"Why Kuwait?" People would invariably ask me when I told them of my job for the upcoming year. The pursed faces and quizzical looks sometimes led me to question my decision. What had I gotten myself into? How much did I REALLY know about this country I was moving to for the next 2 years? I decided I had better do some research and have some answers for the questions that were constantly being asked.
1. So, where is Kuwait?
To find Kuwait on a map, locate the Saudi Arabian and Iraqui border. Where these borders would meet on the Persian Gulf, one will find The State of Kuwait. Mostly flat, sandy desert, Kuwait also includes 9 islands off the coast and 290 km of mainland coastline.
2. Wasn't there a war there?
Yes, about 10 years ago. Iraq invaded Kuwait on August 2, 1990, which began a seven-month occupation. The invasion involved both the natural Kuwaiti and expatriate populations. Buildings, souks (markets), museums, and the environment were almost completely destroyed and the remainder was left to burn when the retreating Iraquis exploded and ignited 727 oil wells. Ports were blocked and mined, power and water plants were crippled and left inoperable, and nearly a thousand Kuwaitis were arrested and taken to Iraq to be listed as "missing". Added to the many lives lost during the previous seven months, the country was left economically, environmentally, culturally, and emotionally scarred. Today the remains of the invasion are still visible in the form of some buildings yet to be torn down, and various memorials scattered throughout the city. The physical damage can be covered up and forgotten, but the people who survived the seven-month ordeal will never forget.
3. Isn't Kuwait a wealthy country?
The oil industry has made Kuwait an extremely wealthy country. And living is easier if you are Kuwaiti. Less than half the population (35%) falls in the category of Kuwaiti. The remaining 65% of the 2.3 million people are expatriates or "expats". This comprises the working class. Because only Kuwaitis are premitted to own property or businesses, all expatriates are directly or indirectly employed by a Kuwaiti. It is an interesting dichotomy to view the wealthy living side by side with the the working class. Huge mansions tower over shacks and coops with chickens and roosters filling the air with noise. The appearance of the streets has been described as "a third world country with first world wealth". An ample description from what I have observed. Litter and debris blow freely and street cats roam and scavage.
4. Do you have to wear those black robes and cover everything but your eyes?
Fortunately, no. It's hot enough as it is! If a woman is not a practicing Muslim she is not required to don the abayas and head covering (hijab). (Women make the choice whether or not they choose to cover, even though in the Koran, Mohammed told them to cover. Women are now exercising some freedom of choice.) Some Muslim women may even choose to what degree they want to cover themselves. Some will wear only a head scarf while others are shielded to the point of not only the abaya, but also head, face (burka) and gloves on their hands. It is personal choice. Most non-Muslims dress modestly out of respect for the culture they are living in. Immodest dress often draws unwanted attention from men such as staring and honking of car horns. It is best to dress subtly and not draw attention to one's self by keeping clothing knee length or longer and covering the shoulders with at least short sleeves.
5. What kind of students will be in the school?
At the school I am working in, Universal American School (UAS), the ethnic backgorounds of the students vary. Many of the students are from near Kuwait, if they are not Kuwaiti. Countries such as Lebanon, India, Korea and Europe have contributed to our student body and the students are very open and accepting. Almost all of the students have been educated in English for their entire school career and most have had a second or third language as well. Our school has Arabic and French classes as well as English. The students have been very open, kind and curious. They want to know everything about their teachers.
Life in Kuwait is not difficult, just different. With temperatures ranging from 20 degrees Celsius in the evening/early morning to 54-56 degrees at mid-day, both humid and dry heat, and extreme air conditioning, one learns to adjust quickly. Cold water is not an option unless the water heater is turned off because the "cold" water tanks are on the tops of the buildings to be exposed to the hot desert sun. All in all, Kuwait is a country with a rich and tumultuous history, a multicultural population and a metroplitan atmosphere. It is the "Arab Cultural Capital".
O.K. So the plane had landed. It was dark outside and I wasn't able to see what the countryside looked like, but I could wager a guess. Dry and desert-like? People began filing off the plane and I suddenly realised that I was now entering the country that would be my home for the next 2 years. And, I didn't know where to go or what to expect. Anxiety struck! What if they went through my handbags? I had a SHAPE magazine! Would that be offensive? Would I have to open my suitcases for inspection? Were my suitcases even there? I could feel my blood pressure rising as I made my way to the lineups of people moving through the passport area. What if my papers weren't correct? The passport guard checked my papers, checked his computer and waved me through. Relief.v Next was the luggage. After we waited for what seemed like hours, I finally got my HEAVY suitcases. To pack 2 years of my life into 2 bags was a feat almost beyond belief. There was no room in any nook or cranny and only 2 pounds to spare before overweight charges; I felt I was quite the hero. I heaved my bags onto a cart and proceeded to the next ordeal: Customs. The officer looked at my passport and waved me through. O.K., perhaps they weren't as stringent as I first thought!
Immediately I spoted a group of people who looked as haggared and confused as I was. And then I saw the UAS sign. I was flooded with relief! I was here, I was safe and there were others like me. They immediately provided us with water, juice and warm welcomes. We abandoned our lugguage to be loaded and delivered to our apartments, and headed towards the vans. We were chatting excitedly when all of a sudden it hit us. No, not an idea, the air. "Like walking into a hairdryer", someone commented, and that was pretty much it! Thick, heavy, and hot! And it was only 7 pm at night! Wait, they said it was going to be dry heat? Well, what we were told didn't matter because I immediately broke into a sweat. I hoped this wasn't going to last long.
We drove through the city and arrived at our apartments, which are located right next to the school. Convenient as that might be, the appearance of the front was slightly intimidating. We faced a lovely iron fence surrounding the apartment complex, complete with 4 feet of barbed wire around the top. Hmmmmm, how safe did I feel? We were told that it was not necessary, had not even been there until recently when the U.S. Embassy demanded it be erected. O.K. Our first taste of the politics, but certainly not our last.
The next few days were a blur of shopping trips, tentative exploring and getting to know one another. Our first shopping trip was quite an adventure! Our drivers told us we had one hour, and then set us to roam around the Sultan Centre, the largest grocery store in the country. We were surrounded by familiar Western items, but were interested in all the new things. I spent almost 45 minutes exploring the produce section. By the time you decided what items you wanted and figured in the exchange (1KD=$5 Canadian), some items were not so attractive. Peanut butter runs approximately $12 a jar, but olives are in great supply, fresh in the deli. There are many varieties and they are inexpensive and delicious! There were herbs, cheeses and a variety of breads and sweets. It was so interesting to check everything out, but soon we heard "yala, yala", hurry, hurry! We had a few fruits and vegetables, and a kilogram of olives, and that ws it! It didn't matter. We were whisked out of the store, with less than half of our shopping done, and our heads filled with numbers, items we had never heard of, and the deep-seated desire to shop more. There are many shops closer, we have since discovered, and we have had a lot of fun, but the memory of that initial thrust into the world of grocery shopping Kuwaiti style has remained strong. And I now know what "yala" means!
One night another gal and I went out to a local Co-operative (grocery store) and small area to find some dinner. We ordered by pointing to the menu the cashier showed us and waited. Immediately we realised that we were the only women in the shop. The sign on the restaurant read "Fresh and Tasty", but I felt more like I was on the menu! Neither of us were dressed inappropriately, we had our shoulders and knees covered, but the men in the shop were staring and making us feel uncomfortable. Had we done something wrong? Were we out too late? Should we have more people with us, a male perhaps? We quickly retrieved our food and headed straight back to our apartments, hoping that we wouldn't be followed. The food was great, but the experience had left an awkward taste in our mouths.
The next day we met Patty, a returning staff member, and she eased all of our fears. No, we had done nothing wrong. That was normal. Had we been honked at yet? Had men stopped their cars in the middle of the road and stared? Approached us or followed us? Not yet, but all of those things have since happened. For me, the attention is increased because I am a Westerner and have blonde hair. I tend to stand out in a crowd. Patty was a wealth of knowledge, including directions on how and where to call a taxi, and how to tell them where we live. The apartments are located in the area called Salwa, on block 11, on the street Mohammed Wasmi Al Wasmi. How were we to remember all that?
Patty gave us a handy little reminder. "Just think of Mohammed wash me, oh wash me". Easy enough. Unfortuantely, one of the new teachers, Jan, wasn't present for this lesson. We were taken shopping in the district next to ours. We were in a rush, people changed vans that they came in and the vans left in accordance with how quickly they filled up. Needless to say, when the dust had cleared, we had left Jan behind. OOPS! Now, we had not been given any information in regards to knowing where we lived. All we knew was Universal American School. After a policeman hailed her a cab, she was driven to EVERY American school within the area (there are at least a dozen) and a $25 dollar (5KD) cab ride later arrived, a little shaken. Needless to say, we were issued with cards and cab company numbers the next morning!
Jan's experience reminded me to share the trick I had learned about how to remember the street of the school. When I told the entire van the little memory device, our driver started and nearly had an accident. Apparently our driver, Mohammed, was a bit surprised to hear a young lady say, "Mohammed wash me, oh wash me". I can't imagine why!
There are so many little quirks about Kuwait that keep it interesting. For example, the cold water tanks are all kept on the roofs of the buildings. This means that the cold water is hotter than the hot water. The trick is to turn off the boiler in the hot water tank and use the cooler "hot" water to cool off the "cold" hot water.
And then there are the roads. One cannot make a left hand turn 90% of the time. Basically, all the streets are one-way with a divider, and that means that in order to go left you have to go all the way to the end of the street where you get to a turn-about, then come all the way back so that you can approach the cross street and make a right hand turn. The freeways are the same. It makes a 5-minute drive into a 15-minute drive because there is never a straight route to get anywhere. And then there's the traffic and drivers! Yikes!