An hour drive out of Kuwait city north west is Jahra, where people are known to just disappear. I have heard many stories of foreigners driving into town to never been seen again. They disappeared from the hands and whips of violence, kidnappings or they have been lost as numbers amongst the hordes of forced laborers. It was September 2009 during Ramadan.
I sat in the back of a filthy taxi as the sun set on the horizon. Akram, my building’s Egyptian super invited me to eat dinner with his friends. Traffic streamed like blood through clogged arteries. High levels of cholesterol- fought through a by-pass for the days break of fast, Iftar. The driver and Akram screamed at each other in different dialects of Arabic as they bickered over the price of the fare and which route to take. I stared out the window, sat back, took a couple breathes and told myself everything was going to be just fine.
As we kept going large green highway signs breezed over our heads as we cleared away from the congestion into lighter veins of road towards the desert. Smoke poured into the air from burning cars abandoned on the side of the road. The sky was a burning red that turned the views into sepias and oranges of low contrast. Finally, we merged off the road into a town that looked like a bomb had been dropped on it. Buildings were sad with malcontent like pathetic dogs who are no longer loved or like a widow who stared at pictures of her lost love lamenting as life passed her by. Paint peeled away from the blocks of buildings where people lived clamped down into vices. They cooked large meals behind slabs of concrete that hung pendulously from metal frames. Falling below, the broken walls released a cloud of smoke. Like chalk board erasers clapped together by a young student, the dust irritated my eyes as I snapped my head back with repugnance. As the area slowly disintegrated like broken dreams folding in on themselves; the sun finally set on Kuwait.
Our transport moved to a crawl again as people took to the streets. Under the muttered voices of pedestrians trash was kicked and dragged by poorly made leather sandals. Again the air became a multilayered screen of sand masked in the shadows of car headlights. Like deprogrammed drones masses traipsed with blank faces. It seemed as if evil lived in their blood soaked stares while they squinted in agony. Their arms swayed at their sides in abeyance with the absence of a late night breeze. There was no smile to be seen in any direction for miles. The neighborhood, coughed and gagged on itself. It was a place of dead memories that people could not leave. A place where one day of hell lives on over and over again.
The automobile rounded a corner and roared to a skidding halt, my door flung open and I emerged into the oven. Spitting the sand from my mouth, I walked into the dust towards the apparition of a growling mass. As I looked up at the building I wiped the soot from my brow with the sleeve of my shirt. Feet galloped behind me, “Come come”, Akram said with a crazed smile. “you hungry? Come.”
We hurdled over piles of broken concrete walls up a small incline to the buildings reception. Beige sands led to beige tiles that sat at the feet of beige walls under blinking fluorescent bulbs. “People live here”?, I thought. The building was alive as it slowly died inside it’s diabetic coma, malnourished. It’s skin fell of with each gentle touch. Akram walked over to the elevator and hit the “up” button giggling like Lewis Carroll’s Mad Hatter. The doors slowly opened to the dungeon that was its’ cavity of darkness. The elevator began to jump from all the weight from passengers as I clung on to my sanity. Packed like dirty laundry into a bag, the claustrophobic pungent smell burned. The men dressed in dish dashas were mundane and full of melancholy. Everyone greeted each other, “salaam”, “wa ahlakem salaam”, It seemed forced like a mother smacking the back of her child’s head, “now be nice and say hello”. With his eyes to the ground the “little boy” says “hello”. The silver doors covered in handprints closed and we soon ascended one, two, and finally three floors. The elevator again jumped trying to become flush with the third floor. Akram and I quickly leapt off and scampered down the crooked leaning hallway. The wallpaper peeled back and water dripped onto moldy carpets from poorly constructed ceilings. The sounds coming from each apartment echoed off the moist walls. Televisions sounded like drowned out voices from megaphones. Pots and pans banged as everyone was preparing for Iftar. That is when Akram pounded on a door and it quickly swung open to large group of men reading the Koran.
It was a dismal place, ho-hum, and sad. The men had come from work ,where they clumsily constructed concrete condominiums- to pray and eat together at home-covered in dirt. Their odors filled the small cramped apartment. I thought them to all be guests of Akram’s friend. I was inaccurate in my generalizations of their situations, for they all lived there under one crumbling roof in Jahra. We entered and sat on old ripped up green couches with golden victorian prints. The cushions were broken and gave no support as I fell into its’ bucket. Twisting wire springs seized to support under my oppressive weight. Cigarette smoke rose from full ashtrays on broken arms of several chairs as the television crackled muffled prayers from the Koran under heavy static. Sounds of shuffling came from a tiny dark kitchen. Three more men came into the living room. Numbers now exceeded over 10 residents. An eleventh, then 12th came from the bedroom and began looking at me with suspicious eyes. All these men worked, slept, and ate together.
The living conditions were vial and the hygiene was also disgusting. The apartment was an ecosystem of its own. The men had torn shirts and jeans all covered in grease and mud. From the looks of it they had never been to a dentist as plaque grew on their teeth like fungus- mushrooms from the roots of trees. Long hairs turned into blankets of moss that grew from their ears and head as small insects climbed over small clumps of soil lodged in knots. Spiders spun their webs in the corners of the walls and beneath the floral patterns of the couches. The floral decorations came alive and grew into the roots of the shag carpeting. Their beds were laid next to each other under a dim lightbulb. Soiled sheets from sweat lay tangled under torn pillows. The apartment was a petri-dish experiment forced on them by survival and forced labor. Did these hellish circumstances drive these men to a point where they gave up and waited for death while they prayed to a god who never helped? The forest of filth and trouble grew with each day harder and harder to clean up or even fix. Men cast out of society.
The men brought in large pots of rice, plates of thin Iranian bread, and a pot of chicken stew. One man covered the carpet with plastic wrap and newspaper and we all sat at its perimeter indian style. Tea was poured into small cups and the food was placed in the center of our group. Conversation was quiet and few amongst the dwellers of ill. We began to eat using our hands as rice and chicken dripped from their chins onto the surface. The sounds of teeth and jaw- bone crushed under the speed of ravenous mandibles made it all the more uncomfortable. They ate like ravenously starved men with no time for haste. Stripped of money and stripped of time they suffered under oppressive conditions. Shortly, the dinner came to an abrupt end and all the men stood ripping the roots that had emerged from their skin planting them into the carpet. One by one each filed over the threshold of a broken gated door that was wrapped in poison ivy. Exiting the the green groves of a densely germinated forrest they walked towards the heat of the barren desert, returning to work under angry fists of tyrannical masters they began to sob in a cappella.
This apartment was just one example of how awful conditions can be for laborers living in Kuwait. Some even live in trailers near the Iraqi border in villages with no running water or electricity. There is also a building across the street from mine that is missing part of its roof. In 1990 it was bombed during the invasion and was never fixed or cleaned up. Couches, pictures, refrigerators lay in large piles of rubble inside the buildings broken walls. Graffiti lines the outside with phrases like “help me”, and “fix me”. People live there, squatting has taken up a massive residence in my disgraceful neighborhood. What disgusts me really is when citizens drive through this area in their country they don’t become embarrassed. Where is the sense of pride in their own country? Where in the hell, is it??