Asia Taboo Travel

Kuwait Money

“I have a Jew in my home?” she says in her lilting Arabic accent , beaming at me. 

I cringe. I only told her because she revealed that she had helped an Israeli visit Kuwait, and that she loves Jews. It’s not safe to be a Jew here.

“Why don’t we just keep it to the fact that you have an American in your home? Isn’t that enough risk?”

I know she loves Americans. Not all Kuwaitis do. It all has to do with Kuwait money, now.

Kuwait City

She shows me photos of where she slept, in a cupboard under the stairs, during the Iraqi occupation. According to her, the US troops saved her life. It’s an angle of Operation Desert Storm that I have never seen. 

I’ve mostly seen protest. I am the same age as my host. I too was a young teenager. Memories of participating in class walkouts in protest of the war flood me. And yet here is someone who wouldn’t be alive without it.

In every issue, there are intersections. Compassion is a tightrope.

Kuwait Money

Getting into Kuwait was odd. I was let through without going through immigration, and had to wander the airport looking for the visa office to make sure I was legal. The sign said a visa for USAmericans would be priced at $130. I wasn’t charged. Kuwait money.

I’ve been in the Middle East for months now, and there’s nothing to really set Kuwait apart from any of the Gulf countries except the thickness of the presence of USAmerican military bases. The whole country is basically a military base. There are often terrorist attacks in the USAmerican neighborhoods. Kuwait isn’t particularly happy about continued occupation. Yet they still live in the shadow of Iraq, who could consume them in one bite if it chose to, so they put up with being used by the United States in exchange for protection. Kuwait money.

One night my friend and host takes me out to show me the wealthiest neighborhoods, segregated into Sunni and Shia sections. Mansions in the desert, manicured grounds. They still aren’t as big as I’d expect considering the Kuwait money available. 

The Shia are congregating in groups of men in lounges where they smoke and talk politics and religion. The Sunni don’t get out quite as much. 

My friend is half Persian, half Arab, but since it’s her mother that is Persian, it doesn’t go that way.

“I know, you Americans have the concept of half and half. We don’t have that at all. What your father is, you are. And my father is Arab, so I am Arab.” she explains, with openness, but rigidity.

Kuwait Towers

When we stop at traffic lights, the cars next to us gesture, roll down the window, raise eyebrows. It’s one of the ways that Kuwaitis meet for sex. They don’t have bars. There is no alcohol.

Though the intersection hookups are the nasty side of it, the lack of alcohol and open sexuality brings a sweetness to the interactions that I hadn’t expected. One night, my friend and I meet up with three of her friends in a park. One of them brings a bunch of food he cooked, and steno to keep it warm, a full catering setup. My friend brings candles and roses and sets them up on picnic blankets. 

Two of the men are in casual dress, the other is in thobe. My friend is wearing a strappy tank top, and her friend is fully covered head to toe. My friend is definitely one of the few. She and I get hissed at and called whores in Arabic walking from the car to the park. But she doesn’t care. She doesn’t want to live her life trapped.

We sit all night in the park. No worry of danger. No alcohol or drugs. Just a game of Uno that lasts many rounds. The way they pronounce “Uno” in Arabic makes me smile.

These social events remind me of my teenage years – innocent, full of activities, drug free, without the expectation that interaction should lead to sex.

And then my host puts on Hava Nagila and starts singing it. In the park. In public space. I bristle.

“Please turn it off.”

“You have nothing to worry about!” she winks. She sings in over 30 languages. To her this is just another beautiful song.

But I do worry. No one can tell that I am a Jew unless told. I’ve years of training borne of trauma. I wish she didn’t know.

Kuwaiti Women

She has broken many rules and taken many risks. Women can’t live independently in Kuwait. She earned her independence by marrying Kuwait money intending to be divorced, and withstanding physical abuse until she could make that happen. She coaches other young women who want to live separately from their families to do the same. 

Kuwaitis for the most part live on an allowance. This is what I mean by Kuwait money.

They may have a job, but it’s usually just a formality. The government gives the proceeds from the oil directly to Kuwaiti citizens. The amount varies, but my host tells me how sad she is for her brother, because of recent political changes his allowance has been downgraded from $12,000USD/month to $8000USD/month. I don’t learn how much she gets. 

She has a small, but nice two-bedroom apartment, well-furnished, drives an SUV, travels frequently, funds her own creative pursuits, and spends a lot on beauty and fashion.

I assume she’s doing just fine.

Persian Gulf

Due to this easy money from the government, they deem it necessary to define who gets this and who does not with rigidity, nothing left up to interpretation. The definition of a Kuwaiti citizen is set in stone.Those that don’t meet it are called “Stateless”. These are the persecuted in Kuwait. The ones that burn cars for fun, write graffiti, and engage in mild hazing and property damage. 

The vast majority of these are Bedoon. They are Bedouin immigrants to Kuwait that don’t hold the same allegiance to the ruling family, and are therefore considered a political threat. 

Though they are denied money, they are not the ones that do all the work…

Al Boom Marina, Kuwait

70% of Kuwait’s population is made up of expats. Of these, under half are from other parts of the Arab world. The rest are Asian: Indian, FIlipino, Bangladeshi, Pakistani, etc. This is true of all of the Gulf. The Arabs do not work, especially in service positions. Why would they, making all that money for free? And so the labor class is imported.

Muslims are actually the minority in Kuwait and the Middle East in general.

Yet still, all follow Sharia. In Kuwait the interpretation is strict – it’s no Bahrain – but not brutal – it’s no KSA.

The striations in service drag me into racism. I learn to completely ignore Arab taxi drivers. I open the door, see an Arab face, close it and wait for the next. The Indian cab drivers are honest, and make up about 60% of them, and after a few rides of getting ripped off entirely I start this profiling.

The friends I meet in Kuwait are mixed. One of them is Stateless. He works for the Kuwaiti military. 80-90% of the Kuwaiti military during the 1960’s, 1970’s, and up through the gulf war were made up of the Stateless.

Another friend, the one who came with the food – is a chef and a woodworker, who can’t quite step into these professions for the golden handcuffs of the straight and narrow in Kuwait. It’s exceptionally difficult to gain permission to start a business in Kuwait, and he already gets money from the government.

His dreams sit, simmering on a back burner.

Kuwait Money

This friend takes me out to the flea market. It looks like any other, anywhere in the world. The largest market in Kuwait. He looks for tools, I just take the scene in. The clothing in Kuwait is … so Arab. It triggers all my stereotypes. Yet these are humans. It is so much easier to dehumanize them in their armor of cloth and black and white gender designations.

Kuwaiti couple

He gives me a wooden bowl that he made just for me. He collects and cures the wood himself. It’s freshly oiled, he reveals it took him the weekend to finish for me. I want to kiss him, but I know that I can’t. I know he wants to kiss me, and I know that he can’t.

He tells me it’s a risk him even walking around with me, a foreigner, a female, alone. If he runs into anyone it could cause serious problems in his life. He still lives with his parents. There is tremendous pressure for him to get married and move out.

Kuwait Couple

We’ve been hanging out and talking and sharing details of our lives, so similar. And yet – this detail, and so many others about what he can and cannot do, the unspoken rules, the written ones… he is Sunni. And even though he doesn’t pray and drinks alcohol when abroad: he deeply considers himself Muslim.

Kuwait City Grand Mosque

I ask what comes first: Kuwaiti, Muslim, Sunni, or Arab. Without hesitation, he responds:


My friend and host tells me not to tell him that she lives alone. She wants him to think that I am staying at her family home. It’s a risk to her.

The only men who know where she lives are Stateless or USAmerican

It seems everyone is slightly cautious in Kuwait. Careful of other humans. Even within families, there is competition. I wonder what the culture would be like if there was no oil, no massive amounts of money.

Kuwait Towers Persian Gulf

Another night we all go out to eat traditional Kuwaiti food. There isn’t much I can consume. I’m glad that there’s an international food scene in Kuwait City.

I order camel milk, and am disappointed that it tastes pretty much identical to cow’s milk. My Kuwaiti friends tell me that the taste heavily depends on where the camels are from and what they eat.

Camel Milk

She tells me of her trips abroad. Of sex parties and STI’s, lesbian experiences and Tinder dates. And here, in Kuwait, she falls for GI Joes, who continuously break her heart. To them she is just another girl in just another port, to be used for her love. To her – they are all knights in shining armor.

She is sad that she can’t fall in love. She has traded her participation in Kuwait’s narrow system of partnership and marriage in order to be independent and free and fulfilled. Yet she has no real training in how to deal with romance and relationships outside of what she sees in Hollywood movies. 

We stay in touch frequently. I send visitors to her. She attends online parties I throw during the pandemic. And then reaches out to me a couple years later. She is seeking asylum. 

Kuwait is accusing her of being a friend to Israel.  

Another story about the Middle East


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