• I Banish You: Reflections on Kuwait

    We remain in the midst of a global pandemic. This public health disaster has cracked open fault lines that have threatened Kuwait for decades. At the start I clung to a sliver hope that the crisis might trigger radical transformation. What it has done instead is confirm that we are no longer on the road to failure. We are already there.

    My rage over this brings to mind Coriolanus. The fifth century BCE general fearlessly saves Rome from the Volsces, only to have the plebeians turn on him. He refuses to give in to their demands, seeing them as a threat to the sovereignty of Rome. Coriolanus has always been an ambivalent figure. Is he a noble warrior and anti-populist banished by ungrateful citizens for telling it like it is? Or an arrogant proto-fascist punished for his disdain of the common people? I’m no judge. What draws me to Coriolanus in this moment, as I witness my nation fall, is the purity of his fury, which precisely mirrors mine.

    In Shakespeare’s play, the tribunes banish Coriolanus for refusing to humble himself. In response to his punishment he declares, “I banish you.” A tirade follows in which he reprimands the people for their lack of foresight, ignorance, indecision, falling prey to rumors, and becoming their own worst enemies. He predicts that Rome, left defenseless, will be overcome by a stronger nation, as the weak often are — as Kuwait once was.

    I am as livid as Coriolanus about the state of my nation. This pandemic has highlighted our utter ineptitude, even as we pat ourselves on the back for a job well done. For years I have written lamenting lost opportunities in this country once poised to become a paradise on earth. A few have been willing to do what it would take to realize Kuwait’s potential. One by one, their hope has been snuffed out. Without hope there is no future. The most dedicated continue to work selflessly without any sense of legacy. The loyal and industrious are disdained, the lazy and corrupt honored — all signs of a decadent state.

    How are we failing? Let’s start with Kuwait’s handling of the pandemic. At first it appeared authorities were acting prudently, but their moment of glory fizzled out. A porous partial curfew allowed 40,000 Kuwaitis to be repatriated, accelerating contagion. By the time a three-week lockdown was in place — over two months after the first case was recorded — cases were already skyrocketing. Kuwait’s “full” lockdown included two hours to go outside for exercise without social distancing enforced, making a mockery of it. Two months after lifting the full lockdown, Kuwait’s positivity rate hovers at around 20%. Unable or unwilling to comprehend relevant data, Kuwaitis celebrate the lockdown’s great success. The first day it was lifted, cars lined up around several blocks to pull into drive-throughs at Starbucks and McDonald’s, illuminating the citizenry’s priorities.

    The pandemic has also laid bare and intensified the racism structuring everyday life in Kuwait. Racism is entrenched, yet most citizens believe they are good Muslims, treating everyone with humanity. Examples of racism range from our mishandling of the bidoun — the so-called stateless Kuwaitis our government refuses to legalize — to our treatment of non-citizen residents, many of whom are victims of the corrupt kefala (sponsorship) system.

    The kefala system was criticized in the early days of the pandemic, when the inhumane living conditions of migrant laborers were identified as contributing to its spread; but five months on, the system remains intact. Kefala legalizes de facto slavery. Hiring involves negotiating a price with the current sponsor as well as the agent who legally brought the indentured person into the country. Both agent and sponsor collect money in exchange for a human body. A state that legalizes any form of slavery is a morally bankrupt state. Citizens who profit from this moral bankruptcy and do nothing to stop it are themselves morally bankrupt.

    Instead of terminating the kefala system once and for all, members of parliament and prominent citizens began calling for non-Kuwaitis to be tossed out and for the public and private sectors to be magically Kuwaitized. The demographic imbalance between 30 percent citizens and 70 percent non-citizen residents is nothing new, but it has been long ignored by the 30 percent it benefits. The migrants themselves have been viciously blamed for this imbalance, as if they materialized out of thin air. The migrants have nothing to do with it. Agents and citizens acquiring and selling sponsorships could not do so without the approval of Kuwaiti officials in high places. Period.

    The response of authorities to the migrant labor community during the pandemic was to barricade their residential areas with barbed wire for months, allowing those inside to mix freely. These communities were not asked whether they wanted to participate in this risky herd immunity experiment. To date, Kuwaiti areas with the highest number of cases have not been barricaded. Photos of food lines inside barricaded areas evoked the Great Depression; meanwhile, on the first day malls reopened, citizens lined up at Rolex and Louis Vuitton.

    From oil rig operators, construction workers, and stevedores to garbage collectors, delivery drivers, and domestic labor, most non-citizen residents perform jobs Kuwaitis never would. It’s one thing to announce that Kuwait’s demographic must flip overnight, but unless Kuwaitis decide to do the work of running a country and a home for themselves, assertions won’t make it so. Kuwaitis should work as janitors or taxi drivers because all work is honorable and because these are the jobs some of them are best qualified to do. In a meritocracy, people get the jobs they deserve. In a declining state, people are paid to do nothing, while incompetent individuals are given jobs they are unable to carry out. This money for nothing scheme may benefit the individual in the short term, but over time it culminates in national collapse.

    Another sign of failure uncovered by the pandemic is just how much of Kuwait’s social fabric is threaded with self-entitlement, intransigence, and corruption. Kuwaitis consistently flout the rules of social distancing and mask wearing. No two meters apart or masks when they exercise, making it dangerous to share public spaces. No two meters apart in supermarkets or lines, threatening those who want to survive. No two meters apart for public officials at meetings photographed for newspapers, setting a stellar example. Kuwaitis have used supermarket and hospital curfew passes to visit friends. They have partied at their beach chalets, diwaniyas (male gatherings), and farms. Most Kuwaitis don’t care about their obligation to the greater community, to protect the elderly, the vulnerable, and those putting their lives on the line. From cradle to grave, they have been conditioned to care only about their own convenience; wearing a mask and keeping a safe distance requires too much effort. That it may save their own lives matters less than maintaining their right to do as they damn well please.

    We witness this ethically corrupt behavior even as we learn more about the fleecing of the national pension fund by its former head. Over $500 million stolen. Some of that money was my father’s, a physician who worked in the public health sector and at the public university for over half a century, contributing to that fund with the sweat of his brow. Some of it was mine, having paid into it for the last 26 years and counting. That crooked head of the pension fund — like his non-mask-wearing compatriots — has no regard for the greater good. Without a broad sense of responsibility and justice, a society falls apart at the seams. We are at this juncture.

    What about education? I teach English and comparative literature at Kuwait University. All faculty and administration have been given paid rest from March until August. Five months without any form of online teaching for around 40,000 university students at the only public university in the country. All private universities and most private schools shifted to online teaching within weeks of closure. Not Kuwait University. Not the government school system. The argument made by authorities was that e-learning standards couldn’t possibly match in-person education and that professors and students wouldn’t be able to cope with the sudden shift online. That our current circumstances are exceptional, that the shift would last only as long as the pandemic, that we should at least give it a try, didn’t register. Our high standards had to be maintained, even at the cost of wasted salaries and wasted young minds.

    This lack of logic didn’t start with the pandemic. The pandemic merely sharpens the writing on the wall: the government system of education in Kuwait has failed. For decades, countless reports have been written and submitted by institutions and individuals, local and international alike. These collect dust in neglected drawers, and nothing changes. A dumb populace, lacking the skills to think critically, maintains the corrupt status quo. Even if education shifts online, the quality of education itself will not have changed. No amount of technology can gild an archaic program. We are where we are today because of our substandard curriculum, trapped by our inability to think ourselves out of a paper bag.

    What’s true of education applies also to healthcare. So far the healthcare system has not collapsed in the face of COVID-19. However, even after five months of curfew, doctors are still advising us to avoid hospitals whenever possible. A friend’s chemotherapy cycle was cancelled because the hospital has run out of the necessary medicines, endangering his prognosis; another friend’s auto-immune medication is no longer available, leaving her in chronic pain. The fear that my sick father might require an emergency visit to a hospital keeps me up at night. Even in the best circumstances, Kuwait’s healthcare system is frustrating to navigate, with a mix of excellent doctors among truly incompetent ones. How long even this frayed status can be maintained is hard to gauge. Given that the majority of doctors who work in the public healthcare system, as well as all of the nursing staff, support staff, and most technicians are non-Kuwaiti, what will happen if plans now rumbling among parliamentarians to reduce the non-Kuwaiti population by 40 percent are actualized? The pandemic is not over. The way rules are defied in Kuwait, there is no doubt we will see a second wave and a third, if we ever emerge out from under this first one. Without non-Kuwaiti healthcare workers and with the added pressure of rising COVID-19 patients, the system will shatter.

    Economically the situation in Kuwait is dire, thanks not only to the pandemic, but to a lack of decisive action before it, combined with zero responsiveness during it, and heightened like never before by the shock to oil prices and the global economy brought on by it. As with the educational and healthcare systems, what needs to be done to remedy the economic crisis has been evident for years, from diversifying the oil economy to reducing unproductive public spending. Kuwait must take on public debt for growth investment; if it doesn’t, it will be bankrupt within five to seven years. There has been no sign that the government is willing to overhaul the system. Over the course of this pandemic, the government’s feeble response to the needs of small private businesses, the rental market, and labor are clear indicators that our economy is heading for a crash. Most Kuwaitis remain in denial about this result and its repercussions. Given that on August 1, 1990, few believed Iraq would invade, our capacity to assess future outcomes is, put mildly, low.

    As with many other places on earth, the pandemic provided a brief respite for our environment. Now that curfews have been mostly lifted, we’re back where we started. Oil production, incineration, and unregulated motor vehicle emissions color our skies yellow, brown, and gray. Kuwait, one of the world’s smallest countries, is one of the highest per capita waste generators, just as we now have one of the highest rates of COVID-19 cases per million in the world, the lowest productivity rate in the world, and one of the highest diabetes and dementia rates in the world. Numbers to be proud of. Our coral reefs have been dying for decades; our waters and shores are thick with plastic; our fish have become toxic. Rising rates of cancer and other environmental diseases change nothing. The government and parliament can’t be bothered to exert the effort and investment required to tackle climate change since their citizens don’t care. After the lockdown was lifted, photos circulated of shorelines blanketed with plastic bottles, bags, and containers, abandoned by thousands of visitors to the country’s beaches. They consider it beneath their dignity to clean up after themselves, expecting Bangladeshi cleaners to pick up after them. That couldn’t happen, given that most of those cleaners were trapped behind barbed wire, under threat of deportation, so the mess was swept into a ravaged sea.

    Like the nobles and tribunes Coriolanus scorned, Kuwait’s authorities have led the country to ruin. Like the oblivious citizens of ancient Rome, we have allowed them to do it. Racism and slavery, self-entitlement and corruption, education and healthcare in crisis, economy and environment on the brink — any one of these could bring down a nation-state. All of them together at once spells the end. This is where Kuwait stands today, without the leadership or a population intellectually and emotionally equipped to admit to the magnitude of the disaster, let alone to commit to its remedy.

    Coriolanus turns away from Rome. “There is a world elsewhere,” Shakespeare’s version claims, but he is wrong. We are the worlds we make. Coriolanus could not let go, held back by hubris and a sense of pietas. He raged against Rome and its ignorant citizens to the point of war. Whether idealistic or misguided doesn’t matter; he came to a bad end.

    I’ve learned his lesson. My rage serves no purpose. I write with the knowledge that my words are futile, that my love for Kuwait will remain forever unrequited. “There is infinite hope in the universe,” Kafka said, “but not for us.” So I choose to let go, despite fear and regret.

    We deserve what comes next.

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