Beautiful Dancing Ladies

By Jheri St. James

       “I know I was sleeping with a knife, and I was waking up with the cold sweats, because we were sleeping on the ninth floor, the top floor where we live, and if that elevator comes up to the top, we know we’re not having company.”

     “ And you can hear the elevator?”

     “ All night long.”

     This is the beginning of the story of the February 2005, Kuwait soil-collection— just a guy picking up some dirt.

     He describes Kuwait as he saw it. “There are skirmishes going on, bombings in Kuwait. It’s exactly as it’s always been. They killed nine people in the last ten days. It’s been on the BBC; it’s been on CNN once. When it’s on CNN, that’s when I call my wife and let her know I’m okay. Starting around January 15th, there seems to have been one cell that’s causing a lot of trouble, and it’s continuing and escalating violence. I imagine it’s only going to get worse because they’re letting four Kuwaiti guys go from Guantanamo Bay right now. So they’re going to come home and tell their stories, and now they have attitudes. You can’t be locked up for three years and not have an attitude. So my feeling is it’s going to get worse.”

     “And if I remember right, didn’t we save Kuwait?” asks Gary Simpson, creator of Common Ground 191.

     “ That’s what’s so strange about it. Some guys I worked with were in the service back in ’91, and at that time the hotel at the airport was bombed, and the tower was bombed. But it was all rebuilt again. For some reason they want to support the Jihad, and I don’t know why.”

     “ Did that come from the levels of government or is it the insurgents?”

     “ It’s definitely insurgents. Every time they arrest people, there are normally one or two Saudis among them, so they’re coming from Saudi Arabia, absolutely.”

     “ What is the government of Kuwait doing?”

     “ Oh, they’re clamping down like you wouldn’t believe. Tapping telephones, and when you pick up your phone you can hear the signals.”

     “ Are they being assisted by U.S. troops?”

     “ Not publicly, they’re not. The U.S. is saying, ‘we support what they’re doing, and we back them and we have 100 percent confidence in them,’ but at the same time soldiers aren’t allowed off the base in Kuwait City anymore. So they’re not backing them very much.”

     “ So they’re not supporting them as they are in Iraq? They’re not on the streets?”

     “ No, there are only two main bases.”

     “ You were there for three weeks. What was your day like there?”

     “ Depending on what kind of plane comes in, you drive to the airport, you work the airplane, and you go home.”

     “ You drive to the airport? Where are you staying?”

     “ Oh, I live in a town called Salmiya, which is 35 miles away from the airport. We’re the only Westerners in the town. We stick out like sore thumbs. I saved an article from a newspaper, because they caught the head insurgent’s wife in a building just a few buildings over from us.”

     “ Aren’t you at risk there?”

     “ Oh, absolutely!”

     “ What does your boss say about that? Don’t they take any precautions?”

     “ Change the Suburban two times a week. We get a new car, so they don’t recognize us. They’re not doing much at all.”

     “ If you had your way, what would be the prescription so you would be safer?”

     “ I’m not going back. I’m done.”

     “ Do you have the opportunity to be in an area where the military are, so you’re safer? Kuwait City?”

     “ Well, you could stay at a place called the Safar Hotel but that’s a dump that sits right on the airport property.”

     “ It may be a dump, but you’d still be alive more likely, wouldn’t you?”

     “ Well, yeah, I guess, but if I don’t go back I’ll still be alive, and it will be just as good.”

* * *

     The State of Kuwait (Dawlat al Kuwayt) borders the Persian Gulf, located between Iraq and Saudi Arabia, in a country slightly smaller than the state of New Jersey in the USA. It is a sandy desert—intensely hot summers and short, cool winters—flat to slightly undulating terrain. Its environmental challenges include air/water pollution and desertification. Kuwait is a small, rich, relatively open economy with proven crude oil reserves of about 98 billion barrels—10% of world reserves since 1946. As this small state depends almost wholly on imported food, and about 75% of their water must be distilled or imported, it has some of the world’s largest and most sophisticated desalination facilities. Kuwait is also the name of the capital city, which was founded in the 18th century by a tribal confederation of Arabic people, the Al-Sabah dynasty.

* * *

     “ Sometimes it’s a spoon in the dirt and into the bag it goes.”

     “ Especially in the places where you were.”

     “ Salmiya was a beach on the Gulf. It seems to be a marina for the people with money—boats and things like that. The reason I took the soil from there was because of these three women sitting in beach chairs, as we do here, but they were fully masked, in black. I mean why bother sitting on the sand if you’re going to be fully clothed? I just happened to be out one day, and I keep the bag in my pocket. And you know, I saw some beach area, and I thought, ‘This is as good a place as any.’”

     “ When you say it’s a beach, I was thinking lake or sea, but there are pools there as well?”

     “ Right now it’s a little cold. The temperature is probably 20 C, which is about 40-45 degrees. But I would be curious as to what the summer beach activities are, because men and women can’t intermingle. They can’t go swimming together because there’s a men’s pool and a women’s pool.”

     “ Is it like a country club setting? Are there buildings?”

     “ No, in a far stretch, it’s like Hawaii, where you have a road, maybe a six-lane road going across and then there’s condominiums on the other side and then there’s just beaches and restaurants. And places where you can walk, places where you can sit out on the point and watch the water, basketball courts.”

     “ Like Laguna Beach in a way?”

     “ Exactly. But you’re 8,000 miles away.”

     “ And the people are all covered up.”

     “ The people who wear Arabic dress are. Some men wear three-piece suits, some men wear jeans, some kids wear shorts and some wear Arabic dress with the headpiece. So you have all different people. Because the largest hospital in Kuwait is for plastic surgery, I’ve never seen more beautiful women in my life. But they all sit with each other. And they sneak a peek now and then. And the guys all hug each other. I was in Starbucks. There’s a Starbucks on every corner because there’s no alcohol. There were two guys sitting here and two girls sitting over here, and a computer one guy was typing on. Well a third guy came in and one of the guys got up and he hugged him and he kissed him on both cheeks, and then went to the other guy and did the same thing. And when he came to the women, he just held his hand out. I almost jumped up and said, ‘Hey, what are you doing? Shake the guys’ hands and kiss the woman!’ I really had to hold myself back because it was starting to affect my brain.”

     “ I’m sure it’s a very cosmopolitan city.”

     “ What do they say about Lebanon—the Paris of the Middle East? It’s not quite that. There are definitely beautiful shopping centers and all the most expensive watches and things they have. There’s TGI Fridays, there’s Chili’s—all the restaurants that are here are over there. And there’s a bar, but no alcohol is served, just virgin drinks.”

* * *

     The women of Kuwait do a traditional dance called Khaleegi, the Kuwaiti Gulf Dance, wearing very long caftans, which they raise in their hands up as they shuffle to a 6/8 musical rhythm. The caftans are brilliantly colored (blue, fuschia, yellow, green), sometimes sheer, and extremely ornately decorated in a complex tapestry of beads and sequins. The sleeves are also very long, with very deep openings on the sides. To watch women perform the Khaleegi dance is a gorgeous study of movement and color. They swing their dresses, their heads and long, glossy hair from side to side, in movements that resemble the opening and closing of a flower in a kaleidoscope. Sometimes they take the edge of one sleeve and pull it overhead to form a hood, and continue shuffling as they slide their heads from side to side with a modest yet flirtatious air. Other times they’ll lift one hand up and shake it.

* * *

     “ Very rocky, almost like a jetty, just to avoid erosion, and then there’s the beach and the little blue markers where they don’t want people to swim past, so obviously it’s a swimming beach in warm weather. Everything there is sand. But I’m almost positive if I took a sample at the beach and I took a sample 40 miles away, it would be the same stuff. The whole region is sand, unless they put concrete.

     “ The route we go, we have to go through the coalition forces because I have a military I.D., because we do a lot of military flights. You have to drive through—the Kuwaitis have a road and we at the airport have nothing but dirt that’s hard until it rains, and then it’s mud. The weird thing is that water pipes aren’t underground. As you’re walking around on the streets, you’re stepping over water pipes that bring water into the city. I don’t know why that is, but they just leave them up on top.”

     “ How big around are they?”

     “ Whatever that is—like 10 inches across. You have to make an effort to get over them. They’re on the ground, metal pipes . . . I’m sure I’ll be back even though I said I wouldn’t go. I like the duckets they put in my bank account every two weeks.”

     “ Do they give you extra money because of the danger?”

     “ No, no. They don’t consider it dangerous, because they don’t go.”

     “ You’re really quite the adventurer, though.”

     “ I don’t know about that. Maybe I’m just blindly optimistic that nothing’s going to happen to me.”

     “ Right.”

     “ How do the pilots feel about flying in and out of there? Those areas?”

     “ All they do is complain. There’s no such thing as amnesty. In the beginning there was hope. Flying into Kuwait when the war was beginning? You would fly in between the SCUDs. You could see a G.I. sitting in a lawn chair next to a SCUD and you were hoping that he was paying attention, because there would be one this way and then, in another few feet, another one on the other side of the runway, pointed straight up. So that was unnerving. They don’t like it but they stay at a hotel downtown right near the airport and the hotel has a 10-ft. barrier around it, so they have some protection there. I guess it will take something to happen to someone before they stop flying there. When we fly to Bahrain, we can see all these planes that are well past their prime, and pilots from New Zealand, America, England—they’re from everywhere and they fly into Baghdad every day. And it’s like, ‘what have you guys done wrong?’ They get paid for flights. We fly armor-coated vehicles into Kuwait and then we give them to a Russian airline and they have to pay cash before they take off. And then they take the cash with them. Which to me doesn’t make any sense, because if they blow the flight up . . .”

* * *

     We end our eavesdropping on this conversation with the question: Does this sound like a soil-collection project, a sand-collecting project? No, it sounds like an action movie, a soldier of fortune in a foreign land, observing the native people and their customs, the terrain, ducking gunfire. It certainly doesn’t sound like an art project in that most peaceful of resorts, art villages, Laguna Beach, California. But it is, and that’s what makes Common Ground 191 so endlessly fascinating—the stories and the fusion of all these soils and their stories into one huge fresco, representing the possibilities of peace through art. And hopefully the beautiful ladies of Kuwait will always continue practicing the art of Khaleegi.

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