Life in Kuwait: A Personal Account

Debbie Turner was in the Middle East for eight years; she spent two years in Iran and six years in Kuwait. Her time in Kuwait was interrupted by the invasion of 1990 and it was three years before she made her way back. After finally returning to Seattle to stay in 1994, she wrote about her experiences as a woman in the Arabian Gulf both before and after the war. The following are excerpts from her manuscript, Waiting for Abbas.

Tutoring: Inside a Kuwaiti Home. A view from inside a Kuwaiti home, where all is not as it appears.

The Last Fake I.D. -- Abbas Aarti a.k.a. Ray Johnson Finds Refuge in Boise. A story of courage and perseverance in war-torn Kuwait.

Afternoon in Shuwaikh. The different status levels of "foreigner".

Desert Roots. A desert where people used to camp in now holds thousands of undiscovered mines.

Students in the Faculty of Arts. A cross cultural perspective the lives of women students.

The Spinster Problem or "Have a heart - lend a hand - take another." A look at marriage.


Tutoring: Inside a Kuwaiti Home

Abbas' friend, Hashem, has a son who's planning to study in the US. Hani needs to pass the TOEFL (the English test most US colleges use to determine English ability) so I was asked if I could tutor in the afternoons to help him get ready. It was during Ramadan when I was one of the only people awake in the afternoon. Why not? A purpose, some extra money, a new window on family life in Kuwait - a good deal all around.

We met at Hani's uncle's house because his uncle lives alone and could let us have the whole third floor of the house. It's modern with white marble exterior walls, an interior courtyard with a small garden, and floor to ceiling bookcases in several rooms. Dr. Hashem and I had never met before but he was once a Parliament member and fairly well known. We have several friends in common so we caught up on mutual acquaintances and drank tea. I knew that he had gone to college in China, France, and eventually Berkeley, where he became "Dr. Hashem."

Hani, my student, is 20 and speaks English like an American. He'd much rather be working on cars with his friends but is studying for the TOEFL to please his father. We usually arrived at 3:00 and chatted with Dr. Hashem in the kitchen, where he was usually watching CNN or reading a book of political analysis. After 15 minutes or so, we would go upstairs and the maid brought us juice, tea, sweets and fruit to help us with our arduous task. Hani truly does speak like an American, but unfortunately, the TOEFL asks a lot more. A whole lot more.

The third day I arrived at Hani's uncle's house and Hani's father pulled up behind me. Hani had gone out camping the night before and not come home yet. I followed a somewhat angry Abu Hani to his house and we waited.

Abu Hani's name is Hashem but the preferred title is "Father of Hani" - there is nothing a man could be prouder of than fathering a son. If the first born is a daughter, the parents will be called father and mother of Lena, for example, but if a son should come along, Lena will be replaced.

Abu Hani's living room was the size of two large American living rooms. There were several sets of French Provincial style flowered couches and chairs with glass and brass coffee tables. On the table next to the wall nearest me was a large portrait of a man in an Army uniform. The portrait was surrounded by flowers. Next to it was a smaller picture of four children. A matching portrait of the soldier hung high on the opposite wall, with a yellow ribbon on top. Abu Hani explained that this was his wife's brother, who was martyred during the Iraqi invasion.

Om Hani (Mother of Hani) came out with sleepy eyes and offered me tea and sweets. It was still Ramadan and she was fasting, but she brought out two kinds of pastries and tea and placed them on a small table which she moved right next to me. I wasn't sure which was more polite - to eat the food she had offered or to abstain as she did - but when her son came in with potato chips and her husband brought in a Pepsi and lit a cigarette, I decided eating was OK. Her strength and faith were obviously tested regularly and I probably wasn't adding much to her burden.

Like most places, women are the keepers of the faith here. It is their responsibility to train the sons and instruct them in their Islamic duties. Men are more easily forgiven their transgressions - a real man can't help but be tempted - and should they stray, they always know who to blame.

Om Hani talked about her brother a little and Abu Hani told of some of his adventures during the occupation. Hani was active in the resistance and went to secret meetings regularly. He was involved in getting food distributed in his neighborhood and no doubt harassed the occupiers as much as possible. He was arrested three times. The first two times cost his father a lot of money but didn't last long. The third and final time, his father was arrested with him. It was during February, two weeks before liberation. The bombing of Baghdad had been going on for a few weeks and the Iraqis must have sensed that their time was limited. They made major sweeps at the end and bussed their numerous prisoners, including Hani and his father, to Iraq. They were in the lucky groups to be bussed back to the border soon after liberation and set free. Abu Hani looked remarkably comfortable and unscathed.

I still don't know what to say to these tales. I know they are true; I know they are awful. But there's an acceptance of things past and present that I can't manage myself. Abu Hani laughed at the Iraqi's incompetence and we started talking about the family's possible summer camping trip in Europe.

Hani eventually arrived, apologetic for keeping me waiting but not sorry he'd been gone, and we did a few pages of TOEFL grammar questions.

One day, when I arrived a few minutes before Hani, Dr. Hashem was preparing to leave for his history lecture at the university. There were many books in English, Arabic and French on the table. He's working on the definitive text on the invasion, a book that will be dedicated to His Highness. Before he left, Dr. Hashem, educated in four languages, so westernized that he wears jeans rather than dishdashas, and so independent that he smokes during Ramadan, kissed the picture of the Emir several times. It was a small gesture, barely noticeable. But it indicated a feeling I cannot comprehend.

Just when I'm cruising along, comfortable with how much I understand, something surprises me and reminds me to keep my eyes open. There are still plenty of secrets yet to be revealed.

Copyright 1997, 1996 Debbie Turner. Questions or comments? Contact the author at

The Last Fake I.D. - Abbas Aarti a.k.a. Ray Johnson Finds Refuge in Boise

November 1990

It was a cold and drizzly November night when I went to meet Abbas. He had flown from the United Arab Emirates to London, Vancouver, BC and finally Seattle. I'd watched the international passengers move towards customs from a balcony above and when I saw a skinny dark-haired guy in a navy wool coat, I thought it might be Abbas. I had never seen him in western clothes before.

It was almost an hour later that he emerged. There were only two of us left waiting at the gate when I asked the British Airways representative if anyone else was going through immigration. She confirmed that there were two dark men still being questioned. I wasn't sure if this described Abbas but had to wait and see. At last, the skinny (dark?) guy in the navy wool coat came through the gate and it was Abbas. Kuwaitis, who had previously had few reasons to want to overstay their visas, were suddenly suspicious to US immigration authorities. Who could say how long they'd be here? But Abbas' American wife, Pat, was waiting in Boise and that helped him get through. We met Doug in the bar and as Abbas told his story, we continually shook our heads in wonder at what had happened to us all since we had parted in Kuwait, in July 1990, just four months before. Our reunion was not the barbecue in his garden that we'd planned then.

I had talked to Pat on August 2, 1990. The invasion was about ten hours old. I was in Oregon visiting my mother; Pat was in Kuwait. She answered the phone in her normal voice and said she didn't know exactly what was going on, but that it was true. The Iraqis were definitely there. The tanks were on the corner. Hours earlier, I had told my concerned uncle that the threat of invasion was nothing but hot air, a commodity in plentiful supply in the Gulf, but this hot air had rapidly taken over the country.

Pat had left the house in the morning with her 17 year-old daughter, Reham, unaware that anything had happened. The emergency sirens, whose ear-splitting sounds had jarred us the first Saturday of every month for five years, had been quiet that morning. Pat and Reham were on their way to school to pick up some test scores. The school had been locked and the normally busy streets had been fairly quiet except for the Iraqi soldiers and tanks on the main roads. With no idea of what was going on, Pat and Reham hurried home and woke up Abbas. No one knew what was happening but money would probably help, whatever the problem, so Abbas rushed out to the local shopping center. Other Kuwaitis had the same idea and the supermarket was crowded but no one had any information. The bank was closed.

By noon, Iraqi soldiers were manning checkpoints in Mishref, the suburb south of Kuwait City where they lived. But other than that, Pat said, things were OK. Pat had always been able to take surprises in stride, something that had no doubt been of great help to her in her 19 years in Kuwait. I'd always been impressed at the way she could put together dinner for 15 at a moment's notice without the least sign of stress. An while I thought an invasion might fluster her, it seemed I was having a harder time dealing with it than she was.

I told her that according to CNN, the royal family was already in Saudi Arabia. This was news to her and it then was clear to us both that whatever was happening was really serious. But she said they had food and she was doing all right. She was worried about Batool, her 15 year old daughter who was in Spain with another Kuwaiti family. She wasn't worried about her safety but knew Batool would be frantic worrying about her parents and sister. There was nothing I could do to help as she didn't have a phone number. I told Pat I'd call her sister though in case no one else could get through to her. We said good-bye and good luck and I tried another friend in Kuwait. I got a busy signal. Within hours AT&T would have a special message about "trouble in the country you are calling," asking you to try again later. "Later" wouldn't come until April.

Sitting in the airport lounge in November, we ordered whiskies all around and Abbas told us what had happened next. At first, things had not been too bad. The Iraqis at the checkpoints were polite, even though Reham called them names, much to Abbas' consternation. And there was enough food. However, within a two weeks, most Kuwaitis were armed, and at night, Kuwaitis were shooting at soldiers. Within three weeks, the Iraqis were taking hostages, taking special interest in Europeans and Americans and beginning the retribution against people suspected of resisting the occupation. In September, when flights were arranged to evacuate European and American women and children, it seemed like a good time for Pat and Reham to go. Pat knew the Aarti family would always take care of her, but at what price? It would be safer for everyone if they left. They packed a few bags and Iraqi soldiers escorted two busloads of American women and children to the airport. From there, they flew to Jordan, where there were exhaustive interviews with the State Department. At last, they reached Boise, Pat's home.

That left Abbas alone in the house, so the "guys" moved in, about a dozen, to keep him company. For awhile, it was a bizarre kind of party. They'd cook, eat, play cards, watch movies and drink themselves to sleep. No one had to work so the main goal of the day was to stay fed and keep abreast of the latest rumors. At night, the younger men went out on "operations" against the Iraqis, but one night they didn't come back. Abbas was alone when his brother, Ali, brought his wife and children over for the night. People wanted to stay in their homes to prevent looting if possible but no one wanted to be alone. Ali was living at their mother's house, along with the rest of the family, so he could keep Abbas company without leaving his home unoccupied.

The next morning, they were all awoken by 35 Iraqi soldiers who came to find Reham. Had she been doing more than deliver food? Abbas didn't know, but was sure the soldiers thought she had.

At this point in the occupation, there were two types of raids. One was a neighborhood sweep in which all streets in and out of the carefully laid out residential areas were closed and the regular army conducted house to house searches, just to see what they could find. The second kind was more threatening. This was in response to a report that a particular person or house was involved in anti-Iraqi activities. The red caps - the much feared Republican Guards - carried these raids out. It was the red caps who woke up Abbas and Ali in search of Reham.

One soldier suggested he would cut her up while Abbas watched. He refused to believe she was no longer in Kuwait. The leader sat next to Abbas in the living room, holding a gun to his head. For two and a half hours, one group of soldiers interrogated Ali and his children, while others searched the house. Finding no signs of Reham, they left, promising to return later to look again. Ali later told Abbas that the soldiers kept coming back for another two months, each time doing a little more damage to the abandoned house.

As soon as the red caps were out of sight, some Kuwaitis arrived. They'd been watching from the top of a nearby mosque and had seen the house surrounded by bazookas. The same group of soldiers had just killed three people down the block, so the observers were not sure what they would find. Abbas and Ali decided they'd be safer elsewhere and everyone quickly departed. Abbas went home the next morning, but before he got inside, neighbors rushed out to tell him not to go in. The soldiers had returned and ransacked the house. A white car was passing by every ten minutes. It was time to go. He got his passport from under a carpet, dug up Pat's gold which he had buried in the garden, and moved around from house to house for a few days.

At the end of September, he was at his mother's house with his brothers, his sister, and their families. Moussa's wife was nine months pregnant. Hospital delivery, once free, was now $10,000, a price no one could afford so Moussa decided it was time to get out of Kuwait. Abbas decided it was time to find his family and he was entrusted with escorting a cousin's wife and kids to safety.

They joined a caravan of 47 other cars and paid one hundred Iraqi dinars a person (once worth $300.00, now worth 10 cents) to be able to leave. Everyone had fake Iranian identification. Abbas was disguised as Abbas Ali Baba Ta'akooli, a contract laborer who just happened to have a nice, new Toyota. In two hours, they reached the Iranian border. On the way, the caravan passed huge Iraqi trucks leaving Kuwait, jammed with precariously balanced stolen goods; empty trucks headed in the opposite direction, ready to loot some more.

In a no-man's land, about 200 meters into Iran, the baby decided to enter the world. Abbas and Moussa pulled off the road. Moussa stopped a van and pulled the driver out; he wasn't about to have his wife deliver her baby in the back seat of a Pontiac, even if the back seat was as big as many hospital rooms. Abbas says they put Selma in the back of the van and the baby came out . Just like that. I doubt that she would also tell it that way, but at any rate, the delivery was successful. Shortly afterward, a car from the Iranian Red Crescent (Islamic Red Cross) stopped to see what was happening.

"Why are you stopped here? This place is full of mines!"

"We didn't know. Nothing has happened yet, but we had a baby," Abbas replied. The baby was fine and no mines had blown them up. All things considered, it was an auspicious beginning. Moussa, Selma and the baby were taken to the hospital in the Red Crescent car, leaving Abbas with two cars and six children.

When the Iranian border guard came to check him out, he handed over his fake ID.

"No no no. Not this one. Give me the real one," the guard demanded.

"Well, you know this is fake, but the real one is in my brother's car."

"Where is your brother's car?"

"Right here," Abbas replied pointing ahead to the driverless car with three children.

"Well, let me see it then."

"I don't know where he's hidden it."

"But where's your brother?"

"He's gone to the hospital. His wife just had a baby."

"Who are these kids? Are they your kids?"

"No. Half of them are my brother's kids and half of them are my cousin's kids."

The guy didn't believe his story. Six children; none of them were his. Two cars; neither of them was his. And the name on his ID, Abbas Ali Baba Ta'akooli, wasn't his either. However, there were too many other people for the guards to spend time sorting this out so they moved on and told Abbas to wait there with the children. He found some water and they waited under a tree. Several hours later, Moussa returned and dug out the real passports. The guards collected them and told them to contact the Kuwaiti Embassy in Tehran where they could pick them up in a month's time.

Then, they joined the flea market at the border. Moussa sold two VCRs to some border guards. There were no hotels but an Iranian from Ahwaz, a couple of hours away, offered his home to refugees. Men slept on the roof, women downstairs. One night, the host, who generously went to sleep at his cousin's house, told Abbas he was "different," "not like the others."

"You look like a great man," he continued. Abbas was naturally flattered, but somewhat puzzled, not feeling like anything but an ordinary refugee at the time. Later that night, Abbas got a clue when his host brought a bottle of homemade whiskey up to the roof. A great man is one who understands people like himself. A kindred spirit in a place where people like that do whatever they do in secret. He is probably a lonely man in a country Omar Khayyam wouldn't recognize.

After four nights in Ahwaz, Selma had recovered sufficiently to make the long journey to Shiraz. Another smaller caravan set off across the mountains of southern Iran. Once in Shiraz, Abbas delivered his cousin's wife and her children to her Iranian family. The family made space for them all in their three bedroom home. There were four families and fourteen children for the month.

They weren't destitute. In addition to the VCRs, Moussa had sold the Pontiac, American cars being great luxury items in Iran these days. Abbas sold some of Pat's jewelry and his gold mezbah (worry beads). There was enough for food and plane tickets from Shiraz to the Emirates. But the month of sleeping on roofs and floors passed slowly. The Iranians in the streets were not too happy with their guests. Like the Saudis, the Iranians didn't like the Kuwaiti women who did not conform to their more rigid dress code and wore make up. In addition, the sudden influx of Kuwaitis had made all the prices go up. Shopkeepers were surly and Abbas was unable to rent a hotel room one night when he felt desperate for a good, quiet night's sleep in a bed. Thus, when the month was up and the passports were stamped, Abbas was more than ready to board the plane to Dubai.

Dubai was full of Kuwaiti refugees, some living very well as though they were on vacation, and some depending on help from the Kuwaiti government. Abbas spent his first night in the Hyatt Regency and delighted in a six-pack of beer. The next day, he was on the streets where he met other Kuwaitis who had rented an apartment. They helped him get some money from the embassy. He applied for and got his US tourist visa and was encouraged when it was only good for six months. He interpreted that as a good sign that Kuwait would be Kuwait before he would need to renew his visa. Now all he needed was enough money for a plane ticket. Apparently, it was meant to be. After a few weeks, he ran into an old friend who now lived in Dubai. The friend, who had since become a millionaire, treated him to lunch, a very nice lunch, and then bought him a plane ticket to Seattle. He was on his way.

There we were then, in Seattle, marveling at the fortunes and misfortunes that had brought us together in this unexpected time and place. Abbas had traveled for months and had the shortest part of the journey ahead. But the future was only a big question mark and there would be some hard times. He dreaded getting to Boise and having to tell Reham about some of her friends. Three of the guys, ages 19 and 20, she'd been cooking for were dead. Before they were shot, they'd given the Iraqis Reham's name, knowing she was safely out of the country and hoping it would buy them their lives. It didn't and it could have cost Abbas his. But Abbas was OK and he'd have to tell Reham that not all of her friends were. Then it would be over, for awhile. There would be time to rest and reflect.

Pat had called in late October when Abbas had reached Dubai and had some idea when he'd be able to leave. She asked me to find a cheap ticket from Seattle to Boise. Since we were all terribly short of money then, I took the cheap part seriously. Finding the regular fares too expensive, I called a place which advertised "previously sold" tickets at bargain prices. The ad emphasized that it was legal.

The tickets were half the price and I decided to go for it. The only hitch was that Abbas would have to travel as someone else. Oh well, I thought. He's used to that by now.

However, when Abbas arrived in Seattle, he was in no hurry to get on another plane. He confessed to absolutely hating to fly. Absolutely. He called Greyhound and was ready to take the 12 hour bus ride the next morning. That convinced me that he really did hate flying. I'd never choose a bus given any other option, especially for 12 hours.

When he called Pat though, she was furious. After all this time and worry, she should tell his daughters who have been worried sick about him to wait a little longer? She told him he'd better be on that plane.

So, it was time for another whiskey to fortify himself. This wasn't going to be easy. I handed him the ticket and Doug and I started calling him by his new name, "Raymond Johnson." An hour later, it was time to board. This was no problem until we got to the gate.

The regular Seattle - Boise flight doesn't call for a big plane. His 12 seater jet was parked out on the runway. There was no well-lit tunnel to shield passengers from the elements on their way out there. They had to walk out on the tarmac, not to the first plane either, but past a few other Horizon planes. The plane bound for Boise was not only the farthest away; it was also the smallest. That was not reassuring. The night sky was pouring rain and there was a good strong wind, almost enough to blow a skinny little guy off the runway.

But it was too late to turn back now. Ray, as we had taken to calling him, bravely passed through the gate and headed out into the darkness. The final step of the journey begun in Kuwait by Abbas Aarti, followed up by Abbas Ali Baba Ta'akooli, ended with Raymond Johnson's thankfully uneventful flight to Boise. Abbas is back here in Kuwait, doing well. Fatma, the baby born in the worst of times who had come to symbolize the return of the best of times, is a bright and beautiful four year old attending the English kindergarten in Kuwait. I don't know where Ray is.

Copyright 1997, 1996 Debbie Turner. Questions or comments? Contact the author at


Afternoon in Shuwaikh

Most of the city shuts down between 1:30 and 4:00 -- time for big family lunches and afternoon naps. As I return to my flat with books and groceries, smells of curries and stews and fresh bread from Iranian bakeries emanate from other kitchens. Sometimes, I long to be invited for lunch as the smells are always more appealing than the leftovers or sandwiches that await me. But a cold sandwich is a small price to pay for my privacy.

The afternoons do seem long sometimes though. I find it is getting easier and easier to relax, but I still get restless. Sometimes, I just take a load of clean clothes up to the roof and read in the sun while they dry. I can see the ridge across the bay on a clear day and the tall buildings downtown. No one, except an occasional expat also drying clothes, is ever up there. Who says there's nothing to do? There is little grass to watch grow, but watching clothes dry is not bad. In the desert sun, it happens so quickly you can almost see it. As a student of mine once said, "When in Rome, do as the Romanians do." I've tried to live by that advice ever since.

Sometimes I walk around the campus. It is dead quiet - there are no afternoon classes here and there is no one around except a few workers. Near the once and future faculty club, there are laborers putting in the new swimming pool to replace the one destroyed during the occupation. It looks finished, but apparently won't be until spring, 1994, much to the disappointment of those planning to teach through the summer. Further down, past the old brown buildings of the hospital and medical school, past the libraries and law school, you can see the sea. There are abandoned boats listing in mud flats; some look shot up, others simply neglected.

Just past these are the remains of the Iraqi bunkers and the trench which reportedly hugged the coast from Iraq to Saudi Arabia. The bunkers are made of sandbags and cement blocks hauled from building sites all over Kuwait. They are horrible dark rooms, 4 feet high, 4 feet wide, half underground - deadly ovens in the summer. The trench, still lined with cement blocks and topped with sandbags, is high enough for a man to squat in and just wide enough for an average man to crawl in. It's hard to imagine these were ever used, but just a year ago, this was the place where some expats began macabre collections of Iraqi gas masks and helmets. Now it's silent except for the waves. The rusty Pepsi cans, plastic rice bags and assorted shoes are at first chilling - are they residue of an occupying but ultimately hopeless army? Or were they just washed up here a few weeks ago, mere household garbage?

The curving trench line goes south as far as I can see; the bunkers, some bigger, some smaller, interrupt it every 15 feet. The thought of the effort of erecting this barricade in the August and September heat is stupefying. It's as huge as the stupidity which ordered it built in the first place. Would it have worked? Did the people constructing it ever really believe it would work?

More questions for which I'll never know the answers. I walk briskly, averting my eyes whenever I pass someone. I may be a woman walking alone with no visible purpose (there are no shops nearby) but I clearly want to communicate that I don't expect anyone to mess with me. This tactic is pretty effective here and I assume it without thinking. However, one day, as I walked by, unseeing and unsmiling, a worker called out to me.

"Hello. How are you? Are you Australian?" The speaker was wearing an orange coat and holding a broom.

"No. I'm American. Are you Filipino?"

"Yes. How do you know?" He sounded pleased.

How did I know? It's easy here. Everything is color coded - not so much by your skin, but by your uniform. Just as a white dishdasha identifies a Kuwaiti male, the king of the hill, this worker's orange coat identified him as a worker for Tanzifco, a cleaning company, no where near the top. Tanzifco hires Filipinos to clean the streets, and Bangladeshis to clean our buildings. He was one of many manning a broom that afternoon, posted about every 15 feet, silently sweeping the empty streets. This brief exchange shook me. I am so used to not speaking to strangers here - it's cautious and smart, avoiding trouble before it can start. But with these guys the rules are different. Instead of being virtuous, am I being rude? classist? With a vow to be more considerate, I kept walking, less guarded, reminding myself that as an American, I don't believe in all this class stuff.

So with a smile I turned to look at the next worker, intent on recognizing our shared basic humanity. But he wasn't wearing an orange coat. He was wearing dirty overalls and a turban. An Iranian? An Egyptian? His steady gaze, neither friendly nor unfriendly, reminded me of another truth. My rules just don't apply here, and while I'm sure we share something, I'm also sure we express it very differently. Women who want respect don't walk around alone on deserted campuses smiling at strange men. I quickly looked toward the sea, picked up my pace, and returned to the blocks of flats.

I got back to Building 5 and waited for the elevator. On the way up, a woman asked me if I was Russian. I was surprised. No matter where I've been , people always seem to know I'm American. Yet twice today, wearing an American T-shirt and jeans, I've been mistaken for something else. I looked at her. She was wearing a sari and had a red tikka mark in the middle of her forehead.

"No, I'm American." I said. "Are you Indian?"

She smiled slightly and replied, "Yes." We said no more. I think she realized the absurdity of my question and I felt slightly embarrassed, especially when I realized that I felt insulted. Russian? French, OK. But Russian? They're by far the worst dressed westerners here. Classism rears its ugly head once again.

Copyright 1997, 1996 Debbie Turner. Questions or comments? Contact the author at


Desert Roots

February is the time for camping , a month when schools have a long vacation and Kuwaitis, even those who are not Bedouin, return to their desert roots. The desert, especially on the outskirts of the city, was full of tents at this time - it used to look like a white canvas suburb with generators by every tent, football (soccer) games in the open spaces and even little shops. Families used to spend days in the tents and the shebab (young men) used to stay up all night, singing, telling stories and playing cards. Now, because of the mines, there is only a small space near town, between the major ring roads, designated as safe for camping and there are relatively few tents.

I've been to the desert once this trip. When I first arrived in Kuwait in 1985, going to the desert seemed an absurd expression - where can you get out of the desert? Nowhere, in fact, but the desert that is my front yard is not the same as the desert that you actually go to, where nobody lives and where there are still some wild animals and windswept dunes and miles and miles of nothing but an occasional herd of sheep or camels.

We took several memorable desert camping trips in the old days, and our first trip was done in high style. There were about 12 of us - American, Kuwaiti, Canadian, Indian and Palestinian - all with a 3 day weekend in honor of National Day, 1987. One of the Kuwaitis, Bader, had borrowed his family's Suburban, something most families have because it's the only thing big enough to carry their Bedouin tent. We headed for the desert in a caravan of Mercedes and Mitsubishis. We went south, down where the desert is totally flat and you can see nothing at all for miles. About 45 miles south of Kuwait City, we turned off the motorway and headed for oblivion.

There were sand-blown roads out there but it was difficult to imagine anything at the end of them. Now, in 1993, there are carcasses of cars that didn't make it to Saudi in the great escape. Now, it's still too full of mines to find out.

Then, as far as I could tell, there was nothing. After driving for awhile, we pulled off the road at a spot that looked very much like the rest of the vast emptiness we had passed in the last hour. Adel, Daoud and Bader, none of whom were Bedouin, got out and toed the sand. Moments later, with the non-Kuwaitis slightly puzzled, we were back on the road. Soon after, we pulled off the road, and once again, the Kuwaitis got out and toed the sand. This time we had to learn the secret - what did they see? What were they looking for?

"Sand," was all they answered. "This isn't good sand." I toed the ground awhile myself trying to get a feel for this sand that wasn't good enough. We stopped again and repeated the ritual, everybody digging into the sand now, offering comments on its worthiness. I didn't get it though. I was unable to discern any distinguishing characteristics of any kind. Sand. Miles and miles of sand. Not a view, not a tree, certainly not a scenic lake or river - nothing seemed different from one spot to the next. Clearly, there was a great deal I didn't know. We stopped a fourth time and that was it - the Kuwaitis pronounced it good sand. This would be the spot where we'd pitch our tent. Who knows what treacherous things may have befallen us had we not been in the company of experts.

The tent slept all of us comfortably. It measured about 20 feet by 20 feet and was high enough for anyone but Shaquille O'Neal to stand up in; the outside was sturdy white canvas, the inside colorful Indian cloth. We unrolled the carpets, laid out the cushions, set up the water pipe, and it looked like a movie set - just what one would picture for an exotic Arabian night in the desert.

The men then proceeded to dig a hole and set up our toilet tent (no trees to hide behind) and the women made sandwiches. The under - five set, Graham, Hanan and Lila, appreciated the fact that this was an endless sandbox. They shoveled sand into buckets and pushed trucks and bulldozers up and down sand mountains.

After lunch we got out the volleyball. A few years later, George Bush would seem pretty clear about where his line in the sand was, but ours was pretty difficult to see and without a net, there was lots of room for interpretation as to whether the ball was in or out. Veena, a beautiful Indian colleague with whom all the students were in love, was protecting her nails that first day and was our referee. She was notoriously unfair, though, and her husband Tahsin's team won by a large margin.

That night we barbecued kebabs outside the tent and played Uno late into the night, using Kuwaiti rules which allow any cheating you can get away with and make it a lot more fun. Early the next morning, a herd of camels sauntered by. Cameras were loaded and we jumped in our cars and gave chase. It was easy to find them in the flat and empty landscape and even though Lancers aren't made for off the road driving, they can catch a camel. The camel herders had the same idea and were following their charges in a wanette - a small pickup truck. One camel even got to ride in the back.

The name wanette has a disputed etymology. Some people say it is Kuwaiti pronunciation of one-eight, the size of the engines. Others say it comes from the word vanette, little van. Whatever its origin, every Bedouin family seems to have one. They're great for chasing and hauling sheep, goats and even camels.

The thrill of the chase made us all hungry. Although we had been eating non-stop and had made no appreciable dent in our food supplies, Adel decided that we needed a bigger lunch. He and Doug headed out for Wafra, the nearest town, to get some food.

Wafra is variously referred to as Kuwait's garden spot or as the ultimate desert dead-end. They do grow strawberries, tomatoes and cucumbers on the farms there, but the town's appearance brings the middle of nowhere to mind first.

The dusty main street was lined with small shops and restaurants. Plastic kitchenware hung from the awnings of some and cheap cotton dishdashas (robes worn by most Gulf males) blew in the wind in front of others. Kuwaiti flags waved over every corrugated iron roof in celebration of National Day. The Indian restaurants were open, and after a couple of hours, Adel and Doug returned with trays of curry and rice. We definitely did not go hungry. Much to everyone's surprise, we got rained on that trip and found out that the beautiful, roomy tents were not entirely waterproof. Mai qallaf. The desert sun quickly dried everything before we'd made our Turkish coffee on the fire.

That was the best camping trip, but not the best camping spot. My favorite place had always been Mutlaa Ridge, up north towards the Iraqi border. The ridge was the only place where there was any visible elevation in Kuwait. Out there were sand dunes and rocky hills that still provided homes for foxes, lizards and jerboas. We had had several picnics and a few camping trips in the hills of Mutlaa.

Once we found the skeleton of what must have been a camel, but allowed speculation with four-year-old Graham that these monstrous rib bones might have belonged to a dinosaur. We climbed the highest dunes and leapt down them, leaving trails of our footprints deep in the otherwise smooth sand. From the tops of the hills, you could see across the bay and barely make out the silhouettes of the Kuwait Towers. But there was no sound at all. It was one of the only places in Kuwait where it was possible to escape the drone of engines.

We had gone out for a picnic one Friday in the spring, before it was too hot. One never drove off the road alone, at least a foreigner who couldn't read the sand never did, because one car always got stuck in the sand and the strength of several adults was needed to push it out. Veena and Tahsin had come with us.

We had parked the cars about a mile off the highway, up a hill and in the shade of a rocky crag. We were setting up the barbecue when we heard an engine. The sound got closer and we were disappointed. With miles of emptiness to choose from, we didn't want to end up with neighbors. It wouldn't have really mattered - we weren't doing anything improper or illegal - but totally letting go is not public behavior in Kuwait and it may have dampened our friends' enthusiasm and willingness to leap like children in the dunes. Wives of Arabs are not given the same leeway that we crazy westerners are allowed, at least not in front of other Arabs. An Arab family near us would have made Tahsin much less relaxed.

Thus, it was with pleasure and not a little awe that we greeted the ice cream truck that pulled up near our picnic site. We couldn't have recognized our tracks in the rocky sand below, but somehow he knew we were there. Naturally, we had to reward this ambitious salesmanship and we bought ice cream for all.

Now, in 1993, this favorite place out on the ridge is army territory, apparently so full of mines they don't really expect to clear it up. On the way to the ridge is the Highway to Hell, the highway where hundreds were incinerated when the occupying troops fled Kuwait in the last days of February, 1991. The burnt out shells of the cars, trucks, buses and tanks have been piled at the crossroads of the highway going north, to Iraq, and the highway going east, to nothing. It looks like a junkyard. Any one of those blackened car remains could be my Toyota. The scrap pile is ugly, but it doesn't look like the remains of a nightmare.

The nightmare isn't completely over - the most treacherous remains are below the surface of the ever changing sands. According to the "Arab Times," one of the English dailies, 1.5 million mines have been removed from Kuwait, yet there is almost no place in the desert considered safe to go because approximately 3 million mines remain. Most are designed to cripple rather than kill as it takes three soldiers to care for one injured one. This is not much comfort and incautious drivers who find themselves in a mine field are instructed not to make a U-turn, but to climb out onto the roof of the car and carefully walk in the tire tracks until they are out of the mine field. But how can you tell you're in one unless something blows up?

There are uniquely Kuwaiti problems in clearing the mines. Smugglers near the Iraqi border have stolen some and leave them behind if they think police are following them; Bedouins have pulled down fences marking known mine fields and used them to enclose their sheep. In addition, mines buried on islands and uncleared beaches are washed away by the tides and occasionally wash up on beaches considered clear and safe. Sometimes these are picked up by the unwary.

But there had been no reports of unexpected explosions since I'd arrived, and I wanted to get out to the desert again, before it got too hot and before Ramadan began. So, last week, I went down south with friends, near the Saudi border, and we had a desert picnic. It was still living dangerously, but the Bangladeshi mine clearers had already been in this section. Apparently many of them left relatively wealthy widows behind.

There are still rusty tanks, burned cars, pieces of missiles, plastic shoes and other indestructibles littering the desert. I examined the sandals and cars unable to dismiss the unlikely possibility I might find my own. I looked over pieces of missiles and considered taking them as souvenirs until I realized how incredibly heavy they were. Souvenirs of what, anyway? Was it perhaps a little sick to want something like this? It's not unusual, though. My Kuwaiti friend Samar has massive shells holding dried flowers in her living room. It's a startling juxtaposition.

As is a return from the desert to Kuwait City. The littered sands make the war real; the busy city streets make it a distant bad dream. The small shell piece I hold in my hand doesn't seem to belong in the place I'm returning to, although some evidence of the invasion remains. There is graffiti, mostly celebrating free Kuwait and saying "Thanks to Allies." And there are just a few buildings with bricked in windows. The bricked windows have a small open square in the middle, just large enough for a gun. Or maybe only some light. Some homes belong to people who have not come back - maybe Palestinian or Iraqi; other ruined buildings are apparently homes of martyrs, reminders of the "evil Iraqi aggression" - as the "Arab Times," refers to the invasion.

And it is referred to often. Very little that happens in post war Kuwait is not framed by the invasion. The imprint of the "evil Iraqi aggression" may not be so visible these days in the city, but its mark, like the mines covering the desert, will long be beneath the surface. And I won't be going camping anytime soon.

Copyright 1997, 1996 Debbie Turner. Questions or comments? Contact the author at


Students in the Faculty of Arts


A few days ago after class, Marzouka came up to me and said she had to talk. We went to my stuffy windowless office. "Teacher," she said, " I hate this class."

I was taken aback and tried to think if it was anything I might have done. But she quickly allayed those fears, continuing, "You are like my sister."

I knew this was a great compliment but I didn't really feel I deserved it. Until that moment, Marzouka had not distinguished herself to me in any way. She wore a black abaya like most of the girls, and although she sometimes put it over jeans, she was pretty conventional nonetheless. She spoke English well enough, but wasn't too good at putting anything on paper. I remembered though that she had lately started coming into class about five minutes late and had quietly refused to share her paragraph, when she had one, with a partner. Uncooperative, but not subversive. I'd let it go.

Her story poured out. The other girls in the class say she is bad. They talk about her all the time. These girls used to be her friends when they were in school together in Sabahiya, but now they hate her. They saw her talking to her uncle one day at the university. He's only 21 so the other girls didn't believe he was her uncle. Even when her "friends" found out, they said it didn't matter - other people don't know he's an uncle. Other people think Marzouka talks to boys and so if her classmates talk with her, people will say they are bad girls too. One of the girls called Marzouka's brother and told him that Marzouka talked to boys. He got really angry with her. Every day she wakes up and tells her mother she doesn't want to face the hell that school has become. Her mother wants her to leave her room and do something besides watch TV. But she can't. She's absolutely miserable.

I am speechless. I do not have solutions for this very un-American type problem. I try to assure her that the other girls are not as interested in her as she thinks. They probably aren't talking about her all the time. But in the end, all I am able to do is listen and agree that it isn't fair, that it is pretty hard to be different in a Bedouin town. I'm pretty sure there is more to this story, but her unhappiness is real.

There is a measure of defiance in her - she wears jeans, she smokes Marlboros - but there's no place for her to go. She wants to go to America where there is "freedom." She has only a vague knowledge of what this means - freedom from what? Freedom to do what? But, she probably won't even pass this class. Her father has 3 wives and 24 children. All he expects is that she get married.

She usually visits me in my office before class and then marches in to class, 5 minutes late. I don't think this has the desired effect on the rest of the class but she insists. Yesterday, she took off her ring - a band of gold encrusted with "American" diamonds (zircon) - and gave it to me. I said no 3 times, but she pressed it into my hand. Wasn't that the rule? Surely she meant for me to keep it? She said she had many others, that the fun was in the shopping. And she said once again that I was her sister. It was not a bribe. It had nothing to do passing or failing. I didn't need to explain that there was nothing I could do in that regard; that she had to pass the standardized exams; that someone else who knew nothing of her problems would mark her papers. I kept the ring although I still feel guilty. She's doing poorly in class and I can't seem to help her. And all the sharp points of the diamonds hurt my fingers.



Badriya is from Jahra, the home of the Red Palace and "jungle people" and their flashy Caddies. While modern life has brought plumbing and electricity to Jahra, it seems to have changed little else. The mud buildings look like they should have camels outside, not Chevrolets. There are no women walking on the streets. It makes me glad the houses are so big as I feel sure some people rarely leave them.

Badriya leaves Jahra at least 5 days a week. She usually wears an abaya to class but her colorful long skirts and long-sleeved blouses are not totally hidden. Lots of kohl outlines her eyes. She always does her homework and she always smiles. She is majoring in philosophy. It seems half of my students are future philosophers and the other half future social workers. I see no evidence of either outside the classroom which makes it all a little puzzling.. Some people say that women are at the university to raise their bride price and attract better husbands (not by meeting them there, but by their parents being able to demand more money for them at the family bargaining table.)

Every Saturday, I ask the students about their weekends. Most of my students are female and they have very little to report. They've watched television, read the Holy Koran and slept a lot. On a good weekend, they've gone shopping or visited their cousins. It is terribly predictable. So, it was surprising when, one Saturday, I asked Badriya what she had done and she answered, "I played tennis," using the past tense perfectly.

I couldn't help laughing. I asked her which Jahra tennis court was her favorite and she started laughing too. A tennis court in Jahra? There are sports clubs in Kuwait and places for upper class girls to play tennis. But not in Jahra. The thought of Badriya in her long skirts and abaya, playing tennis in the dusty fields of Jahra, got me laughing again. Now, whenever I ask her about her leisure time, she tells me she plays tennis. It always makes us laugh.

Copyright 1997, 1996 Debbie Turner. Questions or comments? Contact the author at


The Spinster Problem or "Have a heart -- lend a hand -- take another" (Arab Times, April 1, 1993)

Old Kuwaiti proverbs:

Narah wala jannat hali -- His hell is better than my family's paradise.

Asaha etaris lo bichait - - Hope that she gets married even if it means tears.

Surprisingly, despite the great importance of marriage in Islam and the Kuwaiti culture, Kuwaiti marriages are no more successful than American marriages. At last report, over one-third of all Kuwaiti marriages ended in divorce. But, while common, it is still considered a shame, for either the husband or wife. Some social committees, government groups set up to study the problem, blame the divorce rate on the newlyweds' extreme youth and lack of preparation for adult responsibility. Another culprit is western influence - romantic myths leading young people to have unrealistic expectations of married life. Though Arab tales and songs are full of tragic stories of star-crossed lovers, an old proverb admonishes a woman never to marry her lover . Traditional wisdom says love comes after marriage, not before.

Nonetheless, it seems that an increasing number of Kuwaiti men and women want love, although there is no socially acceptable way to pursue it, and/or reject the traditional roles that marriage thrusts upon them. The result is a large number of unattached women. Presumably there are also a lot of unattached men, but it is easier for single men to find a place in society provided they can withstand their mother's grief and their neighbors' speculations about whether or not they are "real" men, in other words, not gay.

People are worried about change here though, and the most conservative Kuwaitis see any change at all as the fast track to hell - a society full of the problems so rampant in the decadent west. So, the Social Committee for Marriage is taking action, making an effort to resolve the difficulty caused by the increasing number of unmarried Kuwaiti women , be they single, divorced or widowed . The committee's solution for these unmarried women is polygamy, which is relatively uncommon in modern Kuwait as it is not easy to follow the Koran's stipulations and take care of more than one wife equally. The committee aims to encourage men of means to take a second or even a third wife if they can afford it. They themselves even go so far as to set a good example, practicing what they preach - the sponsor of the committee has three wives while the manager has two. The spokesman professed to be quite content with one, although the article hinted that he may not have been very candid since his two sisters-in-law were present. While taking more than one wife is allowed, it is generally not very popular with the first.

The committee wants to assure the public that they are not propagating polygamy to "abet base carnal desires." According to the committee, polygamy allows women the respect given wives, protects them from those who do not have their best interests at heart, and promises to do away with many of society's ills, unattached women apparently being high on their list. Not all men who apply will be accepted. They will be investigated to determine if they can in fact follow the Koran's dictates and provide proper support. According to the article, the interested men are looking for "fair-complexioned, veiled women of medium height," while women want "religious men who are good providers." Not surprisingly, more men than women are ready to do their part in solving this dilemma thus far.

The preferred term for "single" in the English papers is "spinster" and spinsters are not a new problem in Kuwait. In 1985, a group of women took action , offering themselves as second wives and urging men to do their Islamic duty. However, they were not well received by the first wives. Ultimately, they had little success in reducing the number of spinsters, but there were a few men who expressed their altruistic willingness to help a good cause.

Blame for the spinster problem is placed in various places, including the Iraqi occupation which resulted in more male than female martyrs. But, most often, Kuwaiti men fault the high dowries asked for by the bride's family for discouraging them from marriage. Despite efforts made by different tribes to impose limits, the dowries are sometimes as much as $100,000 , but generally $25,000 to $30,000. According to government research, these unreasonable dowries have caused young men to marry foreigners "in droves." I remember telling my incredulous male students, most young and as yet unmarried, that not only was an American bride "free," but her family had to pay for the wedding. This bit of information always sparked interest in my youngest "spinster" sister.

Another suggested reason fewer Kuwaiti men are marrying Kuwaiti women is the housing shortage. This forces young couples to wait as long as ten years to get their government provided house, Not many couples can afford to do as Mansour and Fawzia do and rent their own apartment, and fewer and fewer young Kuwaiti women want to live with the husband's family. Requests for apartments and cars are added to the dowry, and young men who don't have family money cannot afford them.

For all of these reasons, the "Arab Times" describes thousands of women as "haunted by the specter of spinstership, while dreaming of becoming housewives," and if she's truly blessed, the mother of a son. Some of these women, and their mothers, blame us, the foreigners, for taking away their men.

Last week I went to the old souq - the covered market, a labyrinth of lanes where you can buy everything from dates and olives to Rolex watches (genuine ones and copies). I was in the souq-al hareem, the women's souq, buying sequined scarves and dresses to take home. The souq al-hareem is a covered lane with small shops on the side selling cheap toys from Taiwan, packages of safety pins, thread, perfume oil, and a wide assortment of combs and ribbons particularly suitable for long black hair. In the middle, there are tables where Bedouin women sit, most wearing the burqas (veils) rarely seen in the city, selling black chiffon scarves, and the sequined dresses I was looking for. The women call out to me as I pass, holding up scarves and urging me to try them on.

I was ambling around the stalls when I met a former student, a handsome Bedouin, about 26 years old, and as it happens, unmarried. He was helping me with my negotiations when an old Bedouin woman came over, hit him on the arm and began a loud and lively conversation. I continued looking through the thobes (robes or dresses) occasionally looking over and smiling. I knew they were saying something about me and it sounded good-natured. Finally, the woman's companions pulled her away. I bought my thobes and we stopped at a stand and bought some fresh orange juice.

"So, what was all that about?" I asked Bader, referring to his lively conversation in the souq.

"Just some nosy Bedouin women. Nothing, " he answered.

"But I could tell you were talking about me. What were you saying?"

"Wallah (by God) , nothing. They are old women. They don't know anything."

"Yallah, come on. Tell me what they were saying. It looked like it was funny."

He looked embarrassed. "They wanted to know if you were my wife. I said we were colleagues at the university; that you were a doctor from America and I was helping you out. "

"Bass (Is that all)? What else?"

"Haymara (She's a donkey). Just forget her."

I waited for him to continue. He did.

"She said when she saw us, she just had to come over and ask even though her friends told her to mind her own business. She wanted to remind me that there are many beautiful Kuwaiti girls who would make very good wives and we don't need to chase blondes. She said Kuwaiti men should be happy with Kuwaiti women. I told her you spoke Arabic very well and she should be careful about what she said."

I remembered my smile in her direction, a smile and an uncomprehending look that certainly belied his words.

I laughed and shook my head, but it saddened me. I remembered the woman at the supermarket who got in front of me at the vegetable scale where you have to have your produce weighed and marked. It was as if I wasn't there at all. I held my bag of onions out and a figure swathed in black from head to toe swished by me and deposited a watermelon on the scale. Her servant came behind and handed her the rest from her very full shopping cart. No doubt she was shopping for a family of 15, not a family of one. The Egyptian operating the scales saw what she had done but didn't have the power to do anything about it.

At that moment, I felt the Egyptian and I were kindred spirits - two of the downtrodden, fellow victims of discrimination, people who shared anger at this arrogance and rudeness. I assumed he wanted to say, "Excuse me, madam, but she was here first." But it is just as likely that he felt nothing at all, least of all any connection to me. He may have despised this woman, but he probably understood her. I might as well be from another planet. I thought with pleasure of dropping her watermelon on the floor and watching it explode, spitting black seeds and clumps of mushy melon all over her black cover. Los semaati (Excuse me), I would say and smile disingenously. The Egyptian had looked at me with an expression I couldn't read; then, revealing nothing but utter disinterest, moved in seeming slow motion as he weighed and marked her purchases.

At the souq, Bader walked me to my car and apologized once more, saying some people here just have small minds. Maybe in time it will change. The sun was just setting over the Gulf as I drove back to the tower blocks in Shuwaikh. The view brought a peaceful feeling, a feeling like it was a good place to be at that moment, but the stronger feeling that I didn't belong nagged at me.

I remembered a story about a cousin of a Kuwaiti friend of mine. She lived in an apartment complex and an Amrikiya lived above her. Sometimes, if both the American and the Kuwaiti hung out their wash at the same time, the drops of water from the American's wash might drip onto the Kuwaiti's clothes. The Kuwaiti asked her cousin the mullah (religious leader) if her clothes were still halal (clean, kosher). He said he didn't think so. Now she keeps her eye on her wash and brings it in quickly when the American comes out so that she doesn't have to wash it all again.

Such things happen so rarely that it's easy to shrug off. I know there are some people who don't think I'm fully human. Still there are some who treat me like a queen. I don't deserve that either, but I do prefer it.

Copyright 1997, 1996 Debbie Turner. Questions or comments? Contact the author at