Working in Kuwait

Photo by Jan Dommerholt on Unsplash

On the 22nd May 1978 at the tender age of 27, me and ‘er indoors flew to Kuwait so I could go and work. It was a bit of an adventure, I had no idea what to expect but I was getting double the money and no tax. The wife was looking forward to a warmer climate and sights that were new.

In those days I was what was known as a Systems Programmer, looking after Operating Systems on big iron as mainframes were later known. As well as getting double the money, we also got a free flight home every year though it had to be on Kuwait Airways, a “dry” airline. The flight was uneventful but what we did notice was an Arab in airline pilot’s uniform with more gold on it than an American Admiral. Apparently he was in charge. The real pilot appeared during the flight, a grey-haired Brit about 50 years old wearing a white shirt and black trousers.

When the 747 landed in Kuwait it was the evening and the temperature was in the late 30s or 40s. We went down the steps at the rear of the plane and thought those engines are hot. After a few more steps it didn’t cool down and we realised that was the air temperature.

The initial steps were to find a flat, fortunately supplied because rents were astronomical, get a medical done and get some wheels. I was contracted to a Ministry and they supplied a car and driver to get me around and get all this done. The hunting for flat was iffy. The wife went as well and we saw a few different ones, including one which had a complete carpet of dead cockroaches on the floor. Going from bright sunlight to darkness meant you didn’t realise it until you figured out what the crunching sound was. We eventually settled on one in a suburb called Hawalli. There was cold water tank on the roof but in the 50 degree heat the water in that was really hot so the hot and cold taps were reversed most of the year.

The medical tests were a joke. One place I had to give a urine sample so they gave me a polystyrene cup to piss into and sent me to the bogs. These were the arabic type, a hole in the floor that was full of brown stuff. The stench was disgusting so I was pissing away trying not to vomit. They also took finger prints. You get taken to a police station where they take your prints and throw the paper onto a big pile on the floor. Looked ripe for a bonfire.

Getting a motor was easy, we got a Toyota Corolla and it never gave a minutes trouble. The Arabs tended to have American cars (mostly GM but not Ford as they traded with Israel) but we were there to save money. All this rigmarole took several weeks and the country was so different I walked about with my chin on the floor in amazement. The weirdest sight was going into a hospital when who should be walking out but a Bedouin followed by his wife. She was in black, head to toe, but was breast feeding the baby as she walked. Incongruous to say the least. I saw much the same later in a supermarket.

The driving style was eye opening to say the least. Lots of insh’allah (if God wills it), the theory being that if God wants you to have a crash then it will happen. There was lots of rush hour traffic, it took about 40 minutes to do the few miles from the office to home. The American cars produced enough power to turn the air conditioning while idling, the Japanese cars not. I used to arrive home in a pool of sweat and could drink the contents of a chilled classic coca cola bottle without pause. The Arab drivers often drove along with one arm out the window. This was no cause for concern but if that arm started moving it meant “I am going to do something, I don’t know what yet but something will happen”. In order to encourage a better standard of driving most of the roundabouts had a severely damaged car as a centrepiece. As far as I could tell, their driving had not improved.

So, we had a flat, a car and my paperwork was up to date. Work was indescribably boring but the social life was good. Most of the expats mixed well and drink was taken. Be aware you couldn’t actually buy booze, well you could allegedly get black market whisky from the Iranian laundry but it was very expensive. We made wine from grape juice and bread yeast in 60 litre buckets. With the heat there it fermented in a couple of weeks and tasted a bit ropey. That didn’t stop us and I had never drunk so much in my life. The authorities tended to turn a blind eye unless you started selling it or giving it to Muslims.

There was a caretaker for the block of flats. Our one was Sudanese and very dark. He lived under some kind of shelter on the roof but he would wash your car every week for a Christian price. How he survived in the 50 degree heat was one of life’s mysteries. We had air conditioning, he didn’t. In fact everywhere was air conditioned bar the souk. We could take about half an hour in the summer heat before we wilted. It only rained a couple of days a year but when it rained it was a deluge and the roads became rivers.

In the office there was a room reserved for prayers and the faithful went there probably three times a day. Having finished their prayer business they used to stand outside the room talking. I had no idea what it was all about not speaking Arabic. One of the Egyptian programmers who was Muslim said to me one day do you know what they are talking about. I had no idea. He said they are discussing whether God likes a blue flame or a yellow one. He couldn’t understand why either but there it is, they discussed it.

Although there was no tax, the Palestinians paid 10%. This was forwarded to Yassir Arafat who also did an annual  tour round the richer Arab countries putting the squeeze on and getting even more money out of them. King Hussein of Jordan did the same, visiting those same countries with his begging bowl.

The take away shawarma was absolutely delicious, sometimes from places that looked a bit grotty and they did cocktails of fresh fruit juices (looked like pousse café) that were to die for. I only had tummy bugs twice. Both times from eating shellfish in the Sheraton Hotel, it was immaculate but the grottier places were safer. There was a restaurant called Caesar’s that did Indian and Oriental. They served something called Cambodian Chili Fried Chicken. One taste and you ascended to heaven. We lived the good life.

Petrol was about 5p a litre so filling the car up cost less than a couple of pounds.

During our first holiday back I caused the wife to be with child but this was not confirmed until we had returned to the Gulf. She went to visit the quack, often an Egyptian who had his feet on his desk and was smoking. The one thing I remember was they wanted blood to do tests from both of us. The syringe was the size of a bucket and they took a shedload of blood. Later we found out they also sold the blood; that was lucrative. You also need to realise that although the doctor had a room just about anybody came barging in at any time, you didn’t want to be in the middle of an intimate examination.

The news on Kuwait TV would make the BBC look semi normal. It often started with the revelation that the Emir had sent a congratulatory telegram to outer shitholeistan on the occasion of their country’s independence day. The second item would be some local Kuwait news. The third item might be that world war 3 has started or, as actually happened, the pope (John Paul I) had been assassinated. In Arabic there is no letter P so they have trouble pronouncing it and their attempt to say pope usually ends up sounding like bobe.

Late in 1979 the Iraq Iran War started. It was too close for comfort, Basra was only a hundred or so miles away. My decision was to get the hell out of there. On the 10th Jan 1980 we returned to the UK with a reasonable sum in the bank. Our first child was born a few months later. I calculated this as one year 8 months 18 days and a few hours but who is counting.

It was an experience and one we wouldn’t change. I had no idea about Arabs before I went but in general the men are, well think of your favoured term of abuse. Now I can’t stand them. The women are much nicer but they are responsible for raising the men to be the way they are. The wife got a job after a few months and got on well with the Arab girls she worked with. The mother of one of them did the best kibbeh you have ever tasted.

When the wife started work the Arab girls asked if she was married, for how long and how many children did she have. When she said none after a couple of years they were aghast. I know good doctor, he will sort it out and all that sort of stuff. Over there when a woman gets married a child is expected within 9  months or questions get asked.

I could fill this out with many examples of just how weird it is to live in the Gulf area but it would get boring. Leave it like this.

© well_chuffed 2022