this first bit is going to be heavy, so hang on.. we'll get through this fast, i promise. here goes:kuwait is more american than the united states. there are many reasons for this but if america is 1) a melting pot that is also 2) a consumer society designed to consume the disposible (and what else would better suit a capitalist interest?) ... and one that 3) measures quality as quantity... then kuwait, though it is small (3), is a melting pot with a wider reach (1), a culture of consumption with faster rates of disposibility (2), and, more than that.. its NEW.it is, after all, a child of the united states. the united states just doesn't know its out there. another one of the bastard breeds.
my point in starting off with this comment is that kuwait, and then iraq, seemed to be children of the united states. kuwait is an infant of 10 years. iraq is just being born.
visiting iraq just after the war (may, 2003) seemed a perfect chance to see a country at that soft, squishy stage when imperialism has taken a throttle hold of the throat, squeezed hard, and a baby country pops out the mouth of the motherland. i had been watching the news and listening to the televized gossip. i had been reading the paper and blinking at the photos. but it wasnt adding up. the math wasnít making sense.
some people had told me it was for money. other people told me the united states was protecting principles. still other people said that there was a mildewed root that had to be dug up or it would spread. other people told me that the united states did it because the senate is being controlled, from within, by israel, and israel wants control from without. other people told me that the united states was simply terrified and, like a dog, biting.
none of these things meant anything to me. none of them made sense. they all seemed like lies. and so i decided to go to see what lived under the skin of this screaming new infant
i spent a good deal of time in kuwait acting like an ass. i was impatient and nervous.
we were at the beach. it came up that, unfortunately, i was going to go to iraq in a few days.
The French Woman said, "I hope you donít take this wrong, but I just donít like these journalists that go into warzones. Theyíre just thrill-seekers. Adrenaline-addicts."
i looked over her shoulder and considered this for a bit.
i watched a boat on the arabian sea, maybe one hundred meters from the beach, dragging a water-skier. water peeled up behind the ski and i thought about the water pressure under the back edge of flat panel pressing down like a knife. near the beach people were swimming and laughing and it was hot weather, like what iíve seen at reservoirs outside of phoenix, arizona. the french woman sat in a nylon and aluminum-tubed folding chair. she was in the shade under the tree. the bottom of the chair was buried in the sand. she had her toes stuck down there, too, and i looked at her ankles that were covered with grains from walking on the beach, stuck into her skin and dried there by the sun. the bar-b-que near her heel was loaded with chicken and smoking. the baby fell over his ball and his mouth dug into the sand. he didnít notice, but stood up, and pushed on the ball again.
it was industrializationís heaven.
The French Woman was pale and she had been living in kuwait for 7 years.
"why donít you like them?" i asked her.
"Theyíre not considering the pain of the people, or the real circumstances around the war. Theyíre not really paying attention to what is happening. Theyíre just egoists that are looking for a thrill."
she said "they" but she meant "you" and i was about accustomed to this sort of thing by now after having interviewed terrorists and other america-haters for the last four months.
but there were two things she was pointing out and she ran it along a gradient, painting a grim picture of a blind egoist with a twitching gland. in a way i liked the image for its brutality and while i would consider myself an addict of many things (adrenaline being high on the list), i didnít consider myself, then, as a thrill-seeker.
i thought about kilinochchi, from just a few weeks before. i remembered the bulletholes there, and the people i met and i considered how i had stood in the minefield, so stupidly, and about how i wasnít making any money at all. i picked up the plastic pink cup sitting on the table in front of me.
"this cup doesnít have a hole in it. its pink! and thereís water in it!" i felt my throat tighten a little bit and realized i was getting worked up, so i took a sip for the effect and got everyoneís attention. i decided to act like an asshole.
"the water is clean. the cup has no holes in it. and look!" (i pointed to the grill) "weeeee have chicken!" i gave it that gameshow host spin. i took another sip from the cup, just to be extra-snotty.
"i met people two weeks ago that donít have enough money to buy a bus ticket out of their warzone-of-a-home. they eat the food that grows on the tree in the backyard and what grimy water they can scoop up out of the ground. they have families like we do and they like to sit and talk like we do and they have a really really big problem which we do not. i like this pink cup and this clean water and this fried chicken simply because it's here and i donít know if i would have noticed any of it if i hadnít been wandering around on battlefields last week."
i was on a roll at this point and my voice was even raised a bit. i think it feels good to get hot now and then. sometimes getting serious is fun because, if nothing else, it's dramatic. and you can be honest in a weird, backdoor sort of way.
"but more than that is the fact that i feel a responsibility for my country and other countries as well. there are people in america with kind hearts and active minds and they canít see past the Neon Curtain of the Isolated States of America. i feel a responsibility to europeans who donít understand americans and americans that are renaming french fries because they confused the french with the belgians in the first place. i square it off to myself and to the people that live just a few clicks north of here. now nothingís going to change this crappy planet, but at the very least i want to understand it."
she raised her eyebrows and looked off to the side in that way that the french do. i was clearly getting out of hand.
"but wait! thereís more!" i blurted. "i donít even make money for doing this. i spend money for it. no one is paying me, i am going into debt, i am risking my life and iíll probably be rewarded by being followed by the cia until i do something like mispark at which point theyíll arrest me, chain me up in some basement then beat the boogers out of me until i confess to being a terrorist."
the baby screamed.
he had just burned his hand on the grill.
if people live in kuwait they live in the city. if itís not a US army base then the badlands of kuwait are empty deserts stabbed with the occasional oil well. people just canít live out there with the oil and the creosote bushes; its too damn hot. in the summertime temperatures can rise to between 60 and 70 degrees celsius (140-160 f). even if you were born here and you like the sun you go outside for more than a few minutes in order to run to the next oasis of air conditioning. but at least gas is cheap.
i donít understand how people lived here before the invention of refrigerants. the desert is just a purgatory and the city itself, with its black asphalt, tall buildings, and combustion factories, becomes a summertime hell. even in the spring iíve felt my lungs start to shrivel and my skin cracking. hundreds of years ago iím sure life here was as dire as the life was in the arctic circle. but humans are fierce and these dark vikings of the dunes did live here, without refrigerants, for hundreds of years.
they were, more or less, bedouins - camel-riding nomads that moved largely at night found some repreive on the northern banks of the persian gulf. three families came from najad, saudi arabia and moved towards what is today named qatar. from there the al sabah family, a group of some 300-400 people, moved up the coast to kuwait and set up camp here. pirates were a hassle then and so when the british, who were busy bustling goods from the india subcontinent, offered a military hand of protection the al-sabah family signed an agreement with the british giving them control of international relations and serving as protectorate. in exchange the british were allowed to set up port that could be used to ship goods from india, sri lanka, and other outposts from the far side.
about sixty years later britain returned independence to kuwait who had been keeping track of the family lines. in 1961 they drew up a constitution and these days they still follow the tried-and-true method of having a sheikh, or emir, or prince, or whatever title people use when they speak about him.
Sheikh Jabar Al Ahmed Al Sabah, is adored by the kuwaitis. there are photos of him everywhere. itís usually one of three different pictures, all of them a smiling, handsome, classically arabic and princely personality. most places have the official piece of marketing: a crappy 4-color a4 sized (8.5x11) portait of his smiling head. in more prestigious places thereís a photograph of him and the vice-prince smiling, walking, laughing. they seem to be briskly walking. perhaps theyíre headed to an important government function, casual as you might go to dinner with a friend. or perhaps it is just leisure. for the prince of kuwait its hard to say. then, in the government offices, where his presence must be most intensely felt, as if he were there, large hand-painted portraits of the official version grace the wall in larger-than-life-sized versions.
the kuwaitis really do adore him. after all, when they get married here (usually between the age of 18 and 22) then he gives the couple a US$15,000-US$20,000 dowry, a plot of land, and enough money to build a small mansion. in some cases a large mansion. he gives them phone, electricity, roads, and a tax-free world. of course they adore him. itís excellent to see, really, a leader of a country that is so well liked. and his image is everywhere as a result.
his smile, like a horn, rings across the countryside. itís a massive marketing campaign, with a deeper scope than Nike or Coca-Cola. iíve seen decals on the back window of cars, black-and-white outlines of his face, like a Nike ad or a rock band. iíve seen tee-shirts with the same face, graffiti on walls, and seldom is heard a discouraging word.
jabar has his extremes, certainly. i mean, the guy is probably one of the ten wealthiest people in the world. he has over 40 wives and at least as many sons, most of whom donít know him. nor, i imagine, love him.
but whatever, he probably rides on a perpetual wave of new-born adoration from the acolytes of his harem. but it misfires sometimes, being a prince. looking for new women heís known to visit schools and round the girls up, choosing who he thinks is most beautiful. one day, on one of these school-girl shopping trips he saw a young thing he fancied and asked her to stand up and give her name. she stood up and announced, ďRahaba Jabar Al Ahmed Al Sabah, Sir.Ē
it was one of his own daughters.
it is, after all, a small country.
the kuwaiti ministries of information and immigration tag-teamed me for four days. it had me confused for a bit. if one is travelling into iraq when there is a war going on, and the government has been overthrown, then where does one apply for a visa? where does one go to find out? there was no problems getting into iraq, because there was no government.
the problem was getting out.
and so papers are needed that certify youíre not an iraqi whoís trying to bleed across the border into the land of wealth and americanization that lies just a few kilometers south.
eventually the papers were made.
i converted some kuwaiti dinars to american dollars (if american troops were running the show then i assumed that american dollars would, too) and headed across the border.