Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Time Slows Down

Time has been slowing down again. I know why this is. It's because for the past five days experience has been unsystematised, unroutinised; liberated from a fixed expectation of how the future will go.

When we work, live at home, travel through our lives in established orbits the future doesn't present itself as an opportunity, or an open adventure. Instead, it's as if the future has already happened. We know our coming days will be near replicas of our past days. This knowledge instills passivity into our minds; it renders the input of phenonema a process somewhat mechanical, repetitive and rigid, and in consequence fast.

So time passes quickly when we're working and doing the predictable, the already performed.

This, I realise, can be seen to contradict the saying: 'time flies you're you're having fun'.

Which just shows that in many things, it depends.

I speak only for myself.

Time went slowly in Kuwait for the first month, then sped up, as a routine became established. Now, since December 19th, in the arms of vivid activity and uncertain adventure it's slowed down again. Which is good. Very good.

That said, I cannot say I had no plan when I arrived in Blighty about what I'd do. I did, but it was provisional and tentative, as I waited on confirmations of details from friends regarding where to meet me at various places and at what times.

After five days on the road, with a lap top bag and a backpack steadily expanding with xmas presents, I've finally arrived at my brother's gorgeous vicarage in Kent for Xmas Eve; though tomorrow Mum and I will drive to Suffolk for the main event. Especially boxing day, when all the family roll up.

Until now I've spent two nights in Greenwich with my sister, one night in St.John's Road with Liz, one night in Northampton with Lee, and a night in Brighton, with Matt in a public school of which he's a housemaster, if that can be believed. Staying there was like going back in time twenty years to when I belonged to a similar kind of boarding house, at The Leys in Cambridge, though only as a day boarder. You know you've grown up when you get invited to stay on the other side of the Housemaster's door.

Quite an adventure then; certainly as good a time as I allowed myself to expect.

Altogether I'm very impressed with my country and the time it's given me. Whatever negative first impressions I had, have faded. To be frank, I'm not looking forward that much to returning to the desert. Though presumably, as is the way with these things, once I'm back I'll shift into an appropriately altered mode fairly easily.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Reflecting on the West in the light of the Crescent Moon

Yesterday, before I left Kuwait for my ten days holiday in England I told myself the change would be dramatic. I knew I’d experience a more extreme cultural shift than anything I’d known before. Possibly becasue of this expectation the change wasn’t as stark as it might have been; but it was still a jolt, a highly interesting one of course, even if in curious ways a depressing one, at least at first.

Maybe it was only the crowds, and that an Underground journey from Heathrow to North Greenwich can never be fun. But I couldn’t help feeling, almost as soon as I left customs and largely as I’d expected that something present and alive in Kuwait, some ambience and atmosphere, something innocent and cohesive and delighting to be alive, was missing somehow here in Blighty.

Maybe I imagined this. Maybe it was my projection. Maybe I was hallucinating. Or maybe not.

Especially, my impressions were of two things. On the one had, the people. So many people and so many of them stoney faced, steely egotists, deracinated from themselves as well as from one another. Even the way they talked to their friends in their insulated bubble-worlds seemed formal and robotic, as if they were communicating across space, one planet to another, rather than side by side, organically, as fellow companions on dry land. Then there was the media. The style of the broadsheet I read, which happened to be ‘The Independent’, was fakely familiar in a way I’ve come to deeply regret about the drift of British culture over the past ten years. This false chumminess between people who lie to and exploit each other everyday is a cloak to mask power dynamics that it would be better, surely, to be honest about. I’m all in favour, of course, of harmony and union between people. But please, can’t we make it real? And if we can’t make it real, can’t we at least protect our minds from this sloppy regime of vapid blandishments? A problem in addition to this was an aggressive assertion of what one might call a crass, pagan triumphalism.

One headline, for example, ‘You are what you wear’ is so unspeakably false. The fact that it can be asserted shamelessly, in an aura of apparent cool, is to me profoundly depressing. Of course one wants to think this fashion slogan was meant ironically. But was it? Even if it was, is it read this way?

Ok, ok, I accept it, I should take my foot off the ‘Your’re turning into an Old Testament religious lunatic’ pedal. Still, I’m amazed that so much of this excrement can be stomached by people who actually have to live here.

That said, I have to make it clear that my fundamental loyalty towards and love of my native Christian culture is deeply felt and non-negotiable. It stands as a background to anything negative or critical I might say about my culture, be that my English and British one, or less locally my European and broader Christian one. Basically, to be blunt, if I criticise my country or civilization it doesn’t mean I want it to die out or, heavens forbid, be overthrown by Islam or any other civilization. Rather it means I’m exercising both the right and the custom, itself germane to and expressive of my culture, of collective self-reflection and self-examination. What might be perceived by those less given to self-examination as a weakness need be no such thing; but rather the glory and efflorescence of a culture that is confident enough in its own axioms and premises to be willing and prepared at times, or even to an extent at all times, to stare into the void to check and make sure its public life, its laws and its practices have been justly and virtuously established and to see whether or not they might require modification or revision.

Similarly, the preparedness to see value and virtue in a foreign culture, such as Islam, or Buddhism, or Judaism, and to consider that in specific ways these cultures may exhibit or express qualities we either have never expressed or which we used to exhibit but no longer do, does not in any way constitute an admission of inferiority to those foreign cultures such as to imply that we, and we alone, are the ones who need to be taking lessons from abroad. If I compliment my friend or even a stranger for a quality about them I love or admire, this does not mean I have given them a position of rank above me in any imagined power hierarchy. So too between civilizations; compliments or expressions of admiration for a foreign culture do not constitute a request to be supplanted by that culture. Unless, of course we really do wish to see the world as a power struggle of all against all, as those who wish to destroy the sovereignty of the subjective will, wish us to believe. That choice, most fundamentally of all, of whether we as individuals wish to stand in a relation of struggle with one another or not, is up to us, and us alone.

Of course a serious problem we now face in the west, especially amongst young people, and much evidence of this can be found in the blogosphere as well as our media, is not that we are unable to reflect critically on ourselves but on the contrary that the extent of our self-criticism has become far, far too deep and too vast. To the extent, indeed, that Western cultural apocalypticism is largely accepted as an indisputably true premise that should inevitably form the framework and essence of everything that is said, or felt or thought about Western culture. Not to buy into and accept that sense of an already arrived at or impending nihilism is considered by many of these home grown, self-appointed priests of doom to be the stance of a fool, a dunce or some manner of idiot (you tell me, insults-all of them devoid of content- are the oxygen of so much of this perspective that there’s quite a colourful range). Any suggestion that things might not actually be totally falling apart, and that there is still much either active or dormant to be celebrated in the west, is too often greeted with smirking sighs and grins of an almost or in fact unreachably smug condescension.

Interestingly, it seems that some of these voices on the blogosphere, consider it inevitable that Islam will take over and conquer Europe at some future stage. Well, unless they're being ‘ironic’ – and I know I’m not always good at reading irony. I’m not sure to what extent these opinions are melancholic or enthusiastic about such an extension of the crescent moon’s dominion. I suppose that in so far as they are expressed by those not themselves converts to Islam, or thinking of converting, that they would be lachrymose, or even to some extent despairing opinions. I’m presuming, or rather hoping in any case, that none of these voices, which see Islam’s extension of the Dar-al Islam into Europe as inevitable, would be Christian in anything other than a purely nominal sense; given that I presume and expect that anyone who actually knows and has experienced the love and glory of Jesus Christ knows that against it Islam has little to offer and cannot compete.

To be frank, I think that if I weren’t a stubborn, somewhat involuntary believer in the Christian God, or at least my version of him/her/it (given that it has often felt like God’s existence was just undeniable), I too would be worried about the future of Europe regarding the ambitions of Islam. There seems little doubt that, peacefully or not, Islam covets Europe and indeed the entire world. Quite why it should want to do this is a question you might like to address to individual Muslims themselves, but that it does do so I think is fairly uncontroversial. Indeed, as it happens I'd actually accept that Islam has a right, in a certain very qualified sense, to want to try to convert the world to its own idiosyncratic and peculiar ways. As long as, of course, we have ourselves the right not to be persuaded of our need to convert to them; and as long as they, naturally, endeavour to exert the efforst of conversion only though the power of argument and open, civilized, kindly discussion.

Anyway, that was a tangent from what had been intended to be a post about my immediate arrival back in Britain, my reverse culture shock, which happened last night. I guess this will have to wait. Meanwhile I’ll be collecting more data for reflection.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Happy Christmas

Dear Friends, and assorted fellow Earthlings, whomsoever you may be, alighting at this portal

Happy Christmas to you all. I hope you have a marvellous time this yuletide.

I also wish you all the very best by way of happiness and good fortune and prosperity for the coming year.

2007 has been a year of changes and for that reason has been somewhat unusual.

It started in the same way my previous five years had, with me living the life of an English Language teacher in Bratislava, Slovakia. I was living in a gorgeous, over-heated flat in central Bratislava with more space than I needed and a very comfortable chair, as well as a plant called Jessica. In January I stopped working for SAP, an enormous German computer company and instead focused on teaching Her Majesty’s tongue more randomly, mainly to bankers. Some banks gave me free coffee when I visited; others did not. I also began working at a High School where I taught English Literature to highly gifted students whom I hope are now doing well with their International Baccalaureates. I’d never worked in a school for children before. I’m not sure I shall ever again. That said, rambling on about Milton and Shakespeare was fun.

But after six years in this relatively obscure Central European country, invariably confused with Slovenia, one now becoming less and less obscure on account of Slovak immigration to Blighty, I really did begin to feel I should bail out, give it a break and go somewhere else. Formerly, when people asked me ‘Why have you stayed here so long. You must really love it!’ I’d change the subject and ask: ‘Why should I leave?'. I needed reasons to leave, not reasons to stay. I didn’t have such reasons. But now in early 2007 all this had changed. I began to feel I’d had enough – at least for now. I still have a business license in Slovakia (suspended for 3 years) so can easily return to the land of sheep’s cheese and unquantifiably majestic feminine beauty, if I want.

Overall my six years in Slovakia were great. Better than the six years that preceded them for sure. A long way better. I worked for seven different companies, including my own, lived in six different properties (properties sounds better than flats) and drank something like 5,000 pints of some of the best beer in the world (I’m guessing). I saw something like 90% of Slovakia’s major towns and villages, walked in the Tatras and explored Slovakia’s caves. My impression of the Slovak people overall is that they are courteous, kind, gentle and entirely unpretentious. I feel very happy that I imposed myself upon them for so long. Already I miss Bratislava and see it as a ‘home’ to which I'll always want to return.

In June I left Slovakia in a rush, planning to come back three weeks later to finish my packing. Eleven weeks later I still wasn’t back. I’d got unexpectedly waylaid in the Balkans. I’d gone to Greece and Albania on a brief trip which I thought might include a detour, maybe to Macedonia, possibly to Bulgaria at a stretch. As it happens I went also to Kosovo, and from Bulgaria down into Turkey, and through Syria all the way to Egypt. It cost a lot of this curious stuff called money we are encouraged to think is important, but it was definitely the best independent travelling experience I’ve ever had.
To read more check out http://www.lookoutsidetime.blogspot.com/ (though I haven’t finished yet).

While I was travelling the future was ‘an open book’ (as the cliché has it). I thought I might wage war on my savings and keep going for three years. But something sensible (though not necessarily wise) counselled caution in my mind. In my search for work I was lucky to be able to do all the humdrum bureaucracy on the road. I didn’t choose Kuwait. Kuwait chose me. I was slated to go to Saudi Arabia, but was wooed by an unsolicited job offer to work in a place less severe.

So here I am, in an entirely different world, back in the lands of Ishmael. It’s certainly different here. Largely speaking its different in all the ways you might suppose, The women are hard to see and there ain’t no booze, there’s lots of oil money and plenty of sand, the presence of religion is all-pervasive and the ‘cold’ winters aren’t cold.

So far I’m having a lot of fun, enjoying the simplicity of it all. Not doing much, it must be said, can bring its own advantages. The absence of stress is great.

On Wednesday I’m back in Britain for ten days, and am looking forward to experiencing reverse culture shock as the forcefield of the Middle East withdraws. It will be interesting to discover what that feels like.

All the best once again for your Christmas time of celebration and best wishes again for 2008.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Kuwait - From The Source

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.

Addressing people

“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.

Going out

“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.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Six and a Half Weeks

Six and a half weeks have passed since I arrived in Kuwait. It seems like I’ve been here for much, much longer. Far more seems to have happened than one might suppose should have in such a short period of time. That said, I realize this perception is an illusion created by the great changes I’ve undergone by settling here. After all, if I atomistically break down all the events that have occurred, they don’t actually add up to that much. Certainly not more than one might expect could occur over a 47 day period. The point is that the experience and atmosphere of novelty that has characterized and surrounded these events has made me feel that they’ve happened over a much longer time, when really they haven’t. This will become more apparent six and a half weeks from now if I look back at December 4th from that perspective and find that time has speeded up, back to a more accustomed pace, a pace more in tune with the typical accelerated speed time has when it follows a familiar and settled course.

That said, I may very well be going somewhere exciting for a few days prior to Christmas, very possibly to Ethiopia. That will definitely be novel. As such, for this period, time would slow down again. Yet apart from this break, I can fairly confidently predict that so long as I remain in Kuwait and carry on working as I have for the next seven weeks (something which is extremely likely) the sorts of things which will generally happen to me will follow a pattern replicating what has happened so far. Since I’m still new here and in no sense bored, I’m fine about this as it happens. But what is sure is that the initial buzz that comes with a new country and environment, which slows time down, will probably have faded greatly by then. It’s just as well to know this in advance.

Almost certainly I will continue to do roughly the same kinds of things with my free time (or we shall see). I will go to the gym at the Holiday Inn once or twice an week, spending an hour doing cardiovascular exercise while watching CNN or a film on the screens erected on the machines; and afterwards lingering a while in the Jacuzzi. At this gym, for which I now have a year’s subscription, western women are pleasantly attired and shaped for the eye, and are an added bonus of this ‘western style’ gym. In the local gyms, Kuwaiti or Indian, the sexes are segregated and each sex can only attend on particular days. Being as I am a shy man when it comes to the ‘hunt’ however, I doubt I’ll be finding myself any ‘action’ with these ladies, but I suppose it can’t be ruled out. As I increasingly come to feel irritated about anyway, I do not see why women, if they want such action with a male, can’t be the one to initiate the proceedings. In myself in any case they would be likely to find a positive reception, so fear of rejection should be laid to one side. At the very least it would be nice to be flattered by being approached, or ‘asked out’, as it were and I’d always strive to be gracious in my rejecting if I really couldn’t envisage it. Of course I realize I am thinking wildly out of tune with ‘reality’ and that most people, if not all, will be thinking that ‘it will never happen, men have to do all the leg work’. I know this, I am not naieve. I am just not very comfortable approaching women unless I know they want me to, that’s all. I am referring here by the way specifically to non-Islamic women, of course. I would not dream of approaching an Islamic woman, since I value my life. So let them, the non-Islamic women, approach me if they find me desirable. Otherwise, they should not take my passivity either as an insult, a rejection or a failure to find them both attractive and beautiful…..well, in many cases at least.

I will also go to Church on Sundays, though not always. Not being a Roman Catholic I do not, I trust, have to feel ‘guilty’ or ‘sinful’ if I miss a communion without a good reason. I wonder if this has anything to do with the Anglican rejection of the doctrine of Transubstantiation. Because we Anglicans don’t actually believe bread and wine can literally become a first century Jew, albeit a very wonderful one, at the hands of a Priest performing a ritual, maybe we’re less convinced of the absolute necessity of their regular consumption. The bread and wine, for sure, are less important to us, and so no doubt is the frequency of their use. Or maybe, it’s ok to miss a Communion in Anglicanism simply because we’re less bossy and authoritarian than the Romans. Yeah, I reckon there's a lot of that reason too.

I’ll also no doubt go to the cinema – that perfection of ‘secular religion’. Alone and comfortable in the dark, by cinema through sight and sound, one commues with the infinity of the possible. Identity disengaged, one merges with one’s common humanity; in an event imposing no rigid metaphysic, nevertheless exploring and exploiting the boundaries of the real. God is not found, but stylish escape from the humdrum and the banal is achieved. For awhile. With or without popcorn, depending on your choice.

Maybe I won’t still be going to the diving club meetings, however. I can’t do a training course until February, after all. Nevertheless their socials are good, and one can maybe get to quaff home made nectar, which is nice.

And also of course I’ll still be going to work…..

Changes at work have seen three teachers added, three more Americans. We’ve also a new Director of Studies who’s done much to clarify what was previously some rather chaotic, mysterious arrangements. I’ve got a better desk, with a better internet connection, by which I mean it’s more reliable, though no faster. I’ve also managed to get a seat in the company car!:) so no more bus rides, at least for now. This has also given me an extra ten minutes each morning to have my obligatory shower (I lack a bath) and to iron my shirts and to watch Al-Jazeera through my satellite system which has now sprung to life. The various porn channels I get on it are a real surprise. I’d thought there’d be none of that here. Still, they’re just ultra-soft dial-a-voice ads, so pretty innocuous. Including the porn I’ve got 800 channels in all. Most are in Arabic, usually religious or musical, the Arabs loving to sing in their pop-folksy way. In effect I only watch Al-Jazeera, BBC World and Dubai One. Other than that I watch DVDs on my large silver screen TV, though it annoyingly won’t play many of my DVDs because they’re for the wrong region. For example it won’t play the second series of the Office, alas, which I bought in the UK. Nor a US release of Casino Royale.

My washing machine is a ridiculous top loader which I have to manually operate. I fill it up via a tube with water from the tap. Then I drain it into a hole in the floor, then refill it again to rinse, before moving the soggy clothes into an adjoining spin compartment that rumbles and shakes the machine violently. I wouldn’t mind if it actually did a decent job, but it doesn’t. That the other teachers who arrived before me get proper machines doesn’t really help. Rumours float of us getting better machines but I’m not holding my breath. An internet connection is also supposed to arrive but I’m expecting that it won’t. As it happens I don’t really care about this that much, mainly because I get hours of opportunity to surf the web at work - I still only teach two and a half hours a day after all. It's also pleasant to go to Marina Mall or to caribou coffee to hook up, where the shockingly underpaid yet relentlessly smiling Filipina waitresses are more usually both pretty and charming than not.

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 colder....it 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!

Saturday, October 27, 2007

How the Hell did I End up in Kuwait?

I’ve been here almost a week. I didn’t really have any expectations before I arrived. I tried not to think about Kuwait or that I was planning to live here for a year. I try not to expect things. I try not to project myself into the future. I try not to build castles or dungeons in which to live out my rosy or gloomy ideas about the future. It’s a waste of energy. So often I get surprised and proved wrong.

Of course, it helped to keep my mind off the future that my life had been so interesting for the four months before I arrived No work to speak of, travelling across eleven countries from Greece to Egypt, seven of them new to me. Seeing a host of different places and cultures, meeting a range of agreeable, if not fascinating people; above all, imbibing an air of freedom and dignity, an air generated by a permanent sense of achievement and purpose; one uncorrupted, moreover, by any need to worry about my performance or reckon, however temporarily, with the need to make money or otherwise conform to the systems of our normally banal and over-processed lives.

Looking forward to a settled life in Kuwait, therefore, where I’d be teaching English once again was not something I particularly relished. Why choose the future when I could luxuriate in the present? If anything, my future felt like a rude imposter threatening my day. This had particularly been the case in July when I was still sheepishly, quarter-heartedly, resigned to going to Saudi Arabia, even though I knew I didn’t want to. But I preferred to ignore that than accept it. I must thank Craig, in Jubail, Saudi Arabia, for finally convincing me that I’d hate it. So I let the job offer dissolve into the sands.

Then, in early August, there was a three or four week period as I travelled across Turkey when I really had no idea about my future at all. Chugging over in my background were provisional enquiries about jobs in TEFL. But it was as if I launched these enquiries only because I felt I ought to. Genuine enthusiasm to find work was absent. On the other hand, I’d dribbled away savings before and had decided not to do so again. I knew I should work at some point in the next six months, preferably somewhere where the pay was good (relative to the world of TEFL, of course). But to all intents and purposes I was freely floating, liberated from the prospect of Saudi, nothing ahead of me but open skies. Actually, that felt really nice.

I finally accepted this Job in Kuwait on August 23rd after reading a sample contract and finding no significant problems, though holidays were not as generous as in Saudi, nor the pay for that matter. I told my employer I wanted to delay coming out until late September and he agreed. I still had some serious holidaying to do. I left things drift, not arranging a specific date to fly back to the UK since the company had said it would get back to me with the flight arrangements but hadn’t. So I left things slide through September as I concentrated on Syria and Lebanon. I’m not sure if I was actually supposing the job wouldn’t materialize, that I’d just carry on wandering, but maybe. By late September, still not having heard anything, I presumed (gladly) that this meant I wouldn’t any longer be expected to come out by the end of the month. I wrote to my employer about my flight and he replied: yes, things were still set for Oct 1st, though he hadn’t booked a flight yet since he didn’t know where I wanted to fly from. I explained that I couldn’t possibly get out on that date, and asked how long I could postpone for. By now I was thinking of possibly travelling until Christmas or for even longer. We compromised on October 18th, a date I realized I’d be happy with. As for where to fly from, I considered going direct from Amman or Cairo, without going home at all, to maximize my roamings. But according to my contract I’d not have any holiday for six months. I had stuff in Slovakia too, which I needed to send back to the UK. I’d toyed with getting it transported by courier service but that had seemed too expensive. So to see friends and family in both Slovakia and the UK, as well as for practical humdrum reasons (including collecting my laptop) I decided to fly to Kuwait from London, and so organised my flight there from Cairo via Slovakia.

My travels which had begun on the evening of June 28th, when I flew into Athens from Bratislava, finally ended on October 11th, 105 days later, when I flew back to Vienna.

Monday, October 22, 2007

British Airways or Free Crisps and a Pint of Bitter

Is there's anybody out there, anyone at all, who understand how justice attaches to British Airways' policy of deliberately overbooking seats? Surely there must be someone?

Apparently, many airlines do this. No doubt BA can hide behind the safety in numbers argument. But which airline started this practice, I wonder. And is that an excuse?

As it happened, I actually benefited from the scare that I received when told that despite having a seat on my night flight to Kuwait I would have to wait to learn if I had a seat on my night flight to Kuwait. First, I got a five pounds food voucher which I spent on two packets of highly fine crisps and a pint of bitter. Then, when I heard my seat was real, not an illusion that I'd been lied to about, I learnt I'd been upgraded to World Traveller Class, at which point I felt really pampered and privileged and looked forward to some serious luxury. Alas, World Traveller Class is nothing like the opulent first class I walked through to get reach it, but perhaps I got an inch or so extra arm breadth and some softer cushions.

Actually, by the time I boarded the plane I'd fully recovered from the initial shock of learning how British Airways' scandalous policy of injustice threatened to apply. I'd learnt, moreover, that they put the displaced up in a nice hotel and even give them cash compensation of up to 400 pounds(!?). Realising that in my specific circumstances I didn't really need to get to Kuwait immediately and learning that because the next flight wouldn't be for twenty four hours I'd have time to take a subsidised trip into London, possibly to see 'Control', I was actually hoping I'd be kicked off. Eventually it was with some real disappointment that I boarded the plane.

Still, that's no excuse, British Airways, to feel complacent about your deviousness. I might have really needed to get to Kuwait that night. 400 pounds, if that's what it is, and a glitzy hotel might meant nothing next to that. How exactly can you dare to play smug gambler with other peoples priorities, people you'd only pretended to sell a product to? Oh, I forgot. You are a big corporate beast and what is a piddling little consumer on economy class next to you.

Tired as hell from the previous nights excesses, I slept through most of the flight, missing BA's evening meal completely. Luckily, sleeping that much meant I missed a great deal of the intercom's announcements too. That was lucky. Never since being a small child have I felt an adult voice addressing me in quite the way that female voice did that night. If she'd had her way, moreover, I'd have kept my seatbelt on all night. I'd have become the fully trussed up baby she presumably wanted me to be, or is it imagined I already was? Customer service is one thing. I do, to be fair, appreciate how Britain comes in from the cold in this respect. But this was embarrassing. Too matronising and overprotective, almost interfering and imposing in its paranoid caution.

Ok, one can imagine it might have seemed nice. But how much was this motivated by a genuine concern for the passengers, how much related to the mere fear of being sued? How much was it linked, in other words, to an actual fear of the passengers? In that situation I grant, we, we the ever increasingly litigious opportunists that we are, play our part in creating the problem. And what is the problem? The development of a plastic culture of the banal triumphing everywhere, a synthetic, sanitised, artificial public world in which nothing can be allowed to happen that hasn't been pre-formatted; from which all eventualities that might possibly entail unfortunate economic consequences for the management have been removed, in which human relations are mediated and distilled through the prisms of a merely economic, profit driven relation. What we have become to each other is just money, or routes to money. And if pretending that we are massively concerned for each other's well-being is a route to that money, all well and good. Such is the world that we have chosen to live in. I trust we are satisfied with it.

Or maybe I was just grumpy and tired. Well I was that too.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

From Cairo to Heathrow via Slovakia, Suffolk, Manchester and Cambridge

My flight back to Vienna was as uneventful as flights invariably are, though it was nice to note the larger leg room that non-budget airlines provide. On my way through the terminals, in Cairo and Vienna, I chatted with a Croat man living in Cairo whose wife and family live in Trencin, Slovakia. It was clear from his grumbling that he didn’t have much of an opinion of Egyptian terminal organization, but he brightened up when I told him I knew Croatia and had been there. Later, we got onto the subject of the War, as one does (?). He told me how great a shock it was for him and for so many others in Croatia when hostilities broke out in the early 90s.

Then, to my surprise, he warned that similar bloodshed could break out between Scotland and England. Really, I asked? He said he’d met many Scots in Scotland speaking of their hatred of the English and referred to how the Scots will always support the other team whenever England play international matches. I’m not, to be honest, that knowledgeable about Scottish feelings towards the English; about whether cutting throats might be on the agenda between us. I think not. I certainly hope not. I’m suspecting, at least, that the border is relatively uncontested between us and that the urge to fight to secure borders in those crucible periods of time when new nation states are being formed, which was so central an urge in the former Yugoslavia, will not prove a problem in Britain. If, that is, Scotland indeed goes ahead one day and declares its independence. Personally I hope it doesn't, but that’s just me. I’m not Scottish anyway so 'what’s it got to do with you' is a fair enough reflection I grant. My Croat companion concluded that in all these disputes, in which he included Slovakia-Hungary, all it takes is for one crazy opportunist politician to unleash hell.

Getting back to Slovakia was highly weird in a reverse cultural shock kind of a way. Not leaving to an exotic destination but returning from one can be just as strange. I remember noticing the same buttoned up placidity of the highly orderly Slovak people when I returned from India. There's an almost ghostly hush compared to Egypt’s barely contained, highly interactive chaos. Westerners have such a more rigidly developed sense of the inviolability of private space in public. Is this, I’m wondering, a kind of internalized, ideological equivalent of the veil?

Our veil doesn’t need expression in clothing, but nevertheless one encounters and internalizes its imperatives everyday - that you must respect the privatized boundaries between strangers; not smiling too much at strangers, if ever, not walking too close to them (certainly not into them) to sell them things in the street or to get past them, or to just to say hello; not touching them, basically not speaking to them at all unless absolutely necessary. Is this why western men are already conditioned not to react spontaneously to the sight of female flesh sumptiously portrayed in public? Is this why Asian men, not having received such a particularly Western disciplining since childhood, find it harder to control themselves at the sight of what I suspect they deem the publicisation of what should be an only private ‘nakedness’.

Maybe I’m exaggerating the cultural differences. Maybe western calmness is also caused by factors like population density and lower poverty levels, which lead to less of a need for mutual proximity and, in consequence, mutual accommodation.

In Bratislava I got fairly drunk on Slovak and Czech beer two nights in a row. Apart from that, I was far too busy tying off the remaining loose ends of my Slovak life to do much else. Well, except talk to Geoff at considerable and expected length about the finer details of my recent journey since I left him in Tirana, Albania.

Finally getting back o Suffolk was very pleasant. Suffolk is one of those rare places in the UK that hasn’t changed much in thirty years, despite the radically glossy transformations of so much else in Britain. This is even more the case in its deepest darkest recesses, in one of which my Mother lives. Drinking my second pint of Real British Ale I did, however, discuss the new smoking ban with the landlord of our local. A non-smoker, he nonetheless reviles it as yet another instance of Britain’s love affair with petty, interfering officialdom. I was amazed that landlords get fined 2,000 pounds but smokers only 50 if smoking is witnessed. Is that fair? Is the landlord supposed to body search smokers when they enter to ensure no cigarettes might later be niftily illuminated at his expense? Another interesting thing he said was how it would be much better if the ban were regulated by the police, not the local councils. The police you can talk to and negotiate with, receive warnings from, basically interact with. It’s the bureaucracy of the report filing bureaucrat which sucks the blood out of life. In this matter, as in so many others no doubt.

It was very nice for my cousin and his Polish wife, my sister Rachel and brother Simon to pay me a visit. My brother and I got stuck in a field full of stinging nettles as we tried to break into one of our two fields from a country lane. All the while we continued our discussion of how I should somehow re-enter the world of Academia by doing a PHD; or maybe become a journalist. That had followed a theological conversation that revealed my brother's recent development of ideas about universal salvation far closer to mine. He said that he thought the idea I voiced in my early twenties, that I wanted to see the devil saved, was a very Christian one, and concluded, excellently I thought, that any Christian who does not at least want all people to be saved is not being properly Christian. Yeah, but that’s not the point, I reflected. Christians’ slavish love affair with a particular textual interpretation of their Holy Book is at least as important a problem as the fact that many Christians might actually like the idea of their enemies, or at least certain types of non-conformists, burning forever. After all, I’ve heard of Christians practically weeping with desire for everyone to be saved; but who then resolutely upbraid and remind themselves that, alas, the text of scripture doesn’t allow for this – and being utterly satisfied with the self-alienation this traditional stance towards interpretation reveals.

I ought to state here that I absolutely understand how weird all talk of salvation must sound to non-Christians. The thing is, for Christians, salvation is pretty key, and when I talk with my Christian brother, who's far more orthodox than I, it's often my Christian hat that I wear and Christian things that we discuss. About which I’m happy, since there aren’t that many Christians these days who want to talk about such things – or not amongst people I know, anyway. Amongst the Christians that are available, too many I find are either too rationalistic or deist effectively, or too fundamentalistic and judgemental. Bring on the Golden Mean, I say. Summarising our discussion of salvation,I concluded that Christianity needs, conceptually, to reconfigure what it means by salvation. The days of the stick are over. People will not be frightened any more into believing. They never should have been to begin with, though there’s no doubt that for a long time the fear weapon worked (in a dastardly shameful way and to the ruination of the Gospel). Now people just aren’t listening when Christian peddle fear and I don’t blame them, to be frank. Christianity, like Islam, is stuck in medieval modes of linguistic, conceptual expression that were wrongly conceived even at the time. Christianity clings to a litany of pernicious dualisms; the mind-body dualism, the gender dualism, the this life and the next life dualism, the heaven and hell dualism, the there-is-no-divine-relationship-with-humanity-except-though-Jesus dualism, which just clownifies the faith, so it seems, in the eyes of the secularly disposed. All of these dualisms, I believe, can be got rid of without the distinctiveness and vivid power of Christianity, which is the West’s ancestral cognitive and emotional heritage, being abandoned. A second Reformation then, and a proper one this time, please. In other words none of this clinging on to Augustine malarkey; and a rejection besides of the Constantinian compromise, whereby Christianity was diluted and in so many ways inverted into a Gospel of Condemnation, as a consequence of its marriage to the forces of secular Roman power.

Salvation is not about the next life. Salvation is about now, here on this planet, not tomorrow but today. And yes, there can be no salvation without palpable socio-political and economic consequences. How Christians work out the political application of Christianity is up to the reformers of the new reformation, but I trust it would not rest on yet another dualism, the left-right dualism. Obviously, the unending calls for social harmony and fairness between the peoples of the earth must be heard. I wonder if the phrases ‘social justice’ and ‘equality’, however, have not been too corrupted through overuse and Leninist application to be helpful. But obviously poverty, along with violence and war, are simple, obvious things that can’t be conceptualized or abstracted away. The main point is that the Kingdom of Heaven must come down-to-earth. It is not a place for only after death. This does not mean there is no life after death or no higher realm. It's just that it shouldn’t be a Christian’s ultimate focus, which should instead be this world, which is where he lives. Rather, the spiritual dimension, or ‘heaven’, is the place in which he is internally, by faith, grounded and moored inside himself while he lives. It is from where he derives his energy and inspiration, as he feels his connection to the divine. Then, as the mediator
of God’s love for the world, he is able to bring that love to earth, here and now. I don’t really like quoting scripture but the Lords’ prayer refers to this dynamic when it mentions ‘On Earth as it is in Heaven’.

Suffolk is indeed delightful, though I usually get itchy feet after about three days. I decided to head up to Manchester to see two friends. Reminded of the insane cost of public transport in the UK, I managed to get from Suffolk to Manchester for a princely 74.50 pounds return by buying a direct ticket through London and only travelling during the day. Just swan up to a railway station in the UK without researching the arcane options for escaping maximum financial punishment, and that is what you’ll receive and to a far worse tune than 74.50 pounds, too. Don’t expect, either, that a major town like Ipswich or Bury St.Edmunds will have a direct connection to another major town like Manchester. No, you have to go through the capital. It's very easy to see how the UK’s financially punitive transport system and its dearth of railways lines (compared to 60 years ago) have done marvellous wonders for the environment. After all, pushing people to use cars and buses is just the right policy isn’t it?

When I complain about the vicious cost of UK train travel people like springing to its defence by saying ‘Ooooohhhh..but isn’t it really cheap if you book ahead’. Firstly, why does booking ahead have any impact on how many people, and what particular person, sits on a train, or how many trains run? I’m a bit lost there. Are the train companies worried that if enough people don’t book ahead, it won’t be worthwhile running a particular service? Or are they trying to have an excuse to get more money from people who have no choice but to travel spontaneously. Secondly, a part of being a ‘free born Englishman’ is that I might, actually, not want to plan and regulate the finer movements of my private travel life weeks in advance, thank you very much.

The first friend I met in Manchester, Mark, told me how the police were running anti-terrorist checks on roads coming into Manchester. Apparently they run these every week. Spot checks on drivers who must prove their car is theirs, etc. I’d like to know how many bombs in how many cars they have discovered so far, as well as be reassured, in a way that I can’t be, that by not checking the cars they didn’t check they stopped other bombs from getting through. Well, because bombs haven’t gone off, obviously they have done a good job, it might be argued. But maybe that’s because there weren’t any bombs in the cars they didn’t check, not because they actually intercepted any in the ones they did. Which is why I want to know how many bombs they found.

Anyway, no doubt if people are happy with and made to feel safer because of these restrictions, what can be said? And no doubt they always might flukely find something, even though they might more probably not, despite their checks. Much better, of course, would be for people to just not bomb civilians in the first place. That might sound a bit obvious, but since when has the obvious been obvious?

Are we, as a race, a human race, educating enough people enough of the time about the wisdom and glory of not bombing civilians, or even better, not bombing anyone at all? That indeed is a question that many a Mullah, many a General might want to address.

It was nice to visit the Urbis museum. It had an interesting exhibition about the Hacienda club, a very famous nightclub/venue I’m pretty sure I visited during one of my drunken nights visiting student friends in 1990. Being somewhat Morrissey-centric as I am in my esteem for Manchester’s musical history, I was disappointed that there was nothing about him except for a reference to ‘The Smiths’. I’d hoped to see the film ‘Control’ about Ian Curtis but didn’t find the time. Just before my train back to London, I hoped to visit the People’s History Museum too, about working people’s life in the nineteenth century, but alas it was closed. I’d wondered whether there’d be any mention of Lever Bros (now Unilever), the company founded by my Great Great Great Uncle (if that’s the expression for my paternal Great Great Grandmother’s brother) since I'm interested in what it would say about the company’s relatively benign, philanthropic approach. My Great Great Grandfather, William Lever’s brother-in-law and friend, William Frederic Tillotson, who helped advertise Lever Bros products, also ran a company called Tillotsons and Sons (newspapers to begin with, later adding printing and packaging). I wondered whether it might also be mentioned too, though of course it’s not nearly as famous (and since 1971 hasn’t existed anyway). Anyway, both companies were far more Bolton and Birkenhead than Manchester, so maybe there’s nothing anyway.

After meeting up with Chris, an old friend from Slovakia with whom I stayed the night and who’s studying population transfers from the Ukraine, I headed back to London where, anticipating not having a drink for a while, given Kuwaiti dryness, I decided once again to open the flood gates. In consequence I got to sleep at 4am on the floor of my good friend Liz. Earlier I had spent time with her friends and a school friend of mine, Adam, singing Karaoke in one of the small, private booths you can now rent out. I’d thought that embarrassing yourself in front of utter strangers was an essential part of Karaoke’s charm but obviously not here, where capsuled exclusivity prevails. Still, it was a good laugh.

And so back to Suffolk, following a final greasy spoon breakfast nr Baker Street. The prospect of Kuwait still not totally in my mind, I made my tired, hung over way back to Suffolk before preparing for the trip to Heathrow. But first, en route, a quick visit to Cambridge with Mum to see Jenny, my older sister, who’s planning to move there soon with her family from France, of which she has grown tired. I still look upon Cambridge as my hometown and always say that Cambridge is where I’m from when people ask. So it will be really nice to have proper reasons to go back there again.