"So, what's Kuwait like?"

(Written October 2011) Prior to arriving in Kuwait, I will admit I knew very little about it. I can remember hearing on the news about Iraq’s invasion in August 1990 and for the seven months after. But beyond that, Kuwait was nary a blip in my mind.

Even once we knew we were coming here, I didn’t research it much. I found so little on modern-day life in Egypt that I figured Kuwait wouldn’t fare much better. Besides, the few things we did hear beforehand didn’t really ignite my interest or enthusiasm. Learning that you should bring lots of hobbies with you so you don’t have to leave the house for the six months of the year the temperatures are in the roasting range, does not exactly fill one with excitement and eagerness to arrive at said location.

But now we’re here, and we just “missed” the hot season, according to the heat-stroked individuals we met upon arrival. (It was 108 degrees Fahrenheit, and that’s NOT the hot season?! Oh dear.) And as I’ve been slowly researching Kuwait’s history, I have to admit that its modern tale is rather impressive.

The history of Kuwait can be traced back to at least 2,000 or 3,000 B.C., thanks to some artifacts found on one of its nine islands. Kuwait itself covers only a little more than 11,000 square miles (just a touch larger than Maryland) – and probably less than a quarter of that is actually populated. It’s neighbors are Iraq to the northwest and Saudi Arabia to the southwest, with the Arabian Gulf bordering the east side and providing it with 124 miles of coastline. We’re definitely between Iraq and the Hajj place here. (Get it?)

The land itself is extremely flat, with just one sandstone cliff on the northern shore of Kuwait Bay. The one thing that has made it appealing to travelers and merchants for the last 4,000 years has been its natural harbor (the only other one in this area is in Bahrain) and it’s access to fresh water through underground wells.

Oil was discovered here in 1938, under the helpful gaze of the Brits, and within a few years it was being readily exported. Kuwait gained its independence from Britain in 1961, but even fifty years later the English-effect is very prominent (lots of traffic circles, most signs in English, lots of schools named “English Playtime Group” and “English School for Girls”, and thankfully piles of Cadbury chockies).

Due to the devastation of Saddam’s invasion, a lot here is categorized as “before the invasion” and “after”. Even the environment took a huge hit. For more than 250 days during the occupation, over 700 oil wells burned out of control. Prior to this, there was apparently plentiful wildlife, including lizards and snakes and small mammals, and even back around 1900 there were cheetahs and ostriches running wild. Since 1990, the wildlife has not returned (though my husband spotted wary geckos at work the other night), however Kuwait does lie on a migration route so birds (other than the pigeons we see tottering about our yard) can apparently be spotted heading elsewhere. The cats and I shall keep on the lookout.

The human population is around 3.3 million (quite a drop from Cairo’s daily hordes of 20 million). But only 1 million of them are actual Kuwaitis, the rest are expats, with many coming from India, Pakistan, and Egypt.

Present-day Kuwait is an odd mixture of the old and the modern. Due to the vandalism and destruction from the invasion, much has been rebuilt just in the last twenty years. And because of the money flowing through the country, they went for impressive in appearance and grand in scale. The skyscrapers that encircle the city are modern stunning architectural marvels. The villas are palatial and the different neighborhoods start to look like a collection of amazing modern sandcastles. (I can’t help thinking that everyone was given a cube of sand and carved out their home from it, making it personal, but with an underlying “sameness” about it.)

In addition to the outcropping of skyscrapers, the western-world’s influence is everywhere, and not always in a good way. You can’t go a block without running by a McDonald’s, Starbucks, P.F. Chang’s, Friday’s, Krispy Kreme, Subway, or Burger King (the one on Gulf Road is reputedly the largest in the world). And due to a massive desalination project started in the 1950s, there is a lot of greenery and landscaping around, at least in comparison to Egypt. I mentioned how much I liked all the greenery to a friend who’s been here almost a year and she said, “Greenery? Where?” I guess it’s all about perspective.

So when asked, "What's Kuwait like?" I tend to say, "If you squint a little, the Kuwait of 2011 can look a little like southern California; sunny, sandy, palm trees, nice highways, lots of cars and a Taco Bell on the corner." So I will continue to enjoy my bean burrito under the shade of a well-watered palm tree, at least until it's roasting time.