Learning My Kuwait

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.

This year I woke up when our neighbors upstairs arrived. They have two girls who ran the length of the apartment, awake from travel and novelty. I remember when we opened our apartment door and stood in the wide, cool space that became home after a half dozen trips to Ikea, Ace and the Friday market; after my daughter spilled breakfast on the floor, after we brought our son home, after we painted our dining room, after we shared meals with friends at our table, after I taped watercolors to the wall above my desk, after my husband built kitchen shelves, after our plants took over one corner, after my daughter and son taped a construction paper fireplace under their window at Christmas. I imagined what the new family upstairs might be thinking in their empty, waiting space.

They get a new Kuwait. I can share a little of my Kuwait with newcomers but I want expats to choose for themselves, what this country is for them. I don’t want to oversell or spoil the place. Let the first weeks gel into an impression. The fun of a new country is learning its ways, understanding how the past shows up in the present, rifling through previous homes and travel for comparisons and connections. And that takes months, years. And we know Kuwait in different ways. Our daughter was almost one when we moved here. Our son was born the next year. I didn’t drive into the city for concerts or cultural events. When I had time away from the kids, I took my notebook to a café and wrote what I saw out my window or what I read in the newspaper or I turned inward to think how place shaped me. The land locked me here. I couldn’t run from anger, pride or discontentment. Instead, I learned to work my faith in a daily way. I found the sea and still take my kids for walks along the Gulf, fed by the shifting colors of water and sky one weekend to the next. The Kuwait I know is a simple set of lines to our regular places.

And the Kuwait I know is made of the ebb and flow of relationships. Our first three or four years here we said goodbye to many lovely friends. I cried a lot. There was a short stretch when no one I knew deeply left and then it seemed everyone I loved left at once and I wasn’t sure I could make a friend only to rip a wound at a later farewell. But expats are pretty quick to jump off the deep end with friendships. Every year, we fly in and form groups that reconfigure as the year goes. Our friendships make the messiest of Venn diagrams and by the end of the school year, most of us have a couple of sure relationships that carry through our time in Kuwait.

I mostly like the Kuwait I’ve learned. I care about this country. I love it. But it’s a love made of time. There was no crush. Instead I found scraps of love in routine. I ran on my treadmill, watching the sky go light each morning, making a game of following shadow figures cross the sand, waiting for the man who walked his dog and the other who ran loops around the soccer pitch. I went to the courtyard in the afternoon to let the kids run. Around us buildings went up, construction equipment clanking and drilling. Someone would remark on the breeze that came through, a break in the heat. I went to a Sultan Center for years, even though the parking was terrible, because that was the grocery store I’d learned during our first weeks in Kuwait. I tell my kids I love them even when they’re stinky. What’s love that quits at a flaw? There are parts of Kuwait that are ugly, uncomfortable. So with any place. Recognizing faults doesn’t negate love.

Sometimes I’m surprised how long we’ve lived in a desert. During our first year here, we met a couple who’d been here for six years and I remember thinking that sounded nuts. Six years of sand and buildings painted the color of sand. Six years of maddening traffic. Six years of going to three grocery stores before finding brown sugar or canned pumpkin. But now I’ve got seven years behind me, the eighth ahead and the prick of uncertainty at my neck is wondering how I leave a place I’m still learning.

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