Kuwait: A question of belonging

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May 15 2014

Is Kuwait my home?

Yazan al-Saadi *

My parents moved to Kuwait from Syria in the 1970s, as part of the wave of migration to a country that promised opportunity and wealth. There they made a home, offering their blood, sweat, and tears to build the country. They were engineers, involved in the designing and building the various ring roads and landmarks that became part and parcel of the Kuwaiti national identity. Blood, sweat, and tears were, and still are, poured to this work. It cost them much, in more ways that can be accurately explained here.

I was born in Kuwait in the early 1980s. Our apartment was in Riggae, an area that prior to the Iraqi Invasion and Occupation was trendy, up-and-coming. It was the place to be for young expatriate professionals. For my parents, those years were good years. They remember them fondly. The quaint house gatherings, the adventurous drive in the weekends to Basra, and beginnings of a home for our small family; my parents, my sister, and I.

When I was young, I never felt different than others around me. I had all types of friends. Kuwaitis, other Arabs, and one or two Westerners at school, some of whom remain the closest friends of mine today. I had friends who were South Asian, we'd play cricket religiously at sandy lots and eagerly celebrate Holi, with it's wild colors and wonderful messiness.

Being a child, you are blind to the problematic nuances and stark issues within society. I was, for a long time, unaware of my difference as a non-Kuwaiti. Then, I never felt I had to conform to the dominating culture. Perhaps it was because I was placed in a private international school, with it's trappings of cultural imperialism that creates convulsions within identity.

It was only later, when I had left Kuwait for university and returned that I exceedingly became aware and had to face the sobering reality. As an 'adult' male, my residency – and thus my ability to stay in Kuwait – was a major concern. Unfortunately, one of the passports I held, a Western one, was key in allowing to return and stay in the country of my birth. Imagine. If I only had the Syrian passport, where would I have been today? Clearly not in Kuwait since the restrictions on Syrians is one of the tightest in the world, especially after the uprising erupted.

My return to Kuwait, with a sense of awareness and maturity, left me exposed to the repulsive side of Kuwait. I love the country, for it's memories and the friends and the opportunities it gave us. But that love, as any love is, has its limits.

I was aware of racism prior to my departure. I had heard and seen acts by Kuwaitis (and even non-Kuwaiti Arabs) to South Asians. Eggs thrown at them. The jokes, which appear harmless, but in actuality was a symptom of the inherent malaise. The terrible treatment of a domestic worker in public, at home, in the news. These were all there but I did not pay attention to them. It became more apparent when I started looking at the country with new, older eyes.

Drive to Bayan and you will see wide, clean roads. Massive houses. Top-notch infrastructure. Drive to Jleeb al-Shouykh, and see another world. The crowd, the sewage festering along the sidewalks.

One area is dominated by the Kuwaitis, the other by low-skilled, poor expat workers. Only a 30 minute drive apart. And yet the shortness of time does not speak of the immense divide.

Rarely do people of privilege go to these areas.

And rare do they go to places further away like Jahra, where many Bedoon live. There are horror stories told of such places. It is Kuwait's own 'wild west', practically an exotic dark continent. Do not go there. Bad things will happen.

You see the sign to Jahra, and unconsciously your breath quickens and your pulse pounds faster.

Funny, when I think of it now. I've been to both places, Jahra and Jleeb. There is poverty there, but nothing terrifying about them at all. What I feel rather is sadness and perplexity, wondering how can such a rich country – and it is rich – not be able to fix and provide for all who live on it's land. Of course, we all know why the authorities don't. They can spend millions on a fancy fireworks show, wowing the public and the world for a few minutes...but spending millions on an adequate plumping system for these areas...no sir, it's too complicated apparently.

Not every Kuwait is racist, sexist, or classist. Many I know are sickened by the sense of superiority by their peers, or presented by the media, or whispered by family members in the comfort of their own homes. And many of them I know are fighting, in their own small ways to do tiny changes within their private spheres. There is kindness and great potential there, often dominated by the sense of helplessness towards the rampant corruption, the wastas, and the procrastination that arises from a wealthy system.

But can I truly partake in the discussions of Kuwait's fate today? It is a question I wonder when I hear the talks break out amongst friends in this or that diwaniya, the physical or virtual ones. I've been told that I am by friends, or at least an honorary one. But there will always be that divide – socially, financially, politically.

Is it my place to talk as a foreigner even though official documents state I am not categorized as a Kuwaiti? What is a Kuwaiti after all? Perhaps, these are questions for philosophers, politicians, and lawyers. It is a question, I do think, the public should actively discuss and not shrug away.

The more I know of Kuwait, its history and its people, the more I am faced with a paradoxical sentiment of frustration and adoration. A people with a strong streak of independence against authority, an inherent sense that if unleashed could have fantastical ramifications in the Gulf region that is dominated by repressive monarchical systems.

I wonder...if they could see how I see them in my eyes, how would they feel? Would it motivate them to struggle for themselves, and others more? Would they feel ashamed or flattered? Would they feel that I see them as they really see themselves?

Is Kuwait my home? I would like to think it is. At least one of the many homes I have made in my short life. It is a place that shaped and crafted my memories and my dreams. It is my home, just like Syria and other places are. It is my home, with all its blemishes, scars, and beauty. And it could be so, so much more.

* Yazan al-Saadi is a writer, researcher, and journalist based in Lebanon

Advancing the rights of migrant workers throughout the Middle East