A personal cultural encounter after the storm

Kuwait: a personal cultural encounter after the storm

Geraldine Brown

Abstract: The author discusses her experience in traveling to Kuwait during the past several years and what she has learned about the people, their culture and the region.

Keywords: Kuwait, Gulf War, Storm, Nursing


Kuwait, the country noted as the cultural capital of the Arab world, is located on the continent of Asia. Bounded by Iraq on the left, Iran to the immediate right, Saudi Arabia on the bottom, and the Arabian Gulf to the far right, this small country attracted the attention of the entire world when Iraq invaded it in 1990. The character and traditions of Kuwait have been shaped by the sea, which for so many generations has provided the Kuwaitis with their major source of income. Kuwait’s present development has fascinated businesses and drawn investors from other parts of the world. The Kuwaiti flag remains a symbol of dignity and freedom. Its’ colors of white, black, green and red denote white for work, black for struggles, green for spring homes and red for the past.

Visits to Kuwait were eyewitness accounts of a country that has almost returned to its state before the Iraqi invasion. People from more than 120 countries once lived and worked in Kuwait, giving the city a cosmopolitan charm. The cultural diversity of the population was clearly evidenced, according to natives, at ethnic concerts, plays, ceremonies, exhibitions, social and sports events. Also, according to the natives, Kuwait will never be the same since the events of August 2, 1990. Public buildings, private homes, cultural, scientific and educational facilities, amusement parks, and historical landmarks all fell victim to the destruction wrought by the Iraqi forces. The material damage is bounded by human and environmental devastation. It may take years before a determination of what effects this massive destruction has had on the lives of so many people.

With a nursing career covering a thirty-two year period of lime, I feel that “nursing” is definitely a calling from a higher source, and has provided an experience that has been more than business as usual in a health care delivery system. Since caring for many members of several U.S. President’s Cabinet, members of the law-making bodies of Congress and their families, Foreign Heads of State and members of their families, and so many others, I have been given the privilege of accompanying them in travel to places around the globe. This article attempts to discuss and share the experience of my travels to Kuwait, of which I not only serve as the traveler, but as a vessel allowing people (while being cared for) to ride while the mechanical problems (health, illnesses) of their vessels (human bodies) are being repaired. This travel is a living example that nursing is a golden, but rare opportunity, not only in promoting professional development, but is an adventurous spirit in capturing memories from continent to continent, while administering expert nursing care and enjoying life, at its very best.

A Brief History

When I was asked to travel to Kuwait with a very important person, some fear was etched in the mind, and the thought of going to a dangerous war-torn area so far from home, was devastating. In my imagination, Kuwait was a place where men who wore dish-dashas and the women are veiled in thubs, wander around in the desert surrounded by off fields riding camels. My experiences have taught me that Kuwait is much more than that. Throughout the last few years, Kuwait has tried to return to its highly industrialized and modern state where traditions and modernity merge to form an identity that was so unique to old Kuwait. The word “Kuwait” comes from the word “al-kut” meaning the fortress adjacent to water, with reference to the time when Kuwait was just a small village in the mid-eighteenth century with the desert and bedouin tribe al-Otub, which came from today’s Saudi Arabia, and which lived by trading, fishing, pearl diving and boat building.

The discovery of oil in 1938 set this 17,818 square kilometer country on a course of opportunities, which would turn the area into a sophisticated highly modern region. Kuwait has impressive architectural designs, with important business and trade centers, hot, hot sun and a 290 kilometer stretch of coastline, of which 3/4 is sand, a major attraction for tourists. A fact that is rarely known about Kuwait is that it has sovereignty over nine islands in the Arabian Gulf, with the largest being Bubyan (873 sq. km.) and the most popular is Failakha.

The capital, Kuwait City, dates back to 1760, and is the home to 90% of the country’s population. Although the wall surrounding the city was destroyed in 1957, its five gates still stand today as a memory of Kuwait’s history and authenticity. Today, Kuwait City is a well defined area of high office buildings, luxury hotels, wide boulevards, and planned gardens with numerous parks. Its architectural designs show the influences of Arab architecture. Kuwait also has a well-developed road system with 4,450 kilometers of highways. All public transportation is by buses and taxis, because there is no subway or railroad system. And at times, Kuwait does suffer from western style traffic jams.

Political System

The latest events in the Gulf and the occupation of Iraq by the Allied Forces, hopefully have put to rest any fears of threats to Kuwaitis of another cruel invasion by the Iraqi regime. The assurance is calmly tucked away in the dungeon of painful memories. The country is trying to pick up the pieces and move ahead to meet the challenges of a New World. Presently, Kuwait is going through a democratic experience with its elected parliament. Parliament holds the key to passing laws, and has veto power on any law proposed by the government. Separate political parties are not allowed, candidates run as independents to be elected in the 25 electoral districts equally divided throughout Kuwait. Only males who are 21 years or older and can prove they are Kuwaiti descent from 1921 are eligible to vote. These males make up about 15% of all Kuwaiti nationals. This unique attempt at democratization has shaped the political face of Kuwait, and once again is given the stamp of tradition, which is now so visible.

The Economy of Kuwait

Kuwait’s biggest asset is oil, of which it holds 10% of the world’s oil reserves. It is owned by the government and is exported in great quantities, along with refined products and fertilizers. Its desert environment makes agriculture almost non-existent, making it a must that Kuwait import different food types, along with construction materials, vehicles and parts, as well as clothing. Most of the people who are working in Kuwait’s export businesses are foreigners from such places as Lebanon and India.

The world of finance holds an important position in Kuwaiti economy. Kuwait’s current account surplus rose by 196% in 2000. The spending power of Kuwaitis and of some expatriates is among the highest in the world. Kuwait has six commercial banks and three specialized banks. Kuwait has its own airline, Kuwait Airways Company, a new generation aircraft, which is one of the most competitive and efficient. Its fleet consists of Airbuses (A300s, A310s, A320s, A340s) and Boeings (B 747, as well as the latest in technology, the B777). Comfort and relaxation are key words in the ideology of Kuwait Airways. The employees demonstrate top Arabian hospitality throughout the flights. The seats are extremely comfortable with personal screen televisions that host all current movies and many games. Telephone and faxing facilities are also available.

The Kuwait Stock Exchange (KSE) sheds a good light on Kuwait’s attempt to revitalize its economy. With the latest technology employed in the form of the Kuwait Automated Trading System, guarantees confidentiality in transactions, and offers more security and confidence to traders.

Healthy public finances, major projects, and a great program of public works help the Kuwaiti Government while enhancing its economic environment. Today, Kuwait is using a new language of challenges, priorities, efforts and efficiency. Its economic and financial prospects are promising in many sectors.

Tourism, Culture and Social Life in Kuwait

The State of Kuwait is a country of great social contrasts. Driving along the Gulf Road, a choice is needed between the numerous western restaurants and fast food branches that have opened all over the country. McDonald’s and KFC restaurants can be found on major highways. The charisma of Kuwait is that it was and remains true and faithful to its traditions. Kuwait has retained an important part of its heritage, which explains its strong sense of national identity. Kuwait’s life revolves around two major pillars: religion and family. There are strict etiquette guidelines of social behavior and relations. The state’s religion, Islam, guides Kuwaitis in their everyday life in all aspects, whether it is social or political. The religion is based on respect and tolerance, and is a major part of Kuwait’s constitution. Most Kuwaiti families are usually large, with all members highly respecting the elderly, their hospitality and contributions. A tradition that is always respected is gender separation. Women and men are gathered separately at parties, dinners and marriages.

Another cultural practice, that most westerners might find shocking, is the friendliness shown among people of the same sex. It is a mutual understanding in the Arabic culture for two men to kiss each other on the cheek if they are friends, but it is impolite to kiss a woman on the cheek, no matter how friendly you are.

Another social issue is “cruising,” which is especially popular among the younger generation of Kuwaitis. The status symbol for cruising in Kuwait is the late model car. Young people drive with music so loud, that it attracts the attention of all spectators.

On the shopping scene, open-air markets (souks) are located all over Kuwait, with the most famous ones being found in downtown Kuwait City. These souks are located in narrow alleys, where clothes, hardware, jewelry, spices or even pets are sold at prices highly competitive with large malls around the country. A treat for the early afternoon would he a trip to the Friday Market, where absolutely everything is sold at very low prices. It is amazing how an empty parking lot is transformed every Friday to the busiest rush hour highway, where carpet merchants try to win over customers from their nearby competitors.

The Gold Souk is noted as the most popular souk in Kuwait, where gold is sold at the lowest prices than in any other country. Gold is considered to be the easiest item to buy in Kuwait. Persian Carpets and woodcarved items are other keepsakes that are often bought in Kuwait, for a bargain price. The word “ah’kershay” (cheapest price) is the word well-worth remembering when trying to bargain Kuwaiti-style. The Fish Market is also a “must see” event while visiting the markets of Kuwait. The trip would not be complete without this stop. Fish is an important ingredient in the Kuwaiti diet.

The Pleasures of Kuwait

In the last few years, Kuwaitis have rediscovered the meaning of the words tradition and heritage. After the war, the Kuwaitis understood that if their heritage was not safeguarded, it could quickly disappear into thin air, without any warning. But, an amazing formation has occurred in Kuwait since it was plunged into a horror of war. Today, Kuwait has many landmarks, including office towers in the business center, prestigious hotels, government offices, and the residential towers on the outskirts of the main city. Kuwait has literally expanded, spilling out along the coast, to the north and south and consuming much of the desert.

There are some ‘must see” places of interest in Kuwait. including the Kuwait Towers, the three pointed needles to the sky. Damage to these towers in 1990, appeared minimal from the outside, but the interior of the main tower was gutted with fire. It is considered to be the symbol of Kuwait. Designed by a Swedish Company, the towers consist of two towers and a third pole feeding them with electricity. The tallest tower 187 meters high holds two spheres. The upper sphere has a revolving observation area, with one full turn every half-hour, as well as a Coffee Shop. The other sphere contains a restaurant. The middle tower is a water reservoir containing 2 million gallons of water in two tanks. The third tower, which is 11.60 meters high, is a lighthouse that illuminates the architectural wonder with 96 concealed spotlights. The Liberation Tower is the fifth tallest communication tower in the world. Construction started in 1987, stopped for a short while during the Iraqi invasion of 1990, and resumed in 1993. Covering an area of 21,000 square meters, it consists of a hall to serve the public 24 hours a day. Vertical cavities in the tower body contains two elevators, provides a breathtaking panoramic view of Kuwait as the elevators extend to the revolving restaurant and the viewing balcony. This impressive tower also holds an eighteen-meter underground foundation with three basements. The National Assembly complex, built in 1985, is a must-see official building. It is a two story huge structure that allows access to visitors and even allows them to attend political sessions. Inaugurated in 1986, the Grand Mosque is considered to be an important landmark of Kuwait, with its Islamic and traditional architectural heritage being inspired by Arabic construction qualities from around the Gulf Region. The mosque consists of a main domed prayer court, decorated with engraved calligraphy made of ceramics from Isfran, Iran. There are 144 windows that ensure natural lighting all day long for the courtyard, which can accommodate 10,000 people. A separate women’s courtyard can hold 950 worshippers at a time. These courtyards are usually opened on special religious occasions. Daily prayers are performed in an annex capable of hosting over 500 worshippers. The Grand Mosque also has 21 doors with verses from the Holy Qur’an and intricate geometric designs carved magically by Indian master craftsmen. It also holds a 350 square meter library, which includes Islamic books and old documents available to scholars and students in Islamic research. The New Seif Palace is a perfect example of Islamic architecture derived from Kuwait’s special environment. The Palace was completed in 1992, in 450 square kilometers, encompassing a dock for visitors and their yachts, a heliport, and an artificial lake. The Palace is placed on the must-see list of the new Kuwait. The ship Al-Hashemi II is an Arabic dhow, with 1200 square meters of reception area. This ship acts as a reception area for all occasions: weddings, seminars, and even simple dinner parties.

A country’s history and heritage are very important in understanding the past and present and how the future is proceeding. The Kuwait National Museum is a complex where remnants of the Iraqi invasion may be seen. It is an enlightening and learning experience about how a day in the life of old Kuwait used to be. A trip to this museum will be a rewarding step back in time, allowing the visitor to connect with Kuwait’s oldest and most cherished traditions. This museum houses one of the most important private art collections in the world, belonging to Sheikh Nasser al Sabah and his wife, Sheikha Hussah. During the Iraqi invasion, this museum was burned, and the collection was housed and protected in the art world in some of the finest museums, including the Metropolitan Museum of Fine Arts in New York and the British Museum in London. This museum also houses a Planetarium, which is a unique place to explore space and the world of hidden galaxies. Last, but not least, a visit must be made to Scientific Center, the home to the largest aquarium in the Middle East. The Scientific Center laid its first foundation brick in 1996, as a gift to the Kuwaiti people. It offers five different attractions, the Dhow Harbor, the Aquarium, the IMAX Theatre, the Discovery Place and the Gift Shop. There are other activities as leisure and theme parks; an ice skating rink; musical fountains (shows of music and water); the Kuwait Zoo, the Al Atraf Camel Racing Club; desert biking; and the Hunting and Equestrian Club (where horse shows and local teams compete in jumping and show competitions, swimming pools, bowling, billiard, squash, tennis and a health club).

Health care is free to all Kuwaiti residents, including foreign travel to other parts of the world where expertise in medical and nursing care may be offered. All medications are free of charge. No health insurance is necessary in the State of Kuwait.

During the unexpected Iraqi invasion of Kuwait on August 2, 1990, lives of all who lived in this tiny nation were shattered, as they were forced to face the entire world. According to some Kuwaitis who survived, “they were simply cut off from the world.” The horror stories told were simply breath taking. Many had to remain in their basements all day and night for months. It was like losing all their freedoms, civil and human rights. Each day was fearful, not knowing whether this was a final day to share with loved ones, or comforting children while the sounds of gunfire was just outside of the windows. For seven long months Kuwait was bludgeoned by fear, but on February 26, 1991, it was the day of Kuwait’s liberation. Operation Desert Storm was the name given to the war, by the American Government, and was led by the Armed Forces of the United States. Many Kuwaitis expressed appreciation, gratitude and much thanks to America for their liberation, in a dangerous, but important role. As many as 690,000 troops were deployed from eighteen countries. The United Nations supported this effort. According to some Kuwaitis, today, there are many people still missing in action. Kuwaiti men, women, children and non-Kuwaitis.

The Iraqi soldiers set more than 700 Kuwait oil wells on fire. To this date, Environmentalists and medical doctors attribute health problems such as cancer, respiratory diseases, ophthalmic problems, and birth defects that may have long-term effects relating to an illness termed the Gulf War Syndrome. Complaints of headaches, depression, a burning sensation in the throat and difficulty in breathing were frequent. At the time, an increase in the population’s mortality rate was predicted. It was thought that much pollution from Kuwait’s oil fires would have more negative effects than the Chernobyl accident. Immediately after the war, for days, dark clouds hung over the city as thick fog. Many Kuwaitis stated that the first rain was similar to diesel fuel spraying houses and buildings with black dirt. This rain trickled throughout the day and night soiling everything in its path. For a while, the entire country was covered in layers of moist dark powder. On school days, parents made sure children were wearing masks, and they were unable to play in their yards or gardens. Air conditioners, purifiers, and filters were used in the homes for assistance in breathing for a very long time. Whether permanent health damage was done, it is too early to determine.

Today, the desert is clean, with residents again enjoying the hot summer days, clear skies and fresh air. The physical evidence of Operation Desert Storm has almost dissipated, except out in the desert region of the Gulf. Kuwait is now able to forget about the past, and move toward the future with hope and a newfound freedom.

Geraldine Brown, PhD, RN, a consultant and educator, resides in Washington, DC. Dr. Brown may be reached via e-mail: g.brown@worldnet.att.net.

COPYRIGHT 2004 Tucker Publications, Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group