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.