Monday, August 25, 2008

The Ride Home

Two days before departure - so we went out to the local shopping mall to buy some presents. I have kind of given up trying to look for authentic old cafes. Now I go to shopping malls just to hang out, like all the other Kuwaitis and rich expats. There is Marks and Spencer, Zara, even a sports shop intriguingly called "The Athlete's Foot".

On the way back, the taxi driver waited patiently as I hauled bags of M&S confectionery into the front seat. It turned out he was from the Yemen. I eagerly told him that Sana’a was the city of 99 mosques, which I had heard a lot when I was there. He didn’t know what I was talking about. Probably it is just something that tourists say about the Yemeni capital.

The driver was about 25, and had been in Kuwait only one year. I had to direct him to our flat by on the Gulf Road. He was still finding his feet – didn't know where the destination was so didn’t know whether the offer of 500fils was reasonable or not. For once I wasn't on the back foot in the front seat of a taxi.

He said he didn’t like Kuwait – mainly because the weather was far too hot. He was from a town in Western Yemen called Ibb. I told him I had visited Ibb 11 years ago and had gone to a cinema expecting to see an Arabic film but it turned out to be Hindi. I said everyone in the audience was smoking and talking and throwing stuff at the screen especially when there was a fight scene. He laughed so much when I told him that, explaining the audience was “encouraging” the characters in the film.

He agreed with me that Yemen was good because it had culture and history. He added that it was nice because it had mountains. I said you can't see much of the culture or history in Kuwait because all you can see is the big buildings. He said “yes, it is an advanced place”.

He also said that Kuwait doesn’t have much history – just 300 years or so. I had in mind that modern Kuwait - the country you see and live in - started around 1970. Clearly, he has more of a historical sense of the region than me. He also has a different sense of history. For him, 300 years makes it young, for a Kuwaiti, it probably makes it sound ancient.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

By the Pool

Just back from the hotel swimming pool: six people roasting in the midday sun, all with tanned and sculpted bodies - a couple of Norwegian-looking blondes, a few Australian air stewards, and a young Kuwaiti muscleman. They pose round the edge of the pool and the Blondes occasionally splash their legs for attention.

Clearly I am the odd one out. Pale as an egg and with as much poise as an omelette, I earnestly swim up and down the pool. Every time I reach the end I find myself awkwardly close to one of the Blondes' feet. She eyes me imperiously though our eyes never meet. It is so strange and funny, with everyone staring at everyone else but no-one ever talking, that I start laughing. I swallow some water and start choking. The unreal peace of the place is momentarily disturbed.

Suddenly the door from the hotel swings open and another pale-chested mortal wanders in. He exudes self-doubt as he tries not to look upon any of the gods. I feel a surge of sympathy and realise that I am no longer alone.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Tea Time in Kuwait

We both felt it was a small but significant triumph to have found somewhere to sit that wasn't a close relative of Starbucks or a spotless ice-cream parlour in an air-conditioned mall.

We might never have found it apart from the slightly intoxicating smell of sweet tobacco that wafted out to us as we walked through the market.

We both hesitated before walking in. We didn't exactly blend in with the rest of the clientele and wondered if we would be welcome. We needn't have worried. Despite our odd appearance no-one else paid us any attention at all. Most people watched football on one of the seven television screens, or were lost in conversation.

We drank sweet dark tea and smoked. It was funny being in a cafe where you couldn't watch the world go by. The walls were large sheets of translucent plastic hanging from the high ceilings. There were no windows. All you could watch, if you wanted to, were the other customers. It felt like a comfortable interlude between public and private spaces.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Putting a Spring in Your Step

Tom and I visited the Friday market today. It is where local Kuwaiti men come to improve their image: to buy perfume, sunglasses, and weight-lifting equipment. But you can get more or less any household items here - from fridges to darts, sofas to paddling pools. In the end, I did what I do in most markets and bought some cheap socks.

The open air market is set on several acres of sandy concrete near one of the city's ring roads. Huge fans and hosepipes spraying mist over your head keep the place relatively cool. The stalls are cheap to rent, and are supposedly reserved for widows, divorcees and retired men, although many seemed to be run by Asian nationals.

Tom and I wandered around for a couple of hours trying to work out the best strategy for taking photographs. Requests for permission were met with blank looks and mild confusion. I tried to keep a low profile after that, but when my flash accidentally went off behind a group of men trying out perfume, they all looked around suddenly. My attempt to photograph flip flops was met with unconstrained laughter.

The Kuwaiti economy is 90% oil, but starting to diversify. Just before the market closed we found proof of this. A tiny "made in Kuwait" label was stuck to the bottom of a pair of sandals. They had another unique feature: each sandal was mounted on two huge red springs.

Thursday, July 31, 2008

Arrival in Kuwait

"Have you got your passports?", the taxi driver asked Tom and me at 3am this morning as we left for Heathrow. "You'd be surprised how many people leave for the airport without them!". Even in my tired state, I wondered how it would be possible to do such a thing. Nevertheless, I took my passport out and stared at it to make sure it was there.

An hour later, at the KLM check-in queue, I reached for my passport again. It wasn't there. After several panicky phone calls, it turned out it was on its way to Stansted airport, on the back seat of the taxi. Luckily it was retrieved in time and we touched down in Kuwait this afternoon. The plane was half full of expatriates and we queued for ages at passport control. Just behind us was a group of very large American soldiers. One was talking about his recent tour in Afghanistan.

Tom and I shared a car to our hotel with an Arab man who wore white robes and a diamond-encrusted watch. We both greeted each other formally when we got in the car. Tom and I chatted a bit on the way to the hotel, but we never spoke to the man and he never spoke to us. When the car pulled up at the hotel he seemed in a hurry to get out, but then hesitated a bit, raised his hand and said goodbye quietly.

Outside on the street, even at 9pm, it is too hot to stay outside for long. It is so hot that there seem to be no public spaces outside in the city. Everything is indoors. Street life happens in air conditioned malls, where a cup of coffee costs £4 and where men and women sit around in separate groups.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Some Friendly Advice

The metal detector bleeped loudly as I tried to pass through to the departure lounge to leave Istanbul. An armed policeman stepped forward and began to frisk me. Tensions were high after the terrorist attack on the American Consulate two weeks before.

After a few seconds he stopped and a serious look came over his face:
-"You have kepek", he said.
-"Oh!" I said, thinking he meant I had left some coins in my back pocket.
-"You know what it is, kepek?".
-"Dandruff", he said, gesturing to my shoulder. "Don't worry - I have the same problem. You need shampoo."
-"Thank you very much. Maybe I just need to wear a white shirt."
-"Yes, that is also good", he said, smiling. "What football team do you support?"
-"I support Besiktas".
-"Turkey did very well in the Euro cup. I thought you were going to win at one point".
-"Turkey is not so good. England is good."
-"No, we're rubbish".

The conversation passed to less serious matters: how long did you stay in Istanbul? Was it just a holiday? How much was your hotel? Have you got brothers and sisters? What is your job? Are you travelling alone? Have you been to Izmir? Do you like beer? How much is a visa to Turkey? How much does a policeman get paid in England?

Ahmet, it turned out, had been a policeman for one year. Before that, he had been a physics teacher. He had studied in Moscow for four years and Azerbaijan for one year:
-"What was Azerbaijan like?"
-"Baku is a rich city. Lots of oil - English and American engineers. It's expensive - 5 dollars to get into the disco at the Hyatt Regency. But nice girls."

He had found teaching difficult: young people were hard to teach. They would smoke and shout in class:
-"I would say 'be quiet' but they wouldn't".
-"It's the same problem everywhere".
-"Now I am a policeman. We make 1300 US dollars a month" - he typed out the figure on his mobile phone to make sure I understood."We work 12 hours, then have 24 hours off. Then we come on for the night shift."
-"It's difficult".
-"It's not difficult - telling people to take out their cameras and phones and put them on the X-ray machine...I want to study to be a narcotics policeman - more action. Or maybe go to the US or England to work in the Consulate there."
-"What's your name?"
-"Ahmet. What's yours?"
-"Can I have your MSN messenger address?"
-"I don't have one. I use hotmail, and skype." I gave him my address.

The last passengers were passing through now, and the plane was starting to board:
-"Do you want some tea?"
-"Thanks, but my flight is leaving. Next time."
-"Yes, next time", he said, and smiled.

Friday, July 25, 2008

"Life Here is Like a Cartoon"

Conversation in a hotel (Georgia), 10 days ago.

-"Is it safe here?"
-"I will explain everything. People here are tense, very tense. They are wondering, where is my next piece of bread going to come from. Some of them - my God! - they use the streets as a toilet. They are like animals. The other day I was walking along the street and I saw a man with his trousers down. My God!"
-"So people don't have much money?"
-"Listen. You need money here to get money. You cannot get money or a good business unless you already have money. You understand? I will probably be in trouble for saying this... Everything here depends on money, even your personal relationships."
-"Is it easy to find a job?"
-"Many people here don't want to work. They are ashamed to work. They want quick, easy money. My parents are doctors. But there is no middle class any more. There are the rich, and the poor. The people who think they are middle class are just the poor."
-"But the centre of this town is reasonably safe?"
-"Yes, it is ok. It is not clean, but it is ok. You can never predict life here though. It is strange, I tell you, a very strange time. Life here is like a cartoon. You never know what is going to happen next. I cannot take it seriously. People here want to be European, but also to hold onto their traditions. They do not understand that this is not possible."
-"People want to be European?"
-"Yes. I used to live in Europe - I lived there until one of my parents became sick and I had to come back. But I was ashamed to say I was Georgian. European people always think you are a thief as soon as you say you are Georgian. Many jobs I lost out on because of this. I thought - shall I say I am Romanian, or Turkish?"
-"It sounds difficult"
-"Yes...but I am preparing for something. I do not know what. But I will do something, something in the name of my nation. I say nation, I do not mean country. My country has so many peoples - Turks, Armenians, Russians, Azeris. But I will do something for my nation."
-"What kind of thing?"
-"I am an artist, a painter. I have my own style, like a magical world. I am a sculptor too.
-"Can I see your work?" [She shows me photographs on her mobile phone]. "Very beautiful. Maybe you will have an exhibition?"
-"Maybe. Who knows? People here pretend to care about culture. They don't really care, all they really care about it is politics. But one day, I will do something".