Friday, June 15, 2012

Killing Time in Kuwait

The new Cadillac Escalade was no more than 3 feet (1 m) behind our older model Toyota van when it started flashing its high beams as if urgently requiring us to vacate the lane in which we were driving. Although the speed limit is 120 km/h (75 mph), and we were traveling in excess of that, the pricey SUV had to use its brakes to avoid ramming into our rear bumper. Resigned, our driver pulled over one lane to the right on the six lane freeway so that the driver behind us could get by. I only caught a glimpse of the middle-aged man behind the wheel, but he was wearing sunglasses, dressed in the formal white Arab robes of a well-to-do Kuwaiti, complete with white head dress offset by a black cord to keep it securely in place. To add a further indication of importance he had a cell phone held to his ear with a hunched shoulder.  He was clearly in a hurry, however it was doubtful that there was any particular reason for his speeding, except as an expression of his impatient and somewhat fatalistic culture. "Inshallah”, "if God permits" is an Islamic idea equivalent to predestination. That is, that since everything is in God's hands, including whether one will live or die, there is little to be concerned about.  Everything is "Inshallah".
But there are other, more modernistic, philosophies that dictate a similar cultural outcome. There is a saying I heard, attributed to a middle-aged Kuwaiti. "My father rode a camel. I drive a Mercedes. My son will ride a camel." This is present-day Kuwait. It is a land with disproportionate wealth (and a huge gap between the wealthy and poor). It is a place (similar to Dubai and other modern-day Arab cities) where the show of riches through architecture, expensive cars and decadent lifestyles goes with the territory. In fact, non-Kuwaiti residents exceed the indigenous population, mostly due to the need for construction workers, domestic workers, and businesses representing offshore interests. It is today's (and tomorrow's) oil money being spent as fast as possible. Many Western retailers and restauranteurs have set up shop in Kuwait (not just the ubiquitous McDonald's and Starbucks). Since virtually everything is imported (with the exception of oil), everything from foreign foodstuffs to fashion can be obtained there at a price.

As opposed to many of the cities that we have visited, Kuwait City does not appear to have bustling streets filled with people walking to who knows where. Of course, this is primarily due to the weather. The temperature rose to 50°C (122°F) virtually every day, making time outside dangerous without the ability to rehydrate. Everyone seemed to carry water withthem no matter where they were going. Despite being on the Persian Gulf (or more correctly the Arabian Gulf), it is not muggy, but is a dry heat. It was not the heat that bothered me, but the cultural norm that dictated no shorts were to be worn outside that caused me to perspire much more profusely than necessary.
Frivolous as it may sound, one of the highlights of our time in Kuwait was the opportunity to jet ski on the Gulf. The country of Iran loomed on the shore opposite. The beaches were deserted for the most part, and there was very little water traffic, but I could imagine the port city being deluged with foreign troops and the waters dotted with warships just a few years ago.

Almost everyone who is not a Kuwaiti but living in Kuwait anticipates the day they will leave, some longing for that day and others dreading it. Even some who have been there many years have difficulty describing this country has their home. Perhaps this is partly due to the fact that there is insurmountable difficulty in obtaining citizenship there if you are not born in Kuwait to a Kuwaiti. This leaves a further communal predisposition to a temporary view of life in Kuwait.
The freeway flow of traffic was quite often slowed by the presence of a roadside wreck. It was usually a high-priced vehicle that had incurred very significant damage indicating that the accident had taken place at high speed. Each time I passed the twisted metal and shattered plastic of a smashed automobile I thought of the people living in Kuwait. I wondered about the similarities between them and people with Parkinson's disease. Tomorrow may hold its uncertainties. Today is all we have. But living life with fatalistic, pedal-to-the-metal recklessness or fearful, pumping-the-brake in anticipation of tomorrow seems to miss the point of living at all. Surely there is purpose that captures our passion, a faith that defeats our fears and significance that defines a more satisfying reality than just living for today.

1 comment:

  1. Great idea and application of what you saw there, however, you don't really think "Inshalla" is the "equivalent" of "Predestination" do you?
    And the jet skiing must have been a kick!