Written in April 2010
It was spring and In other lands bees began pollinating blooming flowers. Fireflies blinked and twinkled in backyards while tiny children chased after them giggling in the night. Loving parents looked on with smiles from immense panes of glass. Large white clouds in the shapes of tiny rabbits, teddy-bears, and friendly dragons blew on soft breezes sprinkling light mists over the morning sunrise. Wind chimes dangled from the hums of soft voices. Colors radiated from nature, humanity was as beautiful and innocent as my childhood. I dreamt of seasons, of grass, of mountains, and of peaceful lonely canoe rides down the long rivers of my Independence. I cherished my rights-my desires to go where I want- when I want. I was leaving for spring, I was lucky. Kuwait,on the other hand- was oppressively hot. Sweat ran down the brow of the laboring populous. The sun was a large orange-brown disc that oozed damaging rays. It felt broken, over worked and overused. You could hear the heat, the awful monotonous throbbing of the heavy non-empathetic sphere. Where seasons stay still and dead, for there is no anticipation and no waiting.
On April 15th 2010 I left for the airport to catch a Kuwait Airlines flight to Mumbai/Bombay, India. It was early in the morning and I waited amongst a crowd of Indians, like cattle we struggled towards the gate. We trudged with slow heavy feet scrapping our way closer and closer. Skin, old and worn, creased with each frown. I cannot remember their individual faces though, they were one, together soaked in melancholy. Quiet murmurs came from tired broken travelers like the tiny buzzing of maggots. Luggage was made of taped garbage bags, pendulously slung over sweaty dirt smeared button down shirts. Parts of their beings fell off like jumping lice. They tried so hard to discard those memories of loss and pain. Soon the filth began to funnel slowly like slugs through a meat grinder as our hoard oozed sludge onto the floor. Their raw, malnourished bodies emoted a pungent and awful smell that accosted my nostrils. These people, these travelers, were milked for everything they had emotionally- but it was during this great exodus that their sadness was apparent and almost perfect.
Upon boarding, anarchy was thrust between the aisles and over the tops of the seats. Bags were flung into the storage compartments, people began yelling in tongues- dialects from subcontinental India. Frantic, freedom was upon them, but even though everyone had been given a seat it seemed that they didn’t realize that all they needed to do was relax, sit down, and wait because soon they would be home. Like animals breaking from their cages, a zoo unleashed. It was then an arab flight attendant looked at me with large eyes and said, “these Indians are crazy”. I agreed at the time but later I was to realize that these humans craved freedom.
After the massive rush came to a close the sound of seat belts clicking reverberated off the cocoon shell of the plane. A large Indian man fell into the seat next to me. Breathing heavily, he struggled to grab his seat belt at first but after shimmying his large posterior around he succeeded. He sat back, fixed his shirt, and turned towards me with a brilliant smile of perfect white teeth. He had a neatly trimmed beard, combed hair, clean clothes, and newly manicured nails. “Hello”, he said in perfect english. “Hello’’, I responded. We then remained silent for several minutes during and after take off. Excitement flowed and flickered from the back towards the cabin as the landing gear retracted into the plane. People began to speak, quietly and with a sense of eagerness. I did not understand a word but I gathered they all spoke of home, India- their great mother-Their springs, summers, autumns, and winters. I imagined whole families gathered in waiting for their arrival where meals cooked in ovens and over stoves. I imagined the smells, the smiles, the colors, the tastes. I began writing in my journal vigorously as my imagination came over me like a drug.
“So, where are you from?” the man asked. I put my pen down ,thinking, “oh man, not one of those flights, this guy is going to talk my ear off, or maybe he’s just being courteous, or maybe he will tell me something I cared more about then just cordial blah, blah talk. Maybe, just maybe, he was going to tell me about his family, his home and the gathering that waited for him on the other end of the runway in Bombay”. He actually was going to tell me a lot more than all of that, a lot more.
I looked up to his large concerned eyes. “he actually cares? he seemed sincere”, I said to myself. “ummm, I’m from New York City”. “Oh, nice, nice, beautiful place”. “oh, so you’ve been?” I asked. “ha, no, but that is what I have read”. “Where are you from?”, I asked. “Hydrebad, I’m an electrical engineer living in Kuwait, or- I was”. “You were? What do you mean?” “I just got out of prison and now I have to go home, I have been deported for visa reasons”. “What!? Really?” “Yes, look around you, we are all deportees on this flight, you might be the only non-Indian on here”,he said. His large eyes shrunk a bit with self pity and deprecation, he was a humiliated with his situation as he looked down into his lap. “This poor man”, I said to myself. He then spoke again, “So,….what is it you do? What are you writing about?” “Umm, I’m a writer, this is my journal and I’m writing about my trip to India. Umm, do you mind if I take notes as we talk?”I asked. “Umm”, he looked uneasy. “I won’t use your name, you can speak with anonymity, I promise”, I interjected. He then eased a bit and began to speak again. “Do you want to know what really goes on in Kuwait, Do you want to know what I have been through?”
“Yes, I would”. He then began his horrific story.
“I’ve lived and worked in Kuwait for over twelve years. I work hard, you know. I’m educated as well. Someone flubbed on the paperwork and then I was locked up for ten days in jail. They beat me like a pig.” Sighing in malcontent he took a moment for introspection as I sat in silence.
This man had been taken off the street and thrown into a van and hauled to a local police station where they kept him for over ten days. He told me of no phone calls, no lawyer, just a cage. People were trapped behind vertical iron lines of sliding doors that echoed down long grey corridors. I pictured him on the cool concrete floor grasping the bars with his sweaty hands trying to hold on while he was pulled by the legs. Visions of a large platinum key entered the lock as batons struck him over his head and on his arms and legs. His bruises became dark pools of deep blues, greens, and purples. Small gashes spewed shades of crimson tides like minuscule magma flows- his anger built up inside. His internal Earth stricken- damaged and polluted forever. His emotions became toxic as they ran off into pool-less waterfalls drowning into nothing never to be found again. He slowly begun to loose hope as blood ran from his nose, spit dripped from his mouth, and tears poured from his eyes. I pictured him among groups of animals; the rabbits, the teddy-bears, and friendly dragons, beaten and rounded up for slaughter. Childhood innocence was gone as my teddy bear sat in my attic weeping. The cages cried as outside laughter deafened the prayers from within. It was then that with giant footsteps God slowly walked away from this modern-day Sodom and Gomorra, along the coast of the Dead Sea, disgusted.
I did not know how to respond to what he said or even comprehend what I had imagined. I didn’t realize that I would meet someone like that, someone who was willing to tell a stranger such horrible personal stories, especially in transport to India. My hand then began to burn from the incessant hammering of journal writing while he continued with shaky sporadic strums of vocal chords.
“Kuwait?, …Kuwaitis?…I have this one thing to say,…money doesn’t spoil you, you spoil money. It is all the same, the cemetery, you share with a pauper. Even a broke man from Detroit gets himself a casket, you come naked, and sometimes you go naked, but the truth is, your dead”. He then cleared his throat and with muffled focus looked towards the seats in front of him. They became blurred masses of rectangular shapes. Locked in place, he was back in an internal epidermis prison. It seemed he was thinking deeply about what he just said, or he just realized the meaning of what he had said. It was at that moment he finally acknowledged his life was a tragedy. It was his passport, his skin color, and the timing of his birth that made his life tragic. But right before the plane landed, he told me to write down three words. He said to me with a bright smile, “Shai Geeta Gun”. So on a clean white page I scratched it down across the emptiness, Shai Geeta Gun. “If you ever get in any trouble in life those words will help you. Just say them out loud and all will be better, you will be reborn”.
The pilot soon came on the load speaker and announced our arrival into Bombay. We hit the runway and with screeching spheres of rubber we came to a slow halt surrounded by cooling layered clouds of burnt tire. Deportees, a broken man, and myself, an ignorant traveler, were wrapped in the cocoon of the fuselage. With silk woven tightly together, the plane broke open and we all emerged like butterflies leaving our old vessels behind. Each beautiful; each an individual spread its wings and took flight painted with markings- perfect patterns, and distinctly pronounced personalities. The sky was dotted with traces of brilliance as the stars’ imprints slowly disintegrated amongst growing light. Women were draped in brilliant blues, radiant yellows, magentas, and orange. Smiling. Their cloth, soft, wrapped around their delicate skins. It was like a burst of color from their happiness that exploded through the tiny windows. Pupils began to shrink from the bright lights of color. My eye became a pond of blues and greens as my iris smiled under the ambiance of their joy. I felt like a child once again, eager- on a cool spring morning running through tall fields of grass chasing butterflies. Out of reach they took to the immense cool purple sky above. The sun peaked over the horizon as laughter reverberated off my eardrum. The noise was deafened by the flapping of their wings in newborn excitement. The wind from their movements brushed my hair back. Large clouds began to take shape in imaginations once again as I rose from my seat and peered up at the spectacle that was their birth- they were all free, newborn, and lucky.
So, like children-fireflies, we all will play tag in the summer darkness. Shadows grow and fall masked by obstructions riding on wings into the distance. All becomes lost in the blink of an eye- as we move towards the future in blindness and fear plowing and sweeping the air to each side in our wake. False wishes- when all is left to the imagination of waking up from sleep and seeing ghosts that never existed.
I wrote this piece back in 2009 when I found it hard to explain in the spoken language what it was like living in Kuwait. I decided to put it in writing.
Growing up in an upper-middle class family in America has given me an unimaginable amount of opportunities in my life. I have two loving parents who worked hard to earn money and give me a model education in fine academies. I never once had to worry about a meal, clothes, or my own safety. Life as a child and adolescent was in many ways perfect. As I have gotten older I had the opportunity to leave the comfort of my home and America to venture out to see the world, not just travel but live in different countries with vastly different cultures: India, Cambodia, Vietnam, and Jordan to name a few. But I would like you to know that I am aware that my country is NOT perfect. How could it be with a population of over 300 million? We all have issues in our governments, societies, pop-cultures, and even our households. But what I have experienced in the past several years has opened my eyes to how lucky as Americans we are whether rich or poor. We have freedom, we have opportunity and we can come and go as we please. Most of our happiness is not based on money, or if it is it is because we worked damn hard to earn it. My happiness is based on my upbringing, my education, my striving to remain as less ignorant as possible, and the truth that my parents instilled morals in me to be as good of a human being as I can. I grew up thinking that inherently people were good and that the world was a beautiful place. What I was about to learn was the complete opposite. People are animals, destructive, and selfish, because there are places on Earth where people do not have the right that so many of us call freely-being a human being. Life is a tragedy, but it is just when and where we were born that dictates how tragic it is.
Many people all over the world leave their countries to travel and work to better their lives. I mean thats the whole beginning of America. People don’t leave their lives to be subjected to worse conditions. There are several countries in the world where people go to to work to change their lives for the better and one of these countries is Kuwait. What usually happens though is that it is not for the better, it is for the worse. Human trafficking, forced labor, assault, rape, prostitution, and suicide are some of the repercussions to working in this country. And soon, I was to have an ordeal all to scary in itself.
What you are about to read could land me into deep trouble, or even a long sentence in jail. I came to this county in August 2009 under an immense heat. I signed onto a contract that would keep me here for a year or two working as a teacher. I was surrounded by ..citizens everyday, all day long. I have ventured out by myself, walked to stores, talked with cab drivers, students, people in the private sector, trade sector, and even expats from my home, America. What I didn’t realize in the beginning is how much about humanity, government, and religion I would learn. Here are my stories and the stories of others:
Disclaimer: observations, interviews, and researched facts do not apply to each and every individual that is a citizen or resident of Kuwait.
Now, before I begin I would like to bring up the question about culture: Are people and culture a direct product of their environment, climate, and ecosystem?
Across Khaki sheets of sand the bedouin traverse long expanses tending to their sheep and camel. Large refineries pierce the earth and siphon crude from deep below. Pulses of lights reflect into the stratosphere off of minute granules of sand carried by a ferocious storm. Nostrils clogged, eyes bleed, throats strep, nature coughs; uogh uogh uogh; for the wind burns skins of all color. Sheep cry from flocks tended by blinded men with their heads wrapped in scarves. The Earth groans from salivating camel mandibles as the streets sweat over broken sidewalks of sand. From the ground to roofs and gutters, riddled with trash-plastic bottles, ripped garbage bags, and oily discharges- cats scream in unison. A chorus of growls, hissing screams lead a verse of fighting, fucking and birthing as they rummage through open trash barrels and dumpsters for recently discarded remnants of someones dinner. The sounds of birthing reverberates off the sad dilapidated housing projects soaked in the rising heat from the burnt ground. Babies suck from the grotesque teats of there malnourished mothers rolling in the refuse. They guard their territory marked by their own urine secretions and fight into the late night. Air conditioners and generators bang,click,and shimmy. They sound like tanks moving through the streets as their treads crush broken glass and rip up the asphalt into crumbs of dirt. Screams of conversations are exchanged amongst the sounds of purging mufflers. Men slowly shuffle down streets. They drag their broken calloused feet across the sand like zombies lurching with each tired breathe. Pistons rattle, accelerators rev. In the distance fireworks ricochet like gunfire off the sides of disintegrating buildings that were bombed during the early 90s. Trash and refuse thrown from apartments and car windows catches the winds of sand like confetti on new years day. Bulbs crack and buzz as they slowly become masked by soot as light turns from bright whites to deep oranges and browns. Loud speakers blast muffled static laced prayers from holy houses made of brown cement. I thought it to be propaganda-WAR…or, I thought it to be purgatory, I thought it to be Hell, but I know it to be a place where people are trapped- joyless, by religious law, violent hubris, and harsh deserts in the preverbal eternal summer storm- waiting to die.
On the outskirts of this purgatory are large passages of asphalt that lead into the desert. Massive homes twinkle in the night surrounded by tall beautiful fig trees swaying gently under calm breezes from the turquoise waters of the Gulf. Some, like gods roam through their chalets and homes commanding their slaves, drivers, and maids. They, amongst friends the similar sit in large rooms smoking sheesha and laughing as mesbah dangle from their hands. Lamborghini, Ferraris, and Bentleys sit in the driveway being washed by hands from Bangladesh or India. Food cooks in large woks over high flames by a young thai woman. A young boy sits in his room watching a large television as his nanny tries to vacuum the floor while the older brother beats her with his shoe. Downstairs there is a small room where another Ethiopian maid use to sleep. She now hangs from her own belt in the closet. After years of rape and abuse she now commits suicide. A prisoner in a foreign country held against her will never able to return home. None of these workers, slaves, or prisoners have a name in life and they will not have a name in death either. The newspapers shirk, and dance around the facts, and names of the victims and criminals because punishment is few and often rare for the Sponsors. Kings and Queens to a kingdom they did not earn and they did not work for. A house, estate, and country built on slave labor. The men with their large pockets saunter with a massive sense of entitlement, “you owe me”, they say. Their court shimmers under the crescent moon light, hubris masked by kind eyes and large smiles- their slaves serve you tea and coffee. Like the faces of some women-Behind the veil, lies a long history of slave trade, murder, and rape. Many think this to be hell, but many-without passports, hope and pray each day- -waiting to die.
This piece was first published In Bazaar Magazine in 2010 in Kuwait.
Titled: Pilgrimage to Black Waters of Krishna
Cycles of Earth: rock and sea; from ice to water—from water to rain. In the lower Himalayas, stupendous peaks called the Banderpooch slope down to the Yamunotri Glacier. Dripping continuously it feeds the largest Tributary River of the Ganges in India.
Cycles of life: people tied to the land that gives and takes. The river feeds the spirits and takes their sins and carcasses downriver to moksha (liberation). They are washed away with petals, colorful peace offerings of magenta and luminescent yellows. The Prayers of the pilgrims and the Sadhu (mystics and sorcerers) flow softly south. It is on these banks of the river Yamuna in Mathura where many come, pray, bathe, drink—tempt fate.
The city of Mathura is In the Trans-Yamuna region of Braj in Utter Pradesh. Like Bethlehem to Christians and the holy water from the Jordan, like Mecca and the sacred Kaaba stone to Muslims, is Mathura to Hindus. A Doab, a tongue of land caught in the middle of the “twins”, the Ganges and Yamuna, is a sacred place of prayer and pilgrimage to their god, Krishna (in Sanskrit Krishna means black).
Krishna, an avatar for many, a deity for some, and the “supreme being” to others, was born in Mathura, and on the Ghats of Mathura he rested after killing King Kansa. It is at these Ghats, steps to the theetham (holy water), that believers come to cleanse, washing away the unholy with the slow black current.
I am Christian but I became a pilgrim as well. An Ibn Battuta, the traveler going east to find knowledge and wisdom. I flew into Mumbai on an early morning and only had one day before my sleeper train left for Agra. CST Train station, Asia’s largest train station, touts slice off and feed on the venison and veal of the young and unsuspecting tourists. Large machine guns stand at the front of soldiers surveying each pedestrian. Trains arrived from the countries’ stark and densely populated distances. I boarded and we soon trudged along stalking the distance, swaying on thick metal vines leading northeast.
Through panes of glass on the Punjab Mail-In open dry fields lay smooth silken mounds of grain sifted from a funnel, perfect golden piles of finely uniformed flakes shimmering light like a beacon showed the conductor the way to Mathura. Flowing like cool waters through my Retina, impressionistically painted scenes we wobbled along- click, click, click. Straw and mud huts (mills) to keep last season’s harvest stood in fields of light greens, browns, and gold. Streams, tangents from the Yamuna, slashed through the heat while tiny figures swam in toxic waters. Click, click, click. Land was transformed from kneaded clay by the hands’ of Vishnu into violent waves of dirt beyond the bleak prairies-Trans-sub-continental. 24 hours passed-click, click, click.
Mathura is not a large city but once you have reached the heart of town you come upon several temples dedicated to the blue god. Architecture carved from stones sit in whites, blues, and oranges. Large, dark and deep halls-dirty tiled floors covered with pilgrims sprawled out asleep in the heat. Cows, revered as holy, walk freely down the streets. There are few smiles to be found as I walked on the city’s dirt paths to make my way to the river. Droves of people sat lethargically, watching and waiting, patiently for the sun to lose its light on the holy Himalayan water.
Some like the Sadhu, have given up- let go of a lifestyle and consumer obsessions afflicted on modern age-dedicated through meditation, yoga, and renunciation. It is a lifelong choice to live a life of poverty. There is not a seminar or a weekend retreat in a forest or the mountains. There are no books to study or movies to watch for tutorials. They spend years with a Guru before being ready to go off on their own. Spending most of their time in meditation they have no jobs and survive on natural resources and bhiksha (alms) provided by others’ generosity. The Sadhu renounce everything, some live in caves, forests, or temples and some walk with an arm straight up for long periods of time-Ritualistic behavior to reach a point of moksha-liberation from conforming to societies advertisements. Most sit on the ground or walk with umbrellas down twisting alleys. Cloaked in sheets of fabric often in shades of ochre they smoke herbs and meditate. Some paint their foreheads and other parts of their body are covered in ash. Most women’s hands and ankles are covered in tattoos. Using a wooden chisel or comb, the artist taps the tool to break the skin, injecting black pigments into the wound of the dermis for decoration. Pierced noses with large decorative gold pieces jolt out from the skin-body modification in the name of fashion and religion.
Like the journey of the waters from the Yamunotri Glacier in the Himalayas is the path of the pilgrims. Life revolving around itself-rock, ice, water, and grain- the River Yamuna will always carry mystical stories of Krishna- and the city of Mathura will sit on its banks and filter the stories of the Sadhu, the sorcerers, and each traveler that flows through it. Lanterns twinkle on black waters, peace offerings in magenta and luminescent yellows.
These shot were taken from a 2 seat Cessna about 2,000 ft above the North Shore of Long Island, New York. Huntington and Northport