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.