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.

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