Sunday, 17 November 2013

The Globetrotter's Guide to Learning to read Arabic

I have been living in Kuwait for two years (18 months if you don't count summers in France). During this time, I haven't had a single lesson in speaking, reading, or writing Arabic. I can say "chokran" to thank someone and that's about it. 

Yesterday, I looked at this word on the sign outside the grocery store... and read it. M-R-K-Z. Merkaz.

Hmmm. I call my Lebanese friend Amal to ask her what "merkaz" means. "It means "center", she says. Of course, the Sultan Center, the name of the store where I'm getting my groceries.

So there you have it, everyone. Congratulate me! I am now reading Arabic without having taken any lessons at all. Just 18 months of a constant barrage of signs for McDonalds, Burger King, Zara, and GAP, etc. and I'm catching on.  Who says illiteracy can't be beaten?

Can you make out the letters M-A-K-D-O-N-A-L-D-Z ?



Applying my newly-discovered Arabic reading skill, I'm starting to make out more actual words in Arabic, not just brand names. I have learned the word STOP in Arabic just by reading the Arabic part of the sign.

Q-F (/kef/) is the word for "stop"
And take a look at this sign out in the desert. I can instantly recognized the words "Al-Kuwait" just by recognising the "K", but what about the word for "city" (which, incidentally, precedes the word "Kuwait" in Arabic, reading right to left. Let's see: M-D-I-N-A. So the word for city in Arabic is "medina" (just like the city of Medina in Saudi, I guess).

Of course, I'm going to have to check all of this out with my Arab friends. The tricky part is that the letters change depending on where they are placed in the word, so I have to get used to remembering a letter three different ways depending.

Meanwhile, the Bambina has 45 minutes of Arabic at school every day. She's better at it than I am (for starters, she can actually say something more than "Chokran") but she says it's very hard. I would be thrilled if she learned to speak, read, and write Arabic competently before we left Kuwait. Even if she doesn't get to take it in lycée when we return to France, she may get inspired enough to study it again later on.

The week before, I had an email from her Arabic teacher complaining that the Bambina only got 4 out of 10 and that she needed to try harder!

Monday, 11 November 2013

Here's one thing you can do on the weekend in Kuwait...

In Madagascar, there was nothing to do on the weekends. There weren't even any malls (can't say that about Kuwait!). However, we could always hop into our car and leave the city to explore the countryside. The roads were not great and sometimes there were no roads but we got to see some incredible wildlife and quaint Malagasy villages.

Antsirabe, Madagascar
One of the many lemurs at Vakona Lodge, just north of Antanarivo, Madgascar
Getting to know the tortoises on one of our weekend trips outside the city

Kuwait on the other hand? When you live in a tiny country encased by Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and the ocean, you can't go very far by car. There is desert for two hours and there there's more desert but you can't go there because it's the border.

The border at Iraq
The result of this hemmed-in environment is that the kids are bored for much of the weekend. There's the mall. But the mall just means buying stuff and spending money. There's the beach club. We go there every Friday during the warm months, but cooler weather has arrived. I won't call it winter, but it's not beach weather.

There's no park near where we live (and Kuwait parks are not in great shape, anyway), there are no outdoor cafés, no outdoor art exhibits like at the Jardin du Luxembourg in Paris, no children's workshops at a local museum (that I know of...), but we have found one thing that we can do one weekend at month. We can visit and even volunteer at the animal shelter in Wafra.

Wafra is a town near the Saudi border. It takes over an hour to get there. The Kuwait Society for the Protection of Animals and their Habitat (aka K'S PATH) houses its animals there.

The advantages of visiting this shelter are numerous:
  • The shelter is in the country, surrounded like farms, so going there is like taking a day-trip to the country. That's a refreshing change from visiting shopping malls.
  • You get to see all kinds of animals - dogs, cats, baboons, falcons, horses, donkeys, goats, are the ones that come to mind. It's almost like visiting a zoo. There is a real zoo in Kuwait but it's depressing to visit. This place is not depressing. The animals are well taken care of.

  • You get to walk the dogs outside around the surrounding farmland.

  • You get to play with and brush all the gorgeous kitty cats . 

Can you tell that I'm a cat person? :-)
  • You get to meet other families living in Kuwait.
  • The kids get to experience the joy of animals and of volunteer work.
Be careful, though. Your kids may convince you to adopt one of the animals.

Meet Pumpkin, our new cat

Sunday, 10 November 2013

Spending the night in the desert of Kuwait

Every November since we have been living in Kuwait, we join the Amicale des Français au Koweït (that's the local association for French-speaking expats) for a night in the desert. We meet up at 1 in the afternoon at an agreed-upon place, someone hands us a map and GPS coordinates, and we head out in a convoy to a corner of Kuwait where there is nothing but sand and the odd herd of camels.

Some observations about the desert in Kuwait. First of all, it's almost completely flat.

It's nothing like the beautiful vast rolling dunes that you see in the United Arab Emirates, for example.

The flatness makes finding a campsite all the harder, because you really do need dunes to camp out. Dunes make camping a better experience, more beautiful, less windy, easier to find a private spot when you want to go pee! There are a couple of places where you can find a sand dune or two, fortunately, but they're rare.

Seconlyly, the sand of the Kuwait desert isn't consistently smooth and fine. In many parts, its more like gravel. There are plenty of stones and even large rocks to be found in it.

And then there is the garbage. It's a sad fact that there is trash everywhere you look in the desert of Kuwait. It litters almost every square meter of sand. We are guessing that there is no or limited trash collection for the bedouins who live in the desert. That might be one part of the problem. However, I also sense that people in Kuwait have not developed the common value of caring for their communal environment. The desert doesn't belong to any one person individually but to the whole country, so it's not up to any one person to keep it clean. It's sad because, even without the dunes, it could be a beautiful desert. As it stands, it can be truly ugly just because of all the trash.

The camp is only an hour and 15 minutes away (Kuwait is a tiny country!).  Once we arrive, we have to set up our tent right away, before it gets dark. Pitching a tent can be an arduous task in normal conditions. It's really hard when you have a strong wind, and sand blowing in your face while you're doing it. We end up getting help from a few people to set up our tent, plus several bags of sand and rocks to prevent the tent from blowing away when we aren't in it.

Once the tents are pitched, it's time for the aperatif. Everyone gets beverages out of their coolers (I'm not going to mention what kind of beverages people brought with them. I'll leave that up to your imagination).  We drink to good health and the expat life.  The Crown Plaza Hotal has already arrived with the catering truck, and an hour later, there are tables and chairs set up and a buffet dinner is served. We have a lively dinner filled with banter, jokes, and camraderie. The kids hardly eat anything. They're too busy rolling down the sand dunes and exploring dark places for snakes and lizards.

After dinner, it's time for singing around a big bonfire.

Somewhere around 11PM, we make it to our tents and fall asleep. This may seem early to you, but it's been dark since 5PM and we're exhausted.

In the morning, we wake up with the sun and the sound of wind. Sand covers every crevice of our tent and every orifice of our body. After a communal breakfast of coffee and packaged croissants, we take down our tents and pick up any garbage on the ground.  We think it's important to clean up after ourselves. 

We can't wait to get home, take a shower, and appreciate the new-found luxury of our homes. The desert is fun for a night but not longer than that.

Thursday, 31 October 2013

Hallowe'en when you're not in North America

In Kuwait, Hallowe'en is a sensitive subject. Whether it's something to be celebrated or not depends on who you talk to.

There are first of all the vast majority of people who are expats from countries who don't do Hallowe'en and who don't care to start the tradition (people from the Philippines, India, and Sri Lanka, for example). 

Then there are the expats from North America who are **very** keen to somehow continue their tradition with their children while abroad.

And then you have the expats from the United Kingdom, western Europe, Australia, and New Zealand who, even though they don't celebrate Hallowe'en back home, are happy to join in on the fun with their North American expatriate confreres while abroad. The Bambino's French school is an example of this mindset. The French don't traditionally celebrate Hallowe'en - at least not in France. But the French school in Kuwait definitely does. The kids in the preschool and kindergarten arrive in costumes. The classrooms are decorated. The teachers, also in disguise lead the children through the administration corridors yelling "farces ou friandises" (a French translation of "trick or treat" to anyone who'll give them some candy.

And then there is the 30 percent or so of the population that is Kuwaiti and that is divided on the subject of Hallowe'en. Some see Hallowe'en as a fun and harmless way to stimulate their children's imagination. Others see at a Christian/pagan/satanic festival that has no place in Kuwaiti culture and should be banned from sight. Kidzania Kuwait recently canceled their Hallowe'en costume party after receiving pressure from customers who took offense that a local business was promoting a non-Kuwaiti tradition.

But even in Kuwait where Hallowe'en remains a little bit hush-hush do to local sensitivities, if you're looking for something to do on 31 October, you can always find a Hallowe'en party at your local beach club or at places like The Little Gym or at your child's school. The hard part is finding a place to do trick or treating. In other expat countries, American families might organise a trick or treat in the park. We used to do this in Paris. Everyone lines up, and then the kids at the end of the line "trick or treat" the others in turn.  Nothing like that has ever been organised here in Kuwait. Last year, we did no trick-or-treating at all. This year, due to pressure from the kiddies, I'm sending them over to some (American) friends who live in a building full of other Americans (it's one of the faculty buildings for the American University of Kuwait, in fact) and my kids will trick or treat at all the apartments in the building. I'm giving a kilo of candy to my friends to distribute to other kids on our behalf.

But even with this kind of make-shift set up, I realise that my children will probably never experience a true All Hallows Eve. It's not the same thing when the whole city or even neighbourhood isn't participating. It's not the same thing when there aren't jack-o-lanterns lining the porches and window sills of every house on the street. And it's not the same thing when you don't see hordes of kids everywhere outside traipsing from door to door. The real Hallowe'en will have to wait until they're grown up and possibly living in North America - although I hear that in France, it's also catching on...

Tuesday, 22 October 2013

That moment when you realize that you really are in another part of the world...

Kuwait has so many street cats, maybe as many cats as people. Most of the cats you see hiding under parked cars or meowing from rooftops are feral and it's impossible to pet them, let alone pick them up. Even if you wanted to adopt one of these cats, you couldn't. They're not meant to be domesticated.

And then you happen upon some poor wretched cat that is not feral, just living in the street, very friendly and (dare I say) cuddly, begging you for some food. Here is a beautiful Persian cat that lives just outside our house. She's one of these cats.

Something happened to her tail. I don't want to know what it was. It's too painful to think about and I can't stand to look at it. It has puss coming out of it sometimes, and today I finally couldn't take it anymore and I took her to the vet to get her treated with antibiotics.

And here was my Kuwait moment - my moment when I thought to myself, "This part of the world really is very different from the place where I grew up". I arrived at the veterinary clinic, I took a number, I sat down with the cat in her cage (yes, I know, poor kitty) and here is what I saw:

Yes, that's a bunch of Arab men holding falcons. They traditionally use falcons for hunting, although I'm not sure that these men do. They might just keep a falcon as a pet. It was a bizarre scene - me with my stray cat and eight men that look like they're wearing pyjamas holding a falcon on their finger.

I think I'll send the photos to National Geographic.

Monday, 21 October 2013

Your kids' jeans made here in the third world

Workers at the factory.  They get paid about 40 dollars a month,
according to the head of the factory.  That's a low wage,
even by Malagasy standards.  Our nanny gets paid about 125
dollars per month.

A couple of years back when we were living in Antananarivo, Madagascar, I had the opportunity to visit a local factory where name brand children's jeans were manufactured for export to Europe.  

Let me just say that I have always been a big supporter of free trade and free movement of capital.  While some people might complain about the loss of manufacturing jobs in developed countries to China, India, Bangladesh, or Madagascar, my reply has always been, "More power to the Chinese, the Indians, the Bangladeshis, and the Malagasy!".  I'm happy for them to have jobs and opportunities.

It is therefore with a bit of sadness that I am revealing these photos.

Outside the factory, tons of eucalyptus wood cut from Madagascar forests
and burned to make hot water to wash and treat the jeans.
The factory head maintained that they contributed to tree replanting too.  I suppose there may be good arguments to use eucalyptus trees instead of say, gas, but I tend to think that the resulting carbon footprint must be huge.
Blue toxic waste is the byproduct of washing, bleaching,
dying and chemically treating the jeans to create the
"stone-washed" and "acid-washed" look (Note to self: don't buy these jeans).  The waste gets
dumped in uncontrolled landfills and leaches into rivers,
lakes, and the soil.
Children's jeans ready for export

As I toured the factory and saw the hundreds or workers labouring over fabrics and machines, I thought to myself, well, at least this factory gives them a job. Many people in Madagascar live in abject poverty and have no employment at all.

"And can I assume the employees get to make a living wage here, unlike so many in this country?" I said out loud to the factory manager showing me around.
"Mais NON ! They earn 80 US dollars a month."
80 US dollars a month would allow you to live in Tananarive, but not very well. You would definitely need other income earners in the family. 

So there you have it. The next time you buy jeans for your kids, let your mind travel to the factory where those jeans were made. I would never suggest boycotting jean purchases, but I definitely don't buy stone-wash or acid wash jeans now.