All That Glitters

(Adapted from an article by the same name that I wrote years ago on leaving Kuwait -- August of 1997 -- and which I have filed away and can't get to easily with car problems and in the rain)

When I got to Kuwait the first thing that struck me were the walls -- how dirty the smudges on white walls looked in Kuwait's brilliant three a.m. sunshine, brilliant in the sun at three a.m. because Kuwait, like all Muslim majority countries in the Arabian Gulf, is on Mecca time, making prayers more convenient (I could never get used to so many bearded men -- and don't get me wrong, many are not bearded -- and still cannot, even when I look at pictures from U.S. history and see all the beards; all I could think about, sorry to say, were head lice and typhus, though I've not heard of that's being a problem in Kuwait the way it is here on the heads of the 9 - to - 11 year old set. I found myself wanting to sing, "oh, the barbers in the army . . . ").

The next thing I noticed was the gold-plating on the banks. And the marble, but it's mined there. But I was finally impressed by the use of rustproofed painted steel rebar in foundations -- the buildings in Kuwait at least won't collapse as easily as buildings do in much of the third world. (Likewise if you fly Kuwait air, your plane will barring an act of God or terrorism -- I would not necessarily try to equate the two but these are the only two things that can stop it and God willing neither will stop a plane -- probably get you there; Kuwait air has a history of reliability)

And then I must comment on the windows. Huge. The better to see out from (and into I suppose though who could see through anything with the glaring afternoon sun bouncing off it?). When my air conditioning was not working, my university lodging was a miserable place; the fridge was not working either and the eggs I bought from the store went bad in a matter of hours. Kuwait used to build another kind of house: smaller, on solid foundation, built of coral, the surface naturally rough and slightly pinkish-beige in cast, with high, tiny windows, and an overhanging roof on all sides. These buildings sit unoccupied, worthless now since they are not big enough or fancy enough I suppose to keep up with the hub of international business, to keep up with the Joneses as they must, the yards now collecting junk and debris.

I spoke with several Kuwaitis who apologized for the window glass: they told me that they knew they really should get glass block and in fact, they said, there was starting to be an interest in that. As for the old buildings, no one knew what to do about those though they admitted that their old houses may have been quite well-designed. But there's no market for them. Meanwhile a tall space-needle like minaret of a Kuwaiti mosque towers in the skyline; you can ride up on an elevator to its top almost to see the surrounding view (but of course some western buildings would dwarf it but it had been years since I'd lived in a sizeable city).

Saudi Arabia someone told me once gave Kuwait as a present a number of date seedlings, and date seedlings lined the roadways everywhere, the water pouring onto them. Desalieanation is done with oil and so desalienated water is plentiful. (For more on date palms and water use, see el-Juhany, "Degradation of Date Palm Trees and Date Production in Arab Countries".

When I went for my pre-employment physical, for which I and co-workers were shuttled around on a bus, I screamed when I saw the blood-spattered marble board I was supposed to press my finger down on for my blood test (for HIV, to make sure I was negative,etc.) A co-worker soon joined me in screaming. We were then told that no more blood tests would be done that day, to come back the following day. The next time the bus took us there the blood-spattered board was gone, and our blood was drained with new, clean needles, to show that Kuwait did have these and could produce them on demand.

As for labor, half of the population when I left, and much more than that today, is foreign. Unemployment has been low in this nation with more oil per capita than any other country in the Gulf. The workers come from places like Bangladesh, Egypt, India, Sri Lanka, and the Phillipines. In spite of Islam which says that all people are brothers, the market has control in Kuwait like everywhere, and people from the lowest sweeper caste in India (generally stunted in growth) will do in Kuwait what they did in India: sweep, 12 hours/day, 7 days/week, because that is what they can be hired to do. A Kuwaiti employer only has to offer a little more than they would get in India, to hire them, or perhaps to agree to send a tiny bit extra home every month to the sweeper's family. And of course, the employer must guarantee regular full-time work. To be fair to Kuwait, its per capital GDP is still lower than in the U.S., in spite of the oil, and in some cases, one with nurses from India for example, labor has won in court. In any case, if labor laws were completely reformed, hiring maids would become unaffordable for most Kuwaitis, just as hiring maids became unaffordable in the United States in the 60's/70's when domestic workers became subject to wage and hour laws.

Kuwait like everywhere has crime. Often the immigrant workers are involved in it though Kuwaitis commit crimes as well. Kuwait has a death penalty though it's not carried out often and the only case I ever heard of that got the death penalty was that of a single Iranian drug smuggler -- but most drug smugglers, from Iran or wherever, got five years of hard labor in a prison that meets international standards, and then deportation, via tb-riddled Tala deportation center, where drug smugglers with connections probably did not have to fester long. The same is not the case for a poor worker who has overstayed his or her visa, who has to wait there till someone (friend or relative) sends him or her the money to travel home on. That could be years.

When a maid got pregnant out of wedlock (I can't recall whether she killed her baby or aborted or actually had it; many of the maids kill their babies to prevent being discovered) and the case was brought to trial and she named the father, another low-paid worker, albeit male, he testified that he would never know a woman who would do such a thing, a statement which got him exonerated. She got ten years of labor followed by deportation. However in another case, perhaps in part because of a film that never became completely public in which a young Phillipina maid who had come to work in the United Arab Emirates, lying about her age to do so, told her version of why she had killed her employer (to be fair to him he was dead and could not tell his version of events), Kuwaiti police immediately arrested the Kuwaiti employer when the newly hired maid called the police to report that something was 'fishy' about the job. The police returned her to a hiring hall.

Kuwait's own women enjoyed relative equality, including the right to drive and own a business. At the time they made up more than half of the university students inside of Kuwait (more men study outside of the country), and recently they got the right to vote. Of course, some men may yell comments or try to get the attention of women out taking walks (on the other hand, it's relatively easy at a university where you are a female teacher to get a ride; the male students will not let you have to walk to the bank or wherever; if they see you out there they will insist on giving you a ride which is nice in the heat). As I was leaving Kuwait, the courts were even trying to prosecute a man in a date rape case, something admirable considering rape law in the United States is not particularly sympathetic to the victim (in North Carolina apparently, it's not rape for example if the assault is carried out on the victim's mouth or ear or any orifice other than a vagina; North Carolina's neighbor to the south has only recently seen fit to advance the age of consent from thirteen to fifteen).

Taking an evening bus, I noticed that the evening light was softer in Kuwait City, lighting the white walls with a rose-hue that made them almost elegant.

At the airport on my last day, after spending a year in the desert heat, I was anxious to get out all the same, as I watched through the window of a waiting room for my kittys' cages to be loaded into the animal/cargo hold of the Amsterdam-bound plane. Sitting not far from where I watched were small thin maids in traditional Indian saris also heading home and large well-fed blonde youths in tight tank-style torn shirts, earrings, and shaved heads, with backpacks. They looked like thugs to me (by that time I saw thugs in every face anyway except the smallest, in spite of how nice many people were, including my boss, for example when he saw me walking along one evening, in tears when I could not find my way to my embassy after haggling for some time with a poor cab driver who enjoyed immensely not bringing me there [he or another cab driver had brought me to the bombed-out old embassy and said is this it? This is the only U.S. embassy I know he said and then he had stopped in the middle of the freeway blocking traffic to demand police explain to him how to get to the U.S. embassy; to be fair to him he did not drop me more than a mile from the embassy]-- where I was hoping to meet a co-worker who had decided to go there with her family for the 4th of July and had invited me; most of my visits were actually to the French embassy I must admit), but I hoped they were just tourists or trekkers, as the plane was coming in from further east. It's sad to see anyone beating anyone. (This is especially true today with all this violence in Egypt and Tunisia; I hope it passes.)

Read more about my reflections on my Mideast experiences and hepatitis A at Or about dress