When we decided to move to Kuwait, one of the first things my husband said to me was “what will your mum say?!” In truth I too was a little nervous about breaking this news, not just to my mum but to all my family and close friends. The news of our move to Prague, four years previous, had not gone down too well, with people shocked that I would want to leave my little island, stating this was so unlike me to be adventurous and blow caution to the wind. However, once they knew there was no going back, the visitors started coming and they saw for themselves that I was happy and had settled into the European way of life. Prague, a beautiful city and only a hop, skip and a jump from Jersey was one thing, telling my loved ones I was moving to the Middle East was quite another. I’m not going to lie the fact I could do this over the phone, almost a thousand miles away, did help (oh dear I can already feel their disapproval in reading that last statement – sorry!)
Their reaction I have to say was a positive one, to my face, I’m sure there were numerous conversations going on about should they be concerned about this bold move. The fact that most people firstly didn’t really have an exact idea of where Kuwait was, giving enthusiastic affirmations of how the UAE is a great place to live, my sister thinking it was in China, I love her for that so no judgments please, and the obvious realisation that this was a lot further away- more like a hop skip and a 747.
I was reminded of people’s preconceived ideas of the Middle East by a friend over brunch the other day. She quite rightly pointed out that people have extreme viewpoints regarding life out here and how nearly 2 years on people we meet back home still don’t really get it. So inspired by this rather lengthy debate,over scrambled eggs at our favorite deli (which also reminded me to blog about how amazing the food culture is here) I decided to lift the veil on the reality of living in this region.
When I tell people I live in Kuwait or the Middle East, they think 3 things; a War zone, its a Muslim country and Dubai. I’ve not done an official survey, so you have to go with some generalisation here, but you will get where I’m coming from. Rightly or wrongly these were the exact things that also crossed my mind, when this discussion was brought to our dinner table by my husband. He had previously worked in Saudi, before he met his wonderful wife, and had occasionally floated the idea of returning the region. My initial thoughts all those years ago was NO WAY its not safe, it too far, its too hot and its not Jersey, however after dipping my toe in the expat life I was open to it or he got me to agree whilst drunk.
Nestled at the top of the Persian Gulf, Kuwait borders Iraq to the North, Saudi Arabia to the West and Iran to the East. I think if my mum actually realised any of this she would be on the phone right now telling me to pack a bag! I have to say I relished a move back to a coastal country, after being land locked in central Europe for 4 years, I need the sea within touching distance to feel at ease anywhere, that’s the island girl inside me .
A lot friends where excited to think I would be near to, what I call the Vegas of the Middle East and eagerly put themselves forward to future visits once we were settled. Don’t get me wrong I love Dubai and everything it has to offer, but I suspect that most of its tourists aren’t even aware they are in a Muslim country. They see the bright lights of the skyscrapers, the celebrity mag’s latest spread of the hot TOWIE couple sunbathing on The Palm. There are no real clothing restrictions, drink flows in licenced areas, the club and restaurant scene is booming and there is luxury at your finger tips. Kuwait is not like Dubai. The image that the Middle East is Dubai couldn’t be further from the truth.
Kuwait city’s horizon lights up with innovative skyscrapers and the iconic Kuwait Towers but the rest of the populated areas are nothing like that. There are snap shots of modern developments, making strides in sporting and cultural centres, but there is also a lot of dust and rubble and lack of consistent architectural focus making the skyline a mish mash of designs and little awareness for preserving Arabic origins. The pavements are hard to navigate (if there are any) and public transport non existent, meaning everyone goes by car and if you think the short Jersey commute was bad you ain’t seen nothing.
I’m sure most people my age and older will remember the first Gulf War and yes that put Kuwait on the map for most of the western world. But that was 25 years ago and the country and it’s people have done an amazing job to rebuild and move forward. There is immense pride in their country and the history of that conflict runs deep in their hearts. Every February they celebrate their liberation and just like Jersey on the 9th May, there is a great sense of patriotism and unity pouring into street parties, the houses are proudly decorated in the Kuwait colours and the celebrations continue into the early hours. The Middle East continues to break the headlines with the Syrian war but we really do feel like we are no more at risk here than we would be anywhere else in the world, unfortunately this is the reality of living in the modern world and not necessarily anything to do with your location.
As I have mentioned in previous posts, and people who knew me in Prague gasped when I told them this, Kuwait is dry being a Muslim country. This means zero alcohol anywhere, not in hotels, not at home, nadda. But how to you cope, I hear you cry?! And the truth is it doesn’t bother us. It’s not like after a heavy Christmas you decide to have a Dry January, which lasts all of a week until you are at the pub after work and you think “oh I’ll just have the one” it just not an option, so a meal with a diet coke becomes the norm. My family will contest that even on my trips home I barely drink and when I do I’m a cheap date!
Once we get past the no drink element and the comprehension I live in a Muslim country, people often ask me if I have to cover my hair or wear an Abaya, the answer is no. Kuwait is conservative and there are of course cultural rules that you need to abide by, making sure shoulders are covered, nothing too tight or provocative but my mini skirt and boob tube days are well over, so to be honest these maybe “rules” but quite frankly they are common decency, no one wants to see that! There is a real sense of embracing individuality here, you see traditionally dressed men, women in Abayas fully veiled, young university students in the latest fashions with beautiful accessorised Hijabs and others with no coverings at all. In the early days of my Kuwait landing, I was woken every morning by the mosque at 3.30am and again at 5.30am but now the distant calls to prayer echoing around the city are mystical, atmospheric and a reminder of what religion means to people here. Their faith is so strong and I’m saddened that it is tarnished by the extreme views and actions of radical believers. This is a wonderfully diverse and accepting country with a strong sense of the religion that it was founded on.
I like the laid back, slow pace of life they have here. No there isn’t masses to do, but lets face it I’m from Jersey I’m used to not having masses of social options available.The family is so important in the Arabic world and I think that is something we have sadly lost in Britain. Everything they do they do together, so a day at the mall or a meal out becomes a family occasion and generations interact with great love and respect. The Kuwaiti people are some of the nicest, friendliest, welcoming people I’ve met on our travels, just like us Beans they come from a small country, they have a huge sense of community and everyone knows everyone and are often related. We like our weekend walk down the Corniche (our equivalent of St Helier to St Aubin walk) and just like home we see families picnicking, father and son bike rides, ladies brunching at the Marina and joggers pounding the sea front. It maybe far away and vastly different in so many ways but these simple things remind me so much of home.