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Kuwait for It… An Unlikely Metamorphosis of Business into Pleasure
Somehow, I found myself there once again. Feeling like a giant, I sauntered off the 747, down the narrow corridor and out into my very own first-class fantasy. Once past Kuwaiti Customs, the anxiety subsided as I evaded having to explain the concept of pre-workout supplements in Arabic to any suspecting authorities, something I had lost sleep over the night before as Middle Eastern customs officials are notoriously curious. Still a little uneasy from the onslaught of attention walking through the airport, I feigned naiveite to the strangers’ stares. Nerves aside, resisting the urge to make eye contact and smile at the world (as I did elsewhere) was harder than I remember. As soon as I saw impatient toddlers, clinging to the partitions lining the exit walkway, eagerly awaiting the return of loved ones, I regained my usual sense of calm. The innocence of a child can be most disarming.
I spy my black-suited driver and my pulse begins to race, once again, this time from sheer elation. It’s really happening, my first proper business trip was officially underway. “Finally,” I think (and all but shout) to myself, overwhelmed with excitement. Somehow, I manage to play it cool. Finally. Waiting for me, to escort me to my noble Lincoln chariot. A chauffer, holding a laminated sign. Finally. Bearing my name… I didn’t dare carry my own luggage.
The striking contrast of extreme heat as I exited the airport (a solid 96 degrees, hours after sunset), was enough to bring anyone back down to earth. I was briefed on local news as we made our way to the hotel. Nodding along, my focus lied solely on the familiarity of that dialect; I had missed it so much, even those words of unrest were a welcomed symphony. Sensing my visibly waning attention span, the mild-mannered man breaks out a wavering right hand, raised above the wheel, with his thumb meeting the four fingers in the middle of his hand, gesturing his comedic disapproval for the passing driver.
“Mejshnoon,” he mutters.
He attempts to lighten the mood by poking fun at another driver’s excessive speed, while hauling a small flock of lambs bouncing erratically in the bed of his dilapidated truck. He quickly returns his hand to the wheel in an overly cautious manner, the care for my wellbeing creates a newfound kinship. He looks over anxiously to see if I was in agreement, that the other driver was, indeed, “crazy.” But, I’m a tough crowd after a flight like that. Excessive speeds and seemingly reckless driving is somewhat the norm throughout this magic kingdom, so one tends not to pay special attention to these instances, even when livestock rushes by, leaving only a sandy, cartoonish cloud of smoke.
As we approached the hotel, I began to feel the stiffening effects of the last flight from Heathrow (taking up nine of the 21 hours I spent in the air to arrive in Kuwait City). Growing up with an American mother and a Kuwaiti father, I was no stranger to the inevitable jet-lag of that trans-Atlantic flight. The armed hotel guards performing under-car inspections with their mirrored wands reminded me of my childhood, much of which was spent in this occasional War Zone. Soon we were whisked through the palatial gates of the Rotana. Clearly, the only bombs in that car were the driver’s jokes.
Something stirs inside me as, once again, all heads turn. Trying to force-feed my subconscious positive affirmations, I brazenly sashayed through the hotel lobby with exposed hair and bare wrists; independent and blatantly Western.
My suite, larger than the apartment I left behind, was well-equip for a professional such as myself, with all the wired amenities one could require; including a personalized in-room greeting on the massive HD flat-screen for “Mr. Sara.” Surely this sort of executive success could only be achieved by someone with a Y chromosome.
Before it all has a chance to sink in, I’ve already sunken myself into a deep AC-induced sleep coma.
The next day, I woke to a sunrise like no other; I didn’t recall the sun ever having seemed so close. Granted, come high noon, when it’s 110 F in October, one certainly feels like they’re closer to the sun, but truly, it was an uplifting, vibrant experience. Ready to take on the world, I armed myself with my technical mastery of all things oil-related, donned my most conservative pantsuit, gathered my presentation materials, and rushed to the lobby so as not to keep the company driver waiting.
A different driver has come for me this time, I assume, as a strangely familiar face greets me upon exiting the hotel. He introduces himself as a representative from the government oil company, and escorts me to a modest white E-class. Of course, being such a small country, I came to find he knows my family well. He was privy to this being my first ‘business trip’ as a young adult and my first visit back to Kuwait in many years. I was overcome with gratitude for his peculiar knowing of my mission. He soon become my most trusted ally in the weeks’ epic journey.
I began by visiting the project managers and team leaders, meeting the engineers and researchers with whom I had been interacting for months via email. Many were shocked to discover the person with whom they had been dealing from a distance was not a man, this (and most sectors of business in the Middle East) was very much a male-dominated industry. Despite the baffling gender surprise, all are incredibly warm and welcoming. Every meeting involved lengthy discussions about everything having nothing to do with business; tea, weather, family, travels, more about family, food, smartphones, fashion, and even more about family – which soon becomes the topic of the week… It takes me only a short time to reacquaint myself with what an independent soul such as myself may consider to be a downright fanatical emphasis on family togetherness. It is common for large, extended families to live in the same household here, regardless of Kuwaitis having one of the highest per capita incomes globally, and there is an enormous sense of brotherhood and kinship. Unless you are wed, it is expected that you live with your family, at any age. And, even if you are wed, it’s not uncommon to still live with either set of parents, sometimes both if there are multiple wives in the equation (Kuwait’s legal limit on the number of wives one man may have at that time was four). With some marriages being arranged at birth, and elaborate weddings often taking place in the teens, my being clearly unwed at that stage of my life, in my very early 20s, was a visible concern of nearly all I encountered.
Back to business, I learned some colleagues traveling from Shanghai had encountered a typical visa issue involving their own wives, who had planned to come along for a visit while they worked. Kuwait has rigid visa restrictions for non GCC citizens (those whose native country is not Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Oman, Qatar, or UAE). In this instance, my male colleagues were able to obtain visas quickly, but their wives could not on such short-notice. While it is typically simple for US, UK or Canadian residents to obtain Visas, careful advanced planning is a must before visiting Kuwait in order to alleviate issues of this nature.
Another Kuwaiti caveat is business in general. Here, getting things done is often nothing short of an odyssey. Anything and everything from selling a multi-million-dinar rig to picking out a handful of spices in the souk can be an adventure. Be prepared to speak to multiple people about the same item, be sincere, be patient, and always be prepared to negotiate.
There is an unspoken motto, of sorts, which sounds like “bautcher inshallah” (sometimes “bokra inshallah”), which literally translates to “tomorrow, god willing.”
Most commonly, you will hear “insh-allah” in business, or any time there is a deadline of sorts. If something needs done in a rush, multiple royal ministries and, inevitably, God will have something to do with it. Patience here is key.
The saying itself is simultaneously both a blessing and a curse; the unconventionally slow pace conveniently forces one to enjoy what would otherwise be time lost working or immersed in other seemingly-productive endeavors. Inshallah creates a special space and time for one to simply ‘be.’ Between the dry, draining heat, and the sluggish pace, my enthusiasm for any sort of deal-making dwindled, and I embraced the implied decrease in productivity. I extend my stay another six days to accommodate the visa complication in Shanghai and assisted my colleagues with making the appropriate connections when they arrived. Doing business with another Arab, particularly a Kuwaiti, is practically the only way to do business in Kuwait. So, extending my stay was a must if we were to proceed.
With the stress of business somewhat ‘on hold’ and the major pressures behind me, I was re-energized, feeling a resurgence of interest in my surroundings. The beaming sunshine heavenly beckoned through the windows of the lobby. Distracted, I set off on an aimless mission to explore the surrounding areas. It only took a matter of moments for me to realize I want nothing to do with even a leisurely wandering in this heat, however. In fact, the dizzying discomfort forbid me from even returning the three blocks back to the hotel for a driver, so I hailed what appeared to be an off-white cab without a fare.
As I timidly raise my arm towards the vehicle, not recalling if that was how it was done there or not, the driver swiftly proceeded to cut off multiple lanes of traffic between us, screeching to a halt just footsteps away. I instinctively let myself into the back seat, voiced my desire to visit the Fahaheel souk, and began a feeble attempt at making small talk (something which I absolutely loathe) by asking for recommendations on local shopping.
He repeats my desired destination, issues a stoic nod of understanding, and begins to drive. I began to wonder if this was some version of impeccable service, a few loose screws, or possibly both. A mindful glance at the interior of the vehicle lent a vexatious confirmation of the latter; There appeared to be a splattering of blood along the lining of the hood that stretched across the entire back seat, into the front seat; I discretely snapped a few photos of the possible crime scene for social media, and another of the driver’s laminated credentials, possibly for the police report. As curious as I was about whatever went down back there, I resist the urge to investigate and found peace in knowing that the souk could not be far at that point. After what felt like the taxicab equivalent of The Green Mile, the vehicle stops, I handed over a wad of small bills and made my escape. There was no meter and I didn’t know if I was where I had intended to be, but none of my blood was splattered in the back seat, so life was good.
I wasn’t where I thought I had imagined though. Or, perhaps, things had simply changed so much, and the disorienting heat was getting the best of me. I found myself in an unfamiliar souk; hundreds upon hundreds of small kiosk-sized stores, no larger than your average broom closet, pieced together in spectacular labyrinth of treasure troves, selling absolutely everything under the sun- in one chaotic opus of negotiation.
The indistinct aromas of Near Eastern perfumes lured me down a particular corridor, lined wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling, with rich scented oils, dazzling perfume bottles and oil lamps of all shapes and sizes. I proceeded to sample scents reminiscent of sandalwood, patchouli, musk, and cedar. I recall being taken back by the frankincense, which transported me to my usual place of calm amidst the bustle of the souk. I was well aware I should have been haggling, but any price seemed right for peace at that moment, so I happily handed over my dinars to the shopkeeper and continue to marvel at the spectacle of his wares. He told me of his home in Egypt. Of the women in his village who paint the ornate golden trimmings on the glass perfume bottles by hand. And of his family – all of whom were far away from that souk. His tale met me at the intersection of Courageous and Lonely; a bashful hush sinks in as we silently bonded over his soulful story. Before we are caught speaking for any length of time, I swiftly carried on my way, through a jungle of knock-off Hermés Berkins that led me to a shimmering corridor, dripping in gold. Windows and displays simply drenched in 21 and 22 karat gold, as far as the eyes can see. The sun’s rays are intensified by the glow and I begin to feel the effects of the intense heat once again. Forcing my focus away from the potential black hole that is jewelry shopping, I made my way back to the hotel, this time after calling for one of their drivers. Lesson learned.
Even once back at the Rotana, I still strayed from my mission to make it back to my room. Notorious for unparalleled service, like many other hotels in oil-rich nations, the staff here insisted on catering to my every non-alcoholic whim; I was in a dry county after all, so why not indulge in a local fashion… decadent almond milk banana shake, truffled pistachios, candied dates, or some fresh watermelon juice, chilled to perfection, perhaps? “Yes- min faDlik.”
After a healthy dose of intense Air Conditioning and five-star lobby plushness, my curiosity led me through the Al-Manshar shopping center, outside to the Bay of Kuwait.
I longed to relive moments I had once spent there so many years before… flawless topaz seas artfully mingled with glistening desert sands like something out of a mirage. Statuesque date palms lined the walkways and nearby roads. Intricate Islamic scripture, bold mosaics and delicate filigree graced the single minaret on the Sunni mosque nearby. Afternoon prayer brought a sudden stillness about the bustling streets of Mena Al-Ahmadi. A faint waft of diesel blew in with a sudden dusty gust of wind- a comfortable reminder of the nearby Fahaheel oil refineries.
Having always been allergic to anything resembling a rule, I had never covered my hair in Kuwait, nor had I considered it disrespectful; it was simply a matter of preference as I had grown up there in a time when “things were changing”. But, that day at the bay was different.
Embracing the curiosity stirring inside, I pulled the neatly folded hijab from my purse like a magician pulling scarves from a hat. And, for the first time in my life, I covered my hair, while also conveniently shielding some of my face from the harsh winds in the process. I felt as though I had discovered a cloak of invincibility.
I abandoned yet another mission, drawn to the docks of the bay in the distance. Mid-century wooden ships (Kuwaiti dohws) momentarily hijack my focus as my gaze is fixated upon the man-made rainbows, dancing between the jets of Gulf H2O.
Fishermen from the nearby ships hauled the day’s catch and bore their souls with only a glance; life is hard. Work (whatever it may be) is never easy, and we all show signs in our own way – in this case, weathered hands, sun-drenched skin, kind eyes, and a wary walk. I wondered what my own blood-shot, jet-lagged stare revealed of me as I swiftly looked away. Despite the soulful connection and an inner voice of understanding, longing to be heard, eye-contact (or any contact really) with a stranger of the opposite sex was still forbidden. Or at least that was the resounding message etched in the cement of my brain during my childhood there.
Overwhelmed with uncertainty about what feels right and what is right here, I retracted to my hotel fitness center for a proper head-clearing cardio session. I was stunned to find an only-moderately-edited episode of Dr. 90210 was airing on the personal monitor of the elliptical next to me. I vividly recalled times when buying a Vogue was near-futile as all pages of scantily-clad models or cleavage were literally blacked out with Sharpies, if the pages were not completely torn from the magazine prior to it making its way to the shelves. Numb to the changes, I begin to feel a longing to be here for reasons other than business. What good is business? Busy-ness. Is not love and our life lessons why we breathe and experience, why we exist? That seemingly cliché realization changes something in me though. Unbeknownst to me at that time, a seed was planted that grew into an insatiable desire for unconventionality and an escape from ‘business’ altogether. How was I to know that years from that moment, I’d be anxiously squirming to escape the clutches of self-imposed corporate cuffs?
Looking back, Kuwait business travel was all I had imagined it to be. It wasn’t drive or passion I lacked then, but somewhere along the way, my heart began to grow cold. I started to sense my own predictability, and depressed myself to sickness on many an occasion with my blatant disregard for that which brought me true happiness.
Having only recently embarked on my corporate journey at that time, I wrestled with the concept of leaping from the ladder up which I so tenaciously advanced. I continued my week’s work and made the most of meeting those magnificent people, embracing the experience for what it truly was. My presentations were made, and my colleagues finally arrived from Shanghai, although their wives decided to stay behind as they would not have made it in time to travel with their husbands.
Something about that land will forever remain a fantasy to me. There’s something very surreal about the union of decadent modernism and tribal hospitality. Even the native dress speaks volumes about the ancient soul of the land; when our eyes are confined to a ‘uniform’ (of sorts) for men and women, the usual Western embellishments and assessments are removed from the equation. One must then develop a certain sixth sense, if you will, that is a very powerful element of human interaction in Kuwait. A certain warmth, glow, aura or essence about one person and how it varies to the next lends a near-psychic element to first impressions that can only be understood as it is experienced first-hand in a place like Kuwait.
Reflecting on the vivid memories of that adventure, my heart smiled with each recollection of my unique experience. So many will never see or feel those sensations, I am overwhelmed with gratitude for those epiphanies. For those who are blessed with the opportunity to visit, wherever you are on your ‘journey,’ if you travel for business, stay for pleasure, and go home grateful for whatever treasures you find veiled in the riches of Kuwaiti culture, you will surely have discovered success.
These moments were part of a significant series of extremely catalytic events in my life. The path I had begun to follow was not my own; after all, it was a “path” because someone else had already been. I needed to find my own way and create something more meaningful to me. This is the point when I truly began blazing my own entrepreneurial trails, even if only in my mind at the time, and for that I cherish every second of the experience. It still took many years to fully connect to my purpose and align my life with my passions, but instances like these helped me regain a sense of self and create a reality that aligns with who I really am.
And, I suppose I needed to return to where I took my first breath, to realize who I want to be when I take my last.
By Sara Abbas