I am ashamed to say that before I visited Kuwait, I had some preconceived notions that seem incredibly ignorant to me now. Much of this naiveté stems from my previous notion that the “Middle East” was a fairly homogeneous place. I thought Saudi Arabia, Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Kuwait were all pretty alike in terms of customs and culture. Turns out, much like the different countries of Europe and even regions of the United States, there are marked differences among the individual nations.
With this in mind, here are some of differences and similarities between Kuwait and the U.S. that struck me.
Kuwait City is overrun with fast food joints. McDonalds, KFC, and Wendy’s are ubiquitous. One of my grandson’s first words was “Starbucks.” There are also some obvious knock offs like “Slim Chickens,” the name of which I found hilarious! Can you imagine giving a fast food restaurant in the U.S. a name that implies anything other than humongous portions?
Shopping malls are extremely popular in Kuwait and look just like those in the U.S. with many of the same stores which include Ikea and Sears. Because of the intense heat, indoor malls remain extremely popular and my hosts ran into several acquaintances even on short excursions.
Private vehicles are the main mode of transportation.
Kuwait is a dry country. Alcohol is illegal much like street drugs are illegal in the U.S. This lowered our restaurant tabs and heightened my attention to the food. Kuwaitis are proud of their traditional cuisine and rightly so, it is delicious. Some clever entrepreneur should start a “Kuwaiti Fried KaBob” franchise in the U.S. I’d be first in line. In compliance with the dietary laws of Islam, pork is not served in Kuwait. While I like bacon and ham as much as the next guy, I didn’t miss it.
The malls, and other indoor areas I visited, are spotless. When you leave a table it is cleaned immediately. There is no trash on the floors and the rest rooms are immaculate.
All the bathrooms I used had toilet paper along with a squirter thingy attached to the wall next to the toilet. It looks and operates like the sprayer on a kitchen faucet. I trust that I do not have to explain its use. However, I will share that it’s hard not to flood your hosts’ bathroom floor while learning to use the apparatus. Luckily things dry quickly in Kuwait.
There are five calls to prayer every day with additional religious obligations during the observance of Ramadan. These calls are chanted by a single male voice over some sort of PA system that can be heard by everyone inside or outside. Much like living near a train track, after a while I got used to it as normal background noise.
Car seats for children are not regularly used in Kuwait. In fact, many consider holding an infant in your arms the only safe way to transport a baby. They view strapping a child into a seat beyond your reach and line of vision as tantamount to neglectful parenting. Kuwaitis often tut tut westerners who practice what they view as a counterintuitive and ill-advised safety precaution. It was hard not to gawk at the older kids running amok in cars; climbing over seats, wrestling with siblings, sitting on their parents’ laps, or wedged between a seat and a window.
Kuwait City has feral cats much like many American cities have squirrels, and they are treated in much the same way. Some people consider it a kindness to feed and water them, while others view them as a filthy nuisance. I’m told that nonprofit efforts to address the feral cat population with shelters or catch- and-release programs have been unsuccessful.
Now for the elephant in the electronic room…covering. As I mentioned in a previous post, I’m not an expert on Islam so I will not attempt to explain the religious, political, or historical ramifications of covering. But here’s what I learned as a visitor. Many people assume that all women are required to cover themselves to some extent anywhere in the Middle East. While I cannot speak to other countries, this is NOT true in Kuwait. I am told that to some extent, covering by female Muslims is a choice that depends on a number of factors including family traditions. It is not expected of visitors or women who are not Muslim. Those who cover do so in all public places and at private events where men who are not first-degree family will be in attendance.
There are degrees of covering which traditionally begins with puberty but can be adopted at any time. Many women cover their hair only. There are also a large number of women who cover their hair and street clothing. These garments are as varied in style as any genre of clothing. There are women who cover everything but their eyes. Then there are women who cover completely, from head to toe, mainly in black fabric, with varying degrees of ornamentation. This includes their faces, hands, and shoes. I saw complete covering only a handful of times during my visit.
I attended an all-female party in Kuwait, what we would call a baby shower except the baby had already arrived. When a male member of the hostess’s family arrived unexpectedly at the front door, he was shoed to another entrance so as not to embarrass those ladies who cover. It was at that point I realized I would not recognize many of the women at this party if I encountered them in public.
In general, all adult females, regardless of religion, dress more modestly in Kuwait than they do in the States. While you see women in yoga pants and tight jeans, you don’t see bare legs and tummies, tight tops, or cleavage.
Thank you for visiting.
My trip to Kuwait coincides with Ramadan. I won’t even attempt to explain this observance from a religious or historical perspective because I don’t have the appropriate knowledge. But here’s what it’s like for an American, who is not Muslim, visiting Kuwait during this major religious observance.
Ramadan lasts a full a cycle of the moon, which is about 30 days. Ramadan moves earlier by ten days every year. This means Ramadan is experienced in every season. You cannot eat or drink anything (including water) from sunup to sundown. All restaurants are closed until sundown. There are exceptions to the fasting requirement such as pregnant women, the elderly, the infirm, and children. However, even those with exceptions are expected to eat and drink in private so as not to disrespect those who are fasting. This is also true of people who are not Muslim. No one is going to come after you for eating or drinking in private during Ramadan. However, I met one American woman who was pulled over because an officer saw her drinking water in her car during the day. She was given a strong rebuke and sent on her way.
The fast is broken at sundown with what is called Iftar or Futoor. This is analogous to a Thanksgiving meal with all the trimmings, but for 30 days straight! So far I’ve been to an extended-family futoor and a futoor that celebrated the birth of a baby. Tonight my hosts celebrate futoor in their home with friends of their own age.
Futoor dishes are both savory and sweet. Spices, and combinations of spices, are as important as the protein, vegetable, or starch on which they ride. You’ll find cardamom, clove, cinnamon, saffron, rose water, allspice, mace, black pepper, white pepper, and bay leaf. Most of these spices are used in both savory and sweet dishes.
Lamb and beef are popular in futoor dishes and fancy rice is ubiquitous. According to the dietary laws of Halal, animals must be raised and killed humanely. I have yet to eat plain white rice in Kuwait, and haven’t missed it. There are a variety of sauces, many of which are yogurt based. Along with olive oil and various vinegars, I’ve also found good old hot sauce on most tables. Regardless of the many explanations I’ve been given, I’m still not sure what goes with what. But it all seems to go together just fine.
There are a number of desserts associated with Ramadan, one of which is Lugaimat; fried dough balls soaked in saffron-sugar syrup. But there is one treat in particular that everyone rhapsodizes about and eagerly anticipates. It’s called Kunafa. Every family has its own recipe, but basically it’s really good soft cheese (think mozzarella), wrapped in sweet thin noodles (think vermicelli), deep fried, sprinkled with pistachios, and drizzled in honey. It is cheesy goodness from heaven, regardless of your religion.
There is also a version of trick-or-treat in Kuwait during Ramadan called Gerggian. Children dress up in traditional costumes and go from door to door in their neighborhoods. They sing songs, beat drums, and are given goo gobs of candy and treats. Remember when you were a kid and there was that one neighbor who gave out full-sized candy bars at Halloween? EVERY house is like that during Gerggian in Kuwait. Kuwaitis are crazy about their kids. Gerggian goes on for two or three consecutive nights. Some families hire a horse and carriage for Gerggian. My hosts’ two-year-old boy has been saying, “BIG WHITE ‘ORSE!” for the past week.
During Ramadan in Kuwait, many of the businesses will be open in the morning, close down about noon, and then re-open after sunset. Kuwait City comes alive at night and it’s a little weird for me to sit in traffic jams after midnight that have nothing to do with a sporting event or concert. You see young children running around at full tilt long past what we would consider a normal bedtime. But that’s what’s great about traveling to places with different cultures; you get the chance to rethink your definitions.
Kuwaiti women always dress up in public, but during Ramadan they wear gorgeous outfits that look like museum pieces. I feel mighty shabby in my tourist gear, but there’s no way I could pull off one of these outfits, nor am I expected to.
Well, it’s time to start prepping for tonight’s futoor. Not only are my tourist outfits shabby, they’re also getting pretty tight around the waist.
Thank you for visiting,
My dad was unintentionally hilarious. He once asked me, in all seriousness, “Where do we keep the ice cream?” Another time he ate a bag of gerbil food at my sister’s house thinking it was granola. Google “Absent Minded Professor” and you may just find a picture of my dad looking confused. While my sainted mother was usually able to find humor in my father’s cluelessness, there were times when it wasn’t so funny.
One Mothers’ Day when my sister and I were far too young to understand the concept, my father found my mother out in the yard pulling weeds and weeping into the dandelions. When he asked her why she was upset, she informed him that it was Mothers’ Day and he’d done nothing to mark the occasion. He replied, “Well, you’re not MY mother.” They had no more children.
I assumed this male duh-factor was attributable only to my father. Then I got married.
My husband was at a work event and chatting with a young man who had recently become engaged. He told my husband the wedding was set for June of the following year. My husband replied, “My wife and I were married in June too.” The young man asked, “What date?” My husband said, “ June first.” The Young man said, “That’s today.”
So two generations of clueless men… coincidence or evidence based trend? Then I had a son.
One day when he was in college he called me from the Verizon store. “Hey Mom, (he always starts with “Hey Mom”). I need our account password to update my phone. “No, problem honey,” I replied. “The password is my birthday.” Pause… pause… pause…from my son’s end of the line. Then he says, “What do you mean it’s your birthday?” I say, “You know, the day, the month, and the year. Like you fill out on a form.” Pause…pause…pause. After a few more moments of pure evilness on my part, I let him off the hook and gave him the password. I’ve come up with far more sophisticated passwords since then, like the dog’s name or my address.
I’ve heard there are men who remember such events without being reminded by their spouses or Hallmark. Kind of like unicorns or flattering swimsuits. And I’m not saying that male spouses and offspring don’t have other attributes, like opening jars and sticking up for you in bar fights. Perhaps I just expect too much?
There was the Mothers’ Day I spent in a hot crowded emergency room tending to my own mother, then came home to find my husband, daughter, and son had redecorated the alcove in my bedroom to look like the beach houses I love. Or my first Mothers’ Day when I came home after a night shift to find my baby daughter fat, happy, and sleeping soundly. There were also flowers, but the gift that year was having a husband who could love our child and participate in her care as much as I did.
Yes, it’s the mothers, wives, and daughters who keep the wheels oiled on the social locomotive. Who do you think came up with Mothers’ Day in the first place? But when they remember, the partners in parenthood do get it right sometimes, and get it right in a big way.
As for me, my daughter and I will Skype and my son is taking me out for brunch. Might be a good idea to make reservations Bud. It’s the busiest day of the year at restaurants.
Thank you for visiting,
The Blessing of the Baskets
I was not raised as a person of faith. The closest thing to an Easter miracle in my house was the invention of Peeps. My husband was raised a Catholic and when we got married we agreed to raise any children we might produce as Catholics. We did produce children, two of them, and we did raise them as Catholics from Baptism to Confirmation. At the age of three when we taught our daughter the sign of the cross she dutifully repeated, “Fader, Son, and Hobie’s Ghost.” Hobie was our dog. Whether or not the training “stuck” is my children’s story to tell.
Along the way I learned a great deal about Christianity, Catholicism, and organized religion in general…but that is for another blog. Suffice it to say, there are some beautiful traditions that help to illustrate Christian ideals, one of which is the Blessing of the Baskets.
I was introduced to the Blessing of the Baskets by my sister-in-law whose Catholic faith has provided her with a great deal of sustenance in good times and bad. The bad times include the loss of a child. It was the power of her faith that convinced me to keep our promise to the Catholic Church. I saw the strength it gave her and her husband, and hoped it would be a resource for my children.
The Catholic Blessing of the Baskets is especially popular among Polish Americans. Traditionally it includes the following items: eggs to symbolize new life; bread for sustenance; meat to symbolize Christ’s victory over death; horseradish to acknowledge that in life one must accept the bitter with the sweet; vinegar for the bitter wine that Jesus was given on the cross; salt for its ability to preserve; cake to represent the sweetness of life; and butter in the shape of a lamb to watch over the basket and proclaim life over death. The food is usually prepared on Friday and taken to church on Saturday to be blessed. It’s a short ceremony that is not considered a mass and does not include communion.
We have celebrated Easter with my sister-in-law and her husband in Central Pennsylvania for the past few years and they have invited me to attend the blessing.The first year was especially memorable. The priest had just began the service when someone’s cell phone rang. It was the priest’s phone, which he dug out of his vestments and answered. “I need to take this,” he explained, then disappeared into the hallway. Needless to say I was gobsmacked by this turn of events.
When the priest came back a few minutes later, her explained that a young priest had just lost his mother and was in dire need of comfort and advice. Then the priest went on to bless the baskets. He also asked us to pray for firefighters with whom he would be visiting later that day at the local station. He talked about their sacrifice for the greater good and their ability to overcome fear, much like Christ. Again, I was gobsmacked. It just so happened that my son was in training to become a professional firefighter. Along with a few tears, these words gave me a great deal of comfort and pride.
I guess the lesson here is, when you’re a guest in someone’s home and they invite you to take part in a tradition (religious or otherwise) give it a chance. You might get more out of it than you expect.
Thank you for visiting and Happy Easter,