a pentrait by Omar the Outsider
© Paul D Kennedy, 1995
These stories are based on a radio series written for Radio Kuwait's short-wave service, called Life In Kuwait. The popularity of the 30-part series has ensured that it is broadcast each year.
The purpose of the series was edutainment, ie to present Kuwaiti culture to the world at large in a sympathetic and nuanced manner.
Several pentraits based on the series have been published in magazines and newspapers in the Arabian Gulf region.
It is said, by those who do not really know much about the matter, that life for the Ordinary Kuwaiti is just one long idyllic existence. An Ordinary Kuwaiti enjoys his share of the oil dividend with a cradle to grave welfare system and an easy job in the civil service. Some say this makes for a life of indolence and self-indulgence. But a closer examination reveals that such an assertion is utterly preposterous and in fact the typical day experienced by the ordinary male citizen of Kuwait is little more than a series of onerous duties to be discharged without complaint.
We were sitting around in the diwaniya. It was well after midnight and, as is the style in Kuwait, the conversation was turning mordent in a last burst of energy before bedtime. A departing guest had indicated that he was tired after a hard day's night and Azuz, my best friend in Kuwait and our host for the evening, had expressed his fraternal sympathy.
‘You know, most Kuwaitis have quite an arduous life.’ Azuz lay back, his face creased with concern. ‘It is not until the matter is examined closely that one realizes how difficult, even tiresome, life can be for us ordinary Kuwaiti men.’
Something I had read recently popped into my mind.
‘But isn't it true that over ninety percent of Kuwaitis work for the government?’
‘Yes, Ackhooee, very true,’ Azuz sighed. ‘From 7:30am to 2:30pm, nearly every day, five days a week.’
‘Just seven out of twenty-four hours a day. My dear friend, that doesn't sound like a hard life.’
‘Ah, but that's where you are wrong,’ Azuz was emphatic. ‘The daily toil of an Ordinary Kuwaiti begins long before he arrives at his place of employment and does not finish until well after midnight.’
‘You mean hours outside official hours are really working hours for Kuwaitis?’
‘Indeed they are, Ackhooee,’ he said, using the colloquial term for brother. ‘Let me explain. By the time he gets to work at 7:30 in the morning, or maybe just a bit later, an Ordinary Kuwaiti like myself has been up and about for several hours attending to vital matters.’
‘Organising the younger members of the family as they get ready for school, berating the servants, instructing the ladies of the house. All that sort of thing.’ Azuz sighed again. ‘It all takes time and energy.’
‘But everyone the world over has to do things like that.’
‘Indeed, Ackhooee, indeed. But more so in Kuwait. Here the family tends to take precedence over most things. Which is excellent, I must add. Yet it does use up a lot of time which, of course, we Ordinary Kuwaitis do not resent since taking care of our families is our joy as well as our duty,’ Azuz suspired slowly. ‘But this commitment extends throughout the day.’
‘The list of errands Ordinary Kuwaiti men have to perform for their families is endless. During the early evening the women of the family may need to go shopping or to be driven somewhere. In Kuwait a great deal of responsibility falls on us men because here it is usual and very customary for families to do things together. With the man in charge of course,’ Azuz rubbed his jaw, emphasising the fatigue lines on his face. ‘Without a doubt, we Ordinary Kuwait men work quite hard throughout the day, even outside official working hours.’
‘So I see. You are beginning to convince me. But during official hours things don't seem particularly heavy. As I recall – you may correct me if I'm wrong – in 1993 Al-Qabas Newspaper published a study based on a sample of 600 Kuwaitis in the ministries who were asked `How many actual work hours do you do everyday?' and 22% answered that they worked between just two and three hours. Nearly 10% said that they worked for less than an hour and less than 14% claimed to work for more than five hours. Can you explain this, Azuz?’
‘Of course I can, Ackhooee, I can always elucidate anything provided the subject matter is not trivial.’ Shaking off his tiredness Azuz rose to the explanatory challenge.
‘I recall this study very well. It's conclusions were probably correct if,’ Azuz wagged his finger forcibly, ‘you accept a narrow definition of the term work. The people who answered the question must have supposed that the word work only refers to the time they actually spend writing on a form or stamping it which is what civil servants everywhere in the world mainly do. But real work is much more wide ranging than that.’
My curiosity was piqued. ‘So how is real work defined for a Kuwaiti?’
‘Very simply and accurately. Whatever a man is obliged to do as his duty is work. In Kuwait, these duties are vast and unavoidable. For an Ordinary Kuwaiti like myself, exercising my inalienable constitutional right to a place in government employment, work includes meeting colleagues and members of the public at my ministry. It includes deciding which forms to be used for what purpose and how many stamps and signatures they need in order to give them an air of inviolate validity, a most delicate task I might add. Later in the day a man's work imposes a myriad of additional duties upon him. Believe me, there is hardly a break in the day. The work an Ordinary Kuwaiti has to do is endless. And all this is real work even if Al-Qabas did not explain it properly to the people it questioned for that survey. Indeed work as we all know includes the errands a man is obliged to run, even during official hours, for his friends and family.’ Azuz paused for breath, almost collapsing from the effort.
‘So an Ordinary Kuwaiti may be absent from his ministry during official hours and still be engaged in work?’
‘Frequently, unavoidably, understandably and officially, Ackhooee. Let me explain. A Kuwaiti man may have to go to another ministry to pay, let's say, his domestic electricity bill or to have a licence issued for this or that which can only be done during ministry hours. Of course his own ministry will understand; everyone in Kuwait has to do it several times a week and it is quite acceptable. But you must also understand,’ Azuz leaned forward, his voice dropping to a confidential whisper, ‘that the business of many ministries in Kuwait is interlinked. So a Kuwaiti civil servant will often be in another ministry on official business, where he will be entertained by his colleagues while the paperwork he came to enquire about is being sorted out by the Egyptian clerks.’
‘It sounds like you poor fellows never get a break at all.’
Azuz noticed the touch of sympathy in my voice. ‘Well, to tell you the truth, it's not quite as bad as all that. The ministerial day is soon over.’
‘So what happens then?’
‘At about 2:30 or maybe just slightly earlier, like all civilized human beings, Ackhooee, we Ordinary Kuwaitis go home to lunch.’
‘Of course, Azuz, that is obvious. But I suppose lunch is soon over and its back to work again?’
‘Well, not immediately, to tell you the truth. After lunch a gentleman like myself will take an hour or so to rest, a short repose to refresh himself in anticipation of the rigours of the coming evening.’
‘Everybody in Kuwait goes to sleep in the afternoon?’
‘Not everyone, of course. The young or unsophisticated may take a drive to the beach for a swim or something. But the Ordinary Rational Kuwaiti realises that there is more work to be done in the evening, so he takes some rest after lunch. It is the intelligent thing to do.’
‘Naturally. What time is the siesta over?’
‘Five o'clock or maybe a little bit later. Then the hard evening work begins.’
‘You go back to the ministry?’
‘Of course not, most certainly not,’ Azuz said with pained indignation. ‘One doesn't go back to a ministry to work. The hard work of an Ordinary Kuwaiti is quite different in the evening.’
‘Indeed. What work do you do in the evenings?’
‘For the young, there are the sports clubs. The country has many fine clubs where the young men of Kuwait indulge their fantasies and play at football or other games. Of course, this is not really work. In the evening time an Ordinary Sophisticated Kuwaiti like myself needs to go to his private office. ‘
‘Yes. Every Kuwaiti with face has his own business office, though normally he only has time to go there in the evening.’
‘I see. So what sort of business do you do in these offices?’
‘A little trading, importing and exporting, selling on commission, that sort of thing.’
‘I suppose they make good money?’
‘Sometimes, Ackhooee. But not always, I must admit.’
‘If there is not much money in it, why have an office?’
‘We Kuwaitis are natural-born businessmen so, of course, we have to have an office.’
‘I see. But if you are not making money then what are you doing in these evening offices?
‘Organising things, planning, you know,’ Azuz hesitated. ‘Naturally it takes a lot of effort deciding the best line a business should take, especially discussing things with our associates. More exhausting effort,’ his voice was becoming weak.
‘Azuz, I get the impression that the evening business of the Ordinary Kuwaiti is a form of entertainment.’
‘La, la, Ackhooee. We Kuwaitis are serious businessmen, born to it. We work hard to entertain our friends much later at night, in our diwaniyas.’
‘Ah yes, the famous diwaniyas of Kuwait.’
‘Of course! Once we have finished at our offices we must go to our diwaniyas. As you yourself know, being a regular guest, in our diwaniyas we work very hard to entertain our friends.’ He waved his hand around the room, at the scattering of flattened cushions and detritus on the floor.
‘In Kuwait, as I have said many times before, a host is the servant of his guests. We have to talk and amuse, to ensure that everyone is comfortable and that the conversation flows, to make sure that all have enough to nibble or drink as they wish. As Kuwaitis, this is one of our most exhausting duties, a task that can on late into the night, often until well after midnight.’ Azuz glanced at his watch.
I got the hint and began searching for my shoes. A day in the life of an Ordinary Kuwaiti. I had never realised it before but it seems that the work of an Ordinary Kuwaiti is never done. Rising at dawn, he works before he goes to work, and his hard work, official, domestic, business and social continues throughout the day with hardly a break except for a short snooze in the afternoon.
‘You must be quite exhausted at the end of it all, Azuz.’
‘Indeed, Ackhooee, indeed. We Ordinary Kuwaitis never get to bed until very late at night, with just a few hours sleep before we have to get up again and face another day of unremitting labour.’
As he saw me off at the door Azuz sighed with wearied satisfaction. ‘As you can see it's not an easy life being an Ordinary Kuwaiti.’
© Paul D Kennedy, 1995