It Sounds the Same in Every Language

This past weekend, for lack of anything better to do, I decided to take a short trip up the coast to Kuwait. Sadly, there isn’t all that much to do in Kuwait. Alcohol is banned, basically making it a smaller, dustier Saudi, but they have some semblance of political and religious freedom (the Vatican has a strong relationship with the Emir) and, more importantly, it’s another stamp in my passport.  

I was joined by two friends, both of whom accompanied me to Dubai over New Years, and although it started later than I anticipated due to a late night birthday dinner and the ensuing hangovers, it got off to a good start. The road to Kuwait is a multilane highway that skirts the Gulf Coast without ever actually getting near enough to see it. It passes through several large industrial oil processing areas, a few small oases, and a surprising amount of livestock ‘grazing areas.’ There really isn’t a better way to describe them than ‘grazing area’ because they aren’t really fields, but there is enough small shrubbery to support roaming herds of goats and camels. Some parts of the highway have fences to keep the livestock at bay. Most do not.

I tried to get closer but apparently camels can be quite mean

Girl and the Paki, who are ‘dating’ in a very loose sense of the word, make fairly good travel companions. They’re both mountain-folk, Girl from rural Montana and the Paki from northern Pakistan, which gives them a pleasant air of simplicity (or naivety) when it comes to new or dangerous situations, and they share many of the same interests I do; namely good food, cheap drinks, and slightly out of the ordinary travelling experiences. They both also speak other languages, although it’s really only the Paki who comes in handy in this part of the world.

*Technically, Paki is a derogatory term. I use it because he’s my friend and he’s ok with it, but also because he refers to me as Infi (short for infidel) in public and more than once we’ve gotten each other stared at and scolded by both natives and expats alike. It’s racist, and we both know it, but it’s all in good fun.

Incidentally, we had breakfast at a Pakistani truck stop cafe.

Four hours after we set out from the Tri-City area we reached the border. The highway takes a very sharp and poorly announced 90 degree turn and literally ends at the gate to customs. I was a bit worried that my expired car insurance would keep us from getting out of Saudi, but as usual, and without so much as a second glance, the guard quickly stamped our passports and waved us on while simultaneously ashing his cigarette into the open car window. We drove through the demarcated mile of desert that serves as the border and queued to pass through Kuwait customs. Aside from having to wait for unnecessarily long time, the only major problem with Saudi borders is the lack of consistency when it comes to procedures. Some borders you stay in your car and everything is processed for you, others you walk into buildings and fill out forms yourself. There are never signs that hint at what to do, and, although most of the buildings were built with enough counter space to handle hundreds of people at a time, there’s only ever one person there working.

After waiting in line for about an hour we pulled up to the Kuwaiti customs booth. The officer there motioned for us to park the car and go into the immigration building (though it was more or less a slight wave towards the desert accompanied with a few barely audible grunts). Like most every other Arab official, the passport officers assumed Girl was my wife and the Paki was my driver, so my ‘wife’ and I were escorted to a separate area so I could fill out both our forms while the Paki waited in line with everyone else who wasn’t a Westerner or a Gulf Country resident. This is standard fairly standard procedure. Most customs areas are separated in this manner, and the prejudice of Arab culture is blatantly obvious. Racism is openly practiced here.

The process to get a visa to enter Kuwait was fairly straightforward, albeit a bit time consuming, and it went fairly smoothing for myself and the ‘wife.’ The Paki, on the other hand, ran into a bit of a problem. In order to get a Kuwaiti visa as a Third Country National, that’s someone from a third world country,  a person needs a valid passport and an iqama that doesn’t expire too soon. How soon is up to the discretion of the passport officials, and in the Paki’s case a month of validity wasn’t enough for a weekend visa. It should be noted that the Paki is an engineer for Saudi Aramco (which gets him a special iqama that’s arguably much better than mine), speaks fluent British English, and is very light skinned; all of which usually mean there shouldn’t be a problem with racist officials. This particular day that wasn’t the case.

Girl sat in the car while myself and the Paki spent well over an hour talking to various supervisors asking for special permission for a visa. Its common practice for officials higher up the ladder to make exemptions purely at their own discretion, but because neither of us held enough sway, nor we were willing to attempt bribing customs agents, we were unsuccessful. The rationale given to us in English for not granting a visa changed with each official, but the Arabic side conversation and girlish giggles all basically amounted to the the same gossip about how funny it was to see a Pakistani ‘engineer.’ After explaining themselves, each of the officials had the gall to pressure the Paki to hire a taxi back to Dammam so myself and my ‘wife’ could enjoy our stay in Kuwait. Hearing this multiple times put the Paki in a bit of a mood, so I said forget it. We went back to the car to go home.

As it turns out, passing through one side of customs and getting rejected from the other means more paperwork just to turn the car around. I spent a while chatting up a Border Guard (one of the nicer, helpful, less racist ones) while he translated my dilemma to the exit officials. Once we passed through the demarcated border zone, we queued to go through Saudi Customs. Two hours later, passports unstamped, we were back on the highway.

We got back to our compound after dark, having hit rush hour traffic coming into Dammam. A long, frustrating, unsuccessful day of travelling had worn us out, but we were still up for salvaging the weekend. We decided to go to Bahrain to have some authentic Middle Eastern-style Mexican food and a few beers. It wasn’t the most productive weekend, but it could have been worse.