Monday, November 26, 2007


Another day, another gust of sand

11:28am Tuesday, Nov 20 | Edit Note | Delete

Yesterday I missed my Arabic class, so I really 'pushed the boat out there', as its curiously said. I have finished reading Mark Steel's 'Reasons to be Cheerful' and Nick Cohen's 'What's left?'. I always have many books on the go at once. I'm a promiscuous tart in this respect. Virgin Megastore has a good bookshop here, but actually most of the books I have to read I brought out here myself, or got posted. Tonight I plan to go to the diving club, and to the British Embassy to feel important at the weekend.

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The latest

8:24pm Sunday, Nov 18 | Edit Note | Delete
Apalling internet connections engulf me. Who will rid me of this insufferable predicament!

I swam eight lenghts of a pool on Saturday, which made me feel most athletic. I didnt go to the cinema at all, which was strange. My Satellite TV connection worked and then stopped working. I reflected on the need for a bedside lamp.
My third Arabic lesson awaits me. I need a shave.

Mine is a simple life.

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Almost a Month

7:23am Thursday, Nov 15 | Edit Note | Delete

27 days without booze. An unprecedented achievement. Will power has not been required. My relationship with caffeeine is healthier and robuster than ever. I go to the Gym sometimes as well. Getting apparently gets down to zero celsius during 'winter'. Should be going to Bahrain in a week or two and probably either Dubai or Muscat for a few days before Xmas.

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The Score

2:11pm Tuesday, Oct 30 | Edit Note | Delete

The plan is to stay here for one year. Maybe longer. I have my own flat, with its own sqeaky bed. An absence of bath is forlornly noted. My fridge is not as big as some other teachers but I decree that I can live with that. "Invasion' starring Nicole Kidman was highy edited. Illegitimate Kissing, let alone spontaneous baby making is frowned on in these parts after all. It was also somewhat dull.I have broken my own rule and written more than 50 words.3 comments | Add a comment

Sunday, November 18, 2007

The Crescent and The Cross

Here are two of the things I have been doing over the past month, since I arrived in Kuwait. More to follow in subsequent posts.

Going to the Aware centre with Francis

The Aware center on Surra street is an organization devoted to furthering intercultural dialogue, focusing on Arab-Western relations. It holds talks and other events, has an English language library on subjects related to Islam, and offers Arabic lessons. Since I arrived I've been there seven times, five times to hear speeches on various topics and twice to attend an Arabic language class I've joined. According to what I've heard it seeks converts to Islam amongst Westerners. Certainly it tries to cast Islam in the best light it can, to make it as palatable, as comprehensible to the western mind as possible.

Owing to the fact I have yet to ‘crack’ the bus system in Kuwait, which exists but remains unclear to me; and owing to my not having a car – an unusual fate for a Western expat – I get to the Aware center by taxi, normally with my trusty taxi driver Francis, an Indian, Christian Gentleman keen on calling me ‘Sir’. The journey takes about 10 minutes and costs about two pounds fifty. Talking generally about taxis, it’s advisable to form a relationship with a driver you can trust, whom you can book by phone and who knows where you live, given that road signs and addresses don't seem to exist, at least whjere I live.. To my knowledge all Taxi drivers are non-Kuwaiti citizens, most are from India and Bangladesh. Most are Muslims, as are most non-Kuwaiti residents, and most don't speak English very well, though usually adequately. Francis is a Christian from Cochin south of Goa, India, to which he returns every year to see his family. His English is very good and he is usually very reliable.

The talks last about one hour and are followed by an opportunity for questions and discussion. We are served tea during the speeches and the general atmosphere has been very calm, relaxed and welcoming. The centre is staffed by a devout, very smiley Ugandan Muslim and a British female convert to Islam from Dorset who married a Kuwaiti man many years ago. There are many pamphlets and short publications which can be read and taken away about Islam and Kuwaiti culture, and the library is well stocked. The talks take place in a large, rather beautifully decorated room. We sit on comfortable sofas that circle the room and are attached to the wall.

The talks so far have been on Education in Kuwait (it urgently needs to improve if Kuwait is to be prosperous in a post-oil future or one freed from dependency on western investment and experts) ; The history and prospects for Failaka Island, which lies 20Km off the Kuwaiti coast and was once called ‘Ikarus’ (It was settled by Alexander The Great, has many classical ruins, was trashed by Saddam and may be ruined further by the prospects of Government supported tourist development); Tolerance in Islam (Islam is tolerant towards Christianity and Judaism, or at least should be – but obviously Islam expects to be dominant in an Islamic country. The idea of Tolerance for atheists, gays, extra-marital sex, western style hedonism was obviously unmentionable.) ; Intercultural marriages (these can work and be beneficial, though they might be a challenge. Islamic women cannot marry non-Muslim men unless they convert. The reason- to protect her from his non-Islamic influence. Islamic men can take non-Islamic wives, however, and these are not obliged to convert. Does it matter that her children will have to be Muslims?); a Speech given by the Roman Catholic Archbishop of the Gulf Area (an excellent account of positive, peace-desiring sentiments expressed in recent decades by senior Catholic and Islamic authorities.. Little treatment given to the profound theological differences existing between these two consciously missionary belief systems.)

I was unsure if I wanted to take the introductory Arabic course. But now after the first two lessons - there will be ten in all - I’m glad I have. So far I’ve learnt to recognize, write and pronounce 10 letters of the Arabic alphabet and been introduced to a few useful greetings and sayings.

Going to the Anglican Church

This I've done on three consecutive Fridays (?!), after spending my first Friday - the Sabbath in these parts - going to the large, very crowded Roman Catholic Church near the historical city centre. Whereas the vast majority of the Catholic congregation was Indian or Bangladeshi (it seemed I was one of only three Caucasians in the service) at the Anglican Service, the majority have been white, though a large group of Chine worshippers attend, as well as a fair number from the subcontinent and Africa. Our vicar from Derby, England is really good, friendly and enthusiastic. His services are pitched, I'd suggest, at the higher end of the low church categrorisation, as it were. In other words, the services are not that ‘happy clappy’ or spontaneously effusive in their expression, and there is a fair amount of collective recitation from the Order of Service booklet, including the Nicean Creed. On the other hand, there is no trace of incense, or attention paid to Mary; nor is the ambience particularly formal or grand. Indeed the ‘sharing of the peace’, when the congregants shake hands with one another, is without doubt the most prolonged, energetic and sociable I’ve ever experienced. Curiously enough, the British Ambassador plays the piano during the services and has been teaching us to sing new, unknown hymns. After the services, over cake and diet coke, but alas no coffee, I’ve been edgily trying to befriend new people so as to extend my limited social circle and have made some limited progress. The first time I went, the vicar invited me to join him and some friends for lunch at the Tumbleweeds Restaurant, one of the many American restaurant chains here. He’s also invited me to his house for tea, though I’ve yet to go.

As I write the above I feel I should write something about my spiritual background, my transcendent CV, as it were, at least as it relates to Christianity. I don’t tend to like being mistaken in any straightforward way for an ‘ordinary Christian’. I suspect that what I wrote above might put me in that box.

Though it’s obvious I’m very interested in spirituality and religion, I haven’t usually been a churchgoer, though this has begun to change somewhat since 2005. As a child, despite my love of Jesus and conviction about the existence of God – if not my direct existential closeness to him – I found the church services my mother took me to in Cambridge, as well as the ones I had to sit through at school, usually boring and missable events. For this reason, I didn’t get confirmed along with others in my year were when I was 15 - though this was also because of the principled objection I then felt to organized religion in-itself.

As a teenager, as it happens, my love of Jesus found its most vivid expression in my devotion to Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Rock Opera ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’, especially the 1973 film version by Norman Jewison. I would listen to and watch this rock opera with passionate admiration, while others my age explored their more customary identifications with bands such as Depeche Mode, Ultravox, Dire Straits, The Smiths and The Cure (though I liked some of these too). The only time I routinely attended Church before 2005 was during my BA studies at Durham University in 1992 and 1993. This period of ‘Churchification’, if I can call it that, in the aftermath of my mystical-Christian experiences which had themselves followed my run-in with Reverend Moon’s Goons, saw me going to the local Presbyterian Church. It had attracted me on account of the simplicity and deep sincerity of its devotions. Nevertheless, because of its, to me, evil doctrines regarding hell and damnation, and the general prissiness of the wider Church in general towards sex and hedonism, which I really couldn’t embrace, I always knew my interest in Mainstream Churchianity was highly conditioned and far from enthusiastic.

My issues, indeed, with the doctrine of hell and damnation were destined to seriously undermine my allegiance to the Christian faith in general. Although I always wanted to hold out the belief that the doctrine was false, that Jesus didn’t believe the things it is apparent from a straightforward reading of the Gospels that he did believe, I came to accept that most Christians did not agree with me, even if they were embarrassed about the cruelty of this doctrine. On the other hand, it is true that ‘liberal’ attitudes towards Salvation certainly existed in the Church; but they tended to be only very loosely Christian or Christocentric in a unique, specific sense; they tended to embrace, in other words, a polytheistic, ‘universalist’ approach to spirituality that said or at least implied, generously but also rather meaninglessly, that all religions were the same, etc. For that reason, then, how meaningful was it for such believers to call themselves Christian? Meanwhile, those Christians who did take the Christian revelation seriously and felt it had something unique and special to impart, almost exclusively –to my knowledge anyway – seemed to want to cling, however awkwardly and shamefully, to this orientally despotic, to be frank infinitely cruel doctrine. In a circumstance, therefore, in which one could either have a relationship with an all embracing, all- loving God who actually had very little to offer or say that was distinctive, powerful or necessary; or a God who had a very distinctive promise of salvation and newness of life to offer, but also threatened you will eternal hellfire if you didn’t embrace some very particular ideas about Jesus Christ, I really began to feel, unenthused by both possibilities, that I should just hold up my hands and disengage entirely – which is basically what I did.

That said, I didn’t become Anti-christian. I never lost my respect for Christianity, and would always defend it when it was fundamentally attacked – even when I'd agree with many of the ethical bases of the detractor’s crusade (why are anti-theists always so passionate?) Neither did I lose my love of Jesus or my belief in his significance and greatness, despite the hellish utterances which he either did say, with a literal or else figurative meaning, or else which were attributed to him by the New Testament compilers. Essentially, I just let the whole business slide; egged on by a certain spiritual exhaustion combining with the recurrent depressive episodes overshadowing much of my mid to late twenties.

By 2005, my spiritual sensibilities had revived, just as my life in general had become much more stable as a teacher of English in Slovakia. My interest in Gnosticism in 2002 and 2003 reminded me of the idea that God might be truly all-loving in a genuine, unmanipulative sense, as well as radically absent from the judgementalist, oppressive modes of human reality; and also that God is present within the hearts of all people, asleep and wanting to be awoken. The writings of Neale Donald Walsch in 2004, for all their sometimes excessive sentimentality, struck a real chord for a while, especially his early books and helped my mind re-engage with the transcendent. Finally, my intense encounter with Tibetan Buddhism in the summer of 2005 further strengthened my ever growing interest in an interior spirituality that was also all-compassionate and all-loving, even though my residual, stubborn attachment to the Christian heritage – which is very different in its basic presuppositions from those of Buddhism – prevented me from embracing its teachings and practices for long.

Actually, my recent spell of attending Church services, albeit irregularly, began in late 2004 at Bratislava’s Roman Catholic English language services. So it preceded and enveloped, therefore, the entire duration of the period I was interested in Buddhism. Indeed, for awhile I was something of a two-timer, going to the meditation center on Tuesdays and Thursdays, to Church on Sudays. I’d be misrepresenting myself if I didn’t admit a significant reason I went to Church at all was to be closer to a certain Slovak lady who was also happened to be my Slovak language teacher. I could also sometimes get lonely, and appreciated the group relocations of the English speaking Catholics to McDonalds for their post-Mass coffees.

In early 2006, while the Buddhist interest gradually faded away, the Catholic spell morphed into a Lutheran reorientation – to the International Baptist Church which I bewilderingly had only barely been aware of over the past five years in Bratislava. To be frank, I found the Protestants more welcoming and more friendly; though of course this could be attributable to my Protestant (or at least Anglican) upbringing. I also preferred their style of worship, since the protestant emphasis on the individual chimed more harmoniously with the obviously individualistic cast of my soul. What was really quite novel, however, was that I began for the first time to take the Eucharist or ‘The Lord’s Supper’, despite the fact I still hadn’t been confirmed. Technically I thought this wasn’t allowed. Not having wanted to gatecrash uninvited at the altar, I'd never gone up before, well except as a child to be blessed. But the nice pastor told me I didn’t need to be – so that made a change. But I didn’t go to Church every Sunday, nor did I buy into the full package.

Here in Kuwait while I’ve gone every Sunday so far, I’m not sure I always will. But it is been enjoyable so far. It’s an important social center for me, in a country where its important to have things to do. Fundamentally I still maintain, as I always have, that ‘Being a Christian’ and ‘Going to Church’ are not identical or mutually necessary things.

In any case I’ll try not to get into too many ‘Hell’ arguments, as they tend rather easily to spoil my day and upset me – as they did in my earlier, more volatile, more theologically sensitive years.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Alcohol, Kuwait and I

So what have I done so far with my free time in Kuwait?

I knew not to expect a wild nightlife or venues for western bands and that there wouldn't be any bars or casinos. True to the anticipation, none of these appeared. It was lucky, then, that I've never liked casinos, long since tired of nightclubs (I never really liked them anyway) and have only been to three gigs in the past twenty years. So this hasn’t really troubled me. As for the absence of bars and alcohol, however, adjusting to this has proved a significant shock to the system – but in fact a far less difficult one than I’d expected.

This has surprised me quite a lot. After all, I'd estimate that I’ve had at least some alcohol on about 98% of all the days since my eighteenth birthday. Without doubt I never missed a days quaffing beer in Slovakia over the past six years. That was one of the noticeable things about my time in India indeed: that I would actually go sometimes four or five days without a beer. That kind of experience of abstinence was something I really noticed.

Does this mean that until recently I was an alcoholic, or only a heavy drinker? Who knows? Not an alcoholic I always wanted to think. I always told myself this was proven by the fact I didn’t drink spirits, except very rarely, and didn’t think of booze as soon as I woke up in the morning. I also told myself I could give it up ‘if I really wanted to’ or ‘if I had to’. The thing was that I never wanted to, nor could I ever not afford to drink, especially in Slovakia where beer is so cheap. Still, this presumption, which consoled me in my liver- worrying moments, that I could give it up if I wanted to, was never something I ever put to the test. Having a couple of beers every day, or at least a glass or two of wine, if not a lot more a couple or three times a week, was something I just accepted as an inevitable part of my life – well, except when I was in India and alcohol was harder to come by.

Here in Kuwait, I’m further reassured - correctly or incorrectly - that I wasn’t an alcoholic, since I’ve experienced no disabling or quivering withdrawal symptoms. I can only presume my daily attachment to alcohol was therefore habitual and cultural, not biological; despite my having drunk in a perhaps defiance of the recommended dosage, a commitment to the juice on my part that I’d imagined might have established some kind of a clinging, demanding expectation in my bloodstream.

The cultural issue is certainly the important factor in explaining why I’m not drinking now. I’ve made no effort to give up booze; there has been no decision formed in my mind to break the habit and embrace sobriety. If I could get beer and wine as easily here as I can in the west, and in much of the Islamic world besides, there’s no doubt I’d be drinking now as regularly as ever. It’s simply that it’s not available here. Of course, that’s not strictly true, since you can get it if you really want to –on the black market. But the fact I’m not surrounded by its ready availability and, more to the point, the fact that drinking is alien to the Kuwaiti social scene, has meant that all the triggers, the cultural signals, that used to make me buy it, have been removed. My habitual reactions and urges, wanting a cool beer at the end of the day over a meal, the tingling of lust in the taste buds, the desire to lubricate the mind and emotions in the time honoured alcoholic way; all these have remained – though admittedly they’ve faded over time. All that’s changed is that I’d have to make a real effort now to get this satisfaction. Standing in the way of gratification is this formidable wall of prohibition, propped up by severe legal threats, that wasn’t there before. And what’s odd is that I’ve discovered to my surprise that my need and desire for alcohol is not nearly strong enough to make me care that much about this wall of prohibition, or to think at all about ways of getting over it..

So in a way I ask myself , why the hell did I drink in the first place? An interesting question. Maybe I never actually wanted to? Well, no, certainly that’s not true – because I did. Maybe it would be more true to say I didn’t need to drink. Only that’s not true either, because from the age of ‘maturity’ as it were, when the age of alcohol dawned, at school when drinking became the done thing to do, I saw no reason to make a stand and deny myself the pleasure. In that sense, in a way then, I did need to drink; just to do the acceptable, normal thing (though I accept I always drank more than was normal), to conform to the default setting that is alcohol. After all, being a teetotaler in the west requires a certain effort, does it not. You need to really want not to drink, if you are not to be persuaded by society’s pressures expecting, if not urging, you to drink – at least a bit.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m not a sudden convert to teetotalism, nor do I champion prohibition. I’d be having a beer right now if I could be – or rather if I could be easily. Nor do I regret having drunk, since a) I’m not sure that if I hadn’t drunk I would still have had the pleasures and great times I have had, both alone and with others, in the company of drink, and b) I can’t be sure that if I hadn’t drunk some form of rigidity or somberness might not have overshadowed me in some form of hermetic isolation. On the other hand, I accept that this is counterfactual speculation, that I cannot know. Maybe my life would have been better if I’d never drunk. Yet, how can I possibly know this? Certainly, I can’t and won’t put myself in a position to decree that it would be better for everyone else if they never drank and stopped drinking now. That is the stance assumed by the prohibitionists. It’s one the virtue and value of which I see little evidence for. And that quite apart from my extreme aversion to telling people what they can and can’t do.

On the other hand, I accept I probably did drink too much, if only because it contributed to my current circumstance whereby I have to carry all this excess blubber around that has fixed itself to me since I was 22. I can also accept that many others probably drink too much as well, such as to undermine their health and their happiness. But then most people, as I say, don't drink as much as I did, having their consumption more moderately pitched.

In any case, I’m glad to have this opportunity now to put the sauce aside for awhile – if only as an experiment. Maybe I’ll never drink again, though almost certainly I will. In lesser quantities perhaps, in lesser quantities I hope; and for certain, in the knowledge, acquired here in Kuwait, that I don’t really need to at all.

Ok, so what have I actually done, in the absence of booze? More of this in my next post.

I must fix myself a coffee.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

On The Work Related Arena

I've heard tales of bloggers getting into trouble for writing about their work. Getting disciplined or sacked has been known to happen. It has has even happened to a friend of mine. So I've decided, coward that I am (?) that this will not be a blog whereon I will indulge in office gossip, office politics, or negative criticism related to my work place, or the people who work here.

Is this because I appreciate the money my employer plans to fire my way every month for the next eleven months? Yes, indeed. Absolutely. I thought I’d make that clear now in case you wonder why I don’t write negatively about my employer in the future.

Like many a soul beneath our moon, I'm a wage slave. As such, given my inability to create money out of thin air; given, moreover, my unwillingness to seek to procure the means of habitation and sustenance by ways that circumvent the ‘money system’ in a manner commonly referred to as ‘crime’, it seems I've little choice but to exhibit, at least by failing to be critical, the outward signs of an inward gratitude to the sources of my income for that income. For the requirement of this dutiful deference, I do not blame my company, but rather look reproachfully at the worldwide system of mechanised wage-slavery of which it, and indeed I, form a part. The fact that I don't have a reliable source of private income of my own is also, of course, acutely relevant. As is the broader, wider, deeper fact that we have to use this absurd, abstract stuff called money in the first place.

Anyway, from now on, if I significantly disapprove of something at work I shall try, on this blog at least, to pass over it in silence. To be the recipients of my private work related rants will be the function of my friends and family, if cause for this arises, and if I feel I will not bore them too much.

Maybe you are thinking: 'You're being over paranoid'. You may be right. But of course, I can’t know this. So I don't know this. On the other hand, I promise not to invent positive stories about my employer out of thin air. To be sycophantic towards my overlord is not my ambition.

By now you're perhaps supposing that I have something to be silent about; otherwise, why do I go to the trouble of the preceding paragraphs? As it happens, you'd be wrong. So far, beyond the normal, predictable ‘growing pains, and ‘wriggling in’ nuisances associated with starting work in a new place, everything has been fine. Really, it has been. Certainly better than I expected. Ok, it would be nice if the internet worked as well in my office, at my own desk, as it works in the classroom -though even there it’s slower than it could be. And I would like to be driven to and from work each day in a car like some teachers are, instead of in our small, somewhat cramped bus. But apart from that, conditions have been very acceptable. The people I work with are at various places on the scale from fine to great – which is just as well, since my extra-work social life is struggling in its infancy.

Just as welcome are the students I’ve so far been lucky enough to teach. Before I came out to the Gulf I’d heard that Gulf Arabs are not a pleasure to teach; that they are lazy, unmotivated and just don’t care; that because they're soaking in the wealth and privilege of oil they don’t need to better themselves and don’t need to learn English to get a better job, which is so different from the situation for students in Slovakia. Maybe the account I'd heard was a worst case scenario. But I heard it nevertheless. It conditioned my expectations. It’s true, those Gulf Arabs about whom I’d heard this were University students, not employees of the Oil industry as my students are. Before I started here, I’d suspected that the already employed, who actually need English for their work, as Kuwaitis in the oil industry do, might turn out to be more motivated and serious.

I can't speak about Kuwaiti university students, however. Whatever the reason may be, mine are certainly motivated and keen (as well as punctual, which always helps). This is nice and means I don’t have to over-play the role of entertainer, or be an arouser of attention; or, on the other hand, feel that I ought to be following the utterly demeaning, lamentable path of that which we in the educational profession try to disguise as something other than what it is: discipline and correction.

They certainly like to ask a lot of questions. Luckily, six years teaching experience and the manageable challenges of intermediate grammar have allowed these questions to be a stimulus to the rhythm and flow of the lessons, not irksome or embarrassing. My students are assiduous about detail. They are very keen to understand everything as well as they can. I’ve tried to keep them speaking as much as possible. They’ve liked this, I'm fairly sure.

I have two women in my class and four men. One of my students is very religious, in that he wears the robes and beard of the Wahabbis. He only joined us recently. Though pleasant he has a more somber countenance than the others, who are jollier. I wasn’t sure if he’d like doing what we in the business call ‘pair work’ with the women, so I haven’t tried putting them together. To my agreeable surprise, however, the women haven’t minded interacting with the other men, though usually they prefer sitting together. In Oman the women and men in my friend's classes sat segregated in separate sides of the classroom. In Saudi all lessons are all male or all female.

All of my students are Kuwaitis, except for one Egyptian man, the most fastidious learner of all. I can honestly say, so far at least, that they've been a pleasure to teach. They’ve made me feel welcome in Kuwait and have given me lots of useful tips and information about life here.

The use of the so called ‘interactive white board’ has been very helpful. All the contents of the book can be readily displayed on a screen, which certainly helps. Even better, I no longer have to cue CD's and tapes for the listenings.

I teach from 8 until 10.35am daily with two ten minute breaks. So not for very long, in other words. Indeed, I only teach 50% of my contracted hours, though this might change at any time. Indeed, it might very well next week. For the rest of the day I prepare lessons and have been looking over the exams. I have lunch, drink a lot of coffee and, when I’m not busy, make use of the internet facilites, which seem relatively unrestricted.

Some noteworthy aspects of work are:

We get brought coffee to our tables in the staff room by a Bangladeshi waiter
Indians do our photocopying for us. Though they are not always there to do it
As I enter and leave work, I pass my finger over a fingerprint machine
The canteen staff wear masks
The food is actually very good (in my opinion)
My students call me 'sir' - sometimes. They never did that in Slovakia.
A high proportion of the staff are British
Everyone I meet on the premises works for the oil industry in some capacity.
Today we had two false fire alarms. One was planned, the other went off on its own accord for mysterious, as yet uninvestigated, reasons.
I spend half an hour a day traveling to and from work - in a bus.
I always wear a tie

Now it's Thursday evening, which means the weekend has just begun. Until September 1st the weekend in Kuwait began on Wednesday evenings. Friday is the sacred day in Islam, so this was non-negotiable, but it was decided in that for business purposes it would be wise not to continue losing two Western business days a week. The Emirates was the third of the Arabian Peninsula countries to make this shift, in September 2006, after Bahrain and Qatar. Kuwait is the 4th. By making these changes, these lands now line up with the weekending customs of Egypt, Lebanon, Syria and Jordan.

Saturday, November 3, 2007

My Accommodation and More on Why I'm in Kuwait

I live on the ninth floor of a block of flats overlooking a toy shop on Kuwait city’s 5th ring road. Of course, locals will say I don’t live in Kuwait City but in Salmiya, one of the relatively upmarket areas of the larger urban sprawl surrounding it. Out of my bedroom window I see the Arabian/Persian Gulf at the end of a wide panorama of roofs below. Everyday at about 5am I hear the Muezzin’s call to prayer. By now, after my travels, I have become used to this sound and rather like it. It doesn’t wake me up. It’s not that loud but sometimes I wake up earlier than I need to.

For my first week I only had a double bed, a wardrobe, two sofas, a fitted bathroom and a fitted kitchen for company. I have since been joined by an oven, a fridge freezer, a plant, two tables, cutlery, plates, pots and pans, a TV, a DVD player, a Satellite TV receiver and some curtains. All this stuff belongs to my employer. Both it and the flat are provided as part of my contract so I don’t have to worry about rent and bills, which is nice, though I’m not quite sure about the bills yet. If I choose I can take an accommodation allowance and find my own place. For now at least I’ll enjoy the ease this place affords. In fact, almost certainly I’ll stay where I am, given that I don't plan to be here in Kuwait more than a year. Overall, the flat is clean and modern and shiny in its appearance and sufficiently robust in its furnishings.

Drawbacks: No internet connection and my Satellite TV receiver doesn’t work. Until last night all my showers were lukewarm but now I’ve worked out how my weird tap works. My bed also squeaks a lot, so I’ve put the mattress on the floor. Actually, this makes the base of the bed into an interesting table substitute over which the draping of clothes etc can be usefully performed. In addition:

There is no bath! This is a true bane, a cross to bear, a sacrifice I must reckon with and cannot avoid. In Slovakia I always had a bath. As a child, as my mother will inform you, I indulged a healthy love of hot water in my bathing. Reading in the bath, of course, is a luxury not to be underestimated in importance in the constitution of any fine day. Reading in the shower I have not yet tried, but my suspicions are that it will not compete.

I am not a cook but cooking is something I will try to do more of in the coming months. This may well mean, and probably will, that I’ll become a connoisseur of Kuwait’s selection of ‘Ready Meals’. The ones I’ve seen so far have been good, although on the ungenerous side, and have the advantage that they come in a bag you’re supposed to boil. So you don’t need a microwave, which I lack.

I share my block of flat with eight other teachers from the same school. Four of them are British, one is Canadian and three are American. Since the school I work for is set to expand, new teachers should be arriving soon.

It’s good living so close to other teachers. I have connected with some of these better than others, naturally enough. Still, it’s ‘early days’ and I am notorious - to those who take an interest in such matters, i.e me - for sometimes leaving it months, if not years, before striking up friendships with particular people I’ve already lived or worked closely with. A very good friend from my schooldays, for example, is someone I hardly spoke to until twelve months after we’d both left. This pattern has often repeated itself, though usually in a less extreme way, at work places and other organized communities I’ve been involved in - usually trips or expeditions of one kind or another.

The surroundings of the tower block are less than charming. Cars perpetually rush by outside. Luckily, since I grew up next to a busy street in Cambridge, I’m accustomed to ignoring the unique rushes and murmers that traffic generates. Still, I’d rather have it silent. Actually, until right now – as I write this – I had not really been aware of the noise. Alas now I shall have to learn to ignore it again, which may take awhile. We shall see.

This busy street is the 5th of Kuwait’s seven ring roads, which together resemble a series of ripples on a lake emanating from a central point. This point is the Financial District, which used to be the old, walled historical centre and is where you now find the Liberation and Kuwait Towers. About 800 metres north of me, past a prison, over an open sandy area used by Indians for cricket and football, lies the nearest of Kuwait’s Malls. Even though it is about 8km from the city centre it is called ‘City Center’. More than once this has caused uncertainty when I’ve asked taxi drivers to take me to the mall. I had to make sure they didn’t take me to the real city centre which is in the completely opposite direction. The mall itself, compared to ‘Marina Mall’, ‘Al Fanar’ and ‘Sharq Souq’ is not great, though it has a useful ‘Caribou Coffee’ which can do more than pump me full of caffeine, a vital pleasure in this land of no booze. For it has a Wi-Fi connection too, which comes free, albeit only for an hour, with your drink. The Mall’s supermarket is good, specializing in bulk buy deals, the majority of which concern tuna in some form. Unfortunately, I am more of a sardine than a tuna man, but there’re enough sardines too. Another noticeable thing is that everything you buy in the supermarket is paid for through the same cash registers. Since you can buy clothes and other inedible accessories here, this means you will pay for your trousers alongside your marmalade.

City Center Mall also has a Bowling Alley, which I’ve yet to use, and an enormous area for entertaining children with small rides and other electronic amusements. A rumour at work maintained that a cinema lurked beside one of the many fast food chicken joints, but this proved unfounded.

Malls are very important in Kuwait. One gets the impression Kuwaitis take considerable pride in them, though perhaps not so much in ‘City center’, which is mainly functional and not one of the glamour malls. The best of the glamour malls is called ‘The Avenues’, which I’ve yet to visit. Without pubs or clubs to frequent, and as an alternative to the popular local men only ‘Diwaniya’ meeting places, I can imagine how malls have become the attraction that they are for those Kuwaitis who want a break from home. Another reason for their appeal is their marvellous, highly welcome air conditioning. Kuwait in the summer months is outrageously hot. Oddly enough, so I’ve heard, it's even hotter here than further south in the Gulf, though why that is I’m not sure. In the summer months, while Europeans and other Muslims further north and west might fancy a promenade along their coastlines or major city streets, in Kuwait this would never be comfortable, not even in the evening. That said, now that it's cooler the malls still get pretty packed in the evenings and throughout the day at the weekend, so one shouldn't underestimate the specifically social function these tiny shopping cities perform. While there are more shops in them than cafes, restaurants and fast food outlets, the differential is not that great.

For me, City center Mall is one of the two most important locations near my flat. The other is an Indian restaurant called ‘Banana Leaf’, where I've eaten three times in the past two weeks and which seems to have turned into our ‘local’. The food is excellent and the portions absurdly generous, as they generally are in Kuwait. The other day, for example, I ordered ‘Chicken and Chips’ and was given an entire chicken, and in addition to a nast mountain of chips, three pieces of bread, pickles and vegetables. On this occasion even my stomach was defeated. So I did what I’ve never done before and took some of my food home with me. That particular feat cost me Three pounds five pence, or 146 Slovak crowns, if one thinks in Slovak currency, as I still sometimes do. So on balance I’d say slightly cheaper than Slovakia and a little cheaper still than the UK, if you think in terms of a sanely sized serving, anyway. The Indian meal, however, widened the differential. A full, very full meal, including mineral water, in a modest restaurant for three pounds sixty. Such a price is not to be found in ‘curry happy’ Britain; not anywhere.

By the way, three pounds sixty is equivalent to two Kuwaiti Dinars. Like the Omani Riyal, which I used in Oman for a week three years ago, it's one of the few currencies in the world with a numerical value greater than Sterling’s. Not being any longer tied to the ailing dollar, Kuwait is an officially expensive place to visit or buy products from since its Dinar has been flying high recently, unlike the Saudi Riyal next door. Luckily, though, I get paid in Kuwaiti Dinars, which compensates. And since I am not here to live an expensive, lavish, albeit affordable high life but save enough money to enable me to buy pockets of freedom for travelling in my future – or this at least is the current shape of my plan* – saving a strong currency seems like a good thing to do. Fewer Dinars to my pound now ultimately means more pounds to my Dinar in the future. Or so my logic reasons. Does this mean I want the Kuwaiti Dinar to get even stronger? I suppose it does yes, but I don’t really care that much to be honest, nor do I really understand economics. No doubt if I wear my unselfish cap a moment I can accept that the strong Dinar probably exerts some negative effects on the country as a whole. As I say, I am no economist. Certainly in any case, the strong currency is not the reason I came here. It just strikes me as an advantage when I think about it. If maximum savings were my mission I would have gone to Saudi, where you not only get paid more in real terms, despite the declining Riyal, but a) there is less to spend your money on and b) the prices of the same things there are to spend your money on (food, pepsi, petrol, taxis, clothes, chocolate milk etc) are much cheaper.

Regarding my reasons for being here I should correct the impression given, perhaps, that I'm only here for the money. It's also true that I'm interested in religion and wanted to live amongst Muslims awhile. But I’d be a liar if I said it wasn’t because of the money that I chose a Gulf state over, for example Egypt, Syria, Turkey or Pakistan. On the other hand, I also wanted to go somewhere, at least for a short time, where I’d experience what one might characterize as ‘Serious’, or ‘undiluted’ Islam. So that rather ruled out Egypt and Syria, even more so Turkey, which are all mixed with a secularist counter-balancing element, be that democratic or authoritarian. Such a criteria, of course, certainly qualifies Pakistan and Afghanistan for example (and Somalia!), but in these cases the old money argument kicks in, as well as my currently held preference, at least in the case of Somalia, if not Afghanistan and Pakistan to a lesser extent, for staying alive. Being kidnapped, on the other hand, could always turn into a rather interesting, lucrative book; but no, alas, on second thoughts Kidnappings are just too common these days, aren’t they? Although not in Kuwait I must hasten to add!