April 27, 2008
It’s my first time in the Middle East, and understandably am trying to absorb as much as possible with all senses. Kuwait is an interesting first country in the Middle East to visit, since it has probably one of the best human rights records amongst its neighbours. It also boasts a relatively independent and outspoken media, willing to challenge the Government.
My first observation was that there are numerous foreigners working here, mainly Indians and Filipinos. My suspicions were true, since based on statistics there are 1.2 million foreigners in Kuwait, out of a total resident population of 2.9 million (estimated). 80-90% of the workforce here is made out of non-citizens, which sounds pretty much like Dubai as well.
My second observation was the utter dryness of the city. As you land from the plane, all you see is brown sand everywhere stretched across the lands. Date and palm trees are replanted all across to “greenify” the place. The heat is sometimes unbearable, reaching 41 Celcius in the day and 35 at night. Skin gets dry and scaly without lotion. A reaction is for the air-conditioning to go the reverse, blasted till I am almost frozen indoors.
Since I am here for the 4th World Islamic Economic Forum (www.wief.org.my), I am acutely aware of the way Islam (or religion in general) is practiced here, drawing comparisons with what we have at home in Malaysia. It’s interesting now being in the minority of people who are not covered by the Niqab. This of course is a culture sociological heritage where in the past sandstorms compelled people to don cloth to cover their faces. (There was a sandstorm just before I arrived). 80% of Kuwaitis practice Islam, and have not yet had full conversations on their understanding of Allah. There are still a sizeable number of Christians in the country (300,000) and on Friday there were throngs of Lebanese Christians traipsing to the traditional Church behind my hotel. Coptic Christianity is evident as well, based on the little tattoo I observed on the hand of one, a mark of their community. This is reminiscent of the way Islam, Christianity and other religions blended harmoniously in the Middle East and Spain before.
Women are less conservative here than in Saudi Arabia, or so I am told. There is a variance, of course, with some dressed in sleeveless tops and dresses. They are certainly very visible in public life, many driving big luxury cars in the city (the ones you cannot find in Malaysia). Of course men still take primary leadership positions and women were only given the right to vote in 2005 (just three years ago!).
Traditional gear is the popular wear here. Men wear white; women stark black. In the souq (market/bazaar) today, shops were displaying rows and rows of flowing material. Compared to Pakistan which I visited for the 3rd WIEF and had the most colourful fabric I’ve ever seen, it was almost initially amusing to find that one cloth would sell white/pale yellow/cream cloth alone; and another plain black alone. From a Malaysian perspective, one sniggers to think of homogenous clothing as outfits that dehumanise a person.
That may be valid, but upon closer inspection I may have reason to change my mind. The black traditional dress has variation in patterns, embroidery, edging, stitching, motifs, cloth texture and so on. It is actually a test of creativity, which tailors unbelievably live up to. How many shadows of black could one possibly innovate, right? But yes – they each have their own uniqueness about them. Really fascinating world, this.
Kuwait’s architecture must be commended! Their skyline is spotted with beautifully designed buildings, each with their own incredible shape. It is a modern city, very clean (it’s just the dust that gets to you), tinged with sophistry. I envision this place becoming a second Dubai in a decade. Their waterfront overlooking the sea – part of the Persian Gulf – is a favourite for locals on weekends (Friday & Saturday) to go fishing, sit alongside on benches to chat, go shopping and chill out.
Yes of course, there are McD’s, KFC, Subway, Starbucks, Costa Coffee and all galore. But local cuisine beats all else flat. The flat breads, chickpea and bean paste, fresh yoghurt, fruits, lamb, saffron rice are going to contribute to an exponential hike in my weight.
In all, Kuwait is a great introduction to the Arab world. Learning Arabic here is easy too, since people are responsive and friendly when attempting to speak phrases here and there. I think this will be a good trip, overall. Alhamdullilah!