“Entry Card”: The Testimony of an Egyptian Immigrant in Kuwait
Mohammed Tarik - Translated by: Saqer Almarri
My mother travelled to Kuwait in 1979 after she was chosen to be sent to Kuwait as a music teacher and had married my father. The situation in Egypt showed no possible improvement in the future. The economic situation of the middle class families was going downhill. There were many political and economic changes over the twenty years before it, all of which has changed the topography of the Egyptian middle class. Both of my parents were graduates from the College of Musical Education, and just as the rest of the situation, the music situation in Egypt was going from bad to worse. This is what people of that era say, particularly the ones who saw the late seventies after the death of Abdel Halim Hafez and the end of “The Diamond Band”, the largest band that played with the stars at the time. There was no chance for anyone to work as a musician except as a public teacher with a tiny sum of money, or to join the casinos and cabarets.
My father traveled to Kuwait in 1980 and worked at the Ministry of Education in Kuwait as a teacher. My parents were not like those immigrants who saved up money, my father would always say that life’s money, when available, was to be used for enjoyment, for what was the value of money if a person grew without enjoying it.
I was born in 1983. I remember the first days of me playing in the streets with the neighbors, I was living in the district of Fahaheel on the coast. The people in Kuwait divided the districts into two main regions: The Bedouin regions and the Urban regions. Closely related families from particular tribes lived within the Bedouin regions. However the Urban regions were always far from us. Its people were more urbanized, and the women did not wear black abayas all the time. Their children, girls and boys, go to universities and travel abroad.
My father decided to enroll me in a private school, despite the fact that they, as teachers, had the right to enroll me in a public school for free. The private schools were of two types: community schools that teach the same curriculum as the public schools. These were established for people who do not work in the government sector, and cannot enroll their children in public schools. There were also British and American schools that were established for the non-Arab immigrants, and those schools did not have many Arab students. Most of the families of these students worked in the petrol companies that offered a large discount to enroll their children in these schools. There were also Indian and Pakistani schools that offered a quality of education similar to those of the British schools. Most of those enrolled in these schools were Pakistani or Indians, along with others who wanted their children to be taught in English but could not afford the expenses of the British and American schools.
There were not many Kuwaitis in my school, considering that in my district most Kuwaitis sent their children to public schools. I remember one Kuwaiti student, and we all spoke in English, so we never felt the difference. Many of the students in the private schools never learned the Kuwaiti dialect, since they speak English in the schools, and occasionally in an Arabic that was mixed with many languages like Hindi, Persian, and various Arabic dialects. It was a hybrid language that was spoken by the immigrants with many of the shop and grocery workers. Intermingling with the Kuwaitis was so limited that even the local television programs were broadcast in Standard Arabic.
Hosha: The Separation of Kuwaitis from the Migrants
I remember well a day when I was playing with my friends, and we went to buy some sweets at a nearby grocery. An old man stopped us. At the time my age was 6 years, and he first asked me my name, and then if I lived in this area. I was wearing a short, and he told me that my short was too short, and as a Muslim child, I should be wearing a longer short, at least to my knees. He was not smiling, but he was not upset either. He felt that it was his duty to give me this advice, and after that he went on his way. This was one of the features of Kuwait, that each district was like a small society. The country was small and the people were doing well. It was normal for a man to stop his car and offer you a ride home if you lived on his way. Although many warn us of riding with older people for obvious reasons, but I did ride when I was a bit older with people who were extremely nice and only wanted to help.
In the place where I lived, there weren’t many nice Kuwaitis, we used to avoid walking near them so we don’t end up having a fight for any reason, or even for no reason. A “Hosha” is what young Kuwaitis call a fight. It is impossible for a migrant who has not experienced that as a child or in a public school as I have always heard from my friends. They were very cold, however extremely nice. If you got to know one of them, you would not find anyone who would help you more at any time.
The Return after the Invasion
Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990 was a milestone in the history of Kuwait. Perhaps I was too young to understand what was going on before the invasion, but I was attentive enough to notice a change in the public culture. As immigrants, my parents lost everything they owned, all their jewelry, money in the banks, cars. Our house was pillaged by some neighbors with the help of the Iraqi army. I remember in 1992 when we returned to Kuwait by plane, I saw the burning oil wells, and the smoke rising from them. Nothing was left in the house except some of my old toys. At the time, we were living in the second floor of the ministry’s accommodations which was only two floors high. I remember clearly when I entered the house with my father. I noticed the rays of sunlight entering from the roof. The roof was decorated by four holes from aircraft bullets. The bullets have gone through roof and through the dinner table. My mother still keeps the table cloth that had these bullet holes. We were close to our Syrian neighbors, and were in constant contact with them throughout the war. Uncle Mahmoud had returned from Syria in the midst of the invasion in hope to save whatever can be saved from their property. They were taken prisoners, along with many Egyptians and Syrians, then they were released after a few months. It was typical to find a few bullets in any space near the buildings. I kept some of them until now.
The first two years after we returned were difficult. Many immigrants could not return because they had lost all their money and property. Even the country had nothing at the time to compensate for what was stolen. I could not continue going to the British school after that, so I joined a Pakistani school in Mangaf. The principal was teaching us half the subjects, and two young Palestinians were teaching us Arabic. The two teachers were not college-aged at the time, but they had taken on the task. I am still indebted to them for what I have learned. My class consisted of 4 students, one of them was the principal’s son was one of us, and I was the only Arabic student. The Arabic and Islamic studies lessons were a time for pleasant conversations with my beautiful teacher. I still keep some of the cassette tapes of religious lectures that she gave me to listen to. Her name was Amal.
However the Kuwaitis, some of them had left for three destinations: Some to nearby countries like Saudi Arabia, others to Egypt, Lebanon, and Syria, then to Britain and America. Of course, those people experienced a transformative stage with their parents abroad. I noticed after the invasion a greater number of Kuwaiti girls studying in the co-ed schools like the British and American schools.
As a young immigrant, my experience took a different direction. I experienced many situations, and interacted with much more Kuwaitis than before. I became friends with Ali after a “hosha” who became my closest friend. I was also became friends with two Kuwaiti girls. I am still in contact with them through the Internet, and I see their pictures and children’s pictures. I last met them in 2006 during my last trip to Kuwait.
I was always afraid of the police. It wasn’t common at the time to be stopped by police patrols, however I dreaded their unwelcoming looks. I remember the times when we went home late, and the checkpoints on the road would only stop the immigrants. My father always followed the law, and encouraged us to avoid problems. However he was always stopped to have his documents examined while the police officers gave us those dreadful looks without any reason. Perhaps it was because my father had bought a nice car that the police officers didn’t believe could possibly belong to simple immigrants.
Just as in other countries, there was “wasta” in Kuwait, any high status individual can have it easy. My parents learned about that in the years when they lived in Kuwait. I remember how the “wasta” eased the process of requesting an “entry card” for me so that I can visit my family after I had moved to Egypt to study. At the time, getting an “entry card” took days instead of weeks.
Kuwait was my homeland until I came to Egypt to study in university. I lived there 18 years consecutively, except for a few months in each year. I was fascinated by the changes that occurred between 2001 and 2006. The coast on the Gulf was changed, from Old Fahaheel all the way to Salmiyah. We lived near the sea in Fintas in the early 2000s, there was nothing but the sea and sand at the time, but then in 2006 nothing was left of it for us.
I yearn for Kuwait a lot, I have spent the best times of my life and childhood there: in the Entertainment City, the Old Salmiya, the markets of Fahaheel, the Old Souk, Mahboula, Hawalli, the Indian and Filipino Markets in Fahaheel. I miss it all, and I will miss it always, because it was removed and changed into a more leisurely and commercial place that has no character of its own.