When the flood of virus rose up around the world and swept me out to sea, the waters that birthed me carried me nearly as far I could travel and still land on her shores through the currents circulating our Mother Earth. My arrival in a new land during a time of pandemic required 14-days of home quarantine where the salt and sands of the Arabian Gulf were just beyond the buildings outside my window, but with no evidence of its presence. A mile of urban density and decay is wedged between the sea and me. Eight floors up, I listened for the sound of surf, as a child once did from a second-floor bedroom on the north Oregon coast. In Hawally, the drone of traffic and an insomniac rooster obscure the sounds of the whispering sea. For nearly three weeks, my tongue searched for the taste of salt, though was unsatiated by the skin peeling from my lips desiccated by the desert air conditioning. My sinuses shriveled, desperate to inhale the hydrating refreshment of sea air. After home captivity bounded into the school schedule I needed to experience the Gulf waters just to remind myself that I was still alive.
The walk to the beach in Hawally is different than in Clatsop County or nearly any other sea community where my feet navigate to the shore by instinct. A lifetime walking Cascadia has etched on my soul an internal map of water terrain. But Kuwait is more desert than water: dusty and flat. On my own I knew only to trace the general path of the morning sun to the start of its daily journey because Kuwait rests on the western shore of the Arabian Gulf. Tijae mapped a path that would take us through an area that he had begun to explore in his solo ventures after his own quarantine ended, though even he had yet to experience the Gulf.
On a Friday morning in October, three weeks after my arrival, the dusty streets of Hawally were quiet. Tijae led me through an endless jam of parked cars past tall apartment buildings with ground floor laundries, baqalaas, tiny restaurants, bakeries, salons, and clusters of dumpsters. As we crossed a sand soccer field, and then a sand parking lot, Tijae speculated that the next neighborhood in our district, Maiden Hawally, would be newer and nicer than our own in Hawalli area.
Descending a pedestrian overpass we were met with the stench of sewage and rotting garbage from dumpsters that greeted us on the street. The neighboring streets were packed with rows of ten-story apartment buildings and parked cars. Whether they were newer and nicer was indistinguishable from the same density and rubbish bins outside our own apartment building.
Though still early, the sun shone with the full strength of the day. We made our way through Maiden Hawally area and onto a wider street with nothing but a sidewalk, a wall, and a broken down amusement park on one side. The street had no meaningful shade.
“I need a break,” I said as we finally approached the first side street during our halting and laborious walk. “Maybe there is a place to sit down here.” My breakfast of black coffee started to gnaw at the heat that seemed to intensify with each plodding step.
Without saying a word I turned into a restaurant on the ground floor of a shiny new residential hotel high rise.
“Good morning, sir. Good morning, ma’am,” a sweet voice sung out. “Are you staying here?”
We shook our heads.
Our tiny, masked hostess showed us to a covered sidewalk seat and gave us an iPad with the menu. We scrolled through pictures with the names of the dishes transliterated into English. Most were unfamiliar to our limited exposure to Middle Eastern cuisine in the Pacific Northwest.
A short time after we ordered we were presented with a decadent platter of some combination of humus, chickpeas, and olive oil, a dish I later learned is called musabahah—rich and creamy, yet substantial and fulfilling. Steam from the pita basket swirled the scent of a bakery before us. The bread, too hot to touch sent my fingers dancing away quickly. Overlaying the fresh bread, the aroma of fresh olive oil and garlic was dizzying. With my first bite the olive oil touched the back of my throat like only the highest grade can. Another steaming round landed in the bread basket before we finished the first. We ate more vigorously to finish the first bread and start on the hot. As Tijae tore the first piece from the hot bread, a fresh pita dropped into the basket again. We devoured the steaming bread with musabahah as quickly as we could touch it. When yet another round landed in the basket we admitted defeat. No more. The musabahah was nearly gone, the roof of my mouth was blistered, and our bellies were bursting. If our day ended right then we were fully satisfied.
Call to prayer at the red tile-roofed mosque across the street beckoned worshipers from all directions. We continued on our journey, upstream from the flow, turning out onto the Arabian Gulf Road, a six-lane city highway that hugs the shoreline, which was still invisible from our view. Around the corner the sky seemed to get bluer, the air fresher, the buildings more polished, and the palm trees more abundant, if still a bit sparse.
“Helloooo!!” A man with salt-and-pepper hair waved from a distance with a jolly look and a spring in his step. We waved back, smiling through our masks.
“First day out of quarantine,” he approached, his eyes beaming above his mask. “How long have you been here?”
“I just got out of quarantine last week, he’s been here a little longer,” I explained. “Today is my first trip to the beach. We’re teachers. What brings you here?”
“I just signed on as a contractor for the military. When I left here 25 years I didn’t imagine I’d be back. How things have changed.”
I tried to imagine the pristine blacktop of the Arabian Gulf Road and it’s wide brick sidewalks battle-scarred by heavy mortar shells, along side a neighborhood of war-pocked and collapsing low-rise apartments in place of the shiny high rises. Thirty years ago, our compatriot probably had been enlisted in the U.S. Army deployed to the world’s Sandbox to drive out the Iraqi invaders from the north and assist in the recovery and rebuilding. Now, he joins countless other U.S. military contractors to support regional defense and logistics.
We continued along the quiet, palm-lined highway, following our noses toward the brighter skies and cleaner air. At last, we crossed the remnants of a children’s play area to a boardwalk lined with sea taxis edging the marina at Salmiya. Yachts large and small were tucked into the slips. We rested against the rail and took in the sight of the Kuwait Towers rising above the shore near downtown Kuwait City to the north. A few paces further, across the boardwalk we were greeted by a Starbucks that crowned the row of sea side restaurants leading into Marina Mall. Costa and Caribou coffee propped up the middle.
We followed the path of date palms around the marina, past the restaurants, and out to the beach. I stopped to take off my sandals and feel the soft, warm sand between my toes: coarser than Clatsop County beaches, a fine powder littered with crushed shells, cigarette butts, and plastic bottle caps. Tijae found the shade of a palm to rest. I continued walking, drawn uncontrollably by the Gulf’s force.
Like a boundary between the desert and the sea, I crossed the high tide line of shells and refuse, stepping onto the smooth, wet sand as the beach began its decline into the sea, a short distance by Clatsop County standards. As I neared the water the sand became coarse with shell fragments.
I stepped forward deliberately until the soothing water stroked my toes. Two more steps forward and the water lapped at my ankles, luring me into the sea with each luscious kiss. As the the hem of my dress floated around my knees I closed my eyes and turned my chin upward toward the sun in gratitude.
Tijae stepped into the water behind me. At more than 100 degrees he looked triumphant with the water irrigating his soul.
Standing knee-deep in the nectar of the earth I reached down and scooped the salty Gulf to my lips in sweet embrace with my new home.
The spring curfew ended, most businesses have re-opened during daylight hours, and we’ve been settling in for our first summer at the head of the Arabian Gulf. We’ve received unexpected news that we’ll be traveling to the U.S. very soon so that our visa status can be updated. Because of the pandemic, we’ve been living in Kuwait under the visa equivalent of a credit card: a convenient workaround that gets us by, but not everyone accepts it and the bill still comes due at regular intervals. Inasmuch as I have I experienced moments of arrival, we’re not really here. We don’t know when or how long we’ll stay in the U.S. before we return to Kuwait. I will do my best to share my backlog of Kuwait tales as we travel this summer.
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