Sunday, July 29, 2012

Did You Hear the One About the Sheik, His Wives, and the Ex-Wife?

In a few days, I will reach the five month mark for being here. It's hard to believe that I've been here that long already; there are instances when time passes so quickly and others when every minute seems to drag. After five months here, I was finally sent on a trip outside of Kuwait as part of my job. Because of the level of my organization, we are actually responsible for several other countries as well as Afghanistan. But, because of the nature of my job, I can generally reach out and touch those locations without ever leaving my desk.

My first trip was to a place that I've actually been many times before, Bahrain, however my trips before were all prior to the events of the past two years -- -- so I wondered what I would find changed when I got there.  


Bahrain is much more westernized than Kuwait. I also find it easier to interact with the local population and to sample its culture. I think because there have been British ex-pats there for so many years the culture tends to be more open to non-natives.  I noticed no real change pre and post protest, by the way.

Near the Naval base is the compound that you see in this picture.  There are actually four homes of identical architecture within the compound, but as you will notice one is painted tan whereas the other three are white. The story that I've always heard regarding these homes is that they belong to one Sheik.  He built the compound and the homes and each of the homes was to house one of his four wives. As the story goes, he ended up divorcing one of the wives but because of court ruling or local tradition, she wound up keeping the house even though it was on the compound.  The Sheik, not wanting to lose the argument entirely, had the house painted a different color so that everyone knew that is where the ex-wife lived and that she was not part of his family.  
 
An alternate version of the story is that the homes are owned by four brothers and the oldest brother had a big ego, so he painted his house a different color so that it would stand out.  Personally, I like the story of the Sheik and the ex-wife better -- -- it seems to better match the compound and is a bit more entertaining.

Never on any prior trip did I ever take the time to visit the Grand Mosque, even though I was always near it and would usually pass by several times a day. This time, I was determined to do things a bit differently and I was able to take an hour or so to go take a look. This was the first mosque that I've ever toured.  There are rules that prohibit US employees from entering any mosque, except as part of an official public tour.  The rule is to prevent any incidents that might accidentally happen if an American were to enter a mosque and accidentally do something offensive.  So even though I live half a block from a mosque I had never seen the inside of one.


The tour was given by a student of the religious center there in Bahrain. His name was Solomon; he immediately saw the surprise of my face when he told me his name and acknowledged the fact that indeed it was a name with Jewish origins – he then went on to explain that Solomon was also an important person in the Islamist faith. He also explained that Mecca is important to Muslims, and should be important to any Christian or Jew as well, because that is where Abraham built the first church for the worship of one God, in doing so he gave birth to the three great faiths.

Solomon was a great guide, and explained how the mosque itself was of the world and not just Bahrain. In fact, the only part of the mosque that was made in Bahrain was the dome which I was surprised to learn was made of fiberglass.  The carpet was imported from Scotland -- that struck me as so strange. Here we are in the heart of the Persian rug making region and they go to Scotland to get carpets. The tile was from Italy, the globes for the lamps from France, and the crystals in the chandelier from Austria.  The wood is teak and came from India.  Interesting mesh of materials

It was explained how the congregation gathered for prayer and how they knew which direction in which to pray. The arch is a feature in all mosques and it marks the direction of Mecca. There is a secondary arch on the outside of the mosque which serves the same purpose but allows for a more traditional method of worship since it is open air.

Questions of politics were carefully avoided by Solomon, as well as me. However, he did point out several examples of behavior that was considered Islamic that was actually cultural -- -- for example women not being allowed to drive in Saudi Arabia. Interestingly enough, if the mosque is not carpeted you are not expected to take your shoes off upon entering -- -- the reason you do this in most modern mosques is to keep the carpet clean.

I asked him about the tent that was outside the mosque and what its purpose was, since it seemed to me out of place to have a structure like that on such groomed grounds. He explained that during Ramadan they use the tent to serve Iftar, the meal that breaks the fast at the end of the day, and that as one of the pillars of faith of Islam the primary guests at the tent is supposed to be the poor -- but that all people are welcome. With that he invited me to join in Iftar at the mosque, which I politely declined.

In my life I have seen many of the great cathedrals of the world, in Europe as well as the United States. I've also seen many synagogues, taking my time to do so while I am traveling. This was the first mosque I've ever seen and when Solomon asked me what most surprised me about the mosque I told him that I was surprised that it had such similarity to other houses of faith that I had seen and that it had stained glass windows. 

Final note: After my posting regarding Ramadan I was delighted to receive an e-mail from a Masonic brother in Brazil. I had met Weverton when he was in Battle Creek attending a school. He said something in his e-mail that had never occurred to me when I was writing it: "You are speaking as a real Freemason, free of intolerance and preconception."  I consider that a huge compliment and it reminded me of one of the true goals of masonry which is Enlightenment. Sometimes you find yourself pursuing a goal without actually realizing that you are even heading towards it.

Until next week.



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Sunday, July 22, 2012

Ramadan Mubarak, Inshallah!


Preface:  I am by no means an expert on Islam and I would never claim to be.  If you want more information about Ramadan or the faith, I suggest you checkout Wikipedia and/or the Cutest Blog on the Web -- Expat and the City both of which have plenty of info about Ramadan  -  Expat even uses the words "Ya'll" and "Ramadan" in the same sentence. 

You will find that there are many interpretations of Ramadan and its restrictions - it is kinda like the differences in viewpoints between Christian faiths in the US.  This entry is about my experiences and perceptions as a Christian living in a Muslim country.
Ramadan started on Friday,  since it is based on an appearance of specific moon phases the exact start date was "iffy" but it was confirmed when I went to breakfast in town and the restaurant had stood up dividers to keep the dining room out of open view.  

You see Ramadan is a time of fasting,  from sun up to sun down.  The fast is broken at sunset and families join together to eat and enjoy fellowship.  Not only does the fast include food and drink, it also includes things like smoking and chewing gum - as well as having sexual relations during the day. An inside joke among the GIs is that during Ramadan you get to continue not having sex,  but now you are doing it for legal reasons. You see,  even non-Muslims get to play along because in Kuwait they apply certain restrictions on everyone during Ramadan.

If you are caught eating, drinking, smoking, or chewing gum in public you can be fined (100KD, about $350) and jailed. Sounds drastic; I am not going to push it.  I see it this way:  It is 4PM, the temperature is 120° and you run into a cop who is a smoker.   He has not smoked, eaten or drank anything since sunrise - he is likely to be grumpy and easily ticked off  -- then you cruise by in your car chewing gum.  I learned long ago,  you don't poke pissed off bears.  So, I have made a few adjustments.

Usually, I grab To-Go from the DFAC on my way home and snack on the drive back to my apartment so I can take Falkor out as soon as I get home.  I can't eat in my car now so I put my To-Go container on the back seat to avoid temptation.  Dogs are considered unclean by Muslims so they have to avoid any contact during Ramadan to remaining more pure, so Falkor and I do not walk past the neighborhood Mosque on our outings to avoid any accidental contact with anyone coming or going. 

What I had wondered about prior to getting here was how does work that goes on outside continue?  It is just not healthy for a person to be working outside in that heat without water for any length of time.  Well,  they have a fix for that - they adjust their day.  Many work in the morning and then take a break until after the sun goes down and then resume their activity.  Others just become nocturnal, working only after sundown. 
  
In my neighborhood they are tearing down an eight story apartment building,  I am amazed at how quickly it is going considering they are doing a lot of it manually.  They have been at it for about a week and I have been watching their progress when I come home from work and take Falkor for a walk.  Due to Ramadan, at midnight last night the crew started their workday and I was treated to the sounds of back hoes, shovels and the clanging of broken cement being thrown into a dump truck  for the rest of the night.  I may sleep in my living room (opposite side of the building)  until they get done or Ramadan ends.

I am taking the opportunity to learn about the traditions of Ramadan, Iftar and eventually Eid.  By learning about other cultures you enrich your own life.  All told, it seems to me that the basis of Ramadan is very similar to that of Lent.  The self-denial is supposed to get you to consider those things out side of yourself and to reflect on those unfortunates who have to deal with sacrifice as part of their daily life.  It is a cleansing of your mind and heart.  At the end of Ramadan the faithful believe that their sins have been forgiven and they are reborn.  Sounds familiar, huh?  BTW please do not send my theological arguments about how they are different - I am thinking about a broader sense of what they are to compare them.

It would be easy to ignore the fact the Islam, like Christianity and Judaism, has many different interpretations and inconsistencies then try to paint all Muslims with the same brush.  If I have learned nothing else in the months that I have spent here so far it is that each individual's faith guides them and makes them who they are - not their religion.  

Life is full of wonders,  take the fork in the road and go find them.




Bonus "Things that make you go 'Hmm'" Section:  Before Vatican II, if you ate meat on Friday it was a sin and you would go to Hell,  after Vatican II it was okay.  Does that mean there are Catholics in Hell for eating a hotdog on a Friday before Vatican II or did they get an early release?  How can an Orthodox Jew and a Jew who has just eaten a bacon double cheeseburger claim to follow the same Talmud? Also, since in Judaism there is no Hell; is there a penalty for the Cheeseburger anyway?



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Sunday, July 15, 2012

Be True to Your School

It is probably my nomadic upbringing and adult life that causes me to embrace wherever I happen to be living as my surrogate home.  So, even though I am in an atmosphere and culture that is the polar opposite of anywhere I have ever been before -  I gravitate towards news and accomplishments of Kuwait and feel a contact high in doing so.  The last few weeks have been really good for Kuwait, BTW.

Right now a delegation from Kuwait is meeting with the Olympic Committee to reinstate Kuwait as a full participant in the Olympics and hopefully they will be successful before this summer's London games.  No matter how that turns out,  Kuwait will have its first female Olympic swimmer: Faye Sultan.  Other competitors are:



Shooters:
  • Fuhaid Al-Daihani in Double Trap (men)
  • Abdulla Al-Rashidi in Skeet (men)
  • Talal Al-Rashidi in Trap (men)
  • Maryam Erzouqi in 10 meter Air Rifle (women) 

I am not surprised a the number of competitor here,  there seems to be gun shops and clubs all over the place.

Runners:
  • Mohammad Al-Azmi in 800 Meters (men)
  • AbdulAziz Al-Mandeel in 110 Meter Hurdles (men)
  • Salsabeel Al-Sayyar in 100 meters (women) Table Tennis:
  • Ibrahim Al-Hassan (men)
  • Ali Al-Zankawi in Hammer Throw (men)

With only one athlete competing ,  who has he been practicing with?

Swimmers:

  • Yousef Al-Askari 100 meter freestyle/backstroke (men)
  • Fay Al-Hussain in 100 meter freestyle (women) 
With Kuwait's pearl diving heritage,  I am surprised there are not more swimmers.



If the delegation cannot get Kuwait reinstated, the Kuwaiti athletes will be competing under the Olympic flag.  I will be watching for men and women listed and wishing them well.


Hollywood Part 1:  The movie Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter was premiered to the American sailors on board the USS Abraham Lincoln and to soldiers at a few of the bases in Kuwait before it hit US theaters - the movie's stars even showed up to sign autographs.  I will admit that I saw the movie myself (in Abu Dhabi) and thought the premise was silly but the story wasn't too awful.  I suspend reality when I enter a theater but this took it way too far, I mean everyone knows it was Grover Cleveland who was the Vampire Hunter President.



CNN covered Kuwait in their Daily Snapshot feature:

"Kuwaiti sailors fix the old Kuwaiti flag on a dhowa during preparations in Kuwait City on July 11, 2012, for the upcoming annual Pearl Diving Festival, meant to honor the nation's former trade mainstay."
I missed the festival, but I see dhows tied up along the coast on my way to and from work every day. 

Regardless of what P.T. Barnum said, not all publicity is good thing... It was reported that Kuwait is the second fattest country in the world, behind the United States.  Average weight is  approximately 170 pounds, which is 34 lbs heavier than the global average, according to a research report published by BMC Public Health.  I notice that the report also said ""Increasing biomass will have important implications for global resource requirements, including food demand, and the overall ecological footprint of our species." 
Giving this a little thought,  I wonder if the increased biomass would be enough to upset the spin balance of the planet.  If that is the case then Kuwait will not be enough to offset the entire United States to keep things spinning correctly.  Perhaps we need more McDonald's and Burger King's throughout the region to keep this humming just right.

FoxNews had a feature about the hottest places in the world, because of the recent heat wave in the US.  Kuwait City was at the top of the list of cities mentioned.  Most of the locales mentioned as the hottest in the world where unoccupied sections of desert and wastelands.  I heard on TV that society seems to be falling apart in some US cities due to 3 or 4 days of over 100° temps.  Sorry, I have no pity - I can't say for sure but I think we have not been under 100° for at least 6 weeks and most days are over 120°.  Rain? Not a chance.
Hollywood Part 2:  (I saw this on 2:48AM )  I am going to see The Amazing Spiderman later today and I will be looking for the building's appearance.  On the right is the Al Hamra Tower which sits in downtown Kuwait City, the building on the left is the Oscorp Tower in the Spiderman movie.  Nothing like seeing bits and pieces of the familiar cast for parts in the movies. 


I wonder if the popcorn will come with camel milk butter? 








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Sunday, July 8, 2012

Imagination, Innovation, and Invention... Oh My! (and a Wee Bit of Architecture Too)


I have always been a fan of innovation and invention. I seek out things that entertain both my eyes and my mind, trying to look for the unusual and the new spin on an old problem. Over here, you have more than a few opportunities to observe the unusual and innovative. Here are a few examples I've come across in the past week or so.



Last weekend I went to the United Arab Emirates and while there I saw several things that I consider to be very unique. The architecture of the country is fascinating and is known worldwide. These are just a few of the examples of unique buildings that I saw.  I think the bridge between the two taller buildings was to help facilitate getting from one to the other without having to go all the way to the ground floor, walking across the street, and then riding the elevator back up to the desired floor.

While in one of the malls, I saw this shoe display. It was eye catching but it was also functional if you actually wanted to pick up and take a look at one of the pairs of shoes.  


I came upon this and at first thought it was a regular ATM, but it is something very different. It sells gold --  real gold -- -- in ingot or medal format.  You can also buy krugerrands,  on the day I was there they were selling for $1600 US.  I walked past the machine several times while going to and from area stores in the mall and at one point they were reloading it. I wonder how many dollar's worth of gold it takes to fill up that machine?


The shape of doughnuts has been fairly constant since they were invented. Oh sure we change what we put on top of them or the stiff we squeeze into them but pretty much they are round with a hole in the middle. Starbucks in the mall seemed to be trying to do one better by making the donuts square shaped. I tried one, and it pretty much tasted like the round doughnut but it was messier to eat. Consider this, the round doughnut tapers off on the sides which keep it from rubbing against your face while you take a bite out of it. The square doughnut on the other hand, rubs up against your cheeks as you take a bite because it does not tape. Messy. I think I'll stick with the round ones.

Somewhere in the US there are probably theaters that have taken this step into luxury, but I've never seen one. Here, if you pay a few extra dollars you can watch the movie and a nice leather recliner with a side table. I did not have an opportunity to watch a movie in one of the VIP rooms but from what I understand there you also have waiter service to bring your snacks.  It can make a simple evening at the movies something really special. 


 Saw this in the airport. I have mentioned camel's milk before  --No I have not tried it yet, I don't want to contribute to the shortage of milk for baby camels-- but this is the first item I have seen that claims to be made with camel's milk.  I understand that this is supposed to be some very delicious chocolate and at $7 a bar it had better be.  I wonder if there is camel’s milk cheese.

On my way out of the UAE, I noticed the control tower at the airport. Again, rather than just having a straight, rectangular building they have chosen to put some style into the design by adding a bend.

Whereas I have been fascinated by many things I've seen off these recently, the genesis for this entry was actually something that occurred on base in my office.  The air conditioning in my office has been up and down for the past two weeks. Mostly down.  This leads to the office being about 94° or so during the day and usually never less than about 85° or so. The AC seems to work fine in the mornings when it's cooler but apparently there's a problem with the unit that causes it to go out when the temperature outside was over 110° or so. After several days of troubleshooting, the repairman decided he needed a part which has to come from the United States and due to its size will not get here for about a month.  Going through several chains of command and complaining to everyone above me who might have any pull at all, we were finally issued a portable air conditioner.

I've never seen a free standing AC in the United States but first encountered them when I was in Germany. The units have an exhaust hose that must be run out the nearest window.  Since we are working in what basically is a warehouse there are no windows from which we can hang an exhaust tube, but because the ceiling is dropped if we could get the hose to run up through the ceiling we could patch into one of the exhaust pipes there. The unit stands about 4’ tall and the tube we were provided was about 3’ long leaving us with a 5’ delta between the unit and where we need the hose to go. We put the unit up on a table which closed the gap about 3’ but we still had two more feet to go. I suggested to my folks  that they use a piece of cardboard to fabricate a section of tube that could go the last few feet, then I left for a meeting.


I am often complementary of my crew for being able to think way outside the box when necessary; in this case they thought box.  Using a pair of water boxes to create a piece of duct work which they then attached, using drywall toggle bolts, to a piece of ceiling tile. At the bottom of the box using a large amount of duct tape they merged the existing tube into the new cardboard box ductwork. Voilà it worked.   It is also one of the stranger things I've ever seen but by the end of the day someone had attached a sticky note to it which stated Trademark 2012, Patent Pending.  The office now remains about 78° or so but it is much more comfortable in will hopefully stay that way until the parts for the main air conditioning system arrive.


So much for the mother invention for this week….



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Sunday, July 1, 2012

What's In a Name? A Little of This a Little of That...


There are many theories on naming animals.  Some people name them after other animals (i.e. Lassie, Rin-Tin-Tin, etc), some people name them after friends or family members, and still more name them after past times or things (i.e. Whiskey, Soccer, Porsche).  I have my own theories which are a bit different than that;  I think animals should be named after their behavior, personas, or appearance.  At the outset I have to admit MacBeth was named before I ever got him.  I liked the name and thought it would be perfect for a dog and I think he has grown into the name.  But my problem right now is with a small Maltese with a tail that wags so hard it wags his body instead of vice versa.

The dog's behavior is unique.  I have never owned a smaller dog,  so a lot of what he does surprises me.    He loves to chase pigeons.  When we go on a walk if he sees a pigeon he gets excited and started to quiver until I drop his leash and let him chase the birds.    The pup also likes to sit on the back of the coach and watch the pigeons on the window ledge when we are inside.  Cats seem to fire up his hunter instinct too.  Now that he has learned they hide under cars, he searches every car we walk past.  He has chased a cat or two across the apartment compound only to have them take off up and over the fence out  of his reach.  He has a squeaky whine that he communicates with when he gets excited and he will stand on his back legs with his arms in the air like a child wanting to be picked up.  So, I could call him Hunter, Chaser, Pigeoneer, or Squeaky based on his behavior.

His persona is one of total happiness and playfulness.  He is always in a good mood, ready to play and happy to see me.  The dog likes to snooze in his bed beside my chair and follows me around the apartment when I get up to go do things.  He always wants to go when I go and even waits patiently for me in the gym every night as I work out.  The pup likes to be petted and scratched but does not bite or nip - he will wrestle with my hand and at the end will lick my hand and snuggle against it to take a nap.  The names that came to mind because of this were Shadow, Happy, Smiley, Player,  or Quivers.



With his fur still short due to all the trimming he needed when he was found on the streets,  there is no telling what he may look like later when it all grows out. The hair on his ears is long and his expression is like that of a Retriever in that he usually appears to be smiling.  He is small and skinny and has a curly over the back tail.  His fur is white and eyes dark.  So I could have gone with Smiley, Whitey, Tiny or Hippy.  But he also has an under bite and when you looks at you straight on he brings to mind a movie character from the 1984 German children's film The Never Ending Story - the love dragon Falkor.  Falkor is white and actually looks more dog like than dragon like because he is furry and has floppy ears.

So the Dog Formerly Known as Yet to be Named Dog, and who was the Dog Still Yet to be Named is now formally named:  Falkor.






















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