Sunday this past weekend was a brutal early spring day – only 2C, gusty winds, steady rain with bits of snow, and steel-grey skies. It was a day for spring cleaning, and digging through a drawer of “stuff” led me to a stash of Kuwaiti Dinars, the leftovers from several trips to Kuwait in 2014-2015.
Looking at that currency made me think of a warmer weather walk in the autumn of 2014, when I was working for a banking technology firm based in Germany. We had signed a contract to install our software for a client in Kuwait and in October I headed there for a requirements workshop, and arranged to arrive a couple of days ahead of the meetings to get over the jet lag. That gave me a free day on the weekend to explore.
I had been in Kuwait for a few days earlier in 2014 but hadn’t had a chance to explore. I had an introduction to the Middle East back in 1993, when I had spent a couple of months working in Dammam Saudi Arabia, and I was itching to explore Kuwait City to compare it to my earlier experiences.
Since our client was downtown, I was booked into centrally located hotel, perfect to explore the city. It was October, which meant I was escaping cooler temps back in Canada for upper 20’s in Kuwait City. I wanted to get out early in the day before it got too hot, so I had an early breakie and started off.
My hotel was near the Jahra Roundabout, in the southern part of the downtown area so I decided to walk north towards the Souk al-Kuwait, along Fahad Al-Salam Street. I had read about traditional Arab souks, or markets, and in Dammam I hadn’t been able to experience them, so this was a chance to explore.
There were several things that struck me as I walked. One was the huge disparities of income evidenced by the shops and the way people got around. At one end of the income scale there were the fried chicken restaurants around the bus depot where the expat Philippino workers gathered to crowd onto buses. At the other end were high-end retailers selling perfumes and patronized by sunglass-wearing young adults with gold watches and sports cars.
As well, there were building works, road works, telecom works, and works of every imaginable kind under way, everywhere. The city is new and is constantly building and renewing itself. There are shiny glass office towers with provocative architectures attention-stealing lights, alongside crumbling 30-year old wrecks from the Iraqi invasion in 1990. The streets alternated between newly paved and bumpy potholes, and the sidewalks were sometimes granite and marble, sometimes bumpy concrete and sometimes non-existent. It was hot and barren with little plant life, yet with little cool shaded alleys with inviting shops.
As I walked north I kept coming across shops that alluded to the trading past of Kuwait City, along side modern mosques, offices, restaurants, and museums. The city really only dates from the 1970s and much of it was damaged during the Iraqi invasion in 1990, so given the rebuild since then it’s really only about 20 years old.
When I came to the Souk Al-Kuwait itself, I was led into a shaded maze of stalls, food stands, coffee and tea stands, and shops selling a wide variety of clothing, kitchenware, jewelry, silks, perfumes, fruits and vegetables, fish, spices, and more. As you walked the scents surrounded you – powerful colognes or musky spices or fishy aromas, masked by coffee and tea, and overlaid by dust and wafts of diesel exhaust and fried foods. I wandered and window-shopped for more than an hour, and picked up some silk scarves for gifts. I had a fresh fruit juice, and explored until the onset of mid-day prayers shut up the shops.
Leaving the Souk and walking north I eventually came to Jaber Al-Mubarek Street and there turned towards the water of Kuwait Bay. Following that street led me to the Sharq Mall, and some blessed air conditioning. I went in looking for a break and found it at a Starbucks. That was the thing that kept striking me about Kuwait – you are surrounded by Arabic buildings, calls for prayers, men wearing head scarves and women in habbayahs, and yet there are Starbucks, and Cadillacs, and Kentucky Fried Chickens everywhere. You’re away and at home at the same time – it’s disorienting.
From the Sharq Mall I kept going along the water to the Fish Market – I love food markets and wanted to explore this one. It was disappointing on one level, because all that fresh fish made me wish I had a way to buy some and cook it myself. On another level, it was a reminder of the traditions of a small trading port that through geological coincidence had become ridiculously rich, and yet strived to remain rooted in those simple occupations, like fishing. This was a vast remove from the fishing villages I’d seen Ireland or eastern Canada, and yet here they wanted to remember and honour that life.
After that I kept walking along the seafront back in the direction of my hotel. There is a promenade that stretches for many km along the shore, with regular parks laid out and planted with palms and cacti. Families strolled along and old men fished. It was a weekend so it was pretty quiet relaxing.
After wandering another few km, I eventually ended up back at my hotel, where I could reflect on my tour. Kuwait City has an energy and vitality that comes with youth – the average person on the street, the buildings, the entire city are younger than I am. Any yet there is also a conservatism that comes with deep history, both religious and cultural. It is a kingdom after all, with all the tradition that suggests. That mixture was the interesting part for me. I can’t say that Kuwait City was one of my favourite places to visit, and yet it was interesting in an educational way.