Christie Shary

Traveler's Tales - A Visit to the Past

A Visit to the Past

For some strange reason, I feel as if I'm 'coming home,' like an ancient voice is calling out to me. The sun hangs low and hot above the desolate desert as we land, and the heat hits us like a burning avalanche when we disembark from the plane. It is like we are walking into a giant sauna.

"Salam alecom," the sign above the doorway reads. I sigh and read it over and over again, both in the Arabic script and in English. At last I have achieved my dream of so many years; a dream that had been planted in my heart as a young child when my brother lived in these lands.

We have just arrived in the Middle East. But what will it hold in store for us, this land of 'Arabian Nights' and golden magical lamps? A land of belly dancers, Omar Khyam, and veiled women. One of ancient bazaars and mint tea. We will soon discover some of its secrets.

"Salam, welcome," a voice calls out. Both Tom and I look up to see a dashing young man with a wide smile. But something is strange. He wears a red and white turban and a long white dress, which we later discover is called a dishdasha. I force myself not to laugh, but it seems so strange to my Western thought. A man in a dress? Now that's really funny. But this particular man's warmth prevents my laughter from spilling out.

"Come, come this way," he says. "And welcome to my country. Welcome to Kuwait." Kuwait, I think. A tiny country in the Middle East; a place unknown to me except for the rumble-tumble of U.S. Army tanks over its desert sands. Wow, I really am here!Here in a place where history is taking place right now. History that will change the world.

We walk into the airport arrivals hall and into a sea of black and white. Hundreds of women dressed in full-length black chadors follow men in Yasser Arafat-type turbans and brilliant white disdashas. There are flocks of beautiful black-eyed children with dark hair, all of whom anxiously await friends and family from distant lands. Some smile at us-some frown-others stare in curiosity as we wait for Mostafa to collect our visas.

My husband and I stand behind him and smile at the group of people who are certainly studying us, some with daggers in their eyes. I do not understand why, and the longer we stand there, the more nervous I feel.

Then I begin to understand why. There is a tension still in this country; the fear of invasion; the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, still fresh in people's minds-his conquest not yet a distant memory. These people know that we are foreigners in their land. But they must be used to Americans-the olive-green of soldier's uniforms; of oil workers in hard hats. But perhaps they do not often see a visiting American couple-that's it.

Self-conscious, I look down at my bare arms and quickly put on my sweater. Perhaps they are looking at my dress, not conservative enough? Or is it my blond hair and blue eyes? I must appear quite a spectacle to them. Why did I forget to put on my scarf as our guide book suggested? I'm at least thankful that I'm not wearing a mini skirt.

As we exit the very modern Kuwait International Airport in Mostafa's shiny black Mercedes, we pass bright red Jeep Cherokees, chauffer-drive limousines filled with giggling black-veiled women, donkey carts, dilapidated trucks and American soldiers on tanks. Where are all the camels? Oh, there's one, at the side of the road grazing. Dull green date palms line the modern highway, and the stop signs are of the usual shape and color, yet written Arabic. It all seems so strange.

I wonder what the hotel will be like. Will it be a Bedouin tent in the desert or a Sheik's palace with rounded arches and marble floors? Will it have 'pit toilets' on the floor where we must squat? Will we sleep on a doshak-a flat mattress on the floor?

Unfortunately, none of this proves to be true, except for the huge wooden boat with white sails called a dhow, which is anchored beside the hotel in the gray waters of the Persian Gulf. Our hotel, The Raddison, is in traditional 'Raddison turquoise' with leather, Scandinavian-style furniture and nothing at all Middle Eastern except for the beautiful murals lining its walls. I am so disappointed that it is not of Middle Eastern design. But I am not disappointed that there are guards with machine guns out front and giant concrete barricades to keep uninvited terrorists away as the current threat level is high. How do these people live like this, always afraid of when the next bomb might go off? Suddenly, I'm feeling a bit homesick and not quite so sure that I should have accompanied Tom on this particular trip. Is it really safe here? Was I crazy to come? After all, we are at war. Tom senses my nervous and takes my hand and squeezes it.

Together we walk toward one of the murals, depicting a desert caravan. It is beautiful and features a Bedouin tribe, deep within the Sahara Desert. Yes, I should be here. I've always wanted to experience this ancient culture. As we arrive at the registration desk, I study photos of the Iraqi Conquest several years back. There are of the hotel and feature torched restaurants and barren rooms, stripped of furniture, sinks and toilets, all carried back to Iraq.

After we register and forfeit our passports and visas to the clerk for the next twenty-four hours, we walk through the lobby. It is filled with local men and women sipping mint tea. Some of the men smoke hubbley bubbleys, huge water pipes made of colored glass that sit on the floor. I wonder what the food will be like. Will we tire of yoghurt, dates, unleavened bread and mint tea? Will the water be safe to drink? Tom tells me they have desalinization plants. Will fancy dinners seem strange without wine in this land where Islamic teaching forbids its consumption?

Anxious to go sight-seeing, we quickly change and head out into the unbearably hot, yet dry day. As we walk by the crystal-clear swimming pool in an inviting palm-filled oasis, I wonder if perhaps we should remain at the hotel and laze the afternoon away. No, we must visit the ancient bazaars; stare in awe at the mosques and palaces.

And we are not disappointed as we look out the windows of our chauffer-driven car. Walled palaces made of marble and stucco, complete with their own mini-mosques, line the roads, homes of the oil-wealthy Kuwaitis. We can hardly believe our eyes at their opulence and grandeur. Yet next to them are high-rise cement apartment buildings, crumbling huts and squatting camels. So many are so wealthy; so many so poor.

Billboards flash by us in green, orange and black Arabic script. Some display Arab villages; others sports cars and imported perfumes. Giant malls and shopping centers also crowd the roadway, their gaudy pink-marble facades, complete with gold palm trees and marble benches.

A big yellow arch looms on the horizon-McDonald's! I can hardly believe my eyes! Ad there's a Kentucky Fried Chicken next door, and a Wendy's and a Pizza Hut. America has arrived in Kuwait. But I'm no sure I'm so thankful for this. We came here to experience a different culture, an ancient culture, not one crowded with drive-in restaurants and Western style shopping malls. What happened to Lawrence of Arabia? To the ancient bazaars filled with beautiful hand-made carpets that I was expecting?

Yet there are pieces of this, too. On almost every corner sits a delicate blue-domed mosque, their minarets towering toward the cobalt sky. They are truly beautiful, in fact, inspiring. We watch as the masses enter their arched doorways, bowing to wash their feet, and we realize the importance of religion in this land. A religion that is truly a 'way of life.'

Finally reaching the old part of Kuwait City, we walk toward the old bazaar, the souk. As we enter through its ancient arched tiled doorways and wind through the maze-like alleys, we are amazed at its complexity. The scent of saffaron, sage and cinnamon is everywhere, sold by the vendors-the bazarees, dressed in dashdishas and white crocheted skull caps. There is a certain excitement in the air as the women in black bargain with the vendors for the best prices, all hands waving in the air.

I see the smile etched on Tom's face and I'm sure that he's thinking of his boyhood in Iran-of all the times he used to go to the bazaar with Agah June, his grandfather. It is the first time he has returned to the Middle East since he departed as a teen, yet I know already that he is once again feeling its rhythms, its history, its meaning.

The bazarees smile at us, many with missing teeth. They are anxious to show us their wears. "Mine are the best," we are sure they are saying as they gesture toward huge gunny sacks filled with spices, dried limes and dates. Others peddle pounded brass ware, intricate hand-made rugs, camel bags, chadors and dishdashas, as well as exotic fruits and vegetables, some of which we do not recognize.

Next we enter the gold souk and are blinded by its brilliance. Thousands and thousands of necklaces, bracelets, earrings and ornaments shine in twenty-two karat richness. Wealthy Kuwaiti men lead several veiled wives through the market. They all wear bracelets on their wrists and ankles, which dangle when they move, like church chimes.

We wander through the souk's maze for hours and soak up its sights and sounds. It is like we are in this loud, rainbow-colored dream. We purchase rugs, brass pots and a red and black Bedouin door frame made of camel wool. We sample salty pistachios and dates sweet as honey and the size of Mandarins. And we search for gifts to take back home. What will my mother like? A silver or copper vase? Some mint tea? A stuffed miniature camel?

At each stall, we are offered mint tea as a gesture of friendship. Since they have heard us speaking of few words of Farsi, the Persian language, as we study the available wares, they soon discover that Tom is from Iran. "What is it like in America?" they ask. "How can I get a visa?"

Of course, we are shocked, having thought for some time that all Middle Easterners hated the West and its ideology. For some strange reason, now they all wanted to come to America. I was very confused, yet enjoying every moment of the time we spent with these kind bazarees, and we promise that we will come back the following day and join them for lunch.

Only the muezzin's call for sunset prayers from atop the many minarets surrounding the old part of the city interrupts our shopping spree. It is one of the most beautiful and enchanting melodies that I have ever heard. We hurry from the marketplace and watch hundreds of the faithful enter the huge mosque, which sits in the center of the square. It is a most amazing sight to see the masses of black and white in the fading evening light; the silhouettes of the mosque and mud-brick structures illuminated against the pink and orange sky.

Returning to our hotel, the night becomes marshmallow-like, cooled by the Persian Gulf. We sit on the powder-white sands of the Gulf and look up at the stars, scattered like diamonds across the darkness. In the distance a drum beats in accompaniment to a stringed santour. We hold hands and stare across the still water towards Iran, only fifty miles away. Tom's eyes water. I can tell he is back in his youth. Will he never be able to go 'back home' again? It is doubtful.

The moon rises and sends a glow across the water as we sit at the outside restaurant on low multi-colored cushions. We gorge ourselves with dates, yoghurt, fire-roasted lamb kebab, piles of yellow saffaron rice, and flat bread, hot from the clay oven. Then we finish off with honey-flavored baklava and sweet tea laced with mint leaves.

We decide it is like a scene from One Thousand and One Arabian Nights. And we want to remain forever under its enchantment as we clink our tea glasses together.