Abdul Hussein

Agitated sands and dust transform back into stone. Beads, thread through with colorful yarn. Counted and collected they have been admired over the years. The present speaks of the past, of iridescent beads – symbols reflecting upon themselves from the words of Abdul Hussein.

Cell phones, the cinema, and Souk Sharq. Bowling alleys, HD TVs, personal drivers, and door to door delivery. Air conditioning, accents, architecture, and airports, Maids, the Queen, masters, marvels and masterpieces – leaps in time and technology. Crude colors of black drilled from cracked earth began fueling industry. Banks, high rises, the Kuwaiti Towers, and large passages of asphalt lead into the distance. Malls are mobbed with consumers buying all the latest fashions from Italy, Britain, France, and America. Much has changed since the Kandari with buckets of water dangled from rods over struggling calloused shoulders. Soft white – stories of men diving for pearls now sit in archives. There was a time when produce was trucked in from Basra, Iraq, and water was imported by sea farers on large dhows in barrels from Iraq and Iran, and life, was a lot simpler.

The world was changing at an unfathomable pace around them, spiraling in directions as sandstorms of western thought were carried over the sea by harsh winds into the gulf.

From Boshera, Iran, the British came with spheres, platforms of organization and sermons of ideas for the future. This was the beginning of Kuwaiti Nationalism with documentation, citizenship, and census taken to count the lands’ true settlers, inhabitants, and nationals. These ideas were new to Kuwait’s people. Many people wondered why they needed these papers stating where they were from, confused with words like “notarization.” Hussein told of the skeptics who did not follow suit – as they were to become the Bedoun{(without nationality) not to be confused with Bedouin}. Why did everything have to change?

Some have watched this all take place. In America they call these witnesses “The Greatest Generation.” I sat with eyes from another country and listened to his words, his poetry of the past and how life used to be. Eyes that gleam, lips shutter with each syllable, and hands that dance along – carving the air as he points in the direction of how things use to be – “a lot simpler.”

There is something beautiful, sometimes painful about reminiscing. The saying “I remember when.” What he remembers is what I wanted to know.

So on a Friday evening after the sun had sank, my friend and I set out to talk with Abdul Hussein, an old Iraqi man, about his life and the changes that have taken place around him. Tucked in the middle of Kuwait City surrounded by skyscrapers, large roads and round-a-bouts lies Souk Mubarkia (the old market). Inside and around the corner from the grocers and butchers sits a quant shop built on top of Russian wood frames. Facades of concrete – where plaster bandages the cracks (the same now as it was before) – nestled in between many – the similar, along the alleyway.

The owner dressed in a white button down shirt and blue trousers counts his beads. Perfect pleats and creases shoot sharply down the center of each pant leg. Amongst friends and stories of old, he works each day and into the night. His spectacles – perched on his face mirror the shimmers – sparks of light surging in large glass bulbs that dangle from electrical wire, like strings sewn through the corrugated metal roof above. He reminds me of my grandfather, his face – grizzled, scratching his 5 o’clock shadow with the top of his hand. His mannerisms, movements – slow – and planned, I presume. He loves to talk about the past when he was a voice of freedom against the past Iraqi system, now a voice of beautiful anecdotes strewn together like amber and ivory beads in meticulous detail and fashion. Each bead; from wherever it may be from tells a different story as he clutched them in his left hand.

I was about to be taken back along the thread of his mesbah to the days of the “old” old souk. His feet have sauntered paths in Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Canada, Australia and England, but his heels are dug in deep to his little neighborhood. The shops, the people, and the stories become spools of yarn, unraveling. A walk in the past with a great guide seated on a sadu (Bedouin pillow) we drank tea, and he remembered when……

Kennedy had been assassinated a year prior, the Beatles released their first album, plans to build the World Trade Center were announced, the Italian government asked for help to keep the Leaning Tower of Pisa from toppling over, the Rolling Stones released their first album, Rola Dashti was born, people walked and shopped in the old souk, and Abdul Hussein arrived in Kuwait. It was 1964.

The Beatles have since broken up, the World Trade Center no longer stands as the Leaning tower of Pisa still leans, Rola Dashti is now in Kuwait’s Parliament, people walk and shop through the old souk, and Abdul Hussein still sells his mesbah. It is 2010.

As parts of the world built UP – Kuwait built outward. People were only from Sharq and Jisbah then. Safat was a place where only sheep were sold. Farwaniya, Jabriya, Salmiya, Mahboula, and Fahaheel; now bustling neighborhoods on the outskirts of the city were all just distant barren sands. You could count schools on one hand. People stayed close, stayed simple, stayed familiar and stayed safe. As we sat and discussed these changes many people old and young came to greet this man who has made a stamp on his neighborhood – a “notarized” expert as a merchant of the fashionable and religious (beads). They came in droves of shuffling sandals asking questions, inquiring about purchases, and inquiring about his day.

“Old fashioned”, some call him, but he thinks not. He began to tal k about everyday life here in Kuwait and how from the Bosom of England things changed. He remembers the times when foreigners would bring water barrels to each home on a dolly and with ladles they would scoop out what was needed for the day. Keeping count, “one, two, three, water was too precious”, he said. Then as time went on motorcycles revved down the streets that the dollies once rolled up. Keeping count “one, two, three, water was precious then too”. I asked if they boiled the water to try to purify it. He said, “We used a cloth to filter it. Sometimes there were worms in the water.” Every day Abdul would walk to the market to buy fresh fruit, meat and fish for the day as he still does. He is a family man saying “I only eat from my wife’s hand (her own cooking), what we have left over from lunch we eat for dinner.” He never orders out. “Do you have a phone?” I asked. He hesitated and said “yes,” as he pulled an old Nokia cell phone from his pocket, “only for emergencies.”

I then asked him about retirement. “Retirement? This is business, not a job.” Abdul said he will never stop. He spoke of Kuwait now and how everything is money driven, more money, more, more, more. At this point a man brought us shai (tea) on a tray from around the corner. A small exchange of money was given. He then spoke of cell phones and the death of personal communication. “We used to be eight brothers in one house, now I don’t see my brother. Families used to be together, close to each other and technology has separated us (in more ways than one)”he said. I understood what he was saying but I still had a question about technology that I wanted to ask him so I made my advance, “what, as a man from the greatest generation, thinks the highest achievement is in technology?” He answered with a short, “it should have stayed somewhere in the middle.”

“Old Fashioned?” Abdul remembered back again speaking of a ship docked at the port where a maiden slept in the night. The maiden was queen Elizabeth of England. He told the story where his friend and he stood on the corner down the street from his shop that she walked with the Sheik. She sauntered slowly, regally – gazing at the market around her. She stopped and he put out his hand, “my family used to work with the British military,” he said to her. She then grasped his hand like a friend, not as a queen and gently peered into his eyes and said, “Whenever you run into bad times you come (to England), your names will be there, and there they shall remain.” Like names in the books and inscribed into walls on Ellis Island (New York City) of the families of the tired, your poor, and huddled masses yearning to breathe free (The New Colossus 1883) were his family names to be written in London. As he told this story rays of light permeated from his body, his mannerisms taught with kind strength, and his smile wrote that history. “I was the only one that spoke to her, she called me courageous,” he said. “It happened right there, she walked down this Same street and then she said, “Now – this is Kuwait, This is your identity, Let it Remain!” And this street, this same place has remained. As all around her has spread, grown, and in some instances moved on, Souk mubarkia and Abdul Hussein through time and agitated sands have remained the same and will always “remain.”