On the trip from Oman to Kuwait—our first flight since 9/11/01—I struck up a conversation with a young man named Wasseem, who owned a company serving most of the Persian Gulf countries and was a graduate of a college in the U.S. Since his wife was picking him up at the airport and we were going in the same general direction, he offered to give us a ride to our hotel.
On this trip, as with most of our trips, we did not make any tour arrangements and made a hotel reservation only for the first night. We find we learn a lot more about an area without the pre-planned buffer of a guide, though I am sure we also miss a few sights that do not surface in my own research. Sometimes we hire a guide onsite for a city overview tour, but usually we learn more when we need to interact with locals—though admittedly it can often be a hassle and frustrating.
Approaching the hotel, Wasseem asked if we had dinner plans. We said no and he suggested that we check in and freshen up and allow him and his wife to pick us up and show us the city at night. Given our flexibility, we agreed, and ended up enjoying a fine dinner at a seafood restaurant in a large wooden ship located on the gulf.
Though Wasseem did most of the talking during the drive around the city and during dinner, and his wife seemed somewhat tentative, she expressed a couple of contrary views to Wasseem and was not at all subservient. She did not work outside of the home, but took care of her kids and oversaw the household work done by hired help. She was dressed fashionably by western standards and was not the stereotypical Muslim woman.
As he drove us through the city, we noticed Johnny Rockets and Fuddruckers restaurants on a main thoroughfare. We were later to discover that all of the countries we visited were overrun with western hotels, restaurants and coffee houses, such as Starbucks.
Wasseem said he had not been to the U.S. since 9/11 because he didn’t feel welcome. He also said he had not seen many tourists from the U.S. since then. However, he did say there is very little infrastructure for tourism in that part of the world except for the UAE (United Arab Emirates).
He bemoaned the fact that "there is almost no historic preservation." He was disappointed that his country and the other oil-rich countries in the area tear down old buildings and build modern structures. "There is not much that is over 30 years old." On another subject, he said, "I don’t like President Bush but I do like Americans and do not hold them responsible for his actions."
The next day in the city as we were sightseeing we visited one of the sights recommended by Wasseem—Kuwait Towers, which is a monument to the countries who rescued Kuwait from the Iraqis in 1990. A little later, we happened upon Mohammed, the assistant manager of the Grand Mosque, who personally took us on a tour of that building, another bit of serendipity that happens when you travel on your own.
Whenever possible, we also like to visit an "outdoor museum" on any trip, which for us is a meal or cup of coffee and a pastry outdoors while watching the locals. This is always a nice break after seeing all we can on foot and is a great way to absorb the sights and sounds of the area.
Generally, we noted that the traditional dress for both men and women was not enforced like it is in the more conservative Muslim countries where we have traveled, such as Saudi Arabia. However, in some coffee shops, the men sat together in their traditional dress while talking and drinking coffee or tea.
While at the airport in Kuwait City waiting for our flight to Manama, Bahrain, we spoke with an American who works for a contractor in Bagdad. He said the soldiers and workers go through this airport since the one in Bagdad is still "a mess." Mean while, "I am making a ton of money out of this disaster." He offered the opinion that at the rate things are going, he and his coworkers will be there indefinitely "milking the situation for all it’s worth."
Throughout our visit to five countries, we found the people friendly and helpful. On two occasions in Bahrain, we asked people for directions and were given a ride to our destination. When another driver stopped, it turned out that his purpose was to advise us to stick to the promenade and not the side streets where we were at the time, "because it might not be safe."
In Abu Dhabi, we were sitting on a curb looking at a map, plotting where to go next, when a man stopped and asked if we were Americans. He said he doesn’t see many in his city and invited us to join him for a cappuccino at his nearby flower shop. Ahmed was 28 and received his college education in the U.S. His flower shop turned out to be a major corporation catering royal weddings, and landscaping the mansions of millionaires.
Since it was Valentine’s Day, he gave me a rose to give to Katrina, saying it would not be good form for him to give it to her directly. My gift was a Havana cigar and beads from the sands in Carbella. The niceties, though, came with a price—we had to listen to him verbally unload. He called Bush "your redneck" president who "started a war he can’t finish and you and your children will be paying the cost of that war and his economic blunders for years to come. That man is wrecking your economy."
He said he respected Bush’s father and liked Americans in general, but "I cannot understand why the people elected him not only once, but twice!"
Osama Bin Laden, he said, had accomplices in New York City and asked if a man who prays five times a day could be bad. Quoting the urban myth, he said, "Isn’t it strange that no Jews were killed in the 9/11 attack?" He said he has Jewish acquaintances and has had dinner with them but knows they are all alike and can’t be trusted. He said they killed Mohammed 1,400 years ago and must pay. Ahmed quoted the Quoran, "They will call you terrorists but one of you will rise up and overcome."
It is not our purpose on these trips to argue with the locals or try to convert them to our way of thinking, but simply to learn about them, their culture and ideas. In this instance, we felt it would be unwise and unproductive to get into a debate. It was interesting, though, that these opinions came not from old hardliners but young, educated Muslims.
Feeling uncomfortable, we told him we needed to go. Before we left, he had another gift for us: a calendar stating, "Islam is the religion of peace, mercy and forgiveness." After this encounter, we went to the Havana Cafe, overlooking a river, and relaxed while having a cup of tea and smoking a shisha, commonly known as a water pipe.
A few other observations: There was smoking everywhere—the hotels, airports, restaurants, coffee houses and other public places. English is the second language and all the signs are in Arabic and English. All of our flights within the area were on Gulf Air, which we later learned was off limits for U.S. personnel because of a couple of recent crashes. The buildings and architecture in the UAE were spectacular and becoming more so as they continue to build bigger and more contemporary structures.
In Dubai, we wanted to visit the only seven-star hotel in the world, The Burj Al Arab, which had a stunning exterior. But to keep out tourists like us, they only allow people into the hotel who are staying there or have restaurant reservations. The next morning, our breakfast cost around $120 but was worth every penny for the opportunity to see the magnificent interior. Besides, the food was elegantly displayed and tasty.
Our trip home was quiet and uneventful, thank goodness, because we were leaving the day after our return for an Ambassadair trip to Cabo San Lucas for an experience of a different sort. But that’s another column.
Basile is an author, professional speaker, philanthropist, community volunteer and retired executive of the Gene B. Glick Co. He can be reached at Frank_Basile@ sbcglobal.net.