On one of our last days in Kuwait, we went out to a (or the) main market place. It’s basically a web of pedestrian-only streets lined with open shops and booths selling almost any and every type of thing people might ordinarily want to buy (and a few things that people might NOT want to ordinarily buy…). It was definitely a highlight of my time in Kuwait, and the reason has absolutely nothing to do with what’s for sale.
At one point, the group stopped at a sweets shop. I turned my back and noticed a couple of guys — an older guy and a younger, somewhat pudgy but cheerful guy — across the way staring at us warily. So I casually nodded hello to them and then let my eyes continue to meander on through the sights. I must have gotten pre-occupied with something because before I knew it I had fallen behind the group quite a bit.
I happened to glance back at the dudes across the way and caught them in what seemed like an intense discussion. About me. They were gesturing and glancing in my direction. At me. It was definitely an argument. The younger dude was trying to get some point across to the older dude, but he wouldn’t have any of it. After a few seconds, the younger dude broke free and started a brisque walk. Toward me. The argument obviously wasn’t over, because the older dude was now following and intensifying his voice and gesticulation.
I just stood there silently, soon to become a major part of the spectacle and not too concerned about it. Partly because of a personality quirk of mine. Partly because the younger dude was beaming with an intense smile and outstretch, open hand as he approached. Upon arrival, he took my hand in his and started the shake with equal enthusiasm. Not much of one for tact, the vigorous handshake lasted throughout his greetings, in English:
“Hello! Hello! Welcome! How are you!”
They didn’t know much Arabic, only a few English phrases (see above). This was a politico-cultural exchange, done in broken Arabic…since I know absolutely no Farsi. It went a little something like this:
“I’m good. How are you?”
<no answer to my question> “You are American?”
“Yes. And y—”
“Uhhh…Yes, from the United States…and you? Are you Kuwaiti?”
“No!” It took a moment of call and response here for me to finally get what they were actually saying:
“We are Iranian. Hello! Welcome! Welcome! No problem! There is no problem!”
“What? You mean, between us?”
“Yes! We are friends! There is no problem!”
“No, never. There is a problem between the two governments, but not us. Not between the people.”
“We are friends!”
“Hopefully, in the future…”
“Yes! The future!”
By this time, the others noticed I was missing and were looking back curiously at thet sight of me engaged in a prolonged vigorous handshake-driven exchange with two strangers. I ended the exchange to catch up with them. The younger guy finally let go of me and beamed triumphantly at the older dude, who was a bit quieter now, and had a much calmer look on his face. Perhaps rethinking his cynicism.
It’s experiences like these that reinforce my belief that we can shake off many of our international, intercultural conflicts like the anachronistic generational vestiges they truly are. If only we can summon the courage — or reckless enthusiasm — to take that first, unwavering step (in opposition to the fearful and the fear-mongers) in the direction of peace. Overthrowing our unjust regimes at home and abroad also helps. A good start for ending US imperialism would be to dismantle our global military empire.
On to Jordan…