Returning to Kuwait

On a visit to their childhood city, one writer encounters the unsettling freedom of dislocation.

Boyat and female pop kitsch in ‘Wa Wa Complex’ by artists Fatima Al Qadiri and Khalid Al Gharaballi, 2011. Read more

By Sally Tresh

The second I stepped into the city, it felt like déjà vu. It felt like somewhere I had grown up. It was. The heat was scorching and the sun faded by dust instead of clouds. It seemed to me like I had made a stop back to my childhood and that feeling, strangely, of home was instantly intoxicating. I had stepped back into the Gulf. At long last I was in Kuwait city.

I was in Kuwait on business, but the city caught me off guard. The shadows beckoned me, and out of curiosity I followed them. Slowly the shadows gave way to light, and the bright color of Kuwait began to emerge.

The gate keeper to this wondrous underworld was a friend of mine, Tamer*. Tall and toned, with kind eyes, and striking features, it was not an over statement to say people stopped and stared. He would lead me through most of my little adventures here.

Down the rabbit hole
The third night for me in the city I was invited to what was called a “birthday gathering”. I was told to expect a driver to come and pick me up around 9pm, and so he did. He drove through the highways, and arrived at a little house in one of the city’s middle class neighborhoods. I got out of the car; bid him goodbye and he drove off, leaving me in the drive way of a strange house. The door opened revealing my ridiculously handsome friend, beaming. “C’mon in, the party is about to start.”

Tamer was visibly more relaxed than when I’ve seen him last, he seemed in his element. I pecked him on the cheek, and walked into the open door. It was a little apartment, cozy and carefully decorated. Expect for the loaner chairs it seemed simplistic.

“This is Kamel*, it’s his birthday today.” My friend introduced me to a young man, decidedly of gulf descent. I shook his hand and thanked him for the invite. In the meantime the room began to fill up, alcohol began flowing and the night one way or another ended. It was surreal, so unlike the Kuwait I imagined.

Revelations
In the days to come, my friend and I bonded, and started spending more and more time together. Then, one night, while discussing my intention to write this article, he came out to me and I came out to him. We sat there for a moment, content with comfort and normality, just goofily smiling at each other. We had become family.

“Of course I miss home,” he would later tell me. “But I’m freer to be myself here.” Tamer was from Jordan, but had lived with his partner, a young Kuwaiti, for 2 years. They shared a home, a life, they were happy. That was something he felt he couldn’t get back home. “There are always people watching. Everything goes back to family,” he said.

“It’s not that I’m afraid” he replied when I asked if he would be afraid to be out in Amman. “I just find it unnecessary to put it out there, it isn’t just who I am. I don’t run around outing myself to people here, but I feel like it would be harder to keep it under wraps back home.”

Welcome the underworld
“It’s easy for us to hide in plain sight here.” he continued “Men are very close to each other physically.” He was right: it is a rather common to see men holding hands and being very affectionate with each other in Kuwait , even in the most of the public places like the mall.

“They also have ‘Diwaneya’ where men spend long nights together,” Tamer continued. “It’s easy to say you’re staying at a Diwaneya all night with friends, it would not be a problem.”

With women, things can also be easier. Women are expected to be very good friends with each other, and the idea that best friends are in essence soul mates is very ingrained in the culture.

An incognito relationship, it seemed, was very easy to carry out in Kuwait, more so than in Levant countries like Jordan. No one asked any questions, and no one seemed to find anything suspicious. If they did, no one was talking.

The Flip side
It would seem that leading an undercover life seemed relatively comfortable here, but there seems to be another side to it. “Men and women are expected to get married. There is no argument here,” my friend explained. “That’s what Kuwaiti LGBT have to deal with, leading separate lives.”

Another friend, Sami*, raises a different point. “At the end of the day we are foreigners here, so what we do doesn’t matter to the locals,” he said. His argument is that, just like locals in Jordan don’t seem to care much for the sexual orientation of foreigners, Kuwaitis are indifferent to what supposed outsiders get up to in their private lives. “At the end of the day, we are expected to leave. We really aren’t part of their society, so they think what they do doesn’t affect us.”

Home?

“I miss my sisters every day.” Tamer* would say wistfully. “But I can’t be who I am back home. I don’t want to hurt anyone.”

“I grew up here” Sami* told me. “But it still doesn’t feel like home. Home was in London with my partner, that was my home.” An aspiring musician, Sami* still dreams of the day he leaves the Arab world. “I don’t feel I’m appreciated, or understood for that matter. I want to go back to London.”

I left Kuwait and came back home, where I’m not really out. Somehow, the trip left a bad taste in my mouth. Not to say that the city was bad, it wasn’t. It was really a pleasant surprise: a small haven for a lot of the people I knew and loved, but in many ways it also seemed tainted. At the end of the day, it seemed, we are all destined to little freedoms and big sacrifices, for which we all have to be ready.

*Names have been changed

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