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A Sense of Place by Barbara Warden

#282 - 16 - 4 - A Sense of Place by Barbara Warden
[ 2008-06-09 07:35:29 ] - lizc

In a few minutes we're going to the souk (market). It won't be quite as hot as at mid-day when the souks close until late afternoon. Right now choosing something cool to wear is uppermost in my mind. Each dress or skirt in my wardrobe is ankle length. I can't really understand why everything must be long and conform to Islamic dress code here in Kuwait when short skirts are so much cooler. Unfortunately I don't have a choice. I decide on a skirt and blouse just as my husband, Reg, calls from the sitting room.
"For heavens sake, Barbara, aren't you ready yet? Everywhere will be closed if you take much longer!"

He always does this rushes me when I'm dressing. Finishing in record time, I dash from the bedroom, grab my handbag and hurry out to the car where hes revving the engine. On the way there we pass a busy shopping mall, brightly lit and finished in marble. This is where exclusive retail outlets sell designer clothes and accessories, a favourite haunt of the Kuwaiti Royal family. I used to wonder where Kuwaiti women could wear such clothes until one day, flying back to London on leave, I saw three of them board the plane in black abeyas (cloaks). Ten minutes later they emerged from the toilets minus their abeyas, looking stunning in up to the minute Western European designer suits and complexions enhanced by skilfully applied make-up. B.A. staff told me they were royal princesses. Suddenly, the noise of the traffic interrupts my thoughts as we arrive at the souk and Reg parks the car. We wander in, surrounded by Arabs and Europeans.

Dozens of traders are shouting to passers-by, cajoling them to inspect their wares, at the same time promising there are none better in the whole kingdom. It's seven oclock now, the hour when darkness falls. Gold necklaces, medallions, rings, bracelets and watches shimmer in the half-light of kerosene lamps. Overhead, neon lights illuminate the souk. I notice there isn't a single item of gold, no matter how valuable, under lock and key. I watch people take expensive pieces of jewellery, walk around with them, then come back and replace them on the counter for other would-be customers to examine.

I'm still not used to seeing fruit and vegetables nestling beside sweet pastries and brightly coloured fabrics. Tomatoes sit beside a variety of intricately woven rugs and a few yards further on a vendor extols the virtues of his coffee beans, inviting everybody to sample them. I listen to some of the traders, each one proclaiming his wares to be the very best: the juiciest water melons, the largest prawns, the finest gold, the thickest rugs, the richest coffee, the choicest pastries, the heaviest tapestries.

Amid the hustle and bustle, the clamour of men's voices almost deafens me as they barter over the price of every purchase while their wives, covered from head to foot in black, wait together at a respectable distance behind. Through this melee, the self-assured Kuwaitis move with a certain grace in their white jellabas and chequered guttras. These long white robes and chequered head-dresses add an air of mystery to the young men who scrutinise the vast array of goods. One of them fascinates me his complete indifference to the merchandise in front of him shows he's clearly impatient to look at other things. My eyes follow him as he moves away, exuding an air of authority - the crowd automatically steps to one side to give him space. Were standing quite near to him and Reg points to a selection of music centres which have captured the Kuwaiti's attention. After what seems an eternity he finally chooses the most expensive. We look on while he barters with the seller and gesticulates wildly which contrasts oddly with his patrician bearing the hooked nose, brown eyes and perfect teeth.

Throughout these negotiations he fingers his worry beads constantly and drives a hard bargain. The growing expression of dismay on the seller's face becomes increasingly obvious - his profit is dwindling to almost nothing. Abruptly it's all over and the sale is concluded with both parties calling upon Allah to bless the deal, concluding with "Allah Akhbar" - "God is great" - as they shake hands vigorously before the young man returns to his friends.

Suddenly, a warm gust of wind blows through the souk, disturbing my long wrap-over skirt. For a few seconds my legs are visible. An Arab witnesses this shameless exhibition as I hastily rearrange the offending skirt. Outraged, he walks over and says, "You should go home immediately. You are indecent, a disgrace!"

Humiliated, I want to leave as his attitude brings to mind two terrifying incidents in the Gambia and Nigeria when we lived there. Reg refuses to go and turns to the Arab. "It was accidental, and no offence was intended," he says. The Arab looks at me with contempt and walks away but the confrontation has shaken my confidence.

Reg takes hold of my hand while we watch a group of toddlers who are running around, shouting and laughing. When they see a white face they study it carefully for a few seconds, then giggle and run away. Some of the little ones are shy, hiding behind their mothers' skirts. They occasionally peek out from behind them with huge brown eyes, playing hide and seek. Many of the babies are asleep, lost to the sights, sounds, smells and colours of the souk. But the heat becomes oppressive as more and more people congregate. The smell of coffee pervades the air along with the pungent aroma of the hubble-bubble pipes which drifts across from the coffee shops.

I've bought nothing all evening and want to go home - still upset by the verbal attack. Reg understands and we drive slowly back, looking forward to an illicit gin and tonic.

Barbara Warden


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