The other day myself and AA, my best Kuwaiti friend and ex-war buddy, were trucking along Arabian Gulf Street. Behind us the limp sheen of dawn was quickly succumbing to the brash glare of day …..
….. a vignette by Paul D Kennedy
‘Just about ten years’, AA sniffed at the air, eyes scanning the sky.
‘Just about this time of the day, too,’ I recalled. We were back-tracking by chance the route the tanks had taken into the City.
We reached the end of the Gulf Road. The burnt-out hulk of the old Marriott Ship Hotel had recently been removed and the site leveled for a new edifice.
‘Hardly a trace of the damage remains,’ AA shrugged, ‘anywhere in Kuwait’.
‘Well, it is ten years,’ I said. ‘Time enough for everything to be renovated.’
‘Including the memories?’
The troops, tanks, and overhead choppers were like wisps of fluff on the open road into the City.
‘But I haven’t forgotten. I never will.’
‘Nobody forgets the facts of what happened. But what about the lessons?’ AA flicked the side of his gutra back over the top of his head, arched his eyebrows and looked at me sideways.
‘Did we learn anything, ackhooee?’
AA gunned us left under Shuwaikh Port fly-over, on a bit and then right and down past the string of new car show-rooms.
‘This is one street I’ll never forget,’ I said. ‘Remember the early days? It was open season on anything that could be moved, big or small.’
‘Yes,’ said AA. ‘And it wasn’t just the Iraqis who were stealing.’
During the second week of the occupation I had cruised the area with a Lebanese friend. It was as busy as usual, people everywhere. But nobody was buying or selling. It was grab-what-you-can-time.
We watched as cars were dragged out of the showrooms. Some were hot-wired and driven away, others stripped of their stereos and tyres and left dumped on the pavement. A few blocks away, in Canada Dry, tools and spare parts were being flushed out of the service garages and lock-ups.
Soldiers loaded long Iraqi-plated juggernauts with well-drilled discipline under the watchful eyes of their officers and a few fat Baathi businessmen, tally-sheets in hand, while civilians scrambled to grab what was not on the lists of the official looters with a cupidity that was staggering in its intensity.
People of every ethnic hue tripped over each other in hasty guilty greed as they filled wanettes and scut trucks with booty. As hurriedly-stacked crates were dragged through jemmied doorways, tall dark dudes with out-hanging shirt-tails jostled harshly with lighter-skinned boyos in polos and jeans. But it was the tough guys in slacks and white slip-ons who gobbed the cream as it crossed the pavements, while small wizened men sitting cross-legged in lingis squabbled endlessly over little piles of petty plunder.
Claims and counter-claims rose through the fracas. Sometimes, when the disputants were about evenly matched, spoils were divided in a reluctant compromise. But more often fists or legs were swung to establish possession over cartons of spark plugs and tins of grease.
The smug carpetbaggers looked on the scrimmage for their leavings with cynical contempt. Here and there a few men in dishdashas or turbans stood numbly as their wealth tumbled away in the flood around their feet.
‘It was the same in Al-Rai,’ AA creased his brows. ‘The same all over. But why?’
‘Perhaps when the lid is lifted, when no one is around to stop it, no cops, no threat of retribution, everyone starts stealing.’
‘Sure, that’s obvious. But why? We all know the difference between wrong and right. We don’t need policemen to make us behave.’
‘Perhaps we do.’
We cruised on slowly towards the market area on the other side of Ghazali Expressway. AA had some supplies that needed getting in. He barked a staccato list into his mobile. As we waited at the lights under the fly-over I began tentatively.
‘Were you ever frightened, AA?’
‘Of course not,’ he gave me his solid no-nonsense hero’s look and then grinned. ‘Though like every else I was a little worried from time to time.’
‘The rumours, and the effect they were having on the less strong of heart.’
‘Ah! The famous snowballing rumours of Occupied Kuwait.’
We had all experienced these imaginative mind-quakes, the stories of horrors that doubled with each telling. If one man was killed, the fact was reported as several, then as ten, then as twenty, until a veritable massacre was being re-told.
And the details too grew with each telling, embellishment upon embellishment, as each teller added from his own imagination, like a painter overlaying his canvas for effect.
I remembered being told by someone I considered reliable that a house in Rawda had been shelled and burned by Iraqi tanks in response to some sniper fire from young Kuwaitis. The next time I heard the story it was that three houses had been destroyed. Half a day later the story had reached its final form – the occupants of seventeen houses in one street had been ordered out at gunpoint after which the Iraqis shelled and fired the entire line of houses.
As the story circulated it created a climate of fear that anything the resistance did would be followed by swift Iraqi vengeance on a disproportionate scale. After that, whenever the resistance carried out some brave deed or other, the rest of the country feared the worst. Eventually I had the chance to visit Rawda but I could find only one burnt-out house and it didn’t look as if it had been shelled.
‘The horror was something we felt, so it was very real,’ said AA. ‘And some of it was grounded on hard fact, things we experienced directly or saw the result of for ourselves. But so much of the horror was due to that snowballing talk that just grew and grew. Those rumours and our imagination were the main makers of our fears.’
‘I suppose the lesson is, next time we will have to stop the rumour mill and control our imagination.’
‘Yes. But how, achkooee, how?’
AA crash-landed the car with a flourish on the footpath in front of Al-Rasher’s International Foodstuffs & Miscellaneous Consumables Trading and General Contracting Establishment (Al-Shuwaikh Branch) and we struggled past the boxes piled in the narrow entrance to find the mudeer. The boxes were for us.
It took about twenty minutes of stacking and restacking until everything was stored to perfection in the boot. Another ten minutes to calculate and recheck the bill, argue the discount, and we were off again, the rear end of the old Chevy scraping the humps off the road.
‘Reminds me of some of the work you guys did during the war, ackhooee.’
‘Feeding honkies in hiding?’
‘Yes, and delivering some very authentic documents.’
‘No big deal. Most of the riskies were friends or could have been.’
‘O.k. But there were other things, you know, things you were lucky not to get caught at. Why did you guys do it?’
I paused. I wasn’t too sure. Then I felt the red flush of memory.
‘Anger, AA, perhaps just sheer anger. I can’t speak for the others. For myself it was partly that I was trying to get back at that bastard Saddam in my own way.’
I remembered my wrecked life. I remembered the incident on August 5th 1990. I remembered the fear, the funk that lasted for days and was then replaced by anger, a cold calculating anger, a low-down-in-the-gut anger that focused the mind.
Until 1990 I had always considered anger to be a very negative and destructive emotion. But I had used it to pick myself up and overcome my fears. Anger had given me the will to survive and to do what I did.
‘I suppose the basic lesson I learned during the war is that anger can be a positive emotion, a force for good.’
‘Aiwah!’ AA grinned.
Then his expression faded. We were passing through Sulaibikhat roundabout. Its vast centre was now a grassy green mound. The bus shelter was new and the twisted metal debris from the massive car bomb in late November 1990 was long gone.
‘Yes indeed, ackhooee. Anger can be a powerful motivator.’
Finally we made the sanctuary of the diwaniya at the house in Sulaibikhat. We stood in the window, glasses in hand.
‘I’ll tell you one thing I learned during that war, AA,’ I said as the boy unloaded the car. ‘Hauling groceries is hard work.’
Outside, on the main highway from Jahra, the ghosts of that first line of tanks faded into the heat of the day.
© Paul D Kennedy, August 2000