When a child is born in Kuwai the extended family traditionally hosts a party called an Istiqbal. I must assume Istiqbals vary with income, health of child, and other factors. I can only speak definitively to those celebrations I attended.
Often an Istiqbal is held within two days of the baby’s birth in the hospital and it’s a BDD (Big Damn Deal). This is a catered event held in open-house style over a three to four hour time period. The mother is dressed up in a fancy peignoir (something Lana Turner, Doris Day, or Anette Funicello might wear in a movie) with full makeup and hair, tucked into a great big fancy hospital bed with a lacey coverlet. Servers pass fancy chocolates, finger sandwiches, and beverages among the dozens of guests wandering around the room, cooing at the baby, congratulating the extended family, and catching up with one another. The father and immediate family members form sort of a reception line to greet folks and receive congratulations. How is this achieved in a hospital room you may ask?
This particular hospital had maternity suites that resemble something you’d find at an MGM Grand, but bigger and fancier. If the family needs more room for an Istiqbal, or wants a more formal venue, this hospital has a grand hall which I wandered into by mistake when it was not in use. It’s a reception hall with the fancy bed at one end, chairs lining the walls, crystal chandeliers, gilded mirrors, and all other manner of ritzy stuff. I was relieved to hear the actual birth is still a private affair.
When this tradition was first described to me I was horrified. It sounded cruel to put a new mother through such a fuss shortly after giving birth. But the new moms I met explained that it’s actually really nice for a number of reasons. In most cases, everything is done for you by your family members or the hospital staff. All you have to do is lie in bed, look nice, and take compliments on your beautiful new baby. If you need to excuse yourself for the myriad reasons a new mom might, there is an adjoining room in which to do so. It is understood that well-wishers will visit the new baby only during the Istqbal and not at other times during the hospital stay or when mother and baby come home. This relieves the new mom of “pop in visits” and having to entertain multiple times over a period of weeks or months. Once I looked at it this way, it made more sense.
I was fortunate to attend two of these celebrations during my visit. One was at the hospital and one was at a private home. I must say, the hospital party seemed like a lot less work for the new mom and her family.
In general, the birth of a child in Kuwait seemed more like an occasion for multi-generational celebration and less like a medical procedure than it does in the States. I liked that. But I’m not sure I’d be comfortable with all those people pawing my newborn and giving me unsolicited advice. If there is unsolicited advice to be given, I refer to be the giver not the receiver. Also I would look ridiculous in a fluffy peignoir.
This is my last post about my trip to Kuwait and I thank my hosts and hostess, all three generations, from the bottom of my heart.
Thank you for taking the journey with me,
Photo credit http://www.royalehayat.com/en_Jasmine.cms
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,