As I sit down to write this, I am still grabbling with how best to form an opinion on the culture in the Middle East. I’m still learning – and will be for the rest of my life – about this culture. The short time I’ve been in each country is certainly not enough to form a foundational opinion, and my hope is that I am never offensive. This is a different culture than what I am used to, but that doesn’t mean it’s bad. My struggle stems mostly from the rights that women do and don’t have, and again, I am learning. I am growing. I am trying to understand.
I landed at the Kuwait airport and there was immediately a man at the gate to help me. I’ve learned not to fight this, despite the fact that I am perfectly capable of getting myself through an airport. He pushed me through immigration and customs, and at each stop, demanded I hand him my passport and visa instead of allowing me to hand it directly to the officer. I’m not sure if this is because I am a woman or because I’m disabled or a combination of both, but at every stop, he insisted on being the one to handle my documents with the officer. I wondered if he would handle doing my fingerprints for me also (yes, providing fingerprints is a common part of security in many countries nowadays). At one point during one of the many stops in the Middle East, a flight attendant looked at the man pushing me, who I had not exchanged a word with, and asked, “Can she walk?” Don’t get me wrong, these things happen in America too, and it infuriates me beyond belief. But here, I can’t speak up or defend myself, and when I do, I am totally dismissed.
I landed at the airport and as soon as I stepped out the doors, for the first time on this trip, I felt like I was in over my head. My ‘helper’ had pushed me outside of the airport and left me on my own. My cell phone was not connecting to the global data plan I had purchased and the airport WiFi wasn’t strong enough to get a connection. Everyone was speaking Arabic and everyone was Arabic. The airport pickup area was chaotic…cars and luggage everywhere, absolutely no order. There wasn’t a taxi line or rideshare pickup area like the other airports I had been at.
I sat near the door as people hollered and shuffled here and there. I told myself to take a deep breath. No one was bothering you, in fact, they could have cared less that you were there. I was definitely not in danger, and I reminded myself of that. Take a minute and let your cell phone find the data connection. If that doesn’t work, you can go inside and get cash out of the ATM for a taxi. I had been planning on taking Careem (Uber in the Middle East) as it’s about half the price of a taxi.
I waited, and paced around a little, but my phone never connected. I found an ATM and pulled out enough for a taxi. I went back outside and asked the nearest airport employee where I could get a taxi. It took about 20 minutes, and a heated exchange between him and the airport police, but I was able to get a taxi that I am confident I overpaid by about 40%. I made it to my hotel safely and comfortably. The taxi driver did allow me to hotspot from his phone so I could show him where I was going. I was grateful for that gesture.
One of the things I appreciate about traveling are the random tidbits of information that I research as I go about seeing each country. Kuwait is a tiny country bordered by Saudi Arabia and Iraq, and just an arm’s length away from Iran. It is most definitely the furthest into the Middle East that I’ve been, although I would comment that it is known to be much more progressive than those three countries.
Kuwait holds 10% of the world’s oil reserves, and because of this, it brings in many expats. In fact, there are more expats than residents in Kuwait. This means that there are about 50% more men in Kuwait, mostly coming from neighboring countries, than there are women. This was evident to me as I strolled the streets and cafes during my visit. While this is a generalization, and certainly does not apply to every man, I have read in numerous places that Arab men view Western women as ‘sluts’ or ‘asking for it’ because they are not covered. I, of course, learned to accept this but also learned to be comfortably conservative and not as friendly as I normally would be, so as not to imply a sexual advance. It’s a different culture, and while it doesn’t feel right to me to be so cold and blunt, I have found it to be more effective with the men. The minute I ask how they are doing or where they are from is the minute I get a phone number. Different cultures mean different things all over the world. It’s what makes the planet so special.
On my first morning in Kuwait, I woke up and got ready for the day. My hotel gave me a free breakfast as a gift when I checked in, so I capitalized on that from a budget standpoint. I wore jeans, a t-shirt, and a light jacket that day. In the Middle East, I’ve been wearing jeans every day. I put them on in the comfort of my temperature-controlled room and they feel great. After about 30 minutes being outside, they start to constrict and it soon feels like I’m wearing leather leggings. The heat is something else, and the amount of water I am consuming astonishes me. Fortunately, everywhere I’ve been in the Middle East has more than successfully figured out air conditioning.
On this particular morning, I was headed to the biggest souq in Kuwait. I successfully ordered a Careem and about seven minutes later, I arrived. My driver was polite and professional, and I had absolutely no issues with anyone at the souq. It was, not surprisingly, almost all men. There were a handful of women here and there, but only as customers. There were also a number of photo opportunities and it was really quiet that morning. I loved that the workers in this souq were not pushy. They allowed me to stroll along and look at the items, without pushing them in my face and begging me to buy something. It was also shaded and relatively cool, so I spent a few hours here, just wandering around, turning every corner and wondering where it would take me. It was definitely my favorite part of Kuwait, and if you ever make it to this country, I highly recommend it.
After the souq, I took a tour of the Grand Mosque of Kuwait. It was fantastically large, beautiful, and I could feel the pride that the people of Kuwait had for this mosque. The woman who conducted the tour – for just me – was beautiful and had so much knowledge.
It was late afternoon at this point and I needed to get into a cooler place. It took me a good hour before I was able to successfully get a Careem back to my hotel. I had two men approach me and insist that I take bottles of water from them (I did not) and I fell out of my chair once, flat on my bum, trying to get over a curb. A man did come running to my rescue, but I was up and moving before he got to me.
Aside from spending some time in the Kuwaiti desert, there’s not all that much to do in Kuwait City. It’s been a great place for me to dive further into the Middle East, and someday I will visit Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Iran, which I suspect are very different than Kuwait. In the meantime, though, it’s opened up my curiosity about the culture and the religion. I have a new desire to become educated and to gain a better perspective and understanding. This will come in time, of course, but without this trip, I’m not sure I would be delving into the complexity of this culture. It’s been an unexpected growth opportunity, and for that, I’m grateful that I’ve made it to Kuwait.
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