1 April, 2009: Al-Kout Festival, American University of Kuwait


click for details here

Kuwait Celebrates Earth Hour


Times of India: "Once more, most votes will come from slums"


MUMBAI: Voters from slum pockets will continue to wield huge clout in the ensuing Lok Sabha polls, with the delimitation causing their strength to increase dramatically in constituencies that have Bandra and Colaba. 

North-Central, which has Bandra, will have 74% slum voters, while earlier North-East, which had Bandra, had only 56% slum votes. Likewise Mumbai South, which has Colaba, earlier had 14% slum voters, but the figure has shot up to almost 27% now.

A demographic analysis of Mumbai's Lok Sabha constituencies shows that in two constituencies three-fourths of the voters reside in slums and in yet another two over 50% are from slum. This silent but huge voter base may finally decide the electoral fate of candidates. (to read more, click here)

UN-HABITAT Opens an Office in Kuwait


UN-HABITAT opens office in Kuwait

UN-HABITAT has opened a new office in Kuwait City aimed at supporting the agency’s activities in the region.A ceremony on 11 March was presided over by the UN-HABITAT Director of Regional and Technical Cooperation Division Mr. Daniel Biau and Mr. Ahmed Al-Adsani, Executive Director of the Arab Towns Organisation, on the occasion of the opening of UN-HABITAT Kuwait Office.

Top on the agenda of the office’s activities will be to offer support to local authorities and stakeholders to promote sustainable urban development and active implementation of the Habitat Agenda at the city level. In doing that, the office will closely cooperate with the Arab Towns Organisation and its subsidiaries. It will also partner with the Kuwaiti Government to respond to current and future urban development challenge when requested by the government...(for full press release, click here)

McTwitter from Lebanon


I do not quite understand the twitter phenomenon, but I know that its core essence is an increasingly rapid sharing of states and moods over the e-dimension. So, given that I have not written in a while on my blog, I just want to let it be known that I am in Lebanon at the moment. I really enjoy Beirut and have plenty of things to write about, which I will get to when I return on the 23rd March.

The Staring Night Series No. 4: Belated Christmas Poem


as I look out through my bedroom window
at the city lights' multicolored glow
tinkling like Christmas lights smiling at me
but they are not that. they are other things.
MacDonalds sign, red hospital crescent

lights of the crane over the apartment
decorating all the highway networks
perched mistletoe on the construction work
cranes like candy canes, neon holy light?
the glow trespasses on the silent night.

Bethlehem some hundreds of miles away
Falluja-closer-in the other way
and here is where the tides forgot to come
a place that loses itself to become-
the most desolate of my Decembers.

Article from the Hindu: "'Slumdogs' are toast of political parties during elections"


Bangalore (IANS): Slum-dwellers have suddenly become much sought after by political parties of all hues with loads of cash to lure them to election rallies. Many of the slum dwellers openly admitted that their vote would go to those doling out more money.

With the general elections around the corner, the 600,000-odd residents of about 800 slums across the city look for a 'windfall' by attending political rallies and casting votes in favour of a candidate whose party pays the highest.

Be it a paltry Rs.150-200 for a rally or Rs.500-600 for a vote, elections are a good time for the slum-dwellers to make a quick buck.

"It's a ritual all political parties indulge in at elections. They grease the palms of slum-dwellers for their votes. But these illiterate voters end up choosing a wrong candidate," lamented Issac Arul Selva, convenor of Slum Janandolan Karnataka (SJK) and a resident of the L.R. Nagar slum in the suburbs...(read more here)

The Staring Night Series No. 3: This Morning's Fever


all night I passed the seconds, turning the pages of a sleep skimmed through, rest ill-read

not quite understanding my condition

in the morning the glass rod clacking against my teeth as the mercury hovered in

yesterday I wore a wet dress for too long, thin as filo dough, but a strong sail to catch the winds

in the water I stepped on a hard metal something that the rescinding tide revealed to be a rusty oil barrel

an oversized soda can beached on the sand and fixed discarded garbage thrown down by the Gods 

inside its damp, salt-rust belly, my fever, incubating darkly from the inside.

Time Magazine Article


"Detroit's Beautiful, Horrible Decline" by Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre (click here)

Pecha Kucha: Kuwait Inaugural Night


Yesterday I attended the first Pecha Kucha night here in Kuwait City.  Pecha Kucha Night (click here), which I found out apparently means "chit chat" in Japanese, is a way for artists and anyone with ideas really, to present their thoughts and work to a public audience.  Basically, each presentor is given the chance to show 20 slides, each lasting 20 seconds each, for a total time of 6 minutes and 40 seconds.  I think the format works really well, and obviously this is backed up by evidence, because there has been a Pecha Kucha Night in several cities around the world--I believe the organizers said more than 160.

There were several different groups of people showing their work.  Although it was architecture-heavy, I believe this is a good thing.  What struck me the most is that most architects are cognizant of Kuwait's failed urban planning and aware that in its quest for "bigger is better" Kuwait has lost its voice.  Its architecture does not tell a story, and therefore as the first presentor put it "the people are missing".  It seems like the generation of 20-40 year old professionals are self-aware of their great responsibility to learn from the mistakes of their predecessors and to try to turn around the current trends in urban design--that is to create a cityscape that respects culture and its past.  

I really enjoyed an analogy one of the architects made.  He said that Kuwait needs to find value in the beauty of how things age--that this process does not necessarily signify deterioration and can be beautiful in itself.  He said that at an exhibition once he and his team made a simple block sculpture out of salt.  The picture of the original sculpture was simple, angled and sleek.  However, they then left the sculpture a week in the open air to weather the elements.  The sculpture then lost its shape as a result--but had interesting creavices, circles and holes born into the surface.  The resulting sculpture was also, if not even more beautiful than the original.  The same needs to be taken into account with the built environment, that just because things age and change form, this does not mean that they should necessarily be bulldozed over.

There was also a great caution about Kuwait's skyscraper obsession.  Kuwait has plans to build a tower that will surpass the one being built in Dubai, set to be the tallest building in the world.  The presenter asked what the point of all this was and if having this would really fit the landscape and make the skyline beautiful.

I think the kick-off of Pecha Kucha in Kuwait was an overall success, although I was surprised that after all the presentations, when the moderator asked if there were any questions, nobody raised their hand.  I rose mine and asked a question on the spot to try to break the ice, but I was the only one.  It is wonderful that all these artists meet together, but if not one person in the audience has a question, what does this mean in terms of the commitment and interest of the attendees to be the change they speak of?  I hope that people come out of their shell more for the next round, and that there is more dialogue between the artists.  I was even thinking that the artistic scene in Kuwait should work on having a wide-distribution literary magazine.  I do not think there is one currently. 

A Rebuttal to an Irking Article


Recently, there has been a lot of buzz in some of the Kuwaiti and Middle Eastern newspapers about the perceived measures Saudi Arabia is making towards boosting women's rights in the country.  An article by Shamael Al-Sharikh in the Kuwait Times yesterday entitled "A Girl's Night out in Riyadh" struck my attention the most.  

I actually applaud many of Kuwait's efforts towards women's rights, especially pertaining towards voting rights, empowerment of working women and the relative freedom women have to move around the city.  While Kuwait seems like it still has a long way to go, the country leads the way in comparison to many of its neighbors, most notoriously Saudi Arabia.

This is why I expect more from a women writer in Kuwait writing about women in Saudi Arabia.Ms Al-Sharikh describes a hotel/spa haven in Riyadh called  Luthan, which has just marked its first anniversary as the only women-only resort in Saudi Arabia--or as the website puts it: "a sanctuary for women by women".  I am just going to bullet point my main problems with the article, which are all in the last three, opinionated paragraphs:

Antepenultimate Paragraph:

"The lack of men at certain spas can make women less insecure about body image. After all, when there are no men around, no one cares if the humidity in the sauna turned your perfectly-blow dried hair into a Jackson 5-type Afro. Furthermore, poolside fun is more enjoyable because you can splash away in the water, without having your 'imperfections' exposed to ogling teenagers, and as a Middle Eastern woman, I can assure you that every single one of us has plenty of imperfections." 

My Response:
It is fair enough for women to feel self-conscious about their body image, but for some reason, this extract contradicts itself.  It is one thing for an insecure female to not want to flaunt their imperfections, particularly in the presence of males, but it is another to feel on display to "ogling teenagers" (for which I assume she means male adolescents) looking for bikinis at the poolside.  Her fear seems to come from two mutually-exclusive reasons.

Penultimate Paragraph:
"I have personally traveled on international business trips extensively, but I have never stayed at a hotel room in the Middle East on my own, for the simple reason that I never felt safe doing that. The social stigma of a young woman riding the elevator in a hotel alone is still present, even in the most open cities in the Middle East, and sometimes, it is quite creepy to walk down a hotel corridor alone, even if there nothing to worry about. The Luthan is not just a great idea for Saudi Arabia, but also for other destinations like Dubai or even Kuwait."

My response: Pray tell me, if you have never stayed at a hotel room in the Middle East on your own, how do you know its not safe?  The truth is, many hotels and resorts in the Middle East are Western-style, elite enclaves outside the city that normally require several levels of metal detector searches.  Again, this reinforces the (in my view) derogatory and self-deluding notion that all men are preying, lurking sexual predators in the dark rather than hotel workers interested in doing their jobs well or fellow travelors.  I know a family here in Kuwait, for example, that would not allow their 15 year old daughter to walk accross the street in broad daylight to meet us in a restaurant next door.   The idea was that it was not "safe" for a female.  Having lived in some major cities that were truly unsafe compared to Kuwait City, I find these fears paranoid, only serving a vicious cycle of mistrust maladaptation between the sexes.  As I wrote earlier, this reinforces a demeaning stereotype of men and it generates a negative image "by women for women" that females are helpless, weak blobs.  The truth is, at least when they are not in their cars, I find men here in Kuwait quite respectful of women, and women here in Kuwait perfectly capable of having the strength and acumen to retort with a shaming comeback if an ogling teenager did get fresh.  Of course, there are incidences of graver cases of rape, kidnapping and crime, but Kuwaiti women are not the most vulnerable in society, and often these happen to many of the female migrant workers in the country, often along roads late at night as these women wait after work for public transportation or taxis--not in luxury hotel elevators.

Ultimate Paragraph:
"We already have women-only glamorous weddings, women-only spas, and women-only health clubs, so why not transport the women-only concept to hotels? If not to get a tan at the pool ogling-free, it can be a great place for moms to escape from their family life for the weekend or for a group of friends to have a girls' night out. Kuwaiti men have their diwaniyas and we can have our women-only hotel, because in the end, what is good for the gander is good for the goose."

My response: The most dangerous aspect of this article is the overall voice.  The article lauds a "seperate but equal" approach to women's rights, that is a stone-age notion of civil rights.  And truth is, even if one created female-only hospitals, schools, ministries-a whole parralel society in fact-there will still be problems of equal funding, equal expertise, equal access to the law to run these institutions.  Lastly, and the saddest instance of a lost facts in this article is that the design and nature of men and women is for co-existence, through a mutually-beneficial, harmonious and co-dependent relationship.  This is not a pro or anti-feminist statement, but a fundamental truth.  With segregation in every aspect of living, this bond becomes stunted, underdeveloped and immature, which is why all men will always seem to be "ogling teenagers" to this writer as long as she is scared to ride in an elevator alone.

Sita Sings the Blues


Very interesting movie that takes old American jazz songs and inserts them into the epic Ramayana, by Nina Paley.

The Staring Night Series No. 2: camellos en el desierto


camel travels along
like smog - softly,lightly steps
a wisp, a stir, a spit - softly gone

A Stranger in Her Own City


A video my friend showed me a while ago that I think is appropriate to celebrate International Women's Day:

The Staring Night Series No. 1: Tasseography


i have always been so sloppy brushing my teeth

foaming, rabid fluoridish froth dropping down the sink

splattering flat snowflake designs that
ornament around the drain uncontrollably

like tea leaf patterns at the bottom of a porcelain china cup
the fate of my future drooling loosely from my slack mouth

Walkable Urbanism


Article about walkable urbanism from GreaterGreaterWashington.org

"It takes a village: why walkable urbanism is good for adolescents"

by Cavan Wilk

The March edition of GQ features a 12-year-old budding food critic, David Fishman of New York, NY. One of Fishman's favorite activities is to visit local restaurants and write critiques. Due to his age, his parents limit him to restaurants within walking distance in his Upper West Side neighborhood. While such parental ground rules would amount to house arrest for children in car-dependent subdivisions, it provides David with a balance between safety and freedom while leaving plenty of restaurant options.

In conventional suburban neighborhoods, meanwhile, there is simply nowhere for a preteen or teenager can explore within walking distance. Fishman would While proponents of a car-dependent lifestyle often argue that the subdivision is a better environment for raising children, they forget that children's needs change when they become pre-teens and need to socialize and explore their surroundings. Quite simply, David would not be able to explore his passion for critiquing restaurants if he did not live in a vibrant walkable urban place.

David's story, while unique in its national magazine coverage, is not unique to the Upper West Side of Manhattan. In downtown Wheaton, pre-teens and teenagers walk around, go to and from the Metro, eat at cafes, shop at the Westfield Wheaton mall, the local comic book store, or the grocery store. In neighboring Silver Spring or Bethesda, many pre-teens and carless teenagers shop at the stores and eat at the numerous restaurants. The same scene repeats itself in Tenleytown, Friendship Heights, Georgetown, and Ballston. In these walkable places, teens can learn valuable social skills and enjoy a measure of freedom.

I spent last Thanksgiving at a friend of a friend's house. The host's parents and their friends grew up in a walkable neighborhood in Norfolk. The boys could walk to the local ball field and see who was around for a pickup game. (At that time, I guess, girls weren't welcome in the boys' pickup games). If any of the kids made a misguided, immature decision, their neighbors would walk over and tell their parents. As much as they hated it then, they now wish they had raised their children in such an environment. Their raves about the old neighborhood sounded just like my dad and my aunts describing their old neighborhood on the South Side of Pittsburgh.

Now, the host's parents own their "dream house" in a subdivision in Upper Marlboro. They can't walk over to a local field for a pick-up game. It's much harder to get to know your neighbors without a sidewalk leading to a local park or other destination where you might run into each other. If they ever saw a neighbor's child doing something they shouldn't, would they even know whom to call? It takes a village to raise a child. What happens when there is no village?

The subdivision I grew up in had a couple other kids that were in my age range. I was lucky. Outside of the subdivision, there was nothing else in walking distance. The roads to get there had no shoulder, either. As much as I liked the other guys in the subdivision, they weren't my best friends. If I wanted to see friends from school, my parents had to drive. Once again, I was lucky that my parents had time for frequent trips to friends' houses, as long as I gave them ample notice and they talked to my friends' parents. However, that's a lot of big "ifs." It's silly that a parent must devote time, energy, and money from gasoline, insurance and car depreciation every time two kids want to play video games or kick a soccer ball together.

A pick-up soccer, football, or basketball game was even more complicated. We couldn't just go down to the local field and play with whatever kids were hanging around looking for a game. Instead, we had to call guys who lived in distant subdivisions and talk to their parents about car transportation. If anyone's parents weren't around, or were too busy to take an hour out of their day to drive their child to a pick-up football game, we couldn't play. Since organizing required effort, we'd only call our friends. This deprived us and other adolescents of a major social lesson: getting along with people other than your friends.

Between college and graduate school, I taught ninth grade math. Many of my students would go home after school, fire up the video game console, eat dinner, and then play more video games until they went to bed. Would I have been any different if there weren't other kids in the subdivision, I wasn't into playing sports, or my parents couldn't drive me to the games? Obviously, there are plenty of couch potatoes around the world who do live in walkable urban places. However, without other options, children have few alternatives to a sedentary lifestyle.

Car-dependent places design each area for one single land use. They also seem to design for single life stages, too. A large yard may make sense when a child is just learning to walk. However, what happens when children outgrow the yard and want to interact with their peers and explore the world around them? While it is clearly possible to raise children who become successful adults in car-dependent places, it clearly has its shortcomings for pre-teens and carless teenagers. Why does so much "conventional wisdom" claim that suburbia is inherently a better place to raise children? Suburbia has its advantages, but also more than its fair share of shortcomings.

I'm probably going to get a lot of negative feedback in the comments for this, but I suggest that the myth about suburbia being a better environment for children arose from a combination of suburban marketing and our collective attempt to rationalize the divestment and abandonment of our cities and towns. Amazingly, our society continues to collectively embrace the idea of car-dependent suburbia being best for children while, simultaneously, the baby boomer generation pines for the walkable towns and neighborhoods of their youth.

A City without a Shadow: Historic Preservation in the Built Environment of Kuwait City


Welcome to Kuwait, a small royal emirate comprising one of the many oil-rich monarchies along the Arab Gulf.  Funded by petroleum revenues and built on the backs of migrant workers, Kuwait has emerged from a tiny series of village settlements sustained by a simple economy specialized in boat-making and pearl-diving into a formidable, sophisticated and urban state.

As someone who has always been interested in urban development and globalization, spending time in Kuwait has truly been a learning experience for me.  While there are many discrepancies about the country that I continue to be unable to wrap my head around, the one missing piece hindering my ability to comprehend this state is the lack of historical evidence and heritage to be found in the built environment.  Kuwait has no a historical district, and there are hardly any preservation efforts in Kuwait’s seemingly exponential urbanization.  This urbanization is not just a simple spur of construction projects; rather this is a transformation so radical and sudden that it has completely altered the skyline in the last two years since my last visit to the country. 

While the path of Kuwait’s future towards skyscraperdom seems clear, one of my obsessions while here has been to try to discover the ghosts of Kuwait’s past—old photographs, historical buildings, the way of life sixty, forty, even twenty years ago, sound and video bytes, vintage relics in markets—and the task has been daunting.  Much of Kuwaiti’s knowledge of “the way we were” is carried on informally by word of mouth, given that archiving efforts pertaining to Kuwait’s history, from what I have seen, have largely centered on documenting the royal family rather than on remembering everyday life of the country’s denizens. 

Nonetheless, for me the ability to feel a connection to a place, to fully understand and recognize its character, is dependent on immediate and tangible access to its cultural artifacts.  Much like the wrinkles and birthmarks that characterize a face, cultural preservation in the urban design of a city is necessary to capture its personality, roots and a unifying sense of identity among its residents.  This is all the more important in a city that is not only the capital, but the only urban aggregation in the country.  The urban design of the city thus becomes the cultural vessel for the collective consciousness, social legacy and historical memory of the nation-state.

The fact is that Kuwait’s population is at an inflection point.  The last living generations of elderly Kuwaitis who remember life in the country before the discovery of oil in the 1930s are reaching their final days.  At the other end of the demographic spectrum, the first generation of Kuwaitis to be born in the post-invasion state is coming into adulthood, enrolling into college to soon pick a career path.   With the passing away of this elder group of citizens, I fear that the last vestige of a physical link among younger Kuwaitis to manifestations of their country’s history will be lost. 

Firstly, hardly any historical sites in Kuwait remain to serve as a footprint of the country’s origins.  The scattered traditional courtyard houses and remaining buildings serve more as educational, yet museum-like experiences removed from a more relevant, functional role in the city’s urban lifestyle. For example, the Kuwait National Museum hosts a replicated, indoor wax-figure heritage village.  Secondly, Kuwait’s urban policy favors a raze-and-rebuild approach rather than one of restoration.  Like a phoenix rising from the ashes, the city upgrades itself drastically every ten years or so to fulfill a futurist chimera largely dictated by a fancy for high-end luxury and born from a cosmopolitan folly.  Bulldozers and construction cranes on every corner are a more common sight than trash bins.  Finally, despite the efforts to preserve some historical sites and even experiments by architects to design new buildings incorporating traditional elements, a city is not just the sum of its buildings.  Rather, it is the relationship of these buildings to each other, and there has been no holistic attempt whatsoever to properly maintain any old districts or neighborhoods.

There are two lost voices in the way Kuwait’s story is written in the current urban landscape.  Firstly, there is no remnant of the Kuwait of the pre-oil state.  Kuwait’s first municipal plan in the early 1950s demolished many of the traditional style houses, gutted the narrow alleys and streets, and tore down the city’s mud walls in 1954. Once again, and largely in the wake of the liberation from Iraqi occupation, Kuwait began a fury of development projects focused on reinvention rather than reconstruction.  Thus, stretches of streets that had been popular open-air promenades for shopping in the first decades of the oil boom, such as areas in old Salmiya, are being abandoned for the advent of the enclosed megamall into Kuwaiti society.  Really, municipal planners are repeating the past’s mistakes due to an inability to refurbish the past and link it actively to the present. 

Moreover, there seems to be a lack of concern about carrying things over, which is of upmost importance once a society realizes that preserving and reusing the built environment is not just a matter of sustainability and efficiency.  It is an acknowledgement that the built environment also serves to reflect a society and is unique, and that each of these historical sites has a story that when strung together create a narrative about a city or a nation’s people.  My critique does not stem from a value judgment on whether Kuwait should modernize or not, but from  two simple questions: why are there no historical districts in Kuwait and what influence would this missing aspect have on generations too young to remember anything but the post-war, modern Kuwait?

The alarm bell on the rapid urbanization in the Gulf countries tends to revolve around the catchphrase “environmental sustainability”, however, I believe that the demolition culture in Kuwait might pose just as great a threat to the state by being culturally unsustainable.  The definition of this concept vis-à-vis urbanization to me is the failure of one generation to responsibly transfer important cultural relics which give clues to the past and origins of a society to its future generations.  In a one-city state like Kuwait the country’s cultural sustainability is strongly tied to municipal policy decisions made regarding the urban built environment.

I find myself, perhaps prematurely, comparing the situation of young Kuwaitis to my experiences growing up in the United States.  I was always horrified by the mall culture permeating in the United States, but in a general sense, I feel that one did not have proximity to a Main Street to know what the significance of Main Street as a fundamental concept of Americana meant.  I wonder if there is such an equivalent for Kuwaitis or if even making such an analogy is relevant.  Not having grown up in Kuwait, I only have a superficial understanding of the city’s stages of growth, and it is up to young Kuwaitis themselves to fight for and save the elements of the urban landscape that they have attached meaning to and cherished while growing up.

A couple of months ago, I visited Failaka Island, located about twenty kilometers off the Kuwaiti coast, whose name dates back to the ancient Greeks—one of the several civilizations to inhabit the island over time.  During the post-oil, pre-invasion state, the island was once home to several Kuwaiti families, with residential neighborhoods, luxurious seaside villas, a handful of schools, and even a television station.   During the Iraqi occupation, the several thousand inhabitants were expelled, the beaches mined, the buildings got used as target practice for soldiers, and the infrastructure was damaged to such an extent that it remains irreparable to this day. 

Now Failaka, for lack of a better word, is a ghost town.  In a sense, this has served to capture these two lost voices in at least some manifestation.  The abandoned and unlocked houses and the left-behind furniture, littered objects and even literature found inside them are a time capsule.  Each house, as I exclaimed during my trip, revealed a secret about the post-oil, pre-war Kuwaiti life.  Later while driving through the island, our party came across an aggregation of rubble, looking more like barnacle rocks than their former structures.  Looking with a more judicial eye at the design, size, shelves and items we realized that the area had been a series of small shops or a market of some sort.  There was no sign, indicator or descriptive marker to point this out to us, but these ruins and debris of a market spoke a thousand more words about Kuwait’s heritage than those that the recreated, theme park version of a traditional souk in the Kuwait National Museum attempted to express. 

Unfortunately, some of the most historical sites in Kuwait remain abandoned, without restoration or government intervention, and in crumbling ruins—traces of dusty footprints of the country’s ancestors that are rapidly vanishing in the sand.

Youth of an Oil Generation: Cars, Speed and Boyz in Kuwait


I get asked the same question every time: “what do people do for fun there?”  In a time when most of the world’s eye seems to be turned to the conflict in Gaza, living in the Gulf (note: Arabian, not Persian here) paints a much different picture of the Middle East.  I have been living in “Q8” for three months now, and yet, I find that I too have little more than an obtuse understanding of what Kuwaitis, who comprise about only one-third of the country’s population, actually do in their free time.  This is due largely in part because many gatherings occur behind closed doors.  Alcohol, bars and discothèques are illegal in Kuwait, but like all things haraam, these forbidden things can be found built up in the private corners of society’s walls.  So to socialize in comfort, many young people will hold private parties in their diwaniyah—large gathering halls that are an extension of a family home and a unique Kuwaiti tradition.  Unfortunately, I have never really been extended an invitation to one of such events.  Kuwaitis keep highly guarded social circles.

But what is the public face of youthful fun?  Allow me to introduce three main activities: shopping, eating and driving.  All three can be combined in one public outing.  Awesome.  Describing the first activity, and preferably on a Thursday or Friday night (since that the weekend here is Friday and Saturday), there is the option of going to one of the several shopping malls that have emerged in the late 1990s following the liberation of Kuwait.  The latest and most luxurious, The Avenues, opened up well outside of the city which involves a twenty minute drive to the industrial zone of the urban fringes.  It is the exact thing I used to do as a middle-schooler—walk aimlessly around the mall, maybe buy a drink and a token purchase.  But people go there to be seen.  Men put an amount of hair gel so large that it must violate a fire code.  Women wear an obscene amount of MAC make-up products.  Some of those who wear a headscarf stuff the hijaab underneath so that their heads stand high like beehives in a way commonly known “alien style”, “camel look”, or “bu tafkha”—with what I have come to discover are hair clips glued with cloth flowers and other materials of frou-frou pomp imported from China.[1]  The second activity is straightforward.  Granted that bars do not exist, an exorbitant amount of themed restaurants and lounges serving complicated and artistically assembled non-alcoholic cocktails exist to fill this niche.  The diversity, amount, and originality of the cuisine and venues are enough to rival Los Angeles or New York, but with consequences.  As a result of the fact that many people eat to go out instead of drinking, there is a fair amount of obesity and diabetics, and even I find I have to work hard to keep my kilo count fixed. 

Driving, however, rather than being the means with which one moves from Point A to Point B, is often the highlight of the evening.  Of course, there is no relationship as well-established and universal as the youth to their automobiles, but in Kuwait City, it seems to be a much more complicated bond.  From my observations, compared to any other form of public gathering most romance and, more often times, bromance seems to occur “on the road”, cruising up and down certain well-known strips, characters in search of an incident to fill the night’s quota.  In the security and anonymity that cars provide, young men and women can get away with more daring behaviours than would be deemed appropriate in other public areas.  Seeing that private gatherings mostly involve the getting together of people who already know each other, cruisin’ provides more of an outlet to interact with strangers.

Two of these main meeting points include the Gulf Road, a drag that runs along the water and is a hot spot for many American chain restaurants as well as the Marina Mall, and the Second Ring Road, also known as Love Street.[2]  The ultimate goal for the dudes is to spot the hotties, make eye contact, and chase them until they can either make conversation with the girls or find out where they live.  Repeat as necessary.

The crucial ingredient in this ritual is to be able to garner attention.  To this end, young people, mostly guys and much like male peacocks in mating, will go out of their way in elaborate schemes to pimp out their ride hoping to attract attention from the opposite sex.  The amount of luxury vehicles on the roadways is astounding: Ferraris, Jaguars and Hummers are commonplace.  But more than the label, the adornment brings up the bling bling to its most bizarre-extravagant potential.

It is something that has to be seen to believe, and for this I recommend the Facebook group “Stupid Cars of Kuwait”, started by another one of my acquaintances here in Kuwait.  Some of these signs, stickers, banners, designer labels, and other manifestations of the (mal) written word include some of the following examples, which are taken from photos on the FB group:

Presumably on men’s cars: “so fresh, so clean”, “no girls, no pain”, “the chosen”, “don’t cry my life”, “king in the love”, “We ride 2gather, we die 2gather”, “get in sit down hold on shut up”, “I like my car like I like my wife”, “more girls I know, more dogs I respect”, “don’t hate the player, hate the game”, “crazy 4 u 2 the end”, “if you want happy, go with me”, “don’t trust any girl!”, “girl i’d trade it all, money cars and every thing”, “almost single”, “Nega is my Name...Black Girl is my Game”

 Presumably on females’ cars: “plz dont loking me”, “sad eyes”, “the elegant”, “not so close, I’m already close to someone!”, “snow white”, “don’t kiss me”, “FoR YoU, SPECiAL LooK”, “one wish”, “mona lisa”,

And those unable to be interpreted: “anthrax”, “ghost of Sparta”, “flake”, “street is my game”, “tomorrow enginears”, “justice maker”, “no fair”, “veto”, “lets go to freedom”, “Test Drave, Tern Your Face”, “nervies”, “You Don't Have What My Grand Mother Has”, “Twix”, “pooh”, “white evil”, “black howk”, “dathrow”, “SaD iSlaND”, “life free or dia”, “Clean your hand”, “Crunk Juice”, “toyata”

Sometimes even poetry or song lyrics: “When you're born there is a girl waiting for you that you dont know”, “U brek my haret See Love me agen”, “I’m not driving too fast, I’m just flying slowly”, “knight of the night”, “Baby I Just Don’t Get it...do you Enjoing Being Hurt. I Know, you Smell The Perfume, the makeup on the Shirt ‘You Don’t Beleave His Stories..If They Fair or Lies..Bad as ‘u’ r Stick around..And I Just don’t Know why?”, “SomeGirls...like monkeys On a tree they don’t leave a branch unless they spotted another one to hold on”, “Simple...tomorrow remember! and you knows The value my senses...You will cry a blood and grief over the number of your hairs”

As well several forms of self-promotion, like vague DJ names, or even just an email: DJ Wizard, DJ Story, DJ Lazer, DJ Snap, DJ Turbo, hummerq8@, Swarovski_21@, alkowet@, bo.tamer.23@

If these aforementioned forms of written expression with which young people adorn their cars is not enough to capture attention, they will attempt more direct ways—trying to make eye contact by speeding up their car to a woman’s line of vision, raising the volume of the music, trying to make contact through a Bluetooth username on their cell phone to send a text message should the girl’s Bluetooth be turned on as well, cutting off or blocking a female driver on purpose, or even chasing them. 

In fact, one of my acquaintances here in Kuwait related to me an incident where she was driving with a couple of her girlfriends, and a group of guys in an SUV persisted on following them along the Gulf Road.  The only way they were able to get these men to stop pursuing them was to offer through the car window, while both vehicles were in motion, a box of a dozen Krispy Kreme donuts.  Perhaps it rings true that the key to a man’s heart is through his stomach—apparently with fried dough to be specific.  Sometimes, missed encounters will be posted on a Facebook group dedicated to dating, love or singles in Kuwait—identifying features of the car or the driver in hopes that they will then read it at some point, similar to the missed connections on Craiglist.  Once I found myself in the inopportune situation where I had to cross the Gulf Road, where you hardly see any pedestrians.  Some cars would purposefully slow down as if to let me pass and then speed up right when I put my foot on the road to go across.

The roads are also a testing ground for masculinity, adrenaline trips and assertion of physical prowess in a country whose lifestyle has evolved to be rather sedentary, controlled and domesticated.  On a weekend, scooters, motorcycles, ATVs and race cars emerge in locust clouds for afternoon and evening drives.  These roadrunners perform a great taxonomy of tricks and races amongst each other, often taping their moves on their mobile phones to upload on youtube. In fact, there is a whole sub-genre of online videos dedicated to documenting the Kuwaiti Madmaxism.  Last week, I accidently glanced at a motorcyclist who got caught in my line of vision while I was trying to see the sea along the Gulf Road.  He proceeded then to perform for my mother and me, climbing out of the driver’s seat to sit on the handlebars sideways facing us with his legs crossed with one hand resting on his chin, and without a helmet.  Unfortunately, many of them choose to race each other through traffic on purpose in order to have a more complicated obstacle course, which many times results in unfortunate, often gruesome car accidents with bystanders.

The car then for the young Kuwaiti male becomes the ultimate expression of his own self-worth as a man it seems.  Its image reflects his financial wealth and status, as well as a form of what I would label pseudo-expression, as materialistic, misspelled and misogynistic as it may be.  The car is a way to approach women in a confrontational, unaccountable way that would be unfeasible in any other public venue other than the roadways.  Lastly, the car, (and other motor vehicles to be exact) seem to be one of the last remaining ways for men to beat their chests, have a boy’s night out and engage in recklessness without having to go abroad. 

Nevertheless, is there something more that runs deeper in all of this?  How did a society of roadrunner performance artists emerge?  I try to find an answer in the strange convergence of the discovery of petroleum in Kuwait and a rising conservatism that emerged in the post-oil state.  The roads are used as a social space both as a result of a lack of a better option as well as the fact that the urban landscape in the city has evolved to be heavily dependent on cars.  Oil was discovered in Kuwait in 1938.  To fill an 88 litre tank for a Land Rover here, it costs about 6 Kuwaiti Dinars, about 16 USD for roughly 23 gallons.  This is a price that affords for and even incentivizes aimless cruising in high-end four-by-fours.  Secondly, about a generation after the first discovery of oil, Kuwait began to change dramatically—both in its economy and society.  Although much information about society in “Old Kuwait” seems to have been lost and buried in time, it is true that alcohol and dancing in public used to be legal in Kuwait, allowing for a nightlife.  While, these forms of gathering have been outlawed, consumer goods from abroad continue to flood the country, as its highway network expands to fit into the ballooning urban sprawl.

 There was one incident on January 10, 2009 that challenged my cynicism.  On that day, Kuwait and Iraq tied a soccer match in the Gulf Cup.  It had been had been 19 years since Kuwait and Iraq played each other in the Gulf Cup, and I believe simply even a tie to qualify for the next round meant a victory to the Kuwaitis.  Like any football-crazed people, what resulted was an absolute celebratory madness.  Unfortunately, I found myself in the inopportune situation of being caught in traffic on the Gulf Road, having been completely unaware of the ensuing match when I had called my taxi. 

What I observed is a post-match fever like I have never seen, not necessarily in its intensity (I was in Geneva this past summer for the Euro Cup final after all), but rather in the ritual.  Some cars ahead in the traffic had blocked off the street by parking their cars perpendicular to the lane in order to put traffic to a near standstill.  Each car held a group of four to seven adolescent or young adult men, all of them sticking out their limbs through the rolled down windows, either to wave the Kuwaiti flag or to sit on the windowsill with their torsos sticking out of the car completely.  One such guy had his friends inside the car hold him while he proceeded to do the running man in the air while the car was moving.  Many cars had guys sitting or standing on the roof of the car, waving the flag, pumping their fist in the air or dancing to the Kuwaiti tunes their friend driving would blast from below.  If there was a car without a bro on the roof, it would have two in the back, sitting in an open trunk with their legs dangling in a makeshift loveseat.  I saw a smarter pair of friends relegated to the trunk who had thought ahead to bring a kettle of tea with them.  Given that the cars were at crawling pace, many would alternate getting out of the car and walking beside it, walking over to other cars to chat or dance with a group of boys holding hand drums in a circle in the street.  Hardly any women were to be seen and those who were also caught in traffic were heckled, especially by passing motor scooters that could minnow through the cars and zip up to the window quickly, knock or maybe say something and leave in a way comparable to ding-dong ditch, most certainly ding dong dumb. 

But to be honest, in that moment, I finally felt a bit sorry for them to not have more options to celebrate their nation’s sports victory in a public way.  While watching the game on a screen in a diwaniya might be suitable, it is not the same feeling as celebrating a common victory in a crowd of strangers all united by the same enthusiasm.  I suppose what I pity the most is the fact that they can’t engage in the same sort of activity as individuals by parking and walking around.  Instead, they become motor vehicle units and, if they do step out, the only dance floor under their feet is made of asphalt.  The main conundrum is that I still am not able to fully decipher if this is due to the fact that they are not allowed to gather in this way, or if it is because they choose to be accompanied by their cars.  When I was relating the entire story to someone the next day, I was told that the match is nothing compared to the the way Kuwaitis sound their horn on February 26, the National Liberation Day.  Apparently, patriotism and cars also have a well-established relationship in the country.  But ultimately, I am just a non-Kuwaiti outsider to what really happens, and I am sure my reflections only touch the surface of something.  The only truth that I do know for certain is that I will always be a pedestrian looking at the cars, never inside them.

[1] I direct you to the facebook group “Whats in her 7jaab?”. 

[2] This video sums the activity up, after the 4:05 mark: http://www.248am.com/mark/kuwait/adventures-on-love-street/