When I think of a nation’s birthday, I think of picnics and sparklers and fireworks and the smell of freshly-cut grass on a hot summer day; basically your quintessential midwestern U.S. Fourth of July celebration. I can’t help it; it’s what I grew up with. But living overseas, we sometimes get the opportunity to see how others celebrate their country’s birth or victories. And I have to say, that Kuwait may not be the biggest lure for tourism, but they know how to parade their pride and country’s flag colors like I’ve truly never seen before.
Every year, the citizens of Kuwait stop whatever they’re doing and come out to celebrate National Day, held on February 25, and Liberation Day, held on February 26. But it’s not just those two days. For weeks ahead of time, the stores are piled high with anything they can sew, stitch, glue, print or paste a Kuwaiti flag on, including hats, shirts, dresses, stickers, mugs, car decals and pretty much anything in a semi-solid state.
And it’s not just merchandise, shops throughout Kuwait City are draped in the flag, cars racing down the highways are sporting flags, yachts and speedboats cruising up and down the coastline are bedecked in more Kuwaiti flags than usual, and every other house is proudly displaying the Kuwait flag, sometimes made up in lights, sometimes it’s large enough to drape from the third floor down to the ground (I have a feeling there’s a bit of neighborly competition here, “Keeping up with the Sabahs” and all).
We’d heard a rumbling through the expat grapevine that out at the Kuwait Oil Company (KOC) compound in Ahmadi there was a nightly light festival that wasn’t to be missed. It was even intriguing enough for my husband to agree to go without my usual cajoling. As we were driving into the compound at dusk, my husband casually mentioned, “Oh, apparently they’re going to attack the car with super-soakers, so keep the windows up.” Somehow I feel like I should be grateful he forewarned me at all.
But he’d heard right. As we rounded the bend, following the line of cars inching along, we were suddenly faced with kids in masks totting enormous rather alarming semi-automatic-looking water guns, with which they thoroughly soaked our car. We’d been officially inaugurated. We drove around the loop, just following along like good little sheep. But then decided it would be nice to get out and walk, so we found a parking lot, grabbed the stroller and explored on foot.
The lights were everywhere and were wonderful. Trees were draped, awnings were decorated, archways were lit up. It was all rather magical; like a Disneyland knock-off. As we reached the end of the path, we crossed the street to our intended destination: the mushrooms. We’d seen them on our first pass, and knew we had to come back for some pictures. I mean, unless you’re Alice, how often do you get a chance to sit down by an enormous sparkling mushroom? Not often enough in my book. So we followed the trend and plunked Bean down on the ground under a mushroom for her photo shoot. If it doesn’t cause delayed nightmares, I’m sure it’ll at least be an amusing chapter in her therapy sessions.
But as the official days of the celebration grew near, we had been forewarned to get all our shopping done ahead of time and not make any plans to drive anywhere for February 25th or 26th because the traffic along Gulf Road, which is already a bit insane, will be essentially impassable. So we complied. In hindsight, we learned that nothing really happens before 2pm, so we could easily have run errands if we’d needed to (noted for future years).
But, they weren’t kidding when they said traffic would increase. Around mid-afternoon, traffic jams heading toward the Gulf start lining up, pedestrians (which are a rarity in Kuwait typically) start showing up heading to the Gulf, and the festivities commence. On February 25th, the festivities seen from our balcony included a fairly spectacular air show with jets doing loops and dives and ending in a plume of billowing red, green, and black smoke – the colors of Kuwaiti pride. We didn’t venture out that evening, but on the 26th, I managed to pry my husband out of the house at dusk and we headed out to see what all the fuss was about. And let me tell you, it was the biggest celebration I’d ever seen!
I’ve been on the Mall in Washington, D.C. for the Fourth of July, and that was a mass of people (and frankly I’ll never do it again), but the pure joy and celebratory spirit of the Kuwaitis was unmatched. Every blade of grass was covered with a family enjoying a picnic; kids were draped in all manner of Kuwaiti-flag-inspired clothing; car horns were blaring and people were hooting and hollering; the air was thick with the sweet shisha smoke from pipes everywhere; boys and girls, from the ages of 4 to 34, were sporting masks and super-soakers and spraying the traffic crawling by; even the passengers in the cars were packing heat and would happily spray back.
Just walking through the happy melee we were dutifully inaugurated again, though when a few saw we had a baby, they kindly resisted thoroughly soaking us. We walked along the road, up to the McDonald’s where we could see the fireworks show in the distance then slowly made our way back home. It was such a fun experience and other than getting a little wet, I felt perfectly safe amongst the joyous chaos and greatly appreciated getting to participate, even peripherally, in the celebration. So, if you happen to find yourself near Kuwait around February 25th and 26th, stop by and soak up a little of the festivities. But come armed with a super-soaker and a towel so you can experience the patriotism full blast!