Wednesday, April 21, 2004
A Kuwaiti Vacation
Recently, the Ambassador returned to England on a 10-day business trip, leaving my team "stranded" in Kuwait City during his absence. Although our team could have returned to the CPA, the comfort of a hotel room and the guarantee of gunshot-free nights convinced us to spend our time in Kuwait, vice returning to Iraq. The worst day in Kuwait is better than the best day in Iraq, hands down!
Our time spent in Kuwait was quite interesting and was a distinct contrast to our experiences in Iraq. Although these two bordering countries share a common religion and language, very little else in either country resembles that of the other. The drive from the Iraqi border to Kuwait City takes you over smartly paved city streets and 4 lane highways, complete with American styled traffic signs, mileage posts, and traffic lights. Local Kuwaiti's flaunt their wealth in this oil rich country in many ways. The roads are jammed with all brands of luxury automobiles, to include Jaguar, BMW, and Mercedes, as well as an occasional Ferrari or Lamborghini. The buildings of Kuwait City are mostly modern, beautiful structures with large windows, marble floors, and decorative lighting inside and out. Modern and traditional mosques dot the cityscape, lending a distinctive Middle Eastern flair to the city.
Subsequent to the Iraqi invasion of 1990, Kuwait City was reborn in the image of many other modern, western cities across the globe. The shoreline is dotted with uniquely American restaurants like Fuddruckers, Applebee's, and Chili's. Shopping malls, complete with food courts, record stores, and fashion designer boutiques occupy valued real estate along the coast. Yet, even as the city appears to model itself after modern democratic society, Muslim values still dominate daily Kuwaiti life. A large percentage of Kuwaiti men still prefer wearing the traditional robes and headdresses of the Islamic devout, while many Kuwaiti women remain hidden behind veils and flowing black robes. The contrasting mixture of business suits and robes, western chic clothing and black veils is a constant reminder of the dominating aspect of religion within the Middle East.
One cannot spend any time in Kuwait without also noticing the huge disparity between the minority Kuwaiti population and the majority non-Kuwaiti residents who make up the remainder of the country's inhabitants. Known as third country nationals or TCN's, these individuals provide over 80% of the labor force in Kuwait. Although residents of Kuwait, TCN's are mostly relegated to menial labor and retail jobs and will never hold occupations of value within the Kuwaiti society. Only true Kuwaiti's can be found working among the various ministries of the Kuwaiti government, and are guaranteed a government job or valued occupation based solely on their birthright as a Kuwaiti citizens. Further, the Kuwaiti government provides a stipend to all Kuwaiti citizens for housing and education, while providing no such assistance to TCN's. As such, TCN's are looked upon with disdain by most true Kuwaiti's, who arrogantly believe they are better than the TCN's. It is not uncommon to see a Kuwaiti berate a TCN for the most minor infraction, treating them more like slaves than human beings. Although many TCN's have become successful small business owners, most are hourly wage earners, residing in small, slum-like apartments or group housing similar to the tenement buildings of Washington, D.C. and Chicago.
One major distinction between Kuwait and other western nations is the lack of entertainment establishments and bars that serve alcoholic beverages. Despite the initial appearance of a modern society with American values, the consumption and sale of alcoholic beverages is still punishable by imprisonment in Kuwait. The Kuwaiti newspaper routinely reports the arrest of people who've violated the strict laws banning alcohol and it's consumption. Pornography is also banned in Kuwait. The sale of magazines such as Playboy and Penthouse, as well as a number of non-pornographic magazines, to include Maxim and FHM, is strictly prohibited. Very little tolerance is granted the American appetite for such reading material. A sentence of several years in a Kuwaiti jail awaits anyone caught distributing pornographic magazines or movies.
In less than three hours, our return trip to Iraq will take us from a modern city steeped in traditional Islamic values to a primitive society filled with intolerance and violence. The landscape will change from modern buildings and manicured lawns, to that of dirt roads, mud houses, and war damaged buildings. The roadways of Kuwait, paved and marked with traffic signs, will turn into unmarked roadways, many of which still bear the scars of explosions and tank tracks from coalition vehicles. The threat of IED’s will alter our awareness of our surroundings the second we cross the border. Our trust in the Kuwaiti Police and Ministry of Interior (MOI) officials will be replaced with our mistrust of the Iraqi Police, who have been known to empty their AK-47 magazines at passing coalition vehicles. The coalition has a long struggle ahead of them, despite the religious similarities between Iraq and Kuwait. Beyond religion, the countries are as different as night and day.
The short time I have spent in Kuwait and Iraq serves to remind me that there is truly no society as wonderful to live in as that of the United States of America. At home, women do not worry about having acid being thrown in their faces for failing to wear veils, like the recent attacks against women in Basra and Baghdad. Men are free to worship the religion of their choice. US Citizens and lawful permanent residents share similar occupations in business and industry. Only in America can one rise from pauper to politician; assemble and congregate for any manner or means of religious belief; and speak freely of their opinions and beliefs, be they for or against the standing laws of our government. It should be mandatory for all U.S. citizens, particularly our liberal activists, to spend a month abroad in the Middle East, on the African continent, or in southwest Asia. Perhaps then would they realize the greatness of our society and how fortunate we all are to live and work in a country that allows all of us the freedoms we take for granted on a daily basis.