Wednesday, June 22, 2011

A black desert night and a black cloak... Kuwait Days

Four days is too short a time to even begin to get under the skin of a country, especially when one is part of an official military visit with all of its political, diplomatic and social activities. From the time of arrival to the moment the lines between the ship and the shore are loosed people, everything is highly planned. This requires a high degree of personal discipline and organization, as each event will often require a change of “rig” or uniform, from dress up to dress down. It would be quite normal to attend a luncheon with US diplomatic staff in blazer and tie, then be taken on a tour of a naval facility in working rig, and finally change into beach wear for an evening barbeque. Which is what we did one day.

Late afternoon a coach and a white van were heading west out of Kuwait City, out into the desert. We sped along Route 70, the Atraf Highway. It was along this desert road that the Iraqi Republican Guard advanced in convoy on August 2nd, 1990, only to be stopped by the Kuwaiti Army along the Sixth Ring motorway. Our picnic destination was also significant – for the barbeques were set up on the ridge along which the Kuwaitis got the first glimpse of the Iraqi invasion.

Eating hamburgers and hot dogs as the sun set in the desert was quite an unforgettable experience. The quality of the food is best left unmentioned, but with regard to the other senses it was an hour when colours changed, darkened and then disappeared, when the scent of the air became less acrid, and when the temperature suddenly dropped. We sat in silence, sipping our Cokes (well, we were in a Moslem country, and the caterers were the American military) and shivered at both the recollection of battles only six years old, and the inhospitable nature of the place at night.

Walking the hot streets the next day I became aware of the cosmopolitan mix that is Kuwait City, and was vividly reminded that out of a population of nearly four million Kuwaitis are a minority within their own country. In fact they are outnumbered by a ratio of almost two to one. There were faces from the Far East, the Asian subcontinent, northern Africa; Caucasians, most of whom were in American military uniform; male and female, Jews and Greeks. But slave or free? It became apparent by simply watching from a café table (more of that delicious coffee), listening and also learning from the opinions of others that many of the foreign workers, primarily employed in construction and the service industries, are treated as second-class citizens by Kuwaiti nationals.

My guide and host was a field agent for an international petroleum company. I never did find out what that meant but he gave the impression that we was always busy and in demand. There were few people, places and facts that he did not know, or so he kept telling me. And he asked me if I’d picked up any numbers during my short stay. My puzzled and ignorant expression made him laugh, and putting his hand into his shirt pocket he pulled out two small balls of screwed up paper. Take one, he said. Look at it. Opening one up I looked at a number written in pencil. None the wiser I handed it back. It’s a dropped phone number he explained. Dropped by whom? By women. Mainly Saudi women visiting. Dropped to the ground from within the abaya. He pocketed the pieces of paper with a grin. Some of them like company you see.

It was time to go. I had a plane to catch.

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