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Published: March 27th 2020
Kuwait reminds people of Gulf war and hot desert. Indeed, that was my impression but it all changed. It was my first time in the Middle East
. I took courage as I packed my personal belongings to take up a new assignment on my own in Kuwait City. I landed at the airport and seriously expected camels on the road. Instead stood posh sedan taxis, plying you to the city like a breeze. The big cars almost flew on the fabulous roads and the engines worked like a glass of smooth, golden Scotch whiskey soaking the parched, dry throat.
My IBIS hotel stay was non descriptive but the dinner of golden Malabar prawn curry with rice was the tastiest ever.
The quantity was generous and the large fresh prawns sumptuous. The ice-creams were awesome too. A friend’s friend’s friend came to see me in the evening. Such a welcome relief indeed. The next day was my first day in office
I took a taxi and being a small city, everyone knew my employer which was very reassuring.
I entered the black and golden gate.A tall, young man from Human Resource department met me. I was trembling with fear. He assured me that there were a couple of other contractors from Europe and I would
be fine. Inshallah!
The induction was fun and lively. I was introduced to Arab culture like not eating or drinking in public domain during the holy month of Ramzan.
You could even be jailed.
We did role plays on how to serve customers as per their personality colour. For example, someone with dominant green is curious and analytical.
She would be keen to understand the source of raw material, cost among others while someone with yellow would be impulsive and make decisions quickly.
So I learnt the magic of good customer service.
It was tough getting acclimatized to hot and dry weather including dust storms
timed over weekends and just when we left office. No different from the erratic English weather. It was a strange feeling of helplessness like you are walking in an open oven with no respite
. Even a short 5 minutes walk to buy grocery was exceedingly strenuous. Indeed, I was on the edge. Despite all this dust, I went out and bought a few indoor plants to make me feel a little at home.
To this day, I never knew
the address of my home or the street. Only the location in Salmiya near Ishara Aman. (The local hair saloon, a
restaurant, petrol pump or mosque had Arabic names).
All the tall, handsome Arab men!
Most road signs were in Arabic. Arabic script is pretty like a beautiful garden of flowers, leaves and a few petals like dots scattered about, engraved on the road signs.
They wore white, classic deshdash
which was unique to each Arab nation. Apparently, the social class of sheikhs was in the quality of the open sandals or bata sandals
. They walked with a slow confident gait.The men take pain to capture the exact, little triangle of their headdress
over their forehead. It was held in place by a ring, like the rubber band of Indian pressure cooker. It could be flapped up from the sides, on a really hot day or lowered down with the elegant grace of the ears of cockerspaniel dogs.
The black abayas of the muslim ladies looked more like black tents floating about loosely. I feared a monster would unexpectedly jump out of it.
The robin blued, white Deshdash contrasted with the deep black abayas of the muslim ladies.From the galleries above, the black and white pairs like chess boards pawns created patterns in the colourful setting
of the posh Kuwait malls. People amused themselves in the mini-worlds with restaurants, play area and countless shops.
The children, normally 3-4 were the cutest as they wore matching clothes and hair clips, adored equally by their affectionate parents.
The malls are so good, tree lined avenues that expats did their morning jog here. It was no surprise that the malls were the place for the young to meet in a conservative society.
When the temperature drops, people rush to malls or shopping areas around 10-11pm. They remain open till 2am.
Souq Al-Mubarakiya is a souq in Kuwait City, Kuwait. It is one of the oldest souqs in Kuwait, and was the center of trade prior to the discovery of oil.
A big pot pourri of different races- Arabs, Bangladeshis, Indians, Pakistanis, Ethiopians, Egyptians, Philippines, French, English and Americans trying to get their weekly shopping done.
During the month of Ramzan, life changes. Roads and public services are reduced as most people are fasting, keep to themselves and make contributions to charity.
After sunset, life bursts open with a full force. Feasting starts in mosques or malls. It continues to the early hours of the day.
The local people have a lust of life especially evident on late Friday evenings. There are plenty of Shisha joints and people do enjoy smoking tobacco.After work, I used to take pleasure in walking to local eateries. I understood, people suffered from Asthma in this country.Hence
, I covered my head, nose and mouth with a cotton scarf like a local bandit to protect myself from the dust.
I walked to Salmiya park or to Aman street (Indian and Egyptian areas). My favourite snacks were falafel sandwiches or rolls with picked salads. The fried food was followed by a can of chilled coke. Most of the time, I was the only lady in these eateries. There was a small Egyptian shop which prepared exotic sweets like Baklava and Kanofa.
On other hot nights, it was long walks in Salmiya park followed by grocery shopping.
When famished, it was shawarma chicken- freshly prepared and served with an assortment of picked salads and humous. Their local salads called Fatoush is a Levantine salad made with a generous dose of fresh lime which tickled your tongue very badly.
I did not
own a refrigerator and the vegetables got spoilt very easily. So daily shopping! Finished the evening with a dash of chocolate ice cream, often a treat from my friend. Once, I was motivated to try jogging but could not handle the heat.
Better to stick to yoga in the comfort of the home. All homes are centrally air conditioned so much so that you need a blanket to be cozy at night.
Back to food. The restaurant sitting was separate for men and families.The family ones were enclosed, providing some privacy so that women could remove their hijab and eat freely. The staple diet was generous portions of meat or fish, accompanied by rice or nan-like, unleavened bread called Khubz
. There was always a bowl of fresh greens. All restaurants served breads and greens free with the main order. Although, alcohol and pork is forbidden, there is a rich variety of other food available. You can choose mango from Thailand, India, Pakistan, Egypt or anywhere it can grow.
There were plenty of Indian street food joints. Only tomatoes and the small, fresh cucumbers were locally grown. Of course, this place had a rich variety of dates and my favourite
Rich variety of Dates
All available in Lulu supermarket
was the juicy, jumbo majdool
. The Ajwa variety with white streaks was supposed to be the best. On Valentine's day, I seriously had two dates in the evening 😊
One of my colleagues mentioned that Arab culture does not allow anyone to go away hungry
. Indeed, people are encouraged to do charitable acts but government takes full responsibility for social welfare like orphanages. The West is always looking for volunteers (I wanted to volunteer my time but no opportunity)
Being a desert, Kuwait does not have any river.
Women- Kuwaiti or otherwise are respected in the country. Day or night, a woman can walk about freely without any fear. Wearing hijab is not compulsory. They vote and drive cars too.
It gets water by desalinating sea water. There are vast mushroom like structures in the city which are the water treatment plants. With the rich treasure of oil, energy is not an issue.Next door, Jordan suffers from water scarcity as it is not blessed with oil or natural gas reserves to do desalination.
There are bath tubs and powerful showers. Kuwait has the odd distinction of consuming the largest amount of water per capita in the world.
Outside a window in Salmiya, you could see a date palm or two. However, in nicer areas, there are parks with grass, olive trees, shrubs and plenty more palm trees. The cityscape is a dusty ochre as if inspiring people to give up all their trimmings - ego, greed, jealousy and only look
at core self- a free spirited soul wandering in the desert During the Jurassic age, this area had thick, green vegetation because of which rich carbon got deposited.
Over millions of years, this got converted to oil. While oil is a precious commodity today, people used to craze for lustrous pearls of the Persian Gulf in the past. Pearls were retrieved by deep diving into the seas by slaves. They used minimal, basic equipments like clothes drying clip to keep the nose blocked during the dives.
The large families lived in one storeyed houses around a central courtyard. There was an outer house at the entrance where the male visitors congregated. The women were invited into the inner house. It was simple. Islam forbid show-offs and ostentatious lifestyle
. Men were encouraged to pray in mosque five times a day since childhood.
A tiny country of 4.5 million people
The furnishings were simple. Bed, wardrobes, weavon baskets and beautiful calligraphy of Allah’s words adorned the walls. Children used to play with wooden dolls.
of which 2/3rd are expats, it is located off the coast of Persian Gulf with Iraq and Saudi Arabia sharing the land borders. Across the Persian Gulf is the ancient land of Iran.
Kuwait City is a natural deep water harbour and the capital city. Failaka
tiny island off the coast of Kuwait City. It was on the major stop in the spice route between India and Europe. Despite the 1990 Gulf War, Kuwait has rebuilt itself very fast
. It is well connected to Iraq, Lebanon and Thailand too. For a little dot on the world map, it cheerfully reaches out to its neighbours with an open mind Kuwaiti dinar is the highest currency denomination in the world
. Expats from Europe take up postings to take advantage of tax free status.
Kuwait has prospered as the spice route passed through Kuwait from India to Europe. Sailors stopped at Kuwait to rest and bought pearls. Indeed, trading seems to be in the blood of Kuwaitis. They are renowned for their commercial acumen in the middle east.
Kuwait seeks to remain neutral in the face of Arab divides between Qatar and the rest of Arab middle- east, acrimonious relations between Iran and Iraq etc.
Kuwait has prospered. It shows in the amazing National museum. A tropical rain forest recreated in the desert! How modern and beautiful with sections on science, mathematics, medicine, religion, universe, astronomy among so many others. There were 3D visuals of Avicenna which explained science in a very interactive way.
During summers, the rich Kuwaitis rush to Europe for luxurious holidays.There is a massive rush at airports during Eid holidays when expats go home.
The festivals strictly follows moon sightings.The government pays for Kuwaiti children to get higher education abroad,
provides a basic livelihood allowance to all citizens with an supplement if they work in the private sector and allocate land to them. To rebuild the country after the war, the government funded building of high rise buildings which were rented to expats.Kuwait has a thriving theatre and opera centre, the best in Middle East. Kuwaiti Arabic is the old, very polite and sweetest, I am told.
I finished my assignment
Middle East is not a backward region but a harbinger of information in navigation, mathematics and medicine.
. On my flight back to London. I sat next to a big, tall Kuwaiti man who watched the gentle dolphins on National Geographic channel when there were a wide variety of program. I reflected on those pleasant Kuwaitiya evenings, admiring the blue-green sea
and watching the ‘black and white’ couples
, sitting next to each other on the benches, at respectful distance and letting the world pass by. The gorgeous sunset and the ships sailing with oil or passengers, painted a beautiful world
. A gentle break from the race of life.
World religions like Islam, Christianity and Jewish originated from this nothingness of Middle East.
When my flight took off, I reflected on the simplicity of life in Kuwait. I looked at the little shiny dot on Earth which softly whispered Kuwaitiya in my ear, beckoned me to remember her
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