Behind Closed Doors

Private conversations in Kuwait City reveal both liberal and repressive beliefs among ordinary Kuwaitis

kuwait man311 (photo credit: gustavo ferrari/AP)
kuwait man311
(photo credit: gustavo ferrari/AP)
THE INVITATION ON FACEbook was quickly passed from one computer to the next: “The National Democratic Youth Organization will screen the film ‘The Stoning of Soraya M’ on Tuesday at 6:30 p.m. at the Women’s Organization of Culture and Society.”
Facebook, the world’s largest social networking site, is not yet restricted in Kuwait, so the sought-after posting rapidly made the rounds. The Internet and the cell phone are the front-line weapons of Kuwait’s youth against the heavy-handed political and cultural censorship of a conservative establishment.
The West had hoped for something quite different after its troops liberated Kuwait from the Iraqi invaders two decades ago. The tiny, enormously wealthy desert kingdom was supposed to become, at least in part, a rare, shining example of democracy in a region of autocratic – if not outright despotic – regimes.
Instead, the Kuwaiti government walks a fine line between democracy and repression.
The country has a spirited parliament – although in the eyes of many, it is not very effective. The press is surprisingly free; the one definitive no-no is criticism of the Emir of Kuwait, Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah, although criticizing any member of the royal family can be a hazardous pastime and lately, even critics of the prime minister have also found themselves in jail.
Women are now permitted to serve in parliament – four do and hold high posts – though they were only accorded the right to vote a few years ago. That’s considered progress.
Yet ordinary Kuwaitis feel they have a Potemkin democracy: skin-deep and primarily designed to assuage the West. This summer, for example, a “Women’s Police” made its appearance – a law enforcement arm not unlike Iran’s infamous “Modesty Police.” The mission of this new Kuwaiti police unit? According to one of the local newspapers, its mission is “to chase down women who pretend to be men, men who pretend to be women, flirtatious young men and women, and mixed groups of youth who frequent malls and beaches.”
And while cinemas do screen Western films, they do so only after all the “immoral” bits have been cut out. That includes such indecencies as a quick kiss on the lips. Any political ideas considered dangerous also find their way into the editing bin. And, of course, the seating in the cinemas takes no chances: there’s a singles section and a family section.
THE MOVIE THAT THOSE “IN THE loop” are invited to is the “Stoning of Soraya M.” It‘s the saga of an Iranian woman who was stoned to death for alleged adultery; the contrived charge is to enable her husband to marry a young girl. The Kuwaiti authorities have banned the film outright because it portrays Islam in a highly disparaging light. That the story transpires in enemy Iran did not rescue the film from the alarmed Kuwaiti censors; so the National Democratic Youth Organization got hold of a DVD copy, sent out invitations over the Internet, and arranged a private screening.
The location for this private showing does not lack for comfort and the attendees are a far cry from an “underground opposition.” The screening hall is spacious, elegantly modern and air-conditioned. The attire of the guests is a mix between traditional garb and contemporary Western fashion. The men arrive in glistening white robes; the women bedecked in colorful long dresses and head scarves. This is August, yet only a single attendee – one of the organizers – dares to sport shorts.
“Don’t you fear the authorities?” I ask A, one of the organizers. The film has just ended, and a heavy cloud hangs over the audience.
The horrific scenes of the stoning have left everyone in a shocked hush. “All of us are already on blacklists of one type or another,” replies A. “Even you,” he adds with a wry smile. “They know about you as well.”
According to A, during every screening some mole in the audience compiles a list that goes to the authorities. “Still,” adds A, “the government has far more weighty things on its mind right now. There is a massive privatization program going on in Kuwait. There are plans to privatize even the universities. All this means huge amounts of money, corruption – so right now they don’t have time for small-time gatherings like ours. Only if we stage a demonstration will the authorities close in on us.
“I would describe the group as ‘liberal,’” responds A to my next question. “And there aren’t that many liberals in Kuwait. Our group has about 150 members and that’s a lot for a country where the youth care about nothing but spending time at the mall. Kuwaiti society is very passive and is controlled by conservatives and Islamists. At my university not too long ago, it was decided that students could not come to studies in ‘disrespectful’ dress, or wear colors that are ‘too loud.’ Basic human rights are less and less protected in Kuwait.
“And we’re a racist society,” A continues.
“Many sectors of our population are discriminated against. Plus, two-and-a-half million foreigners are sucking from our economy and sending the money overseas. As for our rich, they prefer to invest in Lebanon or in other states in the Emirates. We’ve got no industry – we import everything. In short, it’s a bad situation.”
And why did they decide to screen this particular Iranian film? “Oh, not for any special purpose,” A responds. Another member of the group, who happens to have an Iranian mother and Kuwaiti father, joins the conversation. “We show films on the plight of women from around the world.
Women aren’t stoned to death only in Iran; it occurs in other Muslim countries, too.”
TO VISIT A PARALLEL UNDERground movement, I make my way to one of the luxury high-rises in Kuwait City. It’s Friday night, and I’m escorted to the seventh floor in almost military fashion. Only those who knew the rules and phoned earlier are admitted.
Even standing only a few centimeters outside the door, it’s impossible to guess what is going on inside. But once you’re on the other side of the door – only after you’ve been thoroughly scrutinized through the peep hole, that is – a blast of Arabic dance music lets you know that it’s party time.
They call it “Friday Night Craziness” in Kuwait City. In a country where alcohol is forbidden, where there are no public concerts, where sex before marriage is outlawed and where arranged marriages are par for the course, I enter this den of sin where all the vices are for the taking. All across Kuwait City, in soundproofed apartments just like this one, high-spirited Friday-night revelers are similarly partying ‘til the early morning. Every guest brings his or her own bottle of alcohol.
Indeed, Kuwait is no stranger to hypocrisy.
On the one hand, customs officials at the airport scan every suitcase to ensure no alcohol gets in. And yet, one of Kuwait’s richest families oversees the smuggling of alcohol into the kingdom. The profits are huge – a bottle of whisky goes for $60; on New Years Eve, the cost doubles.
The guests in this apartment are dressed in trendy Western clothes. Afew Kuwaiti teenage girls are wearing miniskirts so skimpy, they might be belts. But despite the desire to let loose, there’s the cardinal rule of every “club house” and heeded by nearly every guest: No matter how much you drink or how high-spirited you become, once outside, you desist from any rambunctious behavior As we wind down for the night, the transition to after-party mode is temporarily put on hold; someone in the apartment has spotted a police car patrolling below. The police were tipped off there’d been a party somewhere in the building and officers are on the prowl for young drunkards. “The police are totally corrupt here,” says one of the partygoers. “If they catch a Kuwaiti, they won’t do a thing to him. But if they catch a foreigner, God help him.”
“Everything here is based on hypocrisy,” nods a foreign worker from South Africa.
“Everything is forbidden in this country, but behind closed doors, everything is permitted and everything takes place. You won’t believe how many Kuwaitis – women as well – have affairs on the side. There are these orphanages with children born to Kuwaiti fathers and female foreign workers – because the mothers were all deported. And violence towards foreign workers, particularly towards the Asians, goes on all the time. There was this incident, very recently, where three Kuwaiti soldiers were arrested for raping two Bangladeshi women and throwing one of them out of the window. All she could do is scream for help.”
SINCE THE IRAQI INVASION, Kuwaitis have developed a dual attitude toward foreigners. Many of them cannot forget how most of the foreign workers – mainly Arabs – who worked for them and with them, warmly welcomed the Iraqi invaders.
Those cheering at the sight of Iraqi troops taking over the emirate thought already then that they were being treated badly by their rich employers.
At the same time, other foreigners – Arabs too – saved Kuwait from the Iraqi occupation, and their presence in the emirate since its liberation has transformed the country. It is not easy for many of the proud Kuwaitis to admit it.
Many foreign workers complain about the arrogant, sometimes even nasty, Kuwaiti attitude towards them.
Kuwaitis cast a wary eye not only toward the region’s hostile states, but also the huge influx of foreign workers in the neighborhood.
Without them, the Gulf States would cease to function. Yet they are hardly viewed with affection. “The Western [workers] are treated somewhat better than the Asians – who are treated almost like slaves,” says a longtime worker from Britain. “But even Arab foreign workers are mistreated here. Most of Kuwaiti society is very racist.”
Kuwait’s population numbers one million.
According to official figures, two million foreign workers reside here as well – most of them Egyptians, Indians, Bengalis, Filipinos and Thais. They perform every task; even the managers of the two museums that commemorate the 1990-1991 war are Egyptian. Possibly, that’s also because the proud Kuwaiti public regards the Iraq invasion as a shameful episode; few locals ever visit the museums. Only in the summer, a few school groups do a short tour.
The government has embarked on a “Kuwaitization” program to replace all foreign workers who hold government posts with native Kuwaitis. “It’s hard to believe they’ll give me up so easily,” says an Egyptian who works in a key government department. The woman, who feels completely at home in Kuwait, came here as a young girl with her parents. Many years later, her family happened to be on vacation in Egypt when Iraq invaded, and it was two years before the Kuwaiti authorities allowed them back in. “I really missed the place,” she says. “I can’t imagine living elsewhere.
But the Kuwaitis won’t give me citizenship because the law goes according to your father’s bloodline. So I continue to live here without a citizen’s rights, and just hope I won’t lose my job. I do the work of all the Kuwaitis in the department; they are really lazy. So, in the end, they are almost completely dependent on me.”
There are still-lower rungs in this pecking order where even elementary rights don’t exist. Alarge Palestinian population used to reside in Kuwait, but was booted out for supporting the Iraqi invasion. Egyptian workers replaced the Palestinians. Kuwait continues to donate handsomely to Palestinian causes, but the wounds have not healed. Just a few days ago, the Education Ministry announced that neither Palestinians nor Iraqis may hold a teaching post in Kuwait.
AND THERE IS GROWING ANTISemitism, spread mainly by Islamist movements – although there are no known remaining Kuwaiti Jews.
Areport in the daily Alam Alyoum (Today’s World), caused a surge of rumors and accusations: “1,800 Jewish maids employed in Kuwaiti homes!” blared the newspaper, attributing the story to an Interior Ministry source. “They are Indians, Bangladeshis and Ethiopians – the latter mostly Falashas (Jewish Ethiopians) who engage in witchcraft and are loyal to Israel. Their scheming could present a grave threat to Muslim families and affect our children!” Among the less-developed strata of Kuwaiti society, the news caused panic; among the higher echelons, fury and revulsion. As it is, the masses here are greatly influenced by the anti- Semitic ranting of radical Islamists and a local press that usually spouts similar dogma.
Kuwaiti high society is less uniform in this regard; many are Western-educated and have had extensive contact with the West – and with Jews. There is also a substantial Western presence in Kuwait itself.
Generally, among the upper class there is considerable appreciation for the role the West plays in protecting the country, and many exhibit a ready openness toward both Judaism and Israel.
Avivid example of Kuwait caught between these two very different worlds is the uproar over Emma Shah, a young actress and singer who, incidentally, is daughter to a Kuwaiti father and Iranian mother. At a semi-underground venue in Kuwait City, the young performer daringly sang “Hava Nagila,” the quintessential Hebrew song that is an intrinsic part of both Jewish – and Israeli – culture. Enraged Islamists in Kuwait’s Parliament demanded that Shah be thrown out of the country. They also threatened her for supporting Zionist interests and advancing the cause of normalizing relations with Israel. The teenager responded with unconcealed disdain, stating she would continue to sing in Hebrew, and that she saw her role as an ambassador for world peace.
Kuwaiti bookstores have no shortage of anti-Semitic tracts. Alongside Arabic translations of “Mein Kampf,” there’s the “The International Jew” by automobile tycoon Henry Ford. (After Ford published his compilation of anti-Semitic booklets in the 1920s, he profusely apologized following a slew of libel suits – information not noted in Arabic versions of the book.) Also on the shelves is “The Gaza Holocaust” and bestseller “The Aftermath” by Walid A-Rajib. The latter is the first book to deal with Jews who settled in Kuwait over the centuries, nearly all from Iraq and Iran. Jews enjoyed a high standard of living in Kuwait until the mid-20th century, then nearly all left for the newly founded state of Israel. Barely 150 families remained. Locals tell of four families that refused to leave their homes and businesses in the small Jewish area located next to Souk Waqif, right in the heart of old Kuwait City. No one knows what became of them.
“The Aftermath” is based on a true story. It tells of the journey of Yaacov, a Kuwaiti Jew, who pursued his childhood sweetheart, Sarah.
Their two families left Kuwait – but each for a different destination. The lovers lost contact.
“The main problem with how Kuwaitis relate to Jews and to Israel begins at school,” says a young Kuwaiti. “Anything about Jews in our textbooks is blacked out with a thick felt marker. In the cinema, the censors cut out the slightest reference to anything Jewish. So generations of Kuwaitis have grown up without any information or knowledge about Jews – just the diabolical propaganda of the Islamists or totally negative reporting of the local media.
During the Gaza flotilla crisis, the Kuwaiti newspapers devoted page after page to this event as if there were nothing else happening in the world. But for those interested in truthful reporting about Jews, well, the global media is accessible.”
And what if Israel attacks Iran’s nuclear facilities? “The Americans saved us 19 years ago,” replies the young man. “Yet despite that, most Kuwaitis don’t feel any gratitude at all towards America. We are total ingrates. In fact, in 2003, the Kuwaiti public opposed the American invasion of Iraq. And so if Iran is attacked, don’t think the attitude will be any different.”