Recently in class I set my students a writing assignment in which I asked them to imagine that I was their friend.
Actually, they didn’t seem to object to this premis:).
As my friend their role was to imagine I’d not yet arrived in Kuwait. Quite how I would have become their friends was a major flaw in this whole design. But neither they nor I seemed troubled by this.
What I informed them to do - strong armed tactics being unrequired given their remarkable enthusiasm to do homework - was to write me a letter. In that letter they should include tips and advice about social customs in Kuwait, a country I was soon to settle in and therefore needed some guidance about.
I encouraged them to focus on matters like: how to greet and address people, how people dress, going out and behaviour between the sexes in public, customs when visiting a person’s home and the nature of respect for authority in Kuwait. For further details of my operating framework, please turn to page 76 of Cutting Edge Intermediate level English Language Students book by Sarah Cunningham and Peter Moor.
These are some of the things they wrote, all of which I felt were crafted in a highly satisfactory way, at least for their level of linguistic competency. I’ve corrected their linguistic slips.
I’ve worried about whether I should have published their words, though console myself that I have protected their identity. I didn’t want to ask them if I could publish their words, in case they said no:) I also don’t want them to know about the existence of this blog.
Obviously by editing I’ve hacked up their flow, but only in the way editors customarily do. That’s my excuse. I’m not intending any of the quotes to make any points whatsoever beyond the points they do make, though I’ve added my own reflections at the end of each section.
General Introductory Remarks
“It is my pleasure to write to you a letter regarding some tips as a foreign visitor to my country. Kuwait is famous for its hospitality, and the average visitor will have no difficulty in adapting to our local customs. The following tips are mostly common sense.”
“I’m really delighted to hear that you will visit Kuwait next week, to teach your English lessons. Nowadays the weather is fantastic in Kuwait, especially in November.”
“I will write some tips for a foreign visitor to my country. When you arrive at the airport don’t accept offers from anyone approaching you, whether it’s to help you find your way to the hotel or whether it’s to exchange money.”
Luckily a company employee called Saad collected me at the airport when I arrived. He was really nice and friendly. I was also given some money in advance by the company to tide me over until my first pay day, though there are of course functioning ATM’s here, and you can change Sterling into Kuwaiti Dinars.
“Well, there are a lot of things that are different from a European country. For example, the names, the way you address people. It is polite to use just their first names. In more formal situations you should use the word ‘Abu’ (which means ‘father of’), or ‘Um’, (which means mother of) before the name of their first baby, most commonly the first baby boy of married people.”
“When addressing a Kuwaiti person it’s polite to use first names, while in more formal situations you should use the word ‘Abu’ and the name of his eldest son, for example (Abu Mohammed).”
“It is usual to shake hands when you meet a Kuwaiti man.”
Amongst Kuwait nationals, I’ve only ever met my students, under strange circumstances (a classroom). Most of the non-westerners I interact with are Indians or Bangladeshis and Filipinos. I’ve learnt how to greet and say goodbye in Arabic but, as I say, this knowledge has not really been applicable yet. Kuwaitis, however, are universally polite and warm in the greetings, as far as I’ve experienced them.
The Way People Dress
“Generally people wear the traditional dress of our country, the Dishdasha (male dress) with Qitra (white or red scarf) and Ogal (two layers of black thread that have been folded in a round shape) to cover their head. While the women tend to cover their dresses with the Abaya (a black dress) and Shailah (black or colourful scarf) to cover their heads. But nowadays most young people wear smart, colourful clothes.”
“It’s important to wear traditional clothes. It’s usual for women to wear black dresses and for men to wear white clothes.”
“Kuwaiti people expect you to dress smartly when you go to the shopping malls.”
According to my impressions, while the traditional dress is very widespread, you can see both male and female Kuwaitis wearing western clothes, especially in the malls. Of course I’m not always certain of my ability to identify Kuwaitis in distinction to other nationalities. Kuwaitis are a minority in their own country (30%) so most non-Caucasians are not Kuwaiti and so do not fall under Kuwaiti cultural norms.
“In public there are things which you will find to be different from your own country. It’s true that it’s not common for a young couple to hold hands. Well, nowadays some of them do; maybe because of the influence of western society. Couples should be careful how they behave as it’s not acceptable for them to kiss in public. It’s not normal to go on dates with a girlfriend, you must be engaged first.”
“It is very important to treat old people with respect…but don’t be surprised if you see men touch their noses in the street. Actually this is the way that the ‘Badu’ (people who used to live in the desert) greet each other, not only the forst time they meet, or if they haven’t seen each other for a long time; but everyday. While for ‘Hadar’ (people who used to live in the town or near the sea) it’s quite normal to shake hands and kiss each other on both cheeks.”
“It’s not okay for couples to hold hands in public.”
“Couples should be careful how they behave. Kuwaiti couples tend not to kiss in public. It is normal to go out late in Kuwait.”
“In general the shopping centers in Kuwait open at 9.00am and close at 10pm. Most young people in Kuwait enjoy their time by going to the cinema.”
I saw my first man touch another male nose with his nose only yesterday,so now I can confirm that this does happen. Maybe I wasn’t looking that closely before. Men seem to feel fine about kissing each other on the cheeks throughout the Middle East. Indeed I myself was kissed (it was more of an ‘air kiss’ as it happens) by a waiter in Palmyra, Syria. Actually it didn’t feel that invasive.
It’s true I have seen no couples publically attached or entagled with one another here, of whatever nationality. I would imagine that western non-muslims might be extended more forebearance in this matter than anyone else, but I really don’t know. I’m not going to bank on that, however, presuming that is that I find someone willing to get attached or entagled up with me at all. In any case, the situation here is far more liberal regarding vice control than it is in neighbouring Saudi Arabia. Actually, I never really liked seeing PDAs (public displays of affection) in Europe. I sometimes feel them to be a form ‘egoism-for- two’ inserted into the public world, forcefields of exclusive attachment that none other can penetrate and yet all must be a witness to. They could also, of course make me feel jealous – though not really. But naturally, I celebrate the liberty to be so publically entagled in the west- if one so chooses. Just because I don’t like something doesn’t mean I’d want to see it banned. Why would it?
Respect for authority, notably the Kuwaiti Royal family
“Remember one thing you should know is about the Kuwaiti Royal family. It’s not the same as in England. In England you can say anything about them, but in Kuwait you can’t. You should never say rude things about them as Kuwait people always show respect to them and expect visitors to do the same.”
“It’s not acceptable to say rude things about Royalty or Sheiks.”
As in Syria regarding Bassha Al-Assad, pictures of the Emir are found in many public places, often along side that of the Prime Minister, though they are not as omnnipresent as in Syria. Luckily I wouldn’t consider it my business to be disrespectful to the Emir, and I’m usually pretty respectful anyway towards specific individuals as such.
Food and visiting a Kuwaiti home
“We normally eat together with the family on the floor using our right hand. People tend to serve food in a large dish in the centre. Unless we invite foreign visitors, both men and women, it’s common to see men eating together in the ‘Diwaniya’ (a place where men used to meet in the house) and women eating together in another separate room.”
“Remember it’s important to take your shoes off if you are invited to someone’s house. Most people tend to eat by spoon or fork or with their hands.”
“Remember if you are invited to someone’s house it is important to take your shoes off if they have a carpet. Also nowadays it’s not really acceptable to smoke in people’s houses unless they let you do that.”
“If it happens that you visit a Kuwaiti home, try if someone gives you something to eat or drink to take it with your right hand. And if you finish drinking Arabian coffee remember to shake your right hand while holding the small cup. That’s the sign that you don’t want anymore coffee. Otherwise he will keep giving you more coffee.”
Who knows if I’ll ever get invited to a Kuwaiti’s home. They mentioned the matter of shoes because I had told them of the Slovak custom of always removing shoes in another’s home, often to have them replaced by slippers.
Miscellaneous and Closing remarks
“I wish you happy days in Kuwait.”
“Finally I hope you’ll enjoy living in Kuwait.”
“If you feel that you need to go to the police for a particular reason, reconsider in Kuwait. It’s better to go to your particular embassy rather than dealing with the local police.”
“I hope you enjoy your stay in Kuwait. I’m looking forward to hearing from you soon.”
The above picture is of Kuwait from my bedroom window, shortly before leaving for work.