Kuwait and The South: Two Peas in a Pod

The hotel lobby here at the Sheraton Kuwait has been a fascinating place to be today, especially for a westerner who loves politics. The heads of the security agencies and other government leaders from the Gulf region are all meeting here in the hotel in a very highly publicized but secured meeting to discuss terrorism and security in the region. I have met officials from Iran, Iraq, Kuwait and their security as they have made their way through the lobby today. In my effort to win the Nobel Peace Prize next year, I tried to talk some sense into the Iranians about that nuclear material, but they wouldn’t listen. But they do like coffee and sweets, so we had that in common. I thought it would be really cool to be represent the U.S. government even if Condi hadn’t given me the assignment. She can’t meet with the head of Iranian security, but I can. 🙂 At any rate, I figured this was about as useless as Jimmy Carter meeting with the Iranians, so I just had some coffee and kept my mouth shut lest George be listening to me.

I had one fascinating conversation tonight with a native Kuwaitee. He is 23 and just returned here after finishing his college degree in San Diego. He explained some of the history of oil, the culture, and the traditions that make this place feel so strange to a westerner visiting for the first time. In some ways, it is shocking how much it is like America. The McDonalds, KFC and Applebees are within sight of my hotel. Starbucks is just around the corner. But the values could not be more different than my home in California, but are much more similar to my native Tennessee as well as the southern United States.

In fact, the dress and the food might be different, but there is precious little difference in Kuwait and the American South in other ways. The whole culture of Kuwait is built around hierarchies and respect for authority. The employees here call me “Mr. Todd” and cater to my every need or anticipated need. Like the South, they consider a clean plate to mean that you must need more food. If you refuse, they will insist. So the portions of food are humongous, and so are a lot of the people. My friend told me that they have the highest rate of diabetes of any country per capita. Instead of menus, there are all you can eat buffets of Arabic and Indian food. Just swap schwarma for fried chicken, and it’s no different than Sunday lunch at Ryan’s.

Women are somewhat liberated here in Kuwait, but it’s understood that the men are still really in charge. Because it is inappropriate to meet women in public, men resort to chasing women drivers on the road or making awkward and secretive glances at them. There also are no alcohol or homosexuals either. So, without alcohol, dinners and festivities are fairly brief. Like Church of Christ weddings in the South where no alcohol is served, weddings consist of going to the wedding, speaking to the couple, having a quick bite to eat, and then making a quick exit. And of course, without homosexuals (at least open ones), there is little theater, art or beautiful aesthetics here. They are all in London, I suppose.

But in another striking similarity to the South and to any place where fundamentalisms seize faith, my Kuwaitee friend told me that everyone knows that alcohol and homosexuality is abundant when the doors are closed. Yes, there may be religious laws against these things. But that doesn’t really control behavior that much. People don’t engage in these actions in public, or tell the truth about them, because of a religious reason. The reason they are untruthful is because this society is all about keeping up appearances so that you don’t embarrass your family, your social status or your religion.

I certainly understand how the South works, and how conservative religion functions. So I really didn’t feel too out of place here. It is a different religion, but the same kind of fundamentalisms. It is the kind of fundamentalism that Jesus said will choke all the life out of you and force people to live a false life. Jesus speaks out in the Sermon on the Mount against a religious devotion based on false appearances rather than love that is grounded in truth.

There is a freedom in limits. But limitations based in falsehood are not freeing at all. The truth will set you free, but false piety will imprison you.

Want to understand conservative Arab culture? Just look to the South and Christian fundamentalism. An ocean may separate them, but their destructiveness is the same.

And so I went back to my conversation with my new friend, and we both decided that where we are from is still home. It’s just good to see it from another point of view sometimes.

One Response to “Kuwait and The South: Two Peas in a Pod”
  1. Anonymous says:

    In the South, you can verbally trash anyone and end it with “Bless their heart.” which absolves you of any guilt in gossip or slander. Do they have a construct like that in the Arab world?

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