“WELCOME,” he says. Rafat Hussein Mohamed Osman, a middle aged Egyptian Bakala(corner store) owner living in Hawalli, Kuwait. He sips his morning shai(tea) and smacks his hands together clearing away the crumbs to shake your hands. Two kisses to the cheeks of his better friends. His eyes still sag from fatigue, but every day, with a smile, he greets each customer. It’s 5:30 a.m. on Tuesday. It has been over four months since I first met Rafat in August. He used the only word he knew in English, “welcome,” which he used and still uses in place of “hello”. I was new to this neighborhood, this country, the 135 degree heat, and he made me feel welcome. “WELCOME!”
Months have passed and I have come to know this man only a little so I sat down with a translator and inquired about his life, his childhood, his daily routine, memories of his homeland, and a war televised for all the world to see; Desert Storm.
Shoes off, we sat on a Persian carpet, drank hot tea, smoked sheesha, and talked. In the background an old Egyptian movie was playing about their national hero to the likes of “che,” he said. His tiny kitchenette is tucked away behind a corner in the back and two twin beds sit at either end of his living room. The apartment is small but the company welcoming. His front iron door always remains open when he is home screaming, yes, screaming, “Salam” to his neighbors passing by. He spreads his life’s contentment to everyone that he comes within contact with.
Rafat is a humble man of simple beginnings; he grew up outside Luxor, Egypt with his family on a farm in a small village. On October 4, 1967 he was born to Hussein, his father and mother Fawzeya. Corn, wheat, onions, beans, tomatoes, and sugar cane were and are still grown on premise. His mother cooked bread in their clay ovens as Rafat brought hay to feed the livestock with his donkey after school in the afternoons. I asked about his family and the land that they own, answering, “My parents will never leave their land, the family must stay together.” A house built by the family with their own hands. .The first level was used to keep their livestock and feed, the second level is used for sleeping. At six every morning the whole family; one brother Mohamed and two sisters, Baderia being the oldest and Sanaa the youngest, would wake and prepare breakfast, together. Everything was made at home from their land and from their animals. The romance of this and the simplicity of such an extremely hard life.
As an Egyptian young man a two year military duty is mandatory. Rafat trained as paratrooper Special Forces commando for six months. This was at the time when Saddam Hussein and the Iraqi forces invaded the small country of Kuwait. With 10 percent of the world’s known oil reserve, Kuwait was allied by over a 34 nation coalition force , one being Egypt. Rafat was deployed with his company 666 of 8 thousand to Saudi Arabia to fight along side American forces in Hafr El Baten. Hafr El Baten lays only 100 meters from the southern Kuwaiti border.
It was at this point in the story where the translation paused and was double checked. My commando/ Bakala friend was explaining how he felt during this time. “I had lost everything, I had nothing to live for, for certain, I thought, I was going to die.” He then began to describe the exodus that began to take place where the Kuwaitis and whatever they could gather flocked into Saudi as refugees. These events happened 19 years ago while I ate dinner and watched it on TV in the safety of my own home. This exodus was the super wealthy loosing everything, fleeing for their lives, and becoming refugees.
On February 22 U.S. President George H. Walker Bush issued an ultimatum to Saddam Hussein to withdraw his forces back to Iraq. On the 24th at 3a.m. Rafat with his company, armed with Kalashnikovs entered Kuwait on foot. This was the beginning of the ground war. Rafat told stories of the Egyptian forces heading towards the Egyptian embassy to raise the Egyptian flag. Reminiscent of the famous raising of the U.S. flag at Iwo Jima, the most brutal ground war in all of recent history during World War II. The events are so similar, in that they didn’t mark the end of a war but trumpeted a sense of pride in a nation.
Rafat also spoke of February 26 when Saddam Hussein ordered the withdrawal of all Iraqi forces. The infamous “turkey shoot.” He said on fourth ring road in Kuwait city bodies could be seen as far as the eye could see. I pictured him, smoke and ash, gun in hand, shoulders slouched, absolutely devastated, sad, and weary. His face slicked in oil soaked rain. His lips quivering prayers for his fallen “brothers, muslims.” His uniform patched with the flags of his nation that he longed to return to. I pictured his mother and father standing in the fields he grew up in, wondering if he was alive and praying for their son to return home.
Rafat still sat on the ground speaking deliberately, smoking his sheesha. He looked at me and said “We had a different purpose.. I came to help, they came to kill.” Still throughout some of this difficult story he had this gleam in his eye and that smirk that makes me feel “welcome” everyday in a land so far away from my own. The movie on the television still played as it neared its end. “CHE” he called him, the hero, the freedom fighter, he became him, not the “Che” of a nation but of his own survival. Rafat was soon to return home to his family.