We Took our Toddler to Kuwait (and it was Awesome)
In an ongoing effort to expose our daughter to as many cultures as humanly possible, we recently visited our friends in Kuwait. And it was awesome.
I know, many of you are saying, "She won't remember it, what's the point?" Our answer- Photos! Lots of photos!- was on autoreply when we dragged her across five continents before her first birthday.
But the truth is, my husband and I believe that somewhere, deep down in her little prefrontal cortex, each experience is leaving an imprint, informing her that people who who look, smell, sound and feel unfamiliar can be just as loving and playful as the people she already knows.
As we waited for our rental car at the airport, a moustachoied Saudi man dressed in a white dishdasha robe bent down, scooped our daughter into his arms and buried his face into her neck. Wow, he's really going in for it, I thought, bracing for her usual protest against all men with moustaches. But she squealed delightedly, pointed her finger at him and said, 'Dadda!'"
I shrugged and smiled. "It's her only word," I said.
For Americans, the last time Kuwait entered the cultural lexicon was 25 years ago during the Gulf War, when we solemnly watched its burning oil fields on TV and sang along to Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the USA”. Since then it's been rebranding, and like it's oil-rich neighbors the UAE and Qatar, is now among the wealthiest, safest countries in the world. (After Finland, of course).
But traveling to the Middle East, no matter how cosmopolitan, is to fully embrace the etymology of culture. Even on our layover in the Dubai I noticed I was one of the few women on the flight and the only woman not wearing a black abaya and face veil (something not totally out of my wheelhouse, but always takes a sort of re-centering).
There are other cultural differences to note. Men are allowed up to four wives. Alcohol is forbidden. In mosques, men and women pray in separate areas.
Here exists the paradox of a modernized country ruled by Sharia law: shimmering skyscrapers, stretches of city beaches and Le Pain Quotidien call forth lazy memories of my native Southern California, except here, women in burqas, not bikinis, relax under beach umbrellas.
Our Dutch friends had relocated here for work and I quizzed them about life here as an expat. 60% of the population are from Bangladesh, Pakistan, the Philippines, and like our friends, upper management jobs from Europe and North America. Kuwait holds 10% of the world's oil and outsource their labor: a long way from their Bedouin seafarer past.
We got a taste of the country's Achilles heel: they are speed demons. Perhaps it is the lack of alcohol or their devout observance of faith, but you truly haven't lived till you've peeled rubber on La Corniche against an Escalade of burqa-clad moms, Frappuccinos in hand. (For those who were wondering, they were faster.)
The Grand Mosque is an Andalusian masterpiece fitting 10,000 people but more importantly, a giant romper room for kids. The fish market, always the pulse of a city, was packed. We drank a heart-stopping Turkish coffee at Al Shaheed Park and got kicked out of the Opera House. Nobody mentioned Donald Trump, and for a few days, I didn't think about him, either.
But my favorite stop was the city souq at sunset, just as families were venturing out for an early meal. Sia flitted from stall to stall like a butterfly, jewelry hawkers down on their knees, making silly bird calls to win her attention.
This is why we travel to countries which our fundamentally different than our own. To challenge the status quo and offer an alternative to the limited information about a place. It's simply not that big of a deal, even with the friction back home. When the rhetorical veils and ideologies are lifted, we find we really are not that different from one another.
Who knows what is in store for us and the Middle East in the future, but for now, we are happily at home away from home.
Sia pointed at young father up ahead of us in the souq. “Dadda!” she cried out again and toddled off behind his brood, three wives and their multiple children, wanting to join them, even if for only a temporary moment.