(Notes for the Abu Dhabi Bar Mitzvah)

Hanging on Howitzers —معلقة على مدافع هاوتزر

Every year (or decade, as necessary), Lonely Planet and Explorer choose with alacrity the face of many nations, one that is both representative and alluring: Pakistan boasts majestic, snow-topped mountains; Saudi Arabia fronts the angular domes of Medina’s Qoba Mosque as its guide’s cover photo. Kuwait’s good side, in the eyes of both publishers, is the two giant balls of the 32 year-old Kuwait Towers. Both balls are filled with water; the tallest, which reaches 187 meters at the top, also has a restaurant. That’s where we ate our first night, savoring the most authentic and traditional Gulfi fare: the intercontinental buffet.

Most of Kuwait is behind a curtain, only to be lifted on appointment. What Lonely Planet’s latest Kuwait guide (from eleven years ago) leaves out is the necessity of friends of friends to arrange tours and visits when and where you’d like them. One such friend-in-law told me repeatedly, “Four days, it’s not enough!” — and with him in charge, local and well-connected, he was right. In Abu Dhabi, colleagues had a different tone: “Four days in Kuwait? Christ.” They were right, too.

Before ascending to Ofok Restaurant (Arabic for “horizons,” and pronounced just like you stubbed your toe really, really hard), we visited with renowned historian and astronomer, Adel Hassan Al-Saadoun at his, um… house — also known as the Al-Fintas Astronomical Observatory; also also known as “Aladdin House”. The manor is half Arabian archways and gardens, half American southwest stone facade, laden with Ukrainian bud domes, and every inch a collector’s fantasyland. The Kuwait Times wrote that he conceived of the design in his dreams.

Inside Al-Saadoun’s house are things. Walls of model cars, cologne bottles, paintings, antique Coke bottles, and gadgets wrap around the house and spill onto the floor. One room has a miniature (and operational) model coal factory; next door among audio-related trinkets is an original Edison gold-mounted wax cylinder from 1904. The song: “Where Did Robinson Crusoe Go with Friday on Saturday Night?” [Listen to it on the original cylinder]

The Astronomer has made it a point to travel to at least one new country every year — journeys made evident by functional collections of international teapots (in the kitchen) and a glass top table layered with currency from a world of mints, some of which have long since stopped printing. I asked him where he was planning to travel this year and for how long. “North Korea. Two weeks.”

Al-Saadoun has long been a scholar of the history of Kuwait — whose name is derived from the archaic Persian kout that meant a small, fortified castle (built near water), and before that, just “city”. His collections reflect a lifetime urge he said he has had, simply, to have things. Fair enough. In his country, things are the best index of what the land once was. Sure, Adel’s collecting model Camaros and not Babylonian pottery, but in a country that people kept trying to take, it seems fair to build and protect an identity by owning bits of history.

Unlike Abu Dhabi, Kuwait actually had a foot in the cradle of civilization. Just south of Mesopotamia and with an island first inhabited five thousand years ago and colonized by the Greeks around 320 BC, Kuwait has ancient pottery and art and beads and settlements to display in its National Museum. On that historic Failaka island, an hour-long boat ride from downtown Kuwait City, Greek ruins bask in the sunlight. We didn’t see them (no permission). For us, as for most weekending Kuwaitis, Failaka was all beaches and jet skis (free with the day-trip boat ticket).

Behind the main short strip of beach, though, are constant reminders of the last time Failaka was conquered — not by Alexander the Great, but by the Iraqi army. A few minutes drive from Failaka’s own Baskin Robbins in a bus run by the island is a graveyard of hellish, rusty Russian trucks and tanks and cannons left behind by the Iraqis. It’s the middle of a desert, so after ducking underneath the loose barbed wire, you can climb deep into the mangled tank engines or hang on the howitzers. On the short ride back, I noticed the ex-police station riddled with bullet holes, just like most other buildings along the empty dust road, plaster chipping under angry looking graffiti.

I imagined Robinson Crusoe stranded here, meeting captives of a different sort. He scratches his beard and plugs the barrel of a tank with a sinewy coconut. The nation is saved but its innocence is lost.

I guess that’s not the best cover photo either.

More photos from more of Kuwait: shoot.

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