KUWAIT -- Aside from journeys to Montreal to visit my future wife at McGill University and an ill-advised foray across the Mexican border to find a donkey willing to have its picture taken with me, I have not participated in any global tourism. I haven't strolled the halls of the Louvre in Paris or glided through Venice on a gondola or stared up at Big Ben. No, no. Instead I decided my first international jaunt should be into the heart of the Iraqi war zone. Only something as (hopefully) epochal as this upcoming election could make me leave my wife and dog and life behind. But I believe in it, so, nervous as I am, I felt I had to go.
So in advance of dispatches from Baghdad and beyond, I thought I'd offer a few observations from Kuwait: After several delays and a flight that went from dawn to evening to dawn again in the space of 17 hours, I was greeted by a huge advertisement for an IKEA loveseat at the Kuwait City International Airport. And The Body Shop, filled to the brim with soaps and shampoos. And McDonald's golden arches. And Baskin Robbins. And Burger King. Even the Colonel's old face smiled down on me from the KFC logo, like some Bat Signal of Western Capitalism. Despite the facade, I got some Kuwaiti dinars to avoid seeming the ugly American, but the clerk at the Store 24 knock off asked if I had any dollars. He was clearly frustrated when I only had dinars, huffing as he handed over my change in American currency, ending my short adventure in Middle Eastern monies.
Outside the airport my porter -- or whatever one calls a man who takes your bags and just starts walking -- and my cabbie got in a loud argument over whether I had tipped too much. It quickly devolved to shouting and arms thrashing madly in the air with a demand from one to the other that he hand over one dollar because a four dollar tip was simply egregious while a three dollar one was perfectly sensible. I gave them both five dollars to break it up. This is the way every gathering of two or more Arab men seems to end: They are either showering affection on one another or shouting bloody murder, sometimes both in a very short period of time.
The hotel closest to the embed transport center is outside Kuwait City, so I was treated to a nice leisurely 80-mile-per-hour tour of one of the more bustling areas, including a terrifying racing, shouting match between my driver and a man in traditional Arab head garb, that -- while I'm trying to avoid stereotypes here -- was nevertheless shades of Cannonball Run, if Jamie Farr's The Sheik had driven a Toyota pickup instead of a sports car. Once upon a time, Kuwait, slightly smaller in landmass than New Jersey, ran on fishing, maritime traffic and the pearl trade, but is now rich out of its collective head with oil revenue. For scale: Kuwaitis actually sit atop on more than 10 percent of the world's known oil reserves and the government imbibed with cash employs around 92 percent of its population of 800,000. To prepare for the day when the oil runs out, the Kuwaitis divert 10 percent of the oil revenue into a "Fund for Future Generations" -- making them one of the few countries with a $50 billion-plus rainy day bank account.
THERE'S A LOT OF MONEY HERE, in other words. Even so, the amount of construction going on was notable. Everywhere buildings are going up. Massive piles of rubble are slowly being consolidated and hauled off to...well, nobody quite knows where, but out of the way. I asked my cab driver what precipitated the current boom.
"The country finally feels safe," he answered. "Before, always the worry America will leave, always Saddam Hussein threatening. Always Kuwait feeling like it is not worth it to build too much new until Saddam is gone. Now Kuwait is safe and only good times are ahead."
He added that he was Indian, and not entitled to all the benefits of Kuwait's riches. "Kuwaitis are proud people and will talk down to anyone except Americans," he explained, erudite enough that you just knew his schooling loomed high above his occupation. "They know there is only one reason they still exist and that is USA. Everyone else, they do not care." Why stay then? "It is not the best country for me, but it is also where the money is. With enough money, you can live without respect. Maybe one day I go to the USA where they have respect like Kuwait has oil." He sighed. "Yes, that would be nice."
Once ensconced in my hotel room, I turned on the television and there was the Cuba Gooding Jr. vehicle Snow Dogs, in English with Arabic subtitles. (I also watched You've Got Mail, 24 and about six billion commercials for Desperate Housewives.) All the travel literature is in English, as are street signs and restaurant menus. Most of the service staff speaks English. Actually, there's more English spoken in Kuwait than in many American neighborhoods -- not that there's anything wrong with that. It's just a bit disconcerting after all the mental preparations to be in a foreign land.
Even when the trappings of Western culture are not available, Kuwait attempts the next best thing. For example, in my hotel room, there is a mini-bar, despite alcohol being completely illegal. I opened it up and it was stocked with Haagen-Dazs ice cream: Jackpot.
Later, I sat on a couch on the beach under a tent and ordered dinner, with my feet in the sand, approximately 1,000 feet away from the Persian Gulf waters. Apparently, the one English phrase completely foreign to Kuwaitis is, "Actually, I'm a vegetarian." More than one waitperson has given me a look as if to say, "Thank God America didn't send a sissy like you in 1991."
But they forgive me. The cab driver was right. Americans have the sort of cachet here they still have in certain enclaves of France, Belgium, and other European countries liberated during World War II. It's perhaps a bit uncouth to avail myself of kindness I personally did not bleed and sweat for, but there's a certain measure of pride.
AFTER THE MEAL WAS SERVED my waiter, a young man from Dubai, stood at my table smiling. The moment I smiled back, he began peppering me with questions in a hyper-flow, scanning the restaurant for supervisors as he giddily spoke.
"Are you from America?" he asked. The affirmative was barely out of my mouth when he followed up with, "From which city, please?"
"Boston," I answered.
"Boston," he repeated dreamily, eyes gazing off as if he were Ponce De Leon getting confirmation that the Fountain of Youth really existed.
Turns out my waiter will be joining his brother in San Francisco soon. The Sheraton hotel chain has sponsored his work visa and in three weeks he'll make the same transatlantic journey I just did, if for a very different reason. Somebody should get this guy up on Capitol Hill to testify when new immigrations measures are being debated.
"I cannot wait to work in America," he said, as a supervisor finally caught on and began waving wildly for him to come away. "It has been a dream for many years." As he jogged off he added in a shout, "Come to the morning buffet. It will please you and we can talk more of America!"
Thus, in a part of the world where everyone is supposed to hate us -- where, indeed, the entire population looks like a stock villain from [insert name of favorite 1980s action movie here] -- there is also love that borders on adulation and dreams of joining our country that approach a mythic grandeur.
As an American, the best part is in knowing the promise isn't a myth for those willing to believe in it. And many people do, despite the terrible drubbing we get in the world media. As difficult as it was to leave America (and my wife and dog), with considerable risk to life and limb, I cannot express what a privilege it is to meet such dreamers and to be about to witness the birth of a parliamentary democracy, however imperfect it may be, in Iraq. Problems are clearly legion, but hope springs eternal.
And that is what I found in Kuwait. Onward to Iraq.
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