(Notes for the Abu Dhabi Bar Mitzvah)

جت سكيات وفتوى وواقع شخص آخر — Jetskis, a Fatwa, and Someone Else’s Reality

     A young Kuwaiti scientist and his teacher. Kuwait City.

He handed me the card below:

“GRAND MOSQUE: western perception of islam dept.”  Wow.  I don’t think anyone has ever cared so much about what I think. He was our tour guide, Khalil, a short man with a long beard who spoke bits and larger bits of a million languages and answered his phone with, “I hope it’s not my wife!” He knew just how to make us laugh.

Gulf countries are, for the most part, young and successful parvenus that don’t seem to need your help or give half a damn whatchu think, but it isn’t so. In Kuwait especially, where George Bush the First finds his framed place among family photos, allies are more precious than gold, and blood runs thicker than oil.

Yet, to borrow the title question from one chapter of Werner’s Fassbinder’s 16-hour Berlin Alexanderplatz, “How is One to Live if One Doesn’t Want to Die?” How can a country thrive it is afraid to be vulnerable? Good question. The answer, as always it appears, is spin. Perceptions are monitored and framed in a manner made possible by Kuwait’s particular circumstances: small population, strong governmental oversight, little economic disparity amongst citizens, high percentage of unassimilated residents, money. If this is starting to sound like a political science paper, it’s not. Look at this silly picture:

Proper dress when entering the Kuwait Oil Company facilities is important. Proper mustache attire is paramount. In fact, local facial hair styles span a very narrow spectrum — all involving beards. If this uniformity seems to suggest Kuwait-wide hostility toward the different, it doesn’t. Western is welcomed, but it must find its way into particular channels: financial innovation, an unsung modern art museum, jetskis. Old and new coexist, but at a small distance.

In the headquarters of the Kuwaiti Oil Company, a small exhibit details the damage done by Iraqi troops who during the Gulf War set oil wells ablaze on their retreat from Kuwaiti territory. The museum placards pull no punches: disgraceful, they say. War isn’t war — it’s goddamn personal.

It is not that there are secrets, swept under the rug (there are) — Kuwait is open about almost everything. The oil that pumps through its veins, they admit, that’s our heart. (I know, hearts don’t pump through veins.) But still, statements sometimes quiver with the insinuation of something the speaker has learned isn’t tactful anymore in this new mixed company, Mideast and West. The translation is loyal, from a derivative of the Arabic word, khizi, “shame, disgrace”. “Disgraceful,” the placard says. Not “cowardly”, not “vile”.

Word choice at every turn implicates the meanings intended for the dual audience: locals, sharing and perceiving — Westerners only perceiving. At the end of Khalil’s tour, I turned over the back of a tissue box at the Grand Mosque to find a list of “Projects of the Grand Mosque.” Number one, in English: “Providing a fatwa (consultation) service”. Fatwa means “opinion”, or more specifically, a decision made on a point of law by a mufti, a legal expert who interprets Sharia law.

Number one, in Arabic: “Fatwa phone service, direct dial ‘149’”. Perceptions are not the same reading left to right.

At the National Museum, one sign made that even clearer. Two long, full paragraphs in Arabic about “The Bazaar,” nicknamed Souq al-Yehud, “Jews’ Souq”. In English, just one sentence: “A shop sells different kind of textile.”

Other times, words are not lost but broken. Even when they must have been translated from English originally, letters are dropped and lost or replaced with the wrong ones. Even Arabic names are damaged in translation.

And sometimes, translation is a losing battle, a dirty game. Really, really dirty.

The clearest dialogue comes when nothing is written, when one language is spoken and the same is heard. In the night market outside the Mubarakiya date souq, Egyptians told me of their life in Kuwait and waxed lyrical about Abu Dhabi. This is our reality, they said, and I told them mine. “Abu Dhabi doesn’t have this. The market. Kuwait isn’t boring like the UAE.” It was true in the moment. But I said it as something bigger than the moment, something that was true always, and as I spoke the words I sent them spinning out across the table.

Click here to see more pictures from Kuwait.

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