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

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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 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?”, “ 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:

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