“You want to go seaside?”
The taxi driver’s response didn’t make sense to me. I look at him, blankly. Bemused.
“You want to go seaside!”
His volume has increased, now. He is displaying more urgency, too. It has become less of a question and more of a statement. He clearly went to an English school. He was taught that if Johnny Foreigner doesn’t initially understand what you say, say it louder; say it bolder. The meaning will strike home in the end.
And this time, to a point, it works.
I take in what he says and – on consideration - I do want to go to the seaside! But, then, I always want to go to the seaside. Don’t you? Rarely a day passes without me wishing and hoping that a trip to the seaside is imminent or inevitable. What can I say; I’m a sucker for an ice cream? Which is why I’ve made a real effort to go seek out the deep blue and the promenade, lately. Several lost days in punch drunk, English coastal towns this summer attest to this. I’ve been left struck dumb at a hell hole ‘fun pub’ in Walton-on-the-Naze, where raucous locals dress up to the nines, ready for bouts of Sunday night Karaoke and petty recrimination. I’ve, inexplicably, burned on a cloudy day exploring Clevedon Pier. I’ve stood for an hour, talking shipping economics with a man watching container ships arrive and depart England’s shores in Portishead. I’ve enjoyed every minute.
So, my answer is yes. I do want to go to the seaside. Right now. At this instant, I want to smell the salt and the seaweed, look at aging, crumbling and boarded up towns while I listen to wave after wave after wave. I want little more.
But, yes is not the answer I give. I say ‘no’, because right now, what I want and what I need and intend to do are entirely different issues. I'm going somewhere else.
I lean into the car and wave my Map App at the driver. He stares at it blankly. He clearly missed his Geography lessons and concentrated on his languages. I speak more slowly, more precisely and - because two can play at his game - I raise the volume.
“No! I want to go to Sadu House. Look. Here!” I point… Again, I wave my phone at the man. Pointless.
And then, a wall of realisation hits me; thick, heavy, and hot in the early evening air. Simultaneously, everything feels both insanely familiar and out of worldly. A mix of real, live, actual memories and déjà vu crash together. Mixed messages reach my mind. A jumbled package of laughter, confusion and sweat soaked cotton shirts.
I’m back in the Middle East.
It’s a long while since I wrote, so I ought to bring you up to speed.
Since I visited Jerusalem (Clerkenwell) and bumped into a tall man with a bowler and a history of dirty club nights and Adam Ant videos, a lot has happened.
I’ve felt the reverberation of Humming Birds in my chest and been dazzled by electric blue moths in El Salvador; rescued a paper cut out octopus from the floor of a Newcastle bar as a gift for a friend; felt the throb of a Harley Davison through my arse and up my spine for the first time; been isolated and alone on a crumbling and rickety rooftop in Rabat being shaken down for money by a ‘tour guide’; been wooed by Dublin more times than I can remember; arrived in a Valencia Hotel with my hands, legs and face smeared in human blood and calmly asked for my room key; baby sat a bass guitar belonging to a Prog Rock band on a journey from Gatwick to Oslo; been lost in Trance in an Ibiza super club; spoken to two separate medical practitioners about how best to avoid my own death; and some stuff happened one night in Warsaw that should probably stay there.
I’ve been busy.
Which leaves me standing outside a Kuwaiti hotel, with a work colleague, talking pidgin to a taxi driver who is more obsessed with the seaside than me.
Pete tells me to get in the cab and give directions. Pete is my boss, so I do as I am told. Thankfully, Pete didn’t ask me to kill the gentleman; that would have been awkward and may have messed up my hair.
The cab is old and battered but serviceable. The driver is grumpy and seems disbelieving. He swings the car around the wide Corniche road, nonchalantly taking U-turns, maintaining a racing line and claiming any vacant car length space ahead of us with well-practiced ease. This is what he does for ten, eleven, twelve hours a day, six days a week. He doesn’t believe that we wish to go anywhere other than the seaside. He slows for each turning, each junction and each shopping centre slip road expecting me to tell him to pull over and park up alongside the sea to our right. When I eventually ask that he performs a ‘u-ey’ to return us to the old fashioned and traditional building to our left, he asks for assurance. Assurance that he understood me correctly or that assurance that I am not mad. Either? Both?
We arrive, Pete pays the gentleman the equivalent of £2.50 and the driver takes off at a speed that would get him back to 1955 if he were driving a Delorean. Destination successfully found; Pete and I take a look around a museum of traditional weaving techniques. We both agreed that it was quite good.
Dear reader; my life is, officially, more rock n roll than yours.
This isn’t my first return to the Middle East since I headed back to Blighty, last year. It’s my third. After a false start, I initially returned a year to the day after I first flew home. I’ve now popped back and forth to Kuwait three times. The one GCC state that I didn’t get to see when I was living in Khobar.
And the result is memories. They have been flashing back. Eighteen months immersed in a culture and a way of life leave their mark. Regardless of the whys’ and the wherefores’ of my leaving, I miss the place. I miss my little way of life. I was missing it before I returned, but popping through Kuwait brought it into closer focus. Conversations with Ex-Pats over in Kuwait helped to plant the memory seeds. Travels through the eternal dustbowl construction site that is Kuwait City, nurtured and fed them. Good and bad.
The heat. It was mid-September when I first arrived in Saudi. It was mid-September on my second visit to Kuwait. It was nudging 50C, there wasn’t much shade and the humidity gathered on your brow and in your pits. Three hundred and three miles north of Khobar the humidity was worse than I ever experienced in Saudi. Each breath was dust and heat. Dust and heat.
The construction. Everywhere I visited in the Middle East, regardless of its beauty had a part or parts that were forever under construction. The half built shopping centre near the Heineken Highway, or the twisted tower block being built on the corner of Pepsi-Cola Road in Khobar (you know the place, opposite Circle Café and Red Lobster). The Metro cuttings being carved out of shifting sand in Riyadh, the stadiums in Doha or the World Islands slowly washing away in Dubai. Everything is changing. Kuwait City is slowly drowning in new motorways and cuttings. In the shadows of modern steel and glass towers, concrete apartment blocks and offices rot in the heat. Mirrored glass transposed against yellow/white walls cracked, chipped and stained by water and ancient advertising. Sidewalks and pathways are littered with ill planned utility installations and uneven pavements. Trip hazards abound.
|Thanks Allies. And thanks to Pete for the piccie|
The night. Fifty two weeks of sunshine is offset by regulated twelve hour nights. Dusk is short lived. The sun sets like a stone. It’s dark by 7pm at the latest, even in mid-June. But the city is alive with artificial light. Not just the choreographed, dancing lights on the new office blocks in Sharq and bursting patterns on Kuwait Towers but – more subtly – in the neon shop signs of the corner shops and mini arcades that trade and hawk late into the night. Over the top but rarely too gaudy. Life starts at dusk.
|Light After Dark|
The noise. The eternal traffic. Where the indicator is ignored in favour of the horn. Where, after dark, youths make the most of the floodlit football pitches and sports facilities near the Al-Amiri Hospital. In daylight, the hubbub of traffic remains but is punctuated by the calls to prayer and Laughing Dove, Myna and White Cheeked Bulbul feasting in and around the date palms.
The driving. The sublime to the ridiculous. A gap is a gap. An inch is an inch. Road markings are a guide. Right lanes, left lanes mean nothing in the rush. Salmon traffic. Aggression isn’t personal. Life is but fate. Beat up and battered Japanese and Korean saloon cars battle it out with Articulated Lorries, coaches, 4x4s, American Pick Up Trucks and Muscle cars. The last to the lights loses. When I left Saudi I had grown used to this nonsense. Returning a year on and I had soon come to ignore and laugh at it once more as colleagues flinched at junctions as they look left to right in disbelief at the chaos.
The food. Aside the grilled meat and endless rice on offer for dinner, breakfast in Kuwait made me question the wisdom of ever returning home. Flat bread. Zatar. Daal. Foul Mudammas (pronounced fool) – mashed fava beans with lemon and garlic, mixed with raw tomato, onion, coriander and chillis. Olives and raw vegetables. Hummus… The perfect start to a day. The shops are still sugar obsessed. Biscuits and sweets. Middle East staples. Pineapple and mango for when you want to eat healthily (ha!).
The people. I’m not a fool (stop sniggering at the back… I’m not!), I realise that people are people everywhere. When pushed, kindness can be found in any and all corners. Humans are hard wired. But, I have always found Arabs supremely friendly, courteous and helpful. So I did again, in Kuwait. If you take the time to step away from the Western strip malls and restaurants you are rewarded with a far deeper insight into a more traditional way of life. The Fish Market, the spice stores and confectionery shops. The owners seem surprised to find Westerners off the beaten track and – once they find you are not American – bend over backwards to help.
But, regardless of the above, I wouldn’t want to go back to live.
It’s not that I have regrets. I don’t. I had and I took an amazing opportunity. But it was of its time and the time has passed.
I spent 18 months adapting to a life that is far from ordinary to an average bloke from North West London. I bit my tongue, I turned a blind eye to the undoubted inequality and racism to others. I adapted my behaviours, my language and (to a degree) my dress, not to fit in but to sit under the radar; to be invisible. And I appreciated the opportunity and thrived on the experience. But – at times – I felt like I was in a prison. An open prison compared to many that I met; colleagues who had their right of exit constrained so that they couldn’t return home when they wanted or were needed; a guy outside a warehouse in Riyadh who tended goats who says that his visa had expired but his sponsor had disappeared with all his paperwork, so he had no way of ever going home. I often felt as if I was the stooge in The Prisoner, acting a role to try and get Number 6 to give something away. Captive, but still a prisoner.
That last analogy is crass.
It’s crass not just because the reality is that Western Ex-Pats have it good and a relatively secluded and sheltered life, but because the reality is probably closer to life in Slade Prison. We were all more like Fletcher and Godber than a foil to Patrick McGoohan.
The above was made clear while on a Piccadilly train heading to Heathrow, en route to Kuwait, and receiving an email from a client I was travelling to see asking whether I would have an opportunity to buy him an egg cup. The email asked if I had any idea what it’s like to eat a soft boiled egg with your hands. And I didn’t and don’t but could empathise with his plight. This was on the back of a conversation I had with him, a week earlier, where he complained that he couldn’t get his hands on Sage and Onion stuffing for love nor money. It made me recall the issues of ‘British’ food in Supermarkets (I miss you LuLu!), where deliveries were inconsistent, so you could never guarantee what you would be able to find from week to week. In September, staff at the business I was working with were sharing rumours of cheap cheese on sale at CarreFour and laughing at those who missed the bargain. You grow used to missing out on and envying others food finds while building a personal hoard of condiments on the off chance you will never see them for sale, again.
Like I say, life in the Middle East is not romantic enough to allow your ideals and morals to lead you to make a stand against any part of the life you distrust or dislike. Through chance or design, such high ground cannot be afforded when your reality is that a heartfelt and genuine desire to eat a decent cheese sandwich means that ‘Branston Pickle’ can be traded as currency.
I bought my client a shot glass at the airport. It was the best I could do. I believe that it is serviceable.
Back to Kuwait. 7:30pm.
Men of distinction, taste and style can only take so much of weaving each day. Our needs satisfied, Pete and I chose to walk back to our hotel. It was only a mile or so and the temperature had dropped to a cool and relaxed 32C.
So, we braved crossing the busy road and we went to look at the sea. The brown sea. Turd brown sea. Flat breads floating at the surface. The sea lapped against the concrete sea defences, as the smell of excrement lapped across our senses. We kept going. We walked on hoping to escape the sensory attack, to find ourselves on a concrete jetty where dishdash clad fishermen targeted the beasts of the shitty sea. Shell fish remains littered the jetty; bait from the fishermen. Stray cats lingered and quick movements at the corner of our eyes alerted us to the roaches. Cockroaches as big as our thumbs scampered across the jetty floor and along the steel, safety railings. Each creeping, crawling movement sending individual shivers down my spine. And around a small arc of sand on the seaward side of the jetty, a family had lain down a blanket and were eating a picnic meal and their children paddled in the sea amid the sour smells, busy insects and putrid fish waste.
Like I say. I may not want to move back but, I really want to keep on visiting!