Waiting to Die: Kuwait


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.


A DRIVE TO JAHRA

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??


FREEZE FRAME

First published in Bazaar Magazine in July 2010 in Kuwait

Theroux writes in his prologue in Ghost Train to the Northern Star, “You think of travelers as bold, but our guilty secret is that travel is one of the laziest ways on Earth of passing the time.” I began to read this book, as negative as the beginning was. It made me think, “Am I a traveler?” “Do I think this way?” I sort of became a traveler by accident. I didn’t grow up and dream of distant lands, I just read about them or watched movies about these journeys. The journeys I had no cares for, yet as I grew older even in my young age leaving America was quite simple. I fell on this decision almost over night. I was fed up with my life, bored, and angry. I, like so many others had dreams and ambitions of becoming something larger, living larger, thinking larger. I graduated from college and there I was moving with the advertising rat race. Trying to keep up with the latest designs and designers. Self absorbed in a look and how to look. Which car to drive, where to live, which kind of woman do I want to date. Did I find that traveling was easier, fold the time, pass the time between the drinks, long sleep, and awe-inspiring spectacles of different cultures?

My life in the past several years has been a bag of spontaneous decisions that have snow balled into something else, grander- maybe, difficult at times, yes. But it seems that my decisions have taken a horrible turn from the American logic. I needed to conform to what is American. American as apple pie? American as McDonalds, American as the stock market? No, American as go to school, come into large sums of debt, loose sleep over loans that exceed $100,000. Get a job, begin to pay the loans, still live paycheck to paycheck and wait for the next raise, buy a house and car, meet a women, get married, have spoiled little brat kids(“daddy, daddy buy me this and I want that”) and prepare for a mid-life crisis. I was already going bald and could see my mid-life crisis on the horizon. I was only twenty five, the rest of my life in front of me and still felt empty. “Is this it?” I asked my self on a daily basis.

It was a conversation over a couple of glasses that I had with a friend that changed everything – and I mean everything. I wasn’t thinking outside the box as I normally did as an artist. I wasn’t the run of the mill kid that did exactly what his parents said and did. So I looked at a map beyond the vast borders of my country, breaking the perimeter. There is so much the world has to offer and I, already, with years of unconscious decision making, I was already making logical-illogical decisions made off of these things I call “Americanisms.” Now that I have been gone for some time and yes, I have gone back to my country to reboot – my family, my friends, and even the small things like pizza at the corner store dripping in grease, then my heart slows. My only friends are my books, my passport, and my camera now. How much more does my passport have to say than those weekends I had in New York and Philadelphia, “what do you do for a living? Married? Kids? Did I tell you my wife and I painted the living room, we should have you over so you can see,” ummmm, pause – breathe, “I think I’m busy.” But as I travel, the first questions I always receive are somewhat the same, “where are you from, what do you do? Married? Kids? But, I did paint my apartment, you should come and see.” Humorous at best, but as different as most cultures are, the same questions come, just in a different language, a different tone, and in a different setting. Korea? The same questions. Europe, the same, South East Asia, and even the Middle East. The thing now is that I want to hear stories that drive me, inspire me to keep going. I want to listen; I am an American who wants something a little different. But as the world becomes smaller and when it comes down to it, three out of ten people I meet are writing a book as well. I have, in a way joined a different type of rat race. Some things have even become a pissing contest with these people/they are mist rains, not seasons. “Where have you been? What have you seen? Where to next? I’ve been here and I’ve been there.” Who cares, right? Only the people that I left back home. They care, right?

I left everything. What I have learned is that my Americanisms have become more apparent. Growing up the way I did, molded from a pop-culture fabricated by shallow minds has in some ways remained with me. As much as I despise these platforms of entertainment, thinking, and ways of life I am still part of it. I wanted to leave all of it but I still brought it with me, years later I am still haunted by these thoughts but an unusual pride has grown. This is who I am and yes I am American. I still hate pop-culture; which is no problem. I have learned that these people all over the magazines and television shouldn’t dictate what a true “American” or “Americanism” is. I shouldn’t be embarrassed to be an American. I am not my government and I am NOT pop-culture.

Does America have culture? Years ago I strongly said NO! But as I have experienced more my answer has become a strong yes. Yes, America does have culture. Lots of it. I didn’t see it when I lived there but living away from my home I see it everyday, in myself

It also seems that traveling has changed…..Steinbeck opened the world to positano, Hemingway in between a lot of booze wrote some brilliant stuff, some people paint, some take trains, tuk-tuks, rickshaws, some cycle from country to country, what is so special about what I have done, what am I doing? These questions I ponder every day. What will become of all of this? Will I become that guy who all he talks about is traveling, will I become a father and the only advice I can give is to “talk to your mother about that because I just don’t know how to answer these questions. Just talk to your mother because at that time in my life I was in the Middle East, living that different life.”

Have I become numb to my own country, lazy and walked away from the difficulties of success that I was creating. Manifest destiny (they used to say)? Or have I taken the difficult road and decided the next step for myself and not the normalcy of staying in the same city or town for the rest of my life. Or, and this is difficult to even write; am I scared to go back home? Have I reached that point where my home has become foreign to me? And foreign has become home.

I go home once a year excited and ready. Bags packed weeks in advance as my passport waits to be stamped in anticipation. I take that long journey home through layovers, time zones, three microwaved meals, bars, pointless conversations and then I arrive. Home?

I have conversations with people and nothing has changed, or everything has changed. People have gotten older, gotten married and had kids, bought a new house and a new car. Some of their children I have not met and going back they now have a three year old,- changed jobs or lost jobs. I go back to this frame of a place each year, the snapshot I took before my departure. My checklist of all the things that at that point in time were normal, are all out of skew a year later. Some on the other hand stayed frozen in time, and I think that what has and had not changed is history. When I sit with friends we can reminisce, our stories of growing up have not changed and will not change ever, no matter how much the world and as people we grow or decay. Have I changed? Conversations with family and friends certainly have. Is it because our interests have matured, changed? If I remember correctly four years ago my interests were all the same but my opinions on the world have changed drastically. Change, I almost hate this word now. Change has become routine/status-quo.