Kuwait — my first experience overseas

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These photos were taken by Stephanie McGehee after the invasion of Kuwait. The last oil wells were capped just prior to my arrival in 1993. In a weird and frightening way, these fires were beautiful, and seemed to have a life of their own. The reflection you see is a lake, but not of water, it is oil.

Here are some of my memories from that time.

KUWAIT

I went to Kuwait in 1993, right after the Gulf War. I still remember my first impressions in the airport. Everything was WHITE – seriously white. The person who met us was dressed in white, except for his very shiny black shoes hidden by his long white robes. It was so white it was unnerving. When we went to get into the car with our greeter, my companion and I both tried to get into the back seat. I remember him turning to say in near perfect English, “I do not bite, one of you can get into the front.” I immediately did so. Later, I learned he was the nephew of our employer, one of the wealthiest men in the world.

 

Even so, everything outside was white. The sand, the buildings – white against blue skies. AND it was HOT. It was August, and the desert heat created waves. The air shimmered with the heat. It felt a bit like walking into an open oven. Everything was air-conditioned. Cars were especially made to support heavy-duty air conditioning units. It was not unusual to find cars in the parking lots with motors running, and the air-conditioning going; the doors locked. Just by briefly walking outside jewelry, such as earrings, and bracelets became hot against the skin.

 

Prior to this trip, I had never been on an airplane. We had just traveled close to 27 hours on a trans-Atlantic flight from Boston, MA to Kuwait City, Kuwait with a layover in London. We were placed in economy class in the middle row of the center. I had just come from Vermont, and I definitely felt like a country hick. The plane was big, and crowded. Only those who know nothing about planes, allow themselves to be put in the center of the middle aisle. Movement was near impossible and, I have removed sardines easier from a can, than removing my body from the seat to stand up.

 

We were tired, and I was emotionally spent. I was hoping they would take us to a hotel room. Instead, being a good host, we were taken to his home. The house was marble. The walls were concrete and the floors were marble. He had a large undisciplined Irish Setter that spent its time running, or rather sliding across the floors. We were generously treated to some wonderful Kuwaiti/Arab treats, and extended conversation. Many, many, and even more questions were asked about our role in Kuwait. What did we know about learning disabilities? How did we plan to set up a school? From where did we expect to draw students? My head was spinning, and soon I had to beg to be allowed to return to our rooms. I could no longer remember my name, let alone what I was doing here.

 

I had found this position by accident. Recently, I had finished a position created in hell. It was as a coordinator for the State of Vermont’s therapeutic foster care program in Southeastern Vermont. I had come to the realization that trying to put band-aids on bleeding jugular veins, which were the children in the system, was more than I could handle. So I quit, and there I was, sitting in the library when I came across an ad in the Boston Globe advertising for people to start a school in Kuwait. It was a small ad, about 6 lines in small type. They needed a school psychologist. It was 1993, two years after the first Gulf War. I always wanted to visit the Arab world, so I figured “Why not?” and off I went. And here I was, exhausted.

 

Our benefactor taking pity on my colleague and I called a driver to take us to our lodging. I, at least, expected a room with a decent bed and shower. We found ourselves at what looked like temporary housing shelter. It was a lot filled with mobile units. We were shown one of them, and told we would have to carry our own luggage. Our driver explained he had had a heart attack and, therefore, could not lift anything. I dragged my duffel bags to the housing unit. Looking around, I saw a metal shack reminding me of a trailer I once had for living quarters. When I turned the water on, it was black. When I went to take a shower, it was necessary to let the water run for about ten minutes before it came clear of what looked like black sludge. Apparently these buildings had been unoccupied since the invasion of Iraq, and the taps unused.

 

At least there was a fridge and drinking water. We came to discover, our driver had been given plenty of money to find us a decent hotel. He decided we were only teachers, who would not know any better, and found us this converted construction camp. He pocketed the rest of the money. When we opened the door in the morning, we were confronted with a white expanse of the finest sand I had ever seen. The sun reflected off this blazing expanse, blinding my eyes. The white sand flowed seamlessly into the bluest water making up the Gulf of Arabia, once known as the Persian Gulf.

 

Our driver came to take us to our new apartments. These were in an old building on the outskirts of Kuwait City. Surrounding the buildings was sand, endless expanses of sand. Now, gentle reader, remember I came from Vermont, the land of Green Mountains —- endless green mountains. The floors of this building were marble, and the rooms large with floor to ceiling windows. It was an old building from before the Iraqi invasion in 1991. The building had been refurbished, and we were among the first ones in there. It was close to the Gulf. The building in front, with a sea view, had been shot through from when the Iraqi came down the coastal road. There were large holes from where the tank shells had struck the building.

 

A new woman came to meet us at the apartments. She was the Aunt of our employer, and was totally shocked to learn we preferred to stay in these apartments, rather than the hotel where we were the night before. She felt they were not clean enough to house us. It was many months before she learned what the Driver had done. We did not think to tell her why we wanted to move. We thought she had approved where we were taken. We never thought the Driver would steal.

 

This was my introduction to Kuwait. It is probably a good thing I was dazed from traveling, and not completely aware of my surroundings. If I had been, I probably would have gotten on the next plane out of town.

 

 

 

It was dusty, always dusty and it was worse in the sand storms. These storms would come like snow blizzards, except they were made of sand. Just like in a snow blizzard, it was almost impossible to see the road. We could not drive, as the roads were slippery. And leaving your car outside was a bad idea for after the storm passed much of the paint on the car was gone – sand blasted away.

 

It was a land of extremes. Even its people are caught in these extremes. One of the biggest mistakes people make about the Middle East is to think that because the people were becoming, and wanting to be modernized that they were westernized. The two are not the same; they are not even equivalent, and while the Middle East did rapidly become modernized, it did not become westernized. They maintained their traditions while updating homes, and buildings, and cars, and technology.

 

When we arrived in Kuwait in 1993, its people were still becoming used to what it meant to have oil money. There were super highways, recently built, three lanes to a side but still a novelty. If, while driving the roads, you saw someone you wanted to talk to, you pulled up beside them, honked and rolling down your window, you carried on a conversation with the traffic backing up behind you. I say “he” as the vast majority of drivers were male. In those days, women were a rare sight on the road.

 

Often cars did not use lights at night because they feared the battery would wear out. One particular night stands out in my memory. I was driving quite fast on the road home. The roads were new, and made fantastic speedways. I realized there were cars coming up particularly fast behind me, and quickly pulled over into the slower lane to the right. I suddenly realized there was a dark shape directly in front of me. Putting on the brakes, I rolled to a stop just as I came to the rear of a cement truck, with no taillights and moving quite slowly at about half my speed. I remain grateful that I took note of the dark shape, and slowed in time to avoid a major collision.

 

Speeding was a common sport among the young. Racing on these highways was often seen. I would look in my rear view mirror and see cars coming at me quite fast with rapidly blinking lights. When this happened, it was best to remain in my lane and not move. To try to move out of the way of the approaching car was suicidal at best. The cars were moving too fast to make a correction. The drivers counted on my not moving from the lane I was in. The cars, when they passed, were moving fast enough to cause my car to rock from the vibration of the speed.

 

In an attempt to stop this behavior, the police came up with a unique plan. Any cars, in an accident, were left on the side of the road for all to see. I saw cars bent in unique shapes, I would have thought impossible if I had not see them with my own eyes. Young Kuwaiti men felt it a right of passage to totally wreck the first car they were given. More often than not, they ended in the hospital in a coma. Many died, but they were not deterred. I heard stories of cars becoming airborne from speed, and I saw the results.

 

We had come to found a school for children with learning difficulties. We were the first of its kind in the Middle East and this proved to be an amazing experience. We started with one child. When I left eleven years later we had 156 students, and we had assisted in starting a school in Qatar as well. The school became part of the Qatar Foundation. Both schools are still operating. Little did I know I would stay in the Middle East for fourteen years, and then go on to remain overseas for an additional 7 years, in Africa.

 

At that time, there were four of us who came to start the school. Two would leave the first year and two of us would go on to remain. The building we moved into for the school was being renovated. It was a home with bullet holes through it. When you were inside you could see the outside. Workmanship was completely, and totally done by hand. There were no construction machines. Electricians tested whether an electrical socket was viable by sticking a light bulb with wires attached into an outlet. If it lit up, then it worked. The only problem was we blew out computers before it dawned on us, you could not tell which was the ground wire in this manner. Since the electricity was 220v, this proved very hazardous to out electrical equipment like printers. I thought it would make a large noise when this happened but it does not. One plugs in a printer and it goes “thhpt” and that is it. It no longer works. There is no fanfare, just a small innocuous sound that signaled the loss of a 500 usd piece of equipment.

 

We found out also, this equipment is not discarded, you find someone to repair it. We found a fellow from India who was amazing as he could repair anything, and he did. He repaired printers and computers for us and his price was fair, except for one small thing. He liked liquor, which was interesting as Kuwait was a dry country, and mostly his price was bottles of liquor, which we learned to smuggle into the country with amazing ease. I can now admit this, as we are no longer there.

 

We not only learned how to smuggle in liquor, we learned how to make our own wine. When we went to the grocery store to buy ingredients the clerks would tell you what you were lacking. There was one major store we used called the Sultan Center. It was the first store to cater to Westerners, and it became a major chain in Kuwait. At the time, there were only two or three stores, small by Western standards, but adored by us expatriates. When anything arrived like “After Eight Mints” the word would go out and we would all rush to buy before they ran out. When we bought Rabina by the case, for making wine, the clerks would tell us how much sugar we needed. We would make our wine and then share the best bottles with others. And the wine was good – we were creative.

 

We also had friends, who made their own gin, flavored liquors, and anything else made form pure grain alcohol. Computer cleaner was used, as was medical grade alcohol. It was possible to legally bring these items into the country. Obviously, they were not always used for their intended purpose. But, these items had to be seriously diluted as the proof was far more than was safe to ingest. But put juniper berries with some computer cleaner, and the gin was quite good. The British were superb at alcohol innovation.

 

All luggage was searched by hand at the airport. We learned to wrap bottles in aluminum foil to deceive the x-ray machines. The other trick was to put it in flat water bottles, called a platypus. These did not show up on x-rays and held about a fifth of alcohol. Some ex-patriots, traveling with children, would make them cry as they were going through customs. This would cause the customs agents to push them on through the line. There were all kind of tricks developed for getting liquor through. And, of course, one could always just buy it on the black market in Kuwait

 

Tanks were everywhere. It was 1993 when we arrived, right after the invasion of Kuwait by Iraq. Tanks were left littered on the streets, and there were many buildings with HUGE gaping holes left by tank fire. The tanks were used as landmarks. You drive out the desert road, and at marker 51 you will see a tank on the left side of the road. You turn left on the road right after the tank, and it will take you to the chalets. Kuwaitis had their homes in the city, and their chalets on the water outside of town. So much had been destroyed during the war, so very much.

 

After the invasion, Kuwaitis and ex-patriots alike returned to find their homes looted, jewelry stolen, and terrible destruction. The Iraqi, apparently, were overwhelmed at the amount of wealth in Kuwait. Understandably, they looted the gold markets, and the homes.

 

Gold markets were an amazing site. There were large market areas, with shop after shop filled with gold. It was all open to the streets and nothing was guarded. My friends and I kept thinking, that if this was in the US, there would be armed guards everywhere. We hardly ever saw even security guards in the area. At night, iron gates were pulled across the front of the store and locked. We did hear of thefts, but these were rare. I personally, did have thefts occur. But these were crimes of opportunity, happening because of my own foolishness in not locking away valuable jewelry.

 

The Gulf was amazingly beautiful. We were often invited to spend the day with the friends we had made. We would travel an hour’s ride to get into the desert to the chalets. The water was exquisite, and we would walk along the beach amazed at the whiteness of the sand, and the contrasting blue of the sea.. The Gulf was moody. It changed color according to the mood of the day. I drove along the Gulf to get to work and each day it changed color. Our days were filled with adventure. We climbed the tanks we found in the desert, and we explored. We did not know the tanks had residual radioactivity in them. We found this out —- later.

 

My colleague who loved to crawl over the tanks would later contract prostate cancer and die from it. We never really knew whether or not this might have been from playing on these tanks. Many children, both in Kuwait and Iraq, had birth defects. Many died. Many who lived had serious health issues. Asthma was a HUGE problem. During the Gulf War it rained fine oil sediment. The fires in the fields were so thick. Anyone with breathing issues experienced serious difficulty. We had arrived shortly after the last oil fire was put out but the air was still thick with particulate matter, causing considerable difficulty for children.

 

The concept of Arab hospitality was not an idle one.

 

Lebanon, my Lebanon Part 2

We traveled up the mountains to the home of my cousins in Amyoun. It is a beautiful little village. The old part of town has very narrow streets. If you stood in the middle of the road, you could touch the houses on both sides. The houses are made of stone. They look like they were carved from stone. The interiors of the homes are stone as are the floors. The roads are steep, and wind through this small area giving character and grace to the village. My favorite activity of the day was to rise early in the morning, and walk the streets. The towns were close together, so it was an easy walk to go from Amyoun, my father’s town, to Couspah, my mother’s town. It must be clearly stated that Couspah was known for its ice cream. It was truly a gift.

My father’s home is located across from a steep cliff. Although it is not in the old part of town, it is still old. It is a large home with tall, long windows, and floors of stone and walls of concrete. My aunt lived here by herself for many years. When I met her, she was around 95 years of age. Her posture was erect and her back straight. She never married, and neither did her brother, who shared the home until his death in the mid 1950’s. He was a heavy smoker, and that is what most likely killed him. The home has been taken over now by squatters. Apparently, in order to get them out we have to pay for them to leave. Lebanese law has its peculiarities. People who left Lebanon are seen as wealthy because we live in America or Argentina or Brazil, etc. Those who stayed seem to feel entitled to compensation from those who left. It is a strange entanglement leaving one wondering about the trustworthiness of relatives.

The cliff across from the house is known as the Hermit’s Cliff. It is riddled with caves on the shear side. There was a Church on the top of the cliff. The hermits would go into the caves to live out their lives. They could see out but never left the cave. Apparently food was lowered to them. There is a large flat space in front of the cliff. Each year there is a Festival of Olives celebrated, where a queen is crowned. I went with my cousins to this festivity. As I sat there, I stared up at the Hermit Cliff, and imagined I could see them staring out watching the scantily clad young ladies competing for the title of most beautiful. The juxtaposition of the two was almost overwhelming. The scantily clad men sitting in caves above, devoting their whole lives to finding God, against the scantily clad girls below devoting their young lives to the Goddess of Beauty or Lust, depending upon your perspective.

One memory from my first visit stands out very distinctly. So many of the houses were in rubble from repeated bombings during the civil war. The house next to my cousins’ had half walls, almost no roof nor floors. It was a two- story building, where in one corner was a relatively intact room. A number of Syrian laborers lived in that second story room. They reached the room by climbing broken stairs, and then walking some narrow beams to this area, where they were camping. I could only guess how bad conditions were in Syria, if this was considered a step up for them.

We had just finished lunch in my cousin’s kitchen. She was a wonderful cook, and had gone out of her way, while I was there, to make the foods I loved. After we finished, my cousin’s husband took the plastic bag filled with garbage from where it was tied to the kitchen faucet. He walked with the bag out onto the porch where I was standing. He then walked to the edge of the second floor balcony, and began to swing the bag faster and faster. When it reached just the perfect arc, he let it go, and it flew smoothly into the house next door. It landed on a pile of garbage on the floor. Seeing me staring, he said, “Don’t worry. We burn the garbage each month. I thought about those people I had seen walking in the rafters, and how they were living above a garbage heap infested with rats and wild cats. And then I was told, “What can you expect? There are no garbage collections. Seventeen years of civil war did this.”

One of the wonderful memories I have, from this visit is taking long rides through the countryside. My cousin’s husband took us for drives, and we explored the area. We stopped whenever something looked interesting. One time we stopped in the Druze area, far up in the hills. The Druze have an interesting religion, hard to define, and not easily categorize. They are not Moslem or Christian, and maintain silence about specifics. We stopped at a home, a small concrete house. It was clean and neat, but bare. He invited us to share coffee, and we did while the men discussed where we were, and obtained directions to the next place.

We were soon on our way, and soon we stopped again. We were traveling through a small village. All of the inhabitants were in the streets in what looked like a procession. Before my comprehension caught up with the situation, my two cousins were out of the car and talking to whomever they could find. Soon, they returned to tell us, this was a funeral procession for a young man who had committed suicide. They had found out the age, the family history, and why, most likely, the young man took his life. These women would have made fantastic detectives. I sat in the back seat, marveling. I wondered what would happen in the United States, if I had acted similarly. These experiences demonstrated to me the close communication between strangers, and how they were bonded together.

I wondered how, in a country where total strangers could invite me for coffee, open up about the suicide of one of their young in the village, the people could then divide into forty-seven different factions during a civil war, with the result of brother killing brother. Within my own family, one cousin bombed the home of another.

Lebanon is an amazing land of contradictions. The greatest export from Lebanon is its people. We have moved all over the world. The Turkish occupation, the extreme poverty combined with incredibly high prices, and the constant instability of the region, has force the people to leave. We are everywhere from Argentina to Senegal. We are known as chameleons and blend easily into our adopted countries, often making major contributions. At one time, it was known as the “Paris of the Middle East.” The people are proud of their fluency in French, preferring to speak French than Arabic.

The Lebanese women are known for their beauty. It is not so much their beauty, as their incredible ability for fashion and dress. Once, on another visit to Lebanon, I was in the South of Lebanon at a party sponsored by the sister of the then President of the country. The women were dressed in exceptionally tight clothes, and very expensive ones. One woman was dressed in a pants suit costing 1500 dollars. I was told she would wear it once; President Hariri’s sister had bought it for her.

Once, when I asked my cousin why the young women wear such incredibly tight clothes, I was told, “how else do you expect them to attract a man?” In a country that demanded a woman be a virgin on her wedding night, I fear that she might obtain more than she bargained for.

Much of the behavior I observed was a result of the extreme poverty in Lebanon. It was not unusual for a family to select the daughter considered the most beautiful, and spend all of its resources on her. The living room of the house was outfitted in the best of furniture, while the family slept on mattresses on floors. The girl was dressed in the best to ensure a man with money would want her. The man, once married, was then expected to support the rest of the family. There was a joke circulating at the time “What is the first thing a Lebanese woman looks for in a man?” Answer: “The size of his wallet.” The women are indeed very practical.

This is not unusual in the world. I have heard of similar situations in Thailand, Philippines, and in other countries in desperate straights.

Traditionally, I do not wear make-up. I do not enjoy the feeling on my skin, and I tend to lick off the lipstick. Given I am concerned about how many chemicals I consume, I prefer other forms of poison. One woman, I made friends with, looked at me one day. She looked at the way I was dressed, and then said, “I think it is wonderful you do not care how you look.” She could not understand why I was upset. Also, the women keep themselves very thin. The fact I do not was repeatedly remarked upon. The women may appear to be concerned with appearances more than anything else. The concern for how one looks was definitely absorbed by my mother. I fear she experienced great frustration in trying to get me to care. I give her credit for trying, and that, my friends, is a story for another time.

Lebanon, my Lebanon. Still in spite of it all, it is a land of amazing beauty. It is most known for its cedar trees, the Cedars of Lebanon, renowned since Biblical times. My cousin’s husband took me to see the trees. I had always heard about these amazing trees. I was told you could see them as far as you could look. I came from Vermont. I was expecting large expanses of trees like I experienced there. As we drove higher and higher up the mountain, I became increasingly excited as I looked forward to seeing these splendid trees. When we were almost there, my cousin’s husband said, “Look, see the Cedars are there.” I looked; I saw nothing. “Where?” I asked. “There,” he replied. “Aren’t they beautiful.” He was growing impatient with me. He and I were not getting along. Once he found out I have a fear of heights, he found it very funny to drive as close as he could to the edge of the road. The mountains are indeed very high, and there are no guardrails with very steep slopes at the edge. I did not find him funny.

Finally we reached the area he was pointing too. There was one very large and ancient tree surrounded by a fence. During the civil war the trees were sacrificed to keep warm and, they were sacrificed to make objects for tourists. Thousands of years these trees had stood. They had formed the masts on Roman ships. The wood was prized because insects did not like it. The trees were ancient when Christ walked the earth. The mountains had been covered in them. In less than fifty years, Lebanon had gone from the Cedars of Lebanon to the Cedar of Lebanon. My homeland was making me seriously depressed. Fortunately, there are plans to reseed the trees before they are totally lost.