With thousands of dollars wrapped up in a paper envelope and tucked away in my backpack, I packed onto a bus for the Dubai Airport — Terminal 2, where budget flights leave daily for all the places they don’t let most of us go anymore. Kuwait isn’t one of those places. In my role as “trip leader” (I couldn’t help but think of the line in Star Wars where one of Luke’s friends radios “Roger, red leader,” before exploding into a billion pieces), my job was to keep things safe.
We launched out of Dubai and very simply left The World behind. In less time than it took to drive from Abu Dhabi to Dubai, we were descending over a stretch of oil-soaked desert so barren it looked like a sandbox that had engulfed some of those old spiny antennae TVs used to have.
But first impressions of Kuwait tell you that it is different from Abu Dhabi and other parts of the gulf: rules are broken, people are (allowed to be) eccentric, some things are old. So there! Waiting to apply for visas after landing in Kuwait City, I watched a man in a black robe light up a cigarette under a No Smoking sign; we checked into the hotel to meet with our local advisor and former parliamentary candidate (and composer of Rolling Stone’s #4 world music album of 1996); and we hurried to make a date at the Grand Mosque, one more elegant than Abu Dhabi’s and infinitely more modest, where our loquacious tour guide cracked jokes and answered phone calls with, “I hope it is not my wife.”
In Mubarakiya, the old quarter, a date souk still buzzes with the bright lights and evening company you’d expect to find in the Middle East. Yes, piles of bricks sit for some untold reason in the center of sidewalks, and the main plaza fringed by restaurants and shisha spots feels a fair bit like a construction site, but the oldness and the trueness prevails. In Abu Dhabi’s new Central Souq, boutiques sell $100 pashminas and lenses for your Nikon. In Mubarakiya, aside from the cobblestones lit from below with colored lights, the communality of Old Kuwait is palpable. And smellable. After all, Abu Dhabi just turned 39 last year. Kuwait is the distinguished gentleman of the Gulf at a solid 50.
In fact, in 2011 Kuwait is celebrating not only the semicentennial of its independence from British accents, but also the vigintennial of its liberation from the Iraqi invasion, and the present Amir’s quinquennial in power. (In other news, Dodransbicentennial means 175th anniversary.) If you are in Kuwait and you see the pervasive neon signs blaring “50 20 5,” understand that this is not a preemptive New Year’s celebration 48,194 years early, but a chipper reminder that the country has a lot to look forward to because of all the things it has moved beyond.