Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Kuwait Snippets

In Kuwait I had a class which was a mix of Kuwaiti women and expatriates. One young woman, Asian and wearing a headscarf sat quietly and did not seem to have supplies. I asked if she had a machine, and she said “No”. Because we had told many people that the fabrics would be supplied, I thought she might have misunderstood, and suggested she do the exercises on my machine.

She moved happily, and was really very good at the free motion work. I told her so, we broke for lunch, and she seemed to disappear. A rather agitated woman pointed out that she was only the maid for one of the Kuwaitis, and not a member of the class, and that I should not have included her.

In the afternoon she reappeared, and rather tentatively asked if she could try the machine again. She sewed happily all afternoon. Her mistress had a quiet look at her work, and I could see her deciding that the maid would do the quilting.

I stood in the Sultan Centre supermarket in Kuwait and could have cried. They even had red and white currants. The cheese counter was huge and so enviable after the smaller range in Cairo. I will come with an empty suitcase next time.

I followed a group up the steps of a mall near my hotel in Kuwait city. There were three girls in black abayehs who couldn’t have been much more than twenty, each followed by a maid carrying armfuls of shopping bags with labels like Armani, Gucci and Prada.

Willpower is eating cornflakes and milk after walking past the hotel buffet in Kuwait.

I had a memorable night with good friends, two Kuwaiti and two Australian, at a seafood restaurant perched over the sea on the edge of Kuwait city. I don’t like naming people in a public forum like my blog, so I won’t give names.

They are reclaiming land rapidly here, so glamorous shopping plazas that used to be on the edge of the sea wall are rapidly moving inland. The area below the restaurant was brightly spot lit, and the soil so white that it looked as if we were perched over a glacier, complete with drag lines on the surface as it disappeared into a dark sea in the moonlight.

I had seafood chowder, creamy and chunky with prawns as fish and shellfish, and with the fragrance of real homemade stock and a bit of saffron. Then grilled hammour – a local fish popular in the Gulf countries, and a bit like barramundi. It is a sea fish with firm waving it forward with his hand flesh and delicious flavour, thick and satisfying.

I had a wonderful meal with the Bernina dealer in Kuwait.
When he asked me I assumed there would be a number of people there, but found that I was just eating with his family. I felt immediately greatly honoured, as I know this is unusual. Even more delightful, his children were there and we ate en famille.

His wife is a superlative cook, and must have been practicing her art for days. It was a truly delicious meal, though in quantities that would have served most of the Kuwaiti army. The soup was potato based and delicious. The salad was a crisp and delectable mix of every fresh cubed vegetable you could imagine, with mint and coriander and a light lemony dressing. The main dish was a rice dish, with very long narrow grains of rice that I haven’t seen before, fragrant, cooked with saffron, and raisins and nuts, and served with chunks of utterly tender, falling-apart lamb cooked with cinnamon and allspice. They told me this was Kuwaiti. The other six main courses were all local, but not unique to Kuwait. I was served large quantities of each and this is where good manners in the Arab world clash hopelessly with good manners in Australia.

Here, good manners demand that you are generous with guests, and a host will serve you, rather than have you serve yourself. My plate was taken and piled up again and again. Australian good manners demand that plates should be left clean. If you clean a plate here, it is assumed that you have not had enough to eat. It can be a vicious circle, until you have been in the Middle East long enough to realise that eating a little is enough.

Dessert was a huge bowl of fresh fruit salad, in mango juice and with all the fruit available at the moment, and with a lot of pomegranate seeds. Then just as I thought I had finished out came cream caramel, followed by a cheesecake with a red jellied topping thick with the crunch of pomegranate seeds, followed by tea, and amazing chocolates by Dior! Then a tiny round bottomed cup of local coffee served often after meals. It is more cardamom than coffee, golden brown and slightly cloudy, and incredibly fragrant. It is one of the scents that takes me back to this region from anywhere in the world. It is always unsweetened and black, and is aromatic and palate-clearing. When you have had enough refills you have to give back your cup while waggling it. This says that you are finished.

This was not the end. Next my hostess appeared with a large silver burner in her hands, pouring pale smoke. She offered it first to her husband, and so he could show me what to do. He lifted his white head dress with both hands as he leant forward, then waved the smoke forward with one hand to let it waft around his head. He then beckoned it to move around his clothes and arms and neck. She came to me then and showed me the small piece of wood burning within the holder. It was sandalwood – oud – of the best quality available and smelt heavenly – but almost indescribable. Not at all like sandalwood soaps, but fresher, lighter and so much better.

I was wearing a lightweight black suit, and the jacket still – weeks later – smells wonderful, especially as it warms up. Perfumes came to the world from this region. The name per-fume means scented smoke, with fume meaning smoke. Many things are burnt here in houses for their scent, and this quality of sandalwood is the best and most expensive. I have seen very expensive shops that sell nothing else. Frankincense is also sold here in shops and market areas. A smear of dark sandalwood perfume oil was dabbed on my wrists.

It was a wonderful night, and so lovely to met his wife again, and his sons and daughter. At the end of the night the beautiful daughter in jeans and fitting pink top slipped away, and returned in a full abayeh so she could come with me on the drive home, with only her face visible. A delicate band of long rectangular sequins in many colours framed her face – and she was still incredibly pretty.

A gift of a small bottle of oud oil, some of the real wood, and a container of saffron (I had commented on how expensive it is in Australia) was pressed into my hands, and we left.

At the airport, on my way to Dubai, I idly watched a small boy – all of about three or four, in diminutive army fatigue pants and a spotless white t-shirt – running around the airport gate lounge, lap after tireless lap. His smaller sister trotted unsteadily after him, occasionally scooped up by a young Philippina maid who followed close behind.

As we filed on to the plane they were being seated a few rows ahead of me. The little girl and the maid were on one side of the aisle, the mother, father, and the little boy were on the other side. As there were only two seats on each side, and they had obviously not ticketed the small children, the mother nursed the little boy, while the Philippina nursed the girl. The little boy suddenly seemed to realise that the maid was on the other side with his sister. He called “Mardi” and held out his arms. Again. Then again. By the time we took off he was screaming for the maid, and his harassed parents seemed unable to help. When the seatbelt light went off they quickly swapped children and the whole plane breathed a sigh of relief. Two minutes later the little girl held out her arms and called “Mardi” and started to cry …

Obviously not everyone in Kuwait is wealthy or has maids running after them. Most do not. However, the incidences with maids stood out as so different from an Australian way of life that I noticed and have written about them.

Looking up in my hotel foyer Ground floor of my hotel
Ghani Palace Hotel in Kuwait

This must be the prettiest hotel in Kuwait. My bedroom is a small apartment, two storey with an open area over the lounge room, with a sloping staircase up the wall to the bedroom. Over the bathroom and kitchenette is a mezzanine floor with a four poster bed, exquisite with Moroccan carved and painted tiling and wooden carved trim. The bed has snowy sheets and blankets, and a mirrored ceiling that ensured that I pulled the sheets high to my chin immediately.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you Jenny! I just love reading your blog. Look every day for What great experiences you are having. Beautiful hotel. Do you have to dress as the local women do when out visiting? I will have a lot to catch up on after our month in OZ in May.
Dorothy in Stratford NZ.

6:24 am  
Anonymous Deanna said...

Thanks so much for your attention to detail in your descriptions, especially of people and food, which after all, are the richest experience of any country. Buildings and landscape are only the setting for the adventure. Thanks for letting me see these countries through your eyes.

Deanna in California

7:52 am  
Blogger Helen from Canberra said...

Hi Jenny,
I, too, really appreciate your wonderful descriptions and look forward to your blogs. I felt so full after reading about your meal with the Kuwaiti family I could hardly face my toast and vegemite for breakfast.
The weather in Canberra remains quite hot for this time of the year and still no rain.

Regards Helen.

8:29 am  
Anonymous Wendy said...

Hi Jenny, you make it come alive with your descriptions. The food made my mouth water.
I don't comment often but read your Blog as soon as it arrives.
Thanks for sharing your experiences.

10:32 pm  
Blogger Kt said...

Hurrah! I missed you. Glad to hear you've been having adventures.
Izzy's passport's arrived, and I'm off to book the tickets next week while the rest of the family's away for school holidays.

11:30 pm  
Anonymous Bar Price said...

How amazing that one can taste 'virtual' food. Do Bernina pay well or will the family be on bread and water for a week (or month)? Thank you again. Take care - Bar Price

5:54 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Jenny
I have just read through all of the April blogs and I feel as though I am there carrying your parcels! Thank you so much for the fabulous photos and descriptions of your daily happenings.
No wonder you produce such interesting quilts after seeing all that marvelous architecture, tiling and fabric, it must tantalise your senses enormously.
I tell myself I will only read the current posting but get carried away and suddenly it's an hour later and I feel I have travelled with you.
Thank you so much for your veiws and photographs,Chris in Queensland

8:42 am  
Anonymous Tatiane Marcelino said...

Hello Jenny! My name is Tatiane Marcelino,I am from Brazil and came across your blog! I found it really interesting!!! So I thought that maybe you could help me. Well, I am attending college and I have a Geography-work to exhibit in class next week. It's about Australia!!! So, I wonder if you could mail me something you have about customs and good manners of australians. I would be really grateful.
Tatiane Marcelino

10:47 am  

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