Category Archives: PUBLISHED WORKS

We Have Lost Our Moral Compass

We Have Lost Our Moral Compass
by Amer Al-Hilal
Reprinted from ‘Arab Times’ (23rd August 2011)

Every Ramadan we are inundated by articles and features highlighting the proper means of fasting, alms-giving, praying and other essential pillars of Islam. I am not going to do that.
Most citizens are decent, God-fearing individuals trying to improve their lot and the lives of their loved ones. I believe the Kuwaiti character in essence is one of integrity and generosity — we are a charitable people, evident by the Ramadan dinners we sponsor and the alms we pay (Zakat) — indeed we are almost always the first to rush in aid of others, local or internationally. We should be proud of this trait.
We are, however, far from perfect. Praying, fasting and spending alms on the needful are not enough to qualify us or other societies as superior Muslims.
Our Prophet (Peace Be Upon Him) stated, ‘The best amongst you are those who have the best manners and character.’
Recently, we have all been witness to a drastic deterioration in the way people treat one another and conduct their lives — a certain segment lacks the proper traits, either due to lack of decent rearing, non-implementation of laws (which they view as ‘toothless’) or the gradual radicalism in society which encourages gender segregation, non-tolerance of foreigners and non-Islamic ideals and views.
Our society seems to have lost its moral compass; gaze around you, materialism and power is valued over integrity and honesty; harshness in tone is embraced, over humility and etiquette. An individual’s caliber is immaterial; what matters is how one can ‘benefit’ another, the extent of personal influence and how many laws one can break with impunity.
On the behavioral level, this is evident all around us, nothing is respected; people don’t wait their turn, they drive erratically, they walk into elevators without waiting for others to exit, they are rude to foreign workers, they disturb women in malls and public places, they cause a ruckus in movie theatres, road and traffic signs are ignored, municipality laws are ignored, smoking signs are ignored. The list goes on…
This personal methodology is poisoning society — we are all victims of and responsible for this collective, ethical Achilles’ heel.
Follow the law, pay your bills on time, stand in a queue, follow road signs and you’re regarded as a dimwit.
These days you get a taste of good manners when you travel to countries like the United States and the European Union where parents educate their children ‘not to point at others’, ‘scream’ and wait patiently for their turn in a queue, saying ‘please’ and ‘thank you.’
Even progressive GCC states such as the UAE — eager to attract foreigners and investment — do not tolerate any law breaking: speeding tickets affect the validity of your car license and insurance premiums; if unruly youths disturb or sexually harass women in public, security arrests them, shaves their heads, splashes their mugs in the papers, for example. People think twice before embarking on any moves which might offend the personal space or respect of others.
It’s the atmosphere of tolerance, openness and the implementation of laws that truly make an Islamic society, not the number of mosques built or how many foreigners converted to Islam.
Where is Islam if society deems Expired Food Merchants and MPs and their ‘state benefactors’ — who dabble in tens of millions of corrupt money — for example, as ‘untouchables’?
People’s behavior forces one to ditch the law because the law is not really on one’s side, it’s not really being enforced — it’s an illusion. Additionally, we need to start embarking on ‘naming and shaming’ lawbreakers and criminals instead of shielding their identities from the public, who have a right to know.
The state apparatus — traditionally infatuated with forming committees, hosting seminars and running bloated campaigns — needs to execute them properly, namely by implementing a two-track initiative: On the one hand formulating an awareness campaign on ‘Islamic Moderation And Tolerance’ by highlighting the work of groundbreaking pioneers and world-renowned Moderate Islamic voices such as our very own Dr Naif Al-Mutawa (creator of the comic book series ‘The 99’) and Dr Reza Aslan, author of ‘No God But God,’ among other accomplished intellectual luminaries — so that younger generations may be able to benefit from their stimulating, refreshing views.
Simultaneously, on the other track enforcing Civic and Constitutional Laws preaching freedom of speech, equality and appropriate justice — so individuals may learn to respect state laws and tolerate differing views — they need to realize grave repercussions are incoming — leading imprisonment or worse — if they indulge in any lawbreaking or negative antisocial behavior. Ultimately, the State needs to step up to the plate and protect society, lest individuals take the law into their own hands and mob rule surfaces.
Islam without proper laws, justice for all and proper education is abridged, toothless — as a society we need to instill the values amongst ourselves and future generations, not just censure ‘external influences,’ the media or the West for our ills (many which are self created). Moreover, we need as a community to re-examine the way we conduct ourselves and treat others — to realize that no good can come from a society that obliquely persuades fraud, dishonesty and ill-treatment of others.

Arab Governments Should Pay Heed To Aspirations Of Their People

Arab Governments Should Pay Heed To Aspirations Of Their People
by Amer Al-Hilal
Reprinted from ‘Arab Times’ (Feb. 17th 2011)

AS RECENT as a few weeks ago a mantle of anxiety, melancholy and, dare I say, fatalism was shrouding the youthful face of the Arab world. Anyone who socialized, worked with or communicated with the young through Twitter, Blogs or other social media sites could sense a gradual erosion of the spirit, albeit one that fueled a stirring sort of activism, which wasn’t palpable in the past.

There was a growing disconnect between governments and the young, a feeling that the priorities of the state did not synchronize with their own desires; anxieties stemming from corruption affecting their job and financial stability, their environment and quality of life.

A glimmer of hope, however, gleams on the horizon; recent tumultuous developments in Tunisia and Egypt — leading to the removal of their long-standing leaders through peaceful civil disobedience -are a turning point, a testimony to this. Idyllic eras, in government eyes, who manipulated media via their state television, state news agencies, state cabinet press releases and newspapers — laying the foundations of their unfeasible utopian state — have come to an end.

The fusion of technology and the internet via social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter, as well as the revolutionary, divisive Wiki Leaks, are shedding light on the Arab world’s traditionally hidden, obscure cigar-and-aperitifs political backrooms where both blunt talk and cagey subtleties of diplomacy are king — shoving much needed political reform into the faces of traditionally closed, autocratic states.

The young are mobilizing swiftly, one step of the government, bypassing blocked sites, proxies and IP’s, releasing new information concerning fraud, human rights abuses and Machiavellian political machinations.
The fact that our very own Kuwait Twitter feed is an resourceful amalgamation of activists, MP’s, journalists, bloggers, and other members of society is a testament to the power of social media and the rapid flow of information among participants and instant feedback.

Incidents such as the unsettling attempts by authorities to infiltrate, monitor and intimidate Kuwaiti Twitter users via ‘moles’ members of State Security is a direct violation of the Constitution, notably Article 39 which states: “Freedom of communication by post, telegraph, and telephone and the secrecy thereof is guaranteed; accordingly, censorship of communications and disclosure of their contents are not permitted except in the circumstances and manner specified by law.”

Even the above ominous challenge, however, was met with acerbic wit and fortitude by Kuwaiti men and women of Twitter, cracking jokes at ghostly Security operatives, “I am getting a cheeseburger, can I order you one?” or “I am logging off now, will you be alright without me?”

Undeniably, Kuwait is not immune to the ‘perfect storm’ (as US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently affirmed) concerning social and political change. The toying with people’s liberties in Kuwait, frustration with government, rise in political prisoners, and the increase in corruption has fueled this rage against the machine, the catalyst that has also lead individuals to social network sites to exchange information, blow steam and highlight any injustices they may have encountered or heard of — not to mention deride any statements or actions by self-deluded, ostentatious officials, who have contributed little to this country’s development, merely epitomizing Iago’s classic line to Roderigo in ‘Othello’: “Put money in thy purse!”

Government statements including those of our Council of Ministers highlighting ‘brotherly nations,’ ‘exterior threats,’ and ‘steering the Kuwaiti ship safely to shore,’ have become absurd verbal footnotes, relished as hors d’oeuvres of glee at any gathering — or Twitter feed — treated as comedy gold due to the fact that young people aren’t naïve or dim-witted, they’re wired, mopping snippets of information every minute; aware that the issue of ‘security’ in oppressive regimes has always been exploited as a justification to curb freedoms and hamper queries into fraudulence and mismanagement. They aren’t going to buy into that kool aid anymore.

Arab regimes need to wake up to the fact that their systems are analogous; inequality and corruption are the common denominators, directly permeated into Kleptocracies — regimes that utilize control fraud (bureaucracy and forgery, for example) to exploit governmental corruption to extend personal wealth and power of government officials alongside a specific inner circle or class via misappropriation of state funds and natural resources — at the cost of the rest of the population.

Fifty years following its independence from the United Kingdom, twenty years following its liberation from Iraq, Kuwait remains a ‘closed’ state — wary of foreign investment and participation, unable or unwilling to even free a portion of 90 percent of unused government land to the private sector — more willing to invest its riches outside the state than internally, limiting and keeping a tight lid on who benefits from its development — a Kleptocracy under the guise of a Constitutional monarchy. The Young Activists and Wired Intellectuals are aware of this; God bless them — they are nobody’s fools, and they realize that we are not impervious to recent geopolitical developments.

Arab Leadership — the management of a country — should not be on a lofty platform, impervious to censure. The term ‘public servant’ applies to everyone in government from the lowliest clerk to the head of state. Governments, their decision-makers, their entities, their ministries, their employees, are there to serve their people; not vice-versa.

The Arab people are leery of the usual gaudy summits, conferences, communal, sycophantic lip service between their leaders and their extravagant hand-outs to one another. Arab governments should pay heed to the aspirations of their people or regret the consequences. Ultimately, no power anywhere can restrain the fervent, conscientious spirit of the young — demographically, the majority — particularly those who have nothing to lose.

A golden opportunity exists now for all regimes to reassess their modus operandi, correct past errors, and realign their policies to erect healthy, dynamic states that focus on elevating their people, not their own persistent survival.

Free Kuwaitis From The Shackles of Radicalism

Free Kuwaitis From The Shackles of Radicalism
by Amer Al-Hilal
Reprinted from ‘Arab Times’ (10th December 2010)

Respect for human rights, democracy (embodied in our Diwaniyas and later in our Constitution) freedom of speech, gender equality, and religious and cultural tolerance – all these traits were ingrained in the Kuwaiti culture and person for hundreds of years.

These days we witness media reports of MPs attempting to pass legislation to ‘ban bikinis,’ ‘female sportswear,’ or completely eradicating the legal and constitutional presence of female Parliamentarians – as if all major problems of the State: Ahmadi gas leaks, Mishrif Station pumping sewage into our waters, expired meat, visa trafficking, development and all the other major issues were already dealt with.

Some of those same individuals wouldn’t even run for Parliament in the 1970s because they regarded democratic public office as ‘UnIslamic.’ Now, they are not just attempting to run the show, they are attempting to re-write history and modify the political and social structure of the State, by using Democracy as a means to eradicate Democracy.

These same ‘religious’ MPs who abhor even the National Anthem and refuse even to stand in respect to their State, these ‘Sharia Sheikhs of Swing’ who observe female groups and file police reports about ‘lesbian gatherings’ – even though the assembly of women was at a wedding – and who attempt to free rapists and child molesters from police stations, visa traffickers, expired food merchants and other lawbreakers and criminals, not to mention defend terrorists who threaten the State and the troops of our Allies; hypocrisy at its finest.

Additionally, treating women, employees and compatriots with disdain and disrespect looking the other way whilst corruption seeps and takes hold of society – nullifies any Sharia degree or religious gravitas an individual might have.

Let us be candid, If Kuwait truly was a civilized society the MPs would have been sued, prosecuted and kicked out of Parliament for such inflammatory-jumping-the-gun statements and for attempting to influence criminal investigations. But politics is politics and deals are made, always at the people’s expense. Furthermore, tribes and political groups – some who report to and coordinate with foreign entities – currently dwarf the power of the State (much of this is the State’s doing).

Right wing critics who slam progressive Kuwaitis for encouraging respect for other cultures and religions are dismissed as “agents of Western propaganda” or ‘Liberals’ – for wanting to highlight those ideals and reinforce them – are obviously unfamiliar with Kuwait’s history and background, and are apparently not familiar with the basic tenets of Islam which value and guarantee the aforementioned rights. Maybe some are unfamiliar with history because they just got the Kuwaiti citizenship; others are familiar but think we were living in the Dark Ages then.

In any case, they are certainly not familiar with Kuwait’s real ‘tradition and customs.’ Kuwait was more of a trading and commercial hub before oil than it is now; one of the many reasons why Kuwait was a merchant city and trading post – a haven of culture and commerce for hundreds of years even prior to the advent of oil – was tolerance and openness.

Men and women shared equal responsibilities; toiling away from dawn till dusk, women taking care of the household, educating their children and were active in producing goods (i.e. embroidering the ‘Sadu’) and in commerce – they kept things together, while their partners embarked on six month or longer pearl diving or trading voyages to places as far as India and Africa. They were partners in the true sense of the word. They were equals.

We were no less Muslim then. In some ways, we were superior Muslims; we weren’t arrogant like we are now, with that wretched ‘holier than thou’ attitude; we were broke – desperate for sources of income. Kuwaitis had to interact with other cultures, learn their language and customs; it was an issue of survival, whether it was opening a trade route for water, dates, gold or otherwise. We needed others and that taught us humility and real tolerance of cultures, peoples and religions.

That great Kuwaiti attribute is being diminished by the day in this day and age.

Ultimately, Islam should not be measured by the amount of Mosques that are built (even though this is a blessing to any society), how many expatriates are converted, or by the amount of Quran memorization schools (even though this is a noble activity) but by treating your fellow men and women, irrespective of whether they are native or expatriate, with respect and dignity, accepting their views and their way of life even though you may disagree with them and by combating inequity and corruption.

That is real test of democracy and Islam is all about Democracy, its real targets are oppression, corruption, intolerance, injustice, not impeding the construction of Churches, wiping out pictures of the Virgin Mary in magazines, removing Christmas trees, impeding foreign National Day celebrations, removing horse statues from a Chinese bistro at the Avenues, forced segregation and so forth.

It is truly outlandish when Kuwaitis – true citizens of the world with their astute, cultured predispositions – have to travel to a neighboring Gulf state to see a banned film, watch a concert or buy a book. It boggles the mind. Thirty years ago we did all that here and more, without any problem – which means our original ‘traditions and customs’ were much more broadminded.

If only people took the time to learn about our beloved Prophet Mohammed (Peace Be Upon Him) and his kind, good-humored, patient, compassionate and tolerant ways, instead of blindly following self-imposed Judges, Juries and Executioners of society – who pass ethical judgments on so-called ‘moral pariahs,’ restricting people’s freedom of expression and worship and stifling their personal choice – Kuwait would be in a much healthier shape than it is now.

What’s happening these days in Kuwait is tragic. The potential for greatness is there but in order for us to meet the vast economic, cultural and intellectual benchmarks, our current State-wooing of extremists alongside their Parliament-supported xenophobia has to finally end and justice applied to all.

Camera Ban Regressive Idea

Kuwait Camera Ban Regressive Idea
by Amer Al-Hilal
Reprinted from ‘Arab Times’ (27th November 2010)

For a country that possesses a Constitution which safeguards civil liberties and freedom of speech, Kuwait sporadically sure likes toying with those liberties such as tentatively banning the Blackberry service, shutting down You Tube, impeding public gatherings and marches, banning and censoring books, literature, films and magazines which are available elsewhere in the Gulf.

This week according to media reports, and highlighted extensively in local Weblogs and Twitter, a palpable growing outcry is directed at the tentative plans by The Ministry of Information, Ministry of Social Affairs and Ministry of Finance to outlaw public photography and relegate it to journalism purposes only. This has allegedly resulted in the ban of Digital Single Lens Reflex Cameras (DSLRs) in public places. If this charade is true, then it bodes ill for this country, another regressive move into the annals of ignorance.

During the 1980s video cameras and photographic equipment were also shunned by the authorities. I remember visiting Failaka in 1985 and being confronted by a military officer who demanded I hand in my bulky video camera until I left the island. These types of infringements in the name of security were insignificant – we still had an attempt on HH the Amir, explosions at Foreign Embassies in Kuwait and an actual invasion.

Why does this country always attempt to stifle home-grown talent? Banning cameras in public places is demoralizing to all the passionate, talented young Kuwait men and women who have excelled in this field and love their hobby, not to mention visitors who attempt to document their travels here. Moreover, banning DSLR cameras is irrational and counterproductive if you think about it; in this day and age of iPhones, Blackberries, 5 MP plus camera phones, Google Earth and the like, anyone can take photograph of anything, quietly, without fanfare, which makes the potential DSLR ban even more preposterous.

I have just returned from a trip to Dubai where I witnessed dozens of tourists proudly using their cameras to document Burg Khalifa and the other picturesque locations. No one stopped them, impeded them or asked them what they were doing and you know why, because they respect people’s rights and are intent on making their country more appealing. UAE is able to manage security matters confidently because they have proper security and ID processes in place: eye scanners at airports and entry points, proper electronic government, high fines for breaking the law, a brilliant CCTV system in place in every street corner (not the shoddy black and white choppy, streaming-like quality of the limited equipment we have here) – they truly invest in their infrastructure, maintain it and upgrade it.

If Kuwait is serious about its security then it should invest in the same caliber of CCTV and not the bargain basement tenders that usually go towards ineffective systems (i.e. Highway signs with the useless ‘no mobile’ plasma screen) belonging to members of the matching ministry who want a ‘piece of the action’. The sad reality is the government sector here would rather ban something than actually strive to improve it through sheer hard work and effective processes. It’s just easier to ban; a question of laziness and neglect.

Needless to say, Kuwait seems unfazed when foreign jets infiltrate our airspace and take aerial shots of our oil refineries and military installations, or when agents and their local conspirators are found to possess blueprints and photographs of said installations, but no, lets go after the ‘little guy’, the amateur photographer or tourist on the street taking pictures. It’s a hypocritical, spineless action by the authorities.

Moreover, I suspect the issue is not just relegated to security, a myriad of reasons could have led to the support of this ban, fundamentalists who felt cameras and pictures are a ‘Tool of the Devil,’ government officials and ministries disgraced at seeing shots of Kuwait’s dilapidated infrastructure, environment and mismanagement on weblogs, internet forums and magazines. You cannot conceal the squalid side of Kuwait; it is there for everyone to see.

Furthermore, this law against public photography will not be enforced, just as seatbelt, no mobile while driving, no litter, no smoking areas, and other ‘laws’ cannot be enforced in this Land of Confusion.

A Soldier’s Diary: A Kuwaiti Volunteer Looks Back at ‘Liberation’

Fort Dix 1991.JPG

Kuwaiti Band of Brothers – Fort Dix, NJ, February 1991.

A Soldier’s Diary: A Kuwaiti volunteer looks back at ‘Liberation’
By Amer Al-Hilal
Reprinted from ‘Arab Times’ (25th February 2009)

The invasion of Kuwait by Iraqi in 1990 sparked a multitude of momentous events whose social, economic and political cataclysms reverberated around the world. The tragic invasion culminated in Operation ‘Desert Storm’ and the liberation of my country seven months later.

When the invasion occurred, I was struggling to balance an educational life at The American University, Washington DC, with an equally active political one targeting a “Free Kuwait.” Months flew by, and my countrymen continued to suffer under Iraq’s dark shroud of tyranny and aggression. In February 1991, I could bear it no longer and decided to volunteer, along with thousands of other Kuwaiti students, in the United States Armed Forces.

The following are excerpts from a diary I kept during my military service:

FORT DIX, NEW JERSEY:
February 16-22, 1991

“C’mon! Move it!” shouts the drill sergeant as we sprint away from the Greyhound buses with our bags, some of us stumbling over each other’s luggage. It is a truly marvelous beginning to a tour of duty…
All of the recruits are then taken to a compound to listen to the obligatory “You’re in the army now” speech delivered by a hulking six-foot-four Captain, which included comments such as “Don’t call me Sir! I work for a living” and “We are going to bust your butts.” Well, I’ve seen it all before…the army movie cliches, anyway. But somehow living it is different.
It is a chilly, foggy evening as I watch the civilian side of me slowly disintegrate into the night.
On the first day of training, we are woken up at 3:30 a.m., which is when I usually go to bed. We all feel like crap but we made a commitment and now we have to stick to it. We are then supplied with military equipment and a beloved M-16 rifle.
“She’s your wife, your girlfriend, your mother. Take care of her, and she will save your ass!” swears a drill sergeant. Sigmund Freud would have had a field day at with that one.
We are then divided into different groups: Civil Affairs, Military Police, Legal Affairs, Medical and Military Intelligence/Interrogation. I am placed in the latter. We also have our heads shaved. I suppose now I really resemble an interrogator, although some of my colleagues think I’m auditioning for an upcoming role alien role in a “Star Trek” film.
The 18-hour days are long and arduous, tensions are sometimes high and we’re having a tough time trying to stay awake. At most, we get three hours of sleep per night and that isn’t nearly enough. The American drill sergeants keep telling us we’re a hopeless bunch of misfits.
“You are going to die in some foxhole!” cries a drill sergeant to a careless friend of mine who is having difficulty dismantling his rifle. Those psychologically intimidating tactics will not work with me, I think to myself.
We attend seven hours of interrogation lectures a day, as well as eight hours of practical training. It is damn tough work, and to make matters worse, it’s beginning to snow in New Jersey. College life was a prima donnas’ existence compared to this strict, tiring regiment.
We manage to complete rifle target practice and grenade throwing sessions during the next couple of days. Whenever we miss the target, which, frankly, isn’t often, all we have to do is visualize Saddam Hussein, and then we usually score bulls-eyes. I’m proud of my platoon; they’re excellent shots.
Over the next couple of days, the drill instructors put us through the wringer. We learn radio operations, coded messages, map reading, night-time rifle firing, M-16 dismantling and cleaning, machine-gun and grenade launch firing, and, ominously, chemical warfare training. For the latter, we are placed in a dark, smoky concrete room where we are required to pull off our masks and inhale the tear-gas-like solution. The point of the operation is for us to get a rough idea of what a chemical attack would be like.
“Rough idea” is an understatement… When the test is over, we run out of the building, sweating, salivating, and out of breath. We are required to run around a field, flapping our arms in order to pump blood and oxygen into our systems. While it is horrendous experience, the sight of us scurrying out of the building and flapping our arms like Cro-Magnon men attempting to fly is bloody ridiculous. Some soldiers even manage to bump into lamp posts. Think of “Monty Python” meeting “the Dirt Dozen” and you get the picture.
The last couple of days are hard. We are certainly more fit than before, but the element of anger is much more prevalent among us. I for one, am more emotional, less patient, and more confident, however, I am beginning to fantasize about different methods of torturing and killing Iraqi soldiers – I have always regarded myself as a “pacifist” and a non-violent person, but my initial patriotic reasons for volunteering are turning into a lust for blood. There are unconfirmed reports from Kuwait that Iraqi soldiers are taking people from streets and randomly executing them. Other reports detail the capture of thousands of Kuwaitis, including women and teenagers and their transportation to camps and prisons in Iraq. I just want to finish this training and get out of here. I’m tired of waiting for the inevitable.

FORT DIX GRADUATION
February 23, 1991

It’s over. We have completed three months of Basic Training in twelve days. I get my interrogation and Desert Fox Combat Training certificates at graduation today. We are now officially sergeants in the U.S. Armed Forces.
At the ceremony, Vice-President Dan Quayle offers some positive news, stating that “Kuwait is being freed as we talk.” Also, the Kuwaiti Ambassador to the U.S., Sheik Saud Nassir Al-Sabah, also hints that we will soon be home. The Ambassador’s presence is invaluable; the man has worked assiduously throughout the invasion, he has transcended the role of the diplomat and is now an icon of our fight for liberty – the US based students regard him as an emblematic father.
Naturally, we are all overjoyed at the news of the ground war, but whether Kuwait is free or not, we are ready to fight. In any case, there is lot to be done, even if it is liberated.
We are then moved to a local airport. Kuwaiti officials and diplomats such as the Cultural Attaché Mr. Musaed Al-Haroun affectionately say their goodbyes on the tarmac before we are shipped in a 747 jumbo jet to Saudi Arabia. I am so exhausted I sleep non-stop from New Jersey to Riyadh. It would be the last touch of comfort for a while.

DHAHRAN, SAUDI ARABIA:
February 24, 1991

The 600-plus Kuwaiti volunteers arrive at in Dhahran airport, and we are divided up and assigned to our respective missions. Some are on their way to a frenzied tank battle at Kuwait Airport, others to Riyadh or Jeddah, and some to the Saudi-Kuwaiti border. They won’t disclose my destination, but I know it will be an important one. As I get closer to Kuwait, I miss it more than ever.
The people in Saudi Arabia, the clear desert air and the architecture remind me of home, and that makes it all the more painful. I have to admit though; the Saudis seem to use more neon in their city’s billboards and signs than any other country in the world. Well, maybe with the exception of Las Vegas and that’s where the comparison ends.

HAFR AL-BATIN, SAUDI ARABIA:
February 25, 1991

We arrive at this location, noting the Patriot missile systems along the way, and set up our tents. We still don’t know what our mission is about. Tomorrow, we’re on our way to another undisclosed location. I hope its Kuwait

E.P.W. CAMP, NASRIYA, IRAQ:
February 26-March 3 1991

We join the U.S. 7th Corps military intelligence units here. I should have known we would end up in Iraq. Our jobs in this remote, dusty desolate tract are to supervise and interrogate Iraqi enemy prisoners of war. I must admit that a great satisfaction comes upon me now. Interrogation begins soon.
The P.O.W. camp is set up around a massive crater surrounded by hills and marshes. There are hundreds of American soldiers here, and so far, they capture around 5,000 Iraqis a day. Sometimes we move our locations within Nasriya to different camps in order to obtain new information from the Iraqis. No matter what camp we end up in, the Iraqi soldiers look wretched. Some of them even wear civilian clothes. We really don’t have that much interrogation to do, because they can be bribed easily with cigarettes and food. The MRE’s (Meals Ready to Eat) that they get are always completely consumed; even the coffee, sugar and chewing-gum supplied along with them are devoured.
Most of the Iraqi soldiers try to appease us with kind words of regret and sorrow about what happened to Kuwait, although most of them do sound like professional con-men. Sure, they can loot and steal, rape, torture, kill and, as it turns out; they’re also first-class actors – right up there with the Nazis at the Nuremberg trials who said they were “following orders.”
Other Iraqis are surprised that Kuwaitis would literally fight for Kuwait.
“What are you fighting for? Oil and the Emir?” asks a People’s Army conscript. I inform him that we fought the war for our heritage, people, our country, but that’s something those poor bastards will never understand, especially after living in a despotic police-state like Iraq. At this point in time I couldn’t give a damn about their rough childhoods, living conditions or their safety in Iraq – they committed crimes against humanity and they should pay for them. But somehow I have the feeling they’re going to get off easy. Since they already surrendered and are speaking out against their regime, they’ll end up at camps, living off the U.S. taxpayers and the Saudis, and enjoying benefits such as fresh food, education, and good living conditions. It’s a repellent thought, but that’s the way the cards are dealt.
If I wasn’t following the Geneva Convention, nothing would give me more pleasure than to aim my M-16 and spray the poor bastards with lead, especially the Iraqi Republican Guard types. Unfortunately, I am following the Geneva Convention and such vicious thoughts have to be suppressed.

KUWAIT- IRAQ BORDER:
March 3-4, 1991

Our latest camp is surrounded by hundreds of mines that are constantly being detonated. Because of them, we cannot walk too far from our tents. We heard from the local Chaplain that two of our doctors had died when their jeep exploded on a mined highway. The black and grey smoke from the detonated mines can persistently be seen as the earsplitting, thundering blasts emanating from them are felt all around us.
The American soldiers here are very gracious and supportive, maybe because they know how much we miss home and family. They are exceptional human beings. An elderly Colonel walks into our tent with bags of Saudi groceries and treats, walks towards us handing us the items and asking how families are doing and if we need anything. We are overwhelmed by this gentleman’s empathy. This Colonel’s gesture reaffirms our pride in serving in the US Army. This is why the United States is a world superpower, a combination of: strength, compassion and morality.
If we were soldiers in an Arab army, I bet you the Colonel wouldn’t even let us wipe his dog’s ass, let alone pay us a visit.
We are used to the atmosphere of ‘war’, but we are impatient to get to Kuwait. Many soldiers from my platoon have family there, and want to visit them now that the city has been liberated. Our wish eventually comes true. We are told that we will be home”very soon.”

KUWAIT CITY, KUWAIT:
March 5, 1991

Dozens of oil wells burn in the distance; the city looks like a massive cake surrounded by giant, melting candles. Soon our jeeps and dinghy, brown school buses infiltrate the black smog surrounding Kuwait City.
I feel happy on my return home, but I’m also angry and distressed at the damage around me. Our bus ventures into the once-beautiful oasis of the Gulf. I grit my teeth as I see a burning, white van with Kuwaiti license plates, greenish smoke filtering from its smashed windshield. Many other vehicles, some with missing wheels, lie like scraps of paper on the side of the highway, amidst scorched Iraqi tanks and military vehicles.
The military convoy carefully creeps into the blacked-out city. Electricity is non-existent; the Iraqis had detonated explosives at the electrical plants in the city and we hear there is no water either. To make matters worse, darkness can last more than a day sometimes and when it rains, we all get covered in slimy black patches of liquid.
We are eventually dropped off in front of the American Embassy on the Gulf Road, a long strip of road overlooking the sea-front, to a crowd of cheering, joyous and excited Kuwaitis. This is as close to being a part of a historic event as I ever will be, I think to myself – Kuwaitis spray “We love Bush” graffiti on some walls, drivers honk their horns, teenagers are dancing up a frenzy, and dozens of Kuwaiti resistance members fire tracer bullets into the air from their AK-47 rifles. It is wonderful. And I know one day I will tell my children and grandchildren about this day.

KUWAIT CITY, KUWAIT:
March 5 – April 3, 1991

My month-long stay in Kuwait is a hazardous time because Iraqi agents and sympathizers are still here. Explosions and shoot-outs can be heard and felt. Martial-law has just been imposed. Fortunately, my house was mostly untouched by the battle, so I sleep there. There is no electricity so I use a flashlight or an oil lamp. As far as I can see, there is surprisingly little structural damage in the city. Maybe I was expecting a bombed-out city like Beirut. Most of the buildings have been ransacked from the inside, although black bullet holes and smashed windows for Iraqi sniper positions are evident on many structures, especially the buildings that overlook the beach – the Iraqis assumed the Allied forces would liberate Kuwait by mounting a Normandy-style invasion through the beachfront. They were dead wrong.
The hardest aspect of my return home is facing the quiet survivors. I meet a large number of torture victims who speak of finger and toe-nails being pulled out, of naked teenagers being forced to sit on broken glass, of being electrocuted and so on. I hear tales of mothers watching as their sons are shot in front of them and of girls being raped by soldiers and then having their breasts sliced off. There are many sad and horrific stories, and while I listen to them, I guess I’m not as strong as I thought I was.
Various Iraqis who are still hiding in Kuwait City attempt to cause anarchy by firing their Kalishnikoff rifles at us while we do our usual security rounds in the desolate and garbage-strewn streets. Once, they blow up an ammunitions dump close to a Kuwaiti civilian area. Some have just stolen 600 Kuwaiti military uniforms from a truck, and others fire at paranoid, young soldiers who control city check-points.
Three shoot-outs manage to suck me in into the violence. The most notable is at the former twin-compound buildings of the Kuwait Ice-Rink, were, supposedly, some Iraqi agents hiding inside attempt to flee. The ice-rink, during the invasion, apparently was a torture centre and home to the Iraqi Special Forces unit. It was supposedly used as a large morgue where dead Kuwaiti bodies were dumped so as not to decompose. Reeking of a putrid aroma of blood and meat, it is an uncomfortable place to be in. Dark, dried-up blood stains are still on the surface of the floor. The building is surrounded by our friends and some soldiers from a Kuwaiti military convoy. Within minutes, a massive shoot-out begins with soldiers storming the building. It lasts for at least twenty minutes. An English Captain passes by and sends his men to tactical locations around the twin buildings. After a while he comments, in his dry sort of way: “Cowboys and Indians, I see…. But where are the Indians?” He walks away and so do we. We never did get to find out if anyone was captured.
Sometimes we are fired upon from dark, empty voids in government buildings. Bullets fly by from one corner of the street to another as we duck for cover and return fire, but that is all we can do.
Another time, my partner Fahad Al-Gharabally, a fellow interpreter and I are almost accidentally shot by a pair of Kuwaiti soldiers while doing usual security rounds in my neighborhood of Rawda. Out of the blue, shots are fired into the air, and we are ordered to get out of the car. They force us to the ground, disarm us and ask who we are, while they point their guns at our heads and kick us in our stomachs. We tell them we are Kuwaitis and show them our American IDs.
“Are we supposed to be impressed because you guys live in America? Give us some IDs. in Arabic” yells out a young soldier.
“I told you, we are volunteers with the American army. Look at our faces, listen to our accents, and look at our uniforms!” I tell him.
He hands us back our cards while his men look down at the ground embarrassed by their imprudent, dangerous and brainless action. Apparently, they thought we were Palestinian agents dressed up in stolen uniforms (With soldiers like these, it’s no wonder the Kuwaiti military is in shambles). That incident was probably the closest I ever came to getting killed. Other Kuwaitis were not so lucky – many accidents such as these occur daily and some accidentally did get shot.
Driving out of my neighborhood Rawda, I notice a disheveled, bearded Kuwait walking slowly across the pavement, looking somewhat disoriented. I stop the car, roll down the windows and ask him if he needs a ride. He waves, opens the door and quietly sits besides me as I try to make conversation.

“Please take me home. I live in Nuzha,” he requests. I gladly comply and ask him about his wellbeing.
“We just returned from Iraq. We walked here,” he stated; as I realized he had been a POW, a feeling of both grief and relief envelop me, distressed that thousands like him were taken from our streets, yet relieved that this courageous man, this champion of everything that is great about Kuwait, stoically walks back with honor. At that moment he was my brother, I didn’t know him, I didn’t even know his name, and all I knew was that I would do anything for this individual. I dropped him off and thought about others like him, hoping they all return to their families.

The situation continues to be grave. There is still no electricity, and running water is quickly drying up. Explosions are felt on a hourly basis, as well as gun fire. To make matters worse, there is no effective food distribution and no organized law in the country. During this time, it seems, every soldier does as he pleases and there seems to be no order or effective hierarchy in the Kuwaiti chain of command. The truly ironic aspect of the situation is the fact that although my country has already been liberated, it feels like powder-keg about to explode. The violence does not shock or surprise me, but the images of the ravaged country do. The putrid smell of garbage, and dead bodies, darkness at noon, black rain, damaged buildings and burning cars all remain indelibly etched in my mind.

TODAY

It is the year 2009 now, 18 years following the liberation. Times have changed in Kuwait, and not for the better. To many the Gulf War may have seemed akin to a lavish all-star cast miniseries or a video game but to me it was far from entertainment. I survived the war, although we were never too far away from a gun. I was fortunate because my country had already been liberated by the time my field military duty had been activated, but I won’t soon forget the pain and anguish surrounding Kuwait, as well as the memory of the prisoners of war, some of whom are still missing in Iraq. What I remember most of all are the survivors and the families of the victims. I remember clearly their words, their soft-spoken declarations of being tortured and of losing a loved one.

The Kuwait Resistance did an exceptional job during the invasion and it breaks my heart that they haven’t received the credit and acclaim that they really deserve. There is something seriously warped in this country when the people who really fought for it are neglected for others who have done much less. The Resistance were the unsung heroes of the Gulf War; warriors who sacrificed all for the sake of their country, not the shady politicians whose loyalty lie beyond our borders, the opportunist officials and tycoons who publicly broadcast their loyalty to Kuwait, but in reality did and do nothing, except further their own careers by lining up their own pockets by exploiting the needs of the reconstruction and beyond.

Today more than ever in Kuwait we must remember the invasion. We are now a country that does not even feature the invasion in our educational curriculum, a country that is beginning to forget the lessons of the invasion, a country that continues to meddle in exterior conflicts by wearing the mantle of ‘arbitrator’ and ‘mediator’ without taking care of its own, a country that is beginning to forget who its real friends are, neglecting the increasingly grave perils surrounding us, whether ideological or geopolitical. Now more than ever we must remember the invasion, the occupation and the betrayals (both internal and external) and focus on the true reconstruction of Kuwait, both in mind and in spirit, so that we don’t fall prey to the calamitous ravages of 1991 again.

Stakes High

‘After Iftar’ Column
STAKES HIGH
By Amer Al-Hilal
Reprinted From ‘Arab Times’ (19th September, 2008)

THE Prophet (Peace Be Upon Him) stated: “He whom Allah gives his authority of ruling people and fulfils not their needs and treat their poverty but Allah will not fulfill his need nor treat his property (for mercy) on the Day of Resurrection.” (At-Tirmidhi).

For the past couple of years we have been highlighting corruption, the state’s blatant lack of compassion and neglect towards its people, mismanagement and lack of vision, but what has not been obvious is that all of the above is not just plain ineptitude but it is utterly un-Islamic to the ideals of a modern Muslim state, a state that has been blessed with riches from the Almighty.

As a country we reap what we sow, the results are evident all around us: State Security agents bribed into smuggling dangerous foreign elements into Kuwait, toxic materials dumped in areas such as Messila and Um Al-Hamain, visa traffickers importing tens of thousands of laborers and refusing to pay them, widespread embezzlement in government institutions, among countless other infractions.

Citizens — struck this Ramadan by rising prices, decrepit health care services, feeble infrastructure and higher cost of living in general — want their quality of life in Kuwait to improve, they demand less bureaucracy, favoritism, and more transparency, accountability and justice — they want to spend less time whizzing from one inefficient, power-hungry bureaucrat to another in order to get their business in order — they want to live as citizens, as human beings with decent health care, decent education, with efficient pricing mechanisms on commodities (as the more progressive Gulf states currently do), without worrying about rising over-inflated prices, human rights abuses, tuberculosis, cow scares, sleeper cells infiltrating the state, environmental pollution and other typically Kuwaiti ‘manifestations’.

A spirit of cynicism and anger is sweeping through Kuwait, a mistrust of old school government and business-as-usual politics, citizens detect a lack of compassion from both the inept government and various duplicitous parliamentarians; bitter that this affluent country aids others beyond its borders but cannot or will not help its own citizens — citizens who always seem to be at the mercy of a power or water cut, a bureaucrat, a KD 50 carrot.

And the state continues to announce its willingness to become a ‘Financial Hub’; a running joke verbally perpetrated by an assortment of governmental lackeys in denial. Don’t believe the hype. We need to clean house before we start talking big, unrealistic ventures. There is no way in hell Kuwait is ever going to be a ‘financial hub’ unless a complete metamorphosis, a cultural, legal and work systems revolution takes place. Parliament and the government can pass as many laws as they can muster but they are doomed to failure unless the state begins to serve the people, not vice-versa (and they need to be efficient and professional doing it); outdated laws are overhauled and updated (in addition to being enforced in order to gain transparency to local and foreign investors) and state of the art Administrative and Financial systems are integrated into institutions (so projects, expenditures and general income are kept track of).

We must eradicate ‘corruption’ by applying the full extent of the law, because corruption is not just relegated to ‘bribes,’ it affects the environment, it fuels crime, it propels jobs and positions of leadership to the wrong people, it instills despair and hopelessness among the populace, it devastates our infrastructure and resources, it stimulates bureaucracy and human rights abuses, frees lawbreakers, tarnishes Kuwait’s image, reputation and collective pride, among many other concerns. The day we can eradicate most of the above is the day we can truly call ourselves a ‘Muslim State.’

Kuwait — blessed with a major financial windfall — will never get another chance to makes things right. How the state acts today — for our sake and those of the next generations — will be the deciding factor on whether Kuwait ends up being a safe, modern, thriving metropolis or a dingy, underprivileged, dilapidated state with no future.

It’s the difference between you and your kids living comfortably and leading a productive life in Kuwait the year 2025 or your children becoming expatriates in Dubai, Abu Dhabi or Doha because this state squandered its intellectual, natural, financial and, dare I say, moral resources. The stakes are very high, but until the powers that be and their minions exhibit compassion towards Kuwait by stressing accountability, reform and the rule of law, we will continue on the road to oblivion.

Death Of Sheik Salem, Beginning Of End Of Era

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Death Of Sheik Salem, Beginning Of End Of Era
‘Other Voices’
Reprinted From ‘Arab Times’ (12th October, 2007)
By Amer Al-Hilal

Sheik Salem Sabah Al-Salem Al-Sabah’s death represents the beginning of an end of an era for Kuwait and its people. Indeed, what moved me about Sheik Salem was his compassion, one of many astonishing qualities that made him an immense leader, but most of all, a genuine human being.

In my humble opinion, when Sheik Salem assumed the hefty mantle of the Chairman of the National Committee for the POWs and Missing Affairs, he truly began to achieve greatness and thereby entered Kuwaiti legend.

In 1993, a colleague from KUNA and I volunteered to join the media team of the National Committee for POW and Missing Affairs. When Sheik Salem heard of our joining the team he personally asked to meet with us, we were led into his office where he warmly welcomed us, spending at least 45 minutes talking about the importance of volunteerism, our roles in the organization, and the POW issue. Here we were, two young volunteers amiably received and treated like professionals; indeed, we left the meeting, pleasantly astounded that Sheik Salem had taken the time out to meet with us. I could not help but be impressed by Sheik Salem’s revealing, warm and candid approach, he had the aura of a father figure; I admit I liked him right away. From behind the scenes, he monitored our work, encouraged our efforts, always generous with praise and acknowledgment.

It was an invaluable period for us, under Sheik Salem’s tutelage we travelled to European destinations highlighting the POW issue, we helped organize the famed yellow-colored media campaigns (“Help Free Our POWS”) we visited homes of the missing, the latter aspect the most emotionally excruciating part of our work, alas this was done on a limited basis. However, Sheik Salem did not have that luxury; on a daily basis he dealt with the emotional rollercoaster of the hurting POW families, as well as juggling POW-related political efforts related to the Red Cross, Arab League and Geneva’s UN Tripartite Commission, not to mention innumerable other governmental tasks. He carried an aching burden on his shoulders; he couldn’t just ‘switch off,’ discarding his duties at work.

At his physical peak, Sheik Salem was a vigorous, handsome gentleman, who could disarm the most cynical of pundits. I saw him weave some of his magic first-hand during a press conference; he called journalists by their first names, briefly joking with them, patiently and assiduously answering questions, they were in the palm of his hand. On a personal level, Sheik Salem possessed a splendid combination of charm, modesty and authority (few Kuwaiti leaders encompass all those qualities). But most of all, we felt like he cared about us, about the POWS, about Kuwaitis, he had an emotional stake in our lives, and we cherished him for it.

I remember his resolute spirit in the face of health issues, specifically his visit to the Embassy of Kuwait in Washington DC during the late 90s (we were serving as diplomats under his brother, Ambassador Sheik Dr. Mohamed Sabah Al-Salem Al-Sabah -the current Minister of Foreign Affairs). Sheik Salem, accompanied by his private physician, sat with us in the Ambassador’s ‘diwaniya’, recounting the latest developments concerning UN Security Council 686-formed Tripartite Commission – under the auspices of the ICRC (its mandate involved the search for Kuwait POWs) – and Iraq’s continued refusal to cooperate with it. Sheik Salem seemed frustrated, distraught yet hopeful that our POWs would return. During the conversation he stated a line I have never been able to forget to this day: “I would crawl on my knees to Baghdad if I knew it would guarantee the freedom of the POWs.” Remember, we were at the height of animosity between Kuwait and the Iraqi regime; Sheik Salem’s unconventional statement was bitterly honest, straight from the heart and devoid of the usual political rhetoric, and I admired his candor, it renewed my affection and reverence for this gentleman, who defiantly kept clinging on to his responsibilities towards the POWs and their families, even though his health was diminishing by the year.

I believe Sheik Salem’s legacy will be a humanitarian one, on a personal level, his death unnerved me for a variety of reasons, notably he symbolized a fragment of my youth, a period during the early 1990s when young Kuwaitis such as myself – fresh from serving with the American forces in the Gulf War and eager to rebuild Kuwait – worked for men of his caliber, who embraced us in the pursuit of noble, humanitarian ideals; additionally, he represented a special era for Kuwaitis, when the bonds of affection between Ruling Family members and “the people” were at their most potent.

I was distressed by Sheik Salem’s death but also consoled by the fact that he was longer at the mercy of a decade-old health tribulation. Most of all, however, I was soothed by the fact that he passed away on the 27th of Ramadan, surely this was a blessed and holy omen, a testament to an outstanding human being.