Every August, new teachers arrive to Kuwait. No one really knows what they’re getting into. That’s the nervy part of moving to a new place. For those of us who know the country, the challenge is to keep some things to ourselves. I think it’s important to let a person discover their relationship with a place. I also think it’s good for old expats to spare spoiling a place for new expats. The first weeks and months are rich with impressions.
I remember standing on the tarmac of the Frankfurt airport, waiting to board our first flight to Kuwait. Ahead of me was a woman wearing a black abaya. Her abaya rippled. She took a step up and I followed. That was the moment it stuck that we were moving to the Middle East, a prick of uncertainty at my neck. For me, Kuwait was a place on the TV in a friend’s basement, the channel changed by parents to news coverage of a city lit up by mortar fire. I knew nearly nothing about the country we were moving to. In our round of interviews, the superintendent said Kuwait was like Dubai (it isn’t) and his wife told me I could wear short sleeves (I can). Teaching colleagues who’d lived in Kuwait five or six years before praised the food and recalled the friendly gratitude citizens expressed toward Americans because, you know, they aren’t Iraqis today. I knew there was a pool at our apartment complex and that chocolate chips were hard to find.
First weeks in a new place are like shuffled snapshots. We landed at night, welcomed by school admin and a few teachers who handed us bottles of water. The airport was busy, the languages around me indecipherable. There was an Egyptian bride wearing a wedding dress and thick make-up, smiling a fuchsia smile, carrying a bouquet, ushered through the crowd by attendants and a videographer. Her face sparkled. One of the teachers told me Egyptian brides arrive like that. Sometimes they dress on the plane. I took a picture of the bride, all the people near her happy. I haven’t seen an Egyptian bride arrive in a wedding dress since.
The air outside was hot. That night was humid, like the taking a deep breath in a sauna. Later, when the humidity left, my skin got tight in the dry sun. My lips chapped. It was Ramadan so we went on errands with water bottles hidden in our bags. I remember shopping for groceries, all the new teachers piled on a bus and told not to buy too much because we’d have to carry it all back on the bus. We walked up and down the store aisles, converting dinars to dollars, reading labels, finding familiar brands. Kellogg’s in Kuwait? I’m not sure what I expected of a grocery store in Kuwait and it only sounds dumb now, to admit paralysis in front of a wall of jam jars, finally choosing a French brand for its pretty label. But other expats were doing the same. One couple joked about the debate they had over a frozen chicken. We eat chicken, he said, But do we need this chicken? Grocery shopping is ordinary. But living in Kuwait wasn’t ordinary for any of us so the aisles were a trek, discovery. We didn’t know what we were like in Kuwait. When we picked up a deli container of hummus, we didn’t know we’d eat hummus and flatbread for lunch two months straight.
The Kuwait I moved to was different than the Kuwait I live in now. Our apartment windows faced a wide stretch of sand that became soccer and cricket pitches in the late afternoon as men gathered for a game after work. Standing at the window, I watched women in saris walk across the sand, their jewel tone fabrics a contrast to the blues and browns men wore. I followed the routes of water trucks sloshing over rutted sand, of cars and trucks that cut games in two for a moment. My view of the Gulf is smaller now. I watched buildings go up one floor at a time. At night I watched two men paint the dome of the mosque across the street.