Monday, January 30, 2006

More confirmation of no longer being in Kansas

Here's another "only in a Moslem country" story from the Arab Times:

Wife blackmailed: Police have arrested an Arab man for blackmailing his wife and her friends by threatening to publish their pictures on a web site, reports Al-Qabas daily. It has been reported the man was in need of money and when the wife refused to give him, he began blackmailing his wife and friends. The pictures were allegedly taken during his son’s birthday party. The wife had no option but report her husband’s behavior to police. During interrogation the man admitted to the charge. The wife filed a complaint with the Salwa Police Station and the husband has admitted to the charge.

Now, my wife wouldn't be well chuffed with me putting her photo on Flickr for global perverts to gawk at either, but it probably wouldn't have much more of an outcome than getting me touched upside the head or being disappointed come bedtime until the offending pictures came down again. Over here it's different.

You'll note, these aren't those "special" kind of photos that Western blokes often try to delude their girlfriends into letting them take, which then come back to haunt said girlfriends when the relationship's gone belly up (I saw several particularly nasty versions of ex-boyfriend's revenge on No, these particular photos were taken at a children's birthday party, so they're just the kind of photos a Western woman has an album full of. But at her son's birthday party, an Arab woman is most likely not wearing her Abaya. For her husband to parade her uncovered before the assembled male voyeurs and perverts of the world would be humiliation on the scale of the home porno shots displayed by disgruntled ex-boyfriends on

You see the results of this approach to photography on Flickr all the time. Among the more liberal girls of the UAE (ie, liberal in comparison to Kuwait, not in any absolute sense whatsoever), the more risque will post close-up photos of their eyes or hands. Even this can draw some adverse comment from UAE men who are presumably wondering whether the respectable girl they end up marrying might turn out to be the sort who'd display herself like that, and they'd never know. There was one that posted a full-length picture of herself, fully dressed, with her face turned away so she wouldn't be recognisable. This public display drew a storm of comments berating her for bringing the reputation of the UAE into disrepute. (As well it might - I've yet to see a Kuwaiti woman photograph any part of herself or her friends, Abaya or not, and post it to Flickr).

Saturday, January 28, 2006

Highway Star - the aftermath

For the last 7 months I’ve been building a photo set on Flickr, appropriately named “Crashed Cars of Kuwait”. As a demonstration of the perils of driving in Kuwait, this set speaks for itself. Suffice it to say, for the first time in my life, I’m spending my own hard-earned cash on death/dismemberment insurance coverage.

As with most projects that are essentially open-ended and providing a constant influx of new material, Crashed Cars of Kuwait has been getting too big of late. I’ve therefore closed it off and renamed it Crashed Cars of Kuwait 2005. And in one of those flashes of inventive genius that distinguishes true creative talent, I’ve named the new set “Crashed Cars of Kuwait 2006".

A combination of my work schedule and the short winter days has led to most of the 2006 set thus far being taken at night, but I’m still getting some pretty good images. Certainly there’s no letup in the appearance of suitable subjects for it.

Looking at the number of wrecked vehicles I’ve shot in just 7 months, you may be tempted to imagine I’m some kind of obsessive, scouring Kuwait City to catch every single crash. That would be wrong (well, perhaps except for the obsessive bit) – the great majority of those crashes I’ve shot just on my route to work or in my immediate neighbourhood. Add to that the fact that I don’t shoot the many ordinary fender-benders I come across, and the fact that many crash sites are cleared up well before I see them. There have been three collisions within a hundred meters of my apt block in the last year, and I didn’t photograph any of them – either the damage wasn’t severe, or the sites were cleared before I got round to it. Often the only thing I see of recent crashes on the way to work is a new section of bent crash barrier, a new scattering of broken car parts, or a new set of serious-looking skid marks. So bear in mind, I’m only getting a minority of the potential collisions on just the roads I’m regularly driving, and you get an idea of the situation.

Friday, January 27, 2006

Not in Kansas any more, Toto

Over the next week or so I'm going to post some articles from the Arab Times (no doubt in horrendous breach of copyright, but we'll see how long my luck holds), because some of the articles have to be seen to be believed by the average Westerner. Here's the first:

KUWAIT CITY (AP): Annu, an Asian housemaid, says she worked 19-hour days for a year and was paid nothing. Her eyes well up with tears as she slapped her hand, demonstrating what her employers did when she reached out for food when it wasn’t lunchtime – the only meal they gave her. When she could no longer stand the treatment, Annu fled for help to the embassy of her homeland. The gaunt 38-year-old, her black hair gathered at the back of her head in a plastic clip, said she didn’t want to leave this country and hoped to find a new employer. Her three children back home need the money. “Some Kuwaiti people think that maids are slaves, that should be changed,” said a diplomat at the embassy of Annu’s country. He did not want to be identified by name or country to avoid harming ties with Kuwait.

An average of 15 maids seek refuge at the embassy every day, he said. About 166 maids currently were living in the embassy awaiting the outcome of mediation. With their employers, compensation for rape, or air tickets home. In June, the US State Department named its major ally Kuwait — estimated population 2.7 million — as one of the countries that have too little to combat human trafficking. The report cited abuse of domestic workers and laborers, and the use of boys from South Asia and Africa as jockeys in camel races. The Bush administration then waived the threat of financial or cultural sanctions on all countries on the list but Myanmar, Cuba and North Korea. There was no explanation when the decision was announced in September. The American Ambassador, Richard LeBaron, told reporters last month, that Kuwait had “good intentions and plans,” for change but “concrete actions are what will make the difference in the re-evaluation of Kuwait’s practices that we will need to make by January.”

Mentioning the January deadline suggested a new list could be assembled, but it was not clear if sanctions would be threatened again. Beyond the approximately 450,000 domestic servants, tens of thousands of laborers from the Indian subcontinent herd sheep in the desert, collect garbage, clean streets, hospitals and government offices, and work in agriculture for salaries as low as 20 dinars ($68) a month. Demonstrations by laborers claiming they aren’t paid for months at a time are common. In April, more than 700 Bangladeshi workers ransacked their country’s embassy in frustration. Newspaper columnists have called their plight “slave trade.”

Lawmaker Ali al-Rashed, who heads Parliament’s human rights committee, said servant abuse is an “exception” and some maids “make up” stories of abuse to get out of their contracts. However, he conceded the government must act more quickly to guarantee prompt payment of laborers and punish companies that “harm Kuwait’s reputation,” by not meeting their obligations. Some cleaning workers have told The Associated press they depend on charities for food. Kuwait has activated a ban on boys riding camels in races and robots have been introduced to take their places. The government has a labor claims department, but not all foreign laborers know about it, speak enough Arabic to communicate their grievances or can afford the transportation and time off from work to use it.

A new Cabinet-proposed bill for private sector workers is widely expected to address labor issues, but it has not been deliberated in Parliament, and it does not cover domestic workers. The United Nations’ International Organization for Migration proposed in April 2004 the establishment of a Migration Resource Center which would give guidance and legal services for foreign workers who face problems and don’t know where to find help.

“So far, the proposal is still in the corridors of the Social Affairs and Labor Ministry,” said Mohammed al-Nassery, the IOM’s chief of mission in Kuwait. Al-Nassery said he has not been able to find a way to gain access to maids at their workplaces in a way that would not “compromise” the privacy or the integrity of the Kuwaiti household.

Muslim clerics should preach humane treatment of foreign laborers, and human rights should be included in school books, he said, adding that changing behavior will take generations. A the root of the grievances is the sponsorship system, which allows a Kuwaiti individual to employ house help, dismiss them or send them back home at whim. Although it is illegal, most hold the passports of these workers. The union that represents the 500 companies that recruit domestic workers from Asian nations is writing new contracts to be signed by maids, the sponsor and the recruitment agency. They are said to limit working hours to eight, ensure overtime payments and a day off. The Asian diplomat, however, said the contracts would be pointless if maids, for example, are kept in the homes of their employers and off limits to those who could help them.

Asked if Kuwait would be removed from the US State Department list of countries that have failed to sufficiently combat human trafficking, the IOM official said: “Not yet … they (the government) have shown good will, but they haven’t acted on it yet.” Many Kuwaitis reject outside pressure for change, even from Washington, the leading force in the 1991 Gulf War which ended a seven-month Iraqi occupation of this country. A cartoon published in Al-Watan daily newspaper in November, showed a citizen telling what appeared to be a US ambassador: “I hope that you don’t think we have become your slaves because you liberated us, Mr ambassador.” When the diplomat told him they were using boys to ride camels in races and not giving Asian workers their dues, the man replied: “Oooh, I thought you were talking about something important.”

OK, so I knew that domestic servants are basically slaves, from the first time I saw an ad in the paper asking for anyone who knew the whereabouts of this runaway maid to please contact the nearest police station. And I know that the Kuwaiti govt passes a lot of laws outlawing this kind of thing, which everybody ignores. Just as an example, the article mentions that it's illegal for sponsors to hold their employees passports - well, I don't know of a single sponsor that doesn't hold their third-world employees' passports. When any of my Indian workers go on vacation, I have to write a nice grovelly letter to their Kuwaiti sponsor, telling him that Mr So-and-so needs to have his passport so he can go back to India, and could they please help him out in this respect. Writing a letter that says "It's illegal for you to hold Mr So-and-so's passport, you scumbag" would be counter-productive.

Two punchlines of the article:
1. The comment by the head of the stunningly misnamed "Human Rights Committee" of Parliament, that servant abuse is an exception and maids make up stories to get out of their contracts. Given that any maid that runs away is basically on a fast track to prostitution, I think it's likely their motivation extends a little beyond the desire to weasel out of their contract. It's also enlightening to consider the driving force behind the Committee's work - to prevent harm to Kuwait's reputation. Frankly, among the people who work here Kuwait's reputation in this respect could hardly get worse.
2. What really freaks me out is the maid mentioned at the start of the article doesn't want to leave Kuwait and hopes to find another job. In other words, where she comes from, it's worse than this. Once again I get to feel rich, lucky and depressed at the same time.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

The trials and tribulations of schooling your English-speaking children in Kuwait.

The main difficulty seems to be actually finding the school open long enough to provide your children with any lessons. Consider the last couple of months:

In December the school had exams and most of the Arab parents saw no point in sending the children to school once they'd done the exams, so the place was nearly empty and very little got taught. Then the school closed for 3 weeks for Christmas, New Year, and Eid al Adha.

Finally, on the 14th of January the school started actually teaching again. However, on the morning of the 15th the Emir of Kuwait Sheik Jaber died, resulting in a 3-day period of mourning, during which the school was closed.

On the week of the 21st the school had another go at doing some teaching, and did manage to make it right through the week. But the 28th is the beginning of a two-week "spring vacation" based around the Hijri New Year on 4th of February.

Once that's out of the way the children will settle down for a punishing schedule of two whole weeks of school before we hit the Kuwait National Day and Liberation Day holidays around the 25th of February.

The gruelling schedule takes up again in March but there is the 3 months off over summer to look forward to. Somehow it doesn't surprise me to find that private tuition is a business enjoying explosive growth in Kuwait. My daughter's teacher is ready to bang her head on the desk at the impossibility of getting any conitinuity going - perhaps I should recommend she consider turning her numerous off days into a lucrative second income stream as a private tutor.

What really bites ass bigtime is that we're paying the school around US $10,000 for them to (theoretically at least) provide some schooling for our children. In practice, on top of that 10G's we also get to hire childcare for them, for all the time they're not actually at school because it's yet another effing holiday.

We don't have to spend the money of course - funding the school owner's Jag and his gambling/shopping/drinking trips to London isn't something anyone's forcing us to do, it's simply that the other option is state schooling with lessons in Arabic based around excellence in memorising the Qor'an and similar useful life skills - plus the same amount of holidays. I'm developing a sneaking suspicion that the school owners are branching out into the private tuition biz, and doing their best to drum up customers. Bugger that, I'm not throwing good money after bad, my kids will just have to grow up to enjoy life as proletarians.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Support your local police – beat yourself up

As in most places where corruption is the norm, Kuwait’s police force is an object of fear for those lacking money or influence. Us decadent Westerners usually have trouble figuring this out, but we can be excused for not figuring it out when the cop is in plain clothes and an unmarked car. From the Arab Times, 2 Jan 2006:

“Misty L. Dennis, employed with a contractor at Camp Arifjan, had barely driven for a few minutes when a car tailing her in the fast lane started flashing lights incessantly. With the road bustling with cars, Misty was unable to make way for the motorist.”

Lose-lose situation for young Misty – Kuwait is full of guys (and gals for that matter) who don’t seem to imagine that the fact the traffic is bumper-to-bumper in all lanes could prevent them traveling as fast as they want. You’re in the fast lane, only able to do 110k because of all the cars in front, and Mr Crazed Mutant zooms up behind you flashing his headlights and shouting imprecations you fortunately can’t hear. If you’re not a Kuwaiti and the guy behind you looks like one, it would be a seriously good idea to pull into the next lane over at this point. But of course, the gaps in the next lane over are about 2 feet longer than your car, that lane’s moving significantly slower than yours and Mr Crazed Mutant is 2 meters behind your rear bumper, presumably still flashing his lights like mad although you can’t tell because they’re too close to your car. So, unless you like playing motorway Russian roulette Mr Mutation has to stay behind you, working himself into a frothing rage. He quickly deteriorates to the point where getting you out of your vehicle to give you the beating you so thoroughly deserve takes priority over getting wherever he was in such a goddamn hurry to get to in the first place. And of course, given that as far as he’s concerned the question of whether he lives or dies today is up to Allah, not any action he takes or doesn’t take himself, getting into a “chicken” contest with him is a really bad idea. At some point he will stop you. Misty L. Dennis quoted by the Arab Times:

“He suddenly pulled up and stepped out of his vehicle, opened my door and identified himself as a police investigator.”

The man, she said, then hit her with the door before dragging her out of the car. “He threw me to the ground but I managed to regain my balance. He began assaulting me and pushed me against an iron railing.”

Horrified, some motorists tried to intervene but the man, who was in no mood to listen kept assaulting Dennis mercilessly. In the ensuing melee, Misty’s phone and necklace were broken while she suffered severe contusions on her face, hands and legs.

In a move that must have taken some courage unless she’s completely ignorant about Kuwaiti police, Ms Dennis followed the guy to his police station, blocked his car with her own and refused to move it until the guy was charged. The cops told her that if she pursued a complaint they would cheerfully bung her in jail for four days. Now, the money shot – here’s how police investigations work in this country:

Finally after intense negotiations, an agreement was reached between the two parties. Under the deal, the investigator was asked to pay KD 500 (ca US $1700) to the victim but the former brought it down to KD 350, which was eventually accepted by the victim.

Says Misty “I was not at all interested in his money, but the prevailing circumstances forced me to compromise….”

The prevailing circumstances being a choice of:

  1. Accept the guy won’t be charged for beating you up but at least walk away with KD 350 to show for it.
  2. Accept the guy won’t be charged for beating you up and spend four days in jail for annoying the police.

What’s it to be New Zealand, the money or the jail cell? Duh-uh.

My housekeeper was horrified that I called the cops when I was in a fender-bender not long after arriving in Kuwait. It wasn’t actually that bad – I had one shouting at me because the only thing he knew about New Zealand was that we robbed Kuwait in the 1982 World Cup. Given that I could barely remember NZ had actually played Kuwait in the ’82 Weltmeisterschaft, a spirited defence of our nation’s honour wasn’t on the cards. Another one had a go at me for my earrings, but from his point of view he was providing a helpful service to see that I wasn’t mistaken for a poofter and promptly beaten up or backscuttled. Apparently, men are allowed to wear a watch. Anything else says “Come and get me big boy, I take it up the arse”. My housekeeper later filled me in on the proper procedure following a non-injury accident – you both drive your cars down to the nearest horde of Indian or Pakistani panelbeaters, find out what it will cost to fix, and the one who suspects the cops would be most likely to make him responsible hands over some cash. The question of who was responsible for the accident is generally simple to work out – if a Westerner is rear-ended by a Kuwaiti, the Westerner is clearly at fault. But if an Indian is rear-ended by a Westerner, the Indian will certainly be held to account for his terrible driving – and so on. My housekeeper was therefore even more horrified that I’d accepted responsibility for a collision when the other driver was Indian. You live and learn, I guess.

Monday, January 02, 2006

Tales from Mutie Territory (no, not the Wairarapa)

It's that time of year when last year's stuff gets repeated, so here's something I wrote last Jan 1. Some of it's since outdated, eg the Americans have been equipped with properly-armoured vehicles since mid-way through the year, but the rest of it applies depressingly as much today as it did a year ago:

Another episode of Tales from Mutie Territory, but this time the Americans are up to bat. Lots of depressing stuff going on for the poor old Yanks lately.

Last week in Stars and Stripes there was an article about how this is the most intensive call-up of national guard and reservists since WW2, which means the average age of the soldiers is higher than in the last 50 years' conflicts, and worse, a correspondingly higher proportion of the deaths are of parents. The army's talking about orphan affairs becoming more of a priority than veterans' affairs for the next few years ("orphan" including loss of one parent in this case). They've even had three mothers killed, unsurprising given that restricting women to "non-combat" roles like transport actually puts them in the front line in this war. Just about every week there's a story about some poor schmuck who never made it back for the birth, but the wife got to take the baby to see the coffin. They even reprint the guys' last letters home, which I curse myself for reading but can't help it. It makes you feel sick when you think about how little purpose there is in any of it.

I was talking to a doctor in the reserves who'd been called up for an unspecified period, he told me he wasn't too worried because Congress requires his employer to keep his job open for up to 5 years. I told him personally I'd consider that an extremely worrying piece of information if I was him! Apparently the 5 years part is because it was brought in to cover WW2, not anything to do with expectations for this war, but I still reckon he ought to be very worried.

You probably noticed the ruckus about vehicle armour in the news, it's been a big issue for a while given the demand for soldiers to drive big petrol tankers (or aviation fuel - worse!) just about the length of Iraq with just about every known kind of munitions short of nuclear littering the place. There's an extensive cottage industry among the Camp Arifjan engineers constructing vehicle armour out of surplus plate steel, you see the home-made results driving around all the time looking like extras from Mad Max. They're easy to spot because they have regular truck or HMMV cabs with sheets of plate steel bolted on the doors, with a piece going up to shield the driver's head, so that they have to lean forward to be able to look out sideways. Apparently the initial templates were marked out with a ruler and gatorade bottle caps to round off the corners, then cut out with a welding torch. Now the original ruler-and-gatorade design is stored in a CAD program and they've kitted out 2000 trucks with it. I'd love to take photos of some of this stuff but the photographer in Marketing told me he was caught both times he's tried it, and the next time he'll lose his job. I could do without the aggravation.

Gun trucks are another improvisation lots of people are working on. The HMMV with heavy machine gun on the roof is the ubiquitous convoy escort, but these days more firepower is desirable. The best home-made truck was in the camp magazine - some of the engineers built a 7000-lb platform that slots into the trailer mounting point on an articulated truck tractor unit, it can be fitted in just 15 minutes and provides several heavy machine guns about 15 feet up so they can fire clear over the top of the convoy if necessary. It comes with steel plate armour, with kevlar plates mounted 6 inches in front to provide some protection against anti-tank rockets. 7000 lbs is pretty heavy, so they mounted it on a tank transporter. As the magazine put it, "the gun platform at 7000 lbs is considerably lighter than the transporter's standard load of a 60-ton M1 Abrams tank, so a useful turn of speed is available". Understatement! The thing could probably chase down whatever vehicles the Iraqis are using.

The home-made armour on the HMMVs makes for its own problems now that the rains have started. When you put 1000 lbs of extra steel, a heavy machine gun and its mount, a few ammuntion cases, and someone to man the gun into the upper body of a HMMV it doesn't drive quite the way it did before, as you can imagine. You see them belting down the expressway with the guy sticking out of the top in his helmet and goggles and feel really glad you're not him (or her, quite often). When we had the first rain of the season one of them flipped over up in Iraq - another horrendous Stars and Stripes story. The first rain for at least 6 months makes the roads unspeakably greasy, I guess it lifts 6 months of road film. There were new automotive sculptures at the side of the roads all over Kuwait the next morning. Anyway, the story described how the S&S reporter went with a convoy to Baghdad, the convoy doesn't drop below 80kph for any reason because it's harder to shoot at the faster it goes, and anyone who gets in the way gets shunted. The leading HMMVs just crash into anything that isn't moving 80 and doesn't get out of the way quick enough. One of the HMMVs with the armour and the machine gun skidded and rolled in the wet, the gunner survived with a bunch of broken bones, must have got thrown clear is the only thing I can imagine.

Most depressing of all, I had a war movie cliche come to life the other day - I had to write a letter home for a soldier. It wasn't quite "worst MASH episode ever", he pretty much had the letter scrawled out but couldn't handle a keyboard to save his life, so needed me to type the email for him. I cannot understand how someone who likes to keep himself to himself as much as I do gets into so many of these situations. This was the most embarassing one since the old Arab gave me his card and PIN number at the ATM and asked me to get a couple of hundred KD out for him. So, I wrote out the guy's income and outgoings, broken down to what gets spent on what, for his wife, then I got to tell her that he really wasn't hung up on money, but she can see the ends are only just meeting and it's turned real cold here and he's got to get some vitamins and a hat to put on his head, and if he's sticking through all this and she's thinking about leaving him that would be kind of hard. I thought so too. I'm not sure how I could feel so much wealthier and luckier afterwards, and so depressed at the same time.

On the Kuwaiti front, someone seems to be selling fake international calling cards with my cellphone number on them, mostly to Pakistanis judging by all the calls I'm getting from people who want to be put through to Pakistan. At least if they can speak English I can tell them they've been ripped off, but the ones that speak Arabic tend to just hang up and then call back a couple of minutes later in the hope that the crazy white switchboard operator's been replaced by a normal person - very annoying. Personally I'd think twice about ripping these guys off, most of them strike me as having very little sense of humour about it.