluency and understanding than the Kuwaiti child or any other Arab child for that matter. Literacy is of great importance as books are the preservers of mankind’s accumulated knowledge from thousands of generations. Reading is the keys into these portals of education and to be without this skill or deficient in it is to be deficient in the ability to improve and develop oneself, society, or civilization. The next major issue I took aim at was the manner in which Kuwait’s oil wealth was distributed amongst its citizens by creating unnecessary government jobs for them and providing for the material needs of their citizens to the extent that their motivation to work is absent or very weak. I mentioned the statistic that 90% of Kuwaiti’s in the workforce are employed in the government leaving the majority in the private sector to be foreign workers which does not lend itself to a sound and healthy society. Although my Islamist interlocutor agreed with my observations on these points, I fear they did not make me popular with my host who seemed indignant and the pride in country hurt. I often ask myself if it is I who focuses too much on the negative aspects of Kuwaiti society and not enough on the positive. I feel often challenged to raise these issues in a delicate and dignified manner.
All in all, it was a wonderful and stimulating evening and one of the better diwaniyas that I’ve been to.