Arabesque Kafkaesque, Or: How Fed-Ex, Customs & Health Ministry Taught Me To Chase My ‘Specimen’


On Christmas Day, I had my brother send me some medications from the United States through Fed-Ex. When the package was late, I attributed it to the holiday rush. When ‘late’ turned into ‘very late’ and the website clearly showed the package was in Kuwait, we started calling them on a daily basis and every time we would got the same answer: “Customs took them for inspection and when they give us a specimen number we will call you.”

A “specimen number“! Sounded like a Sci-Fi movie line. I had been receiving my medications from the U.S. for ten years through Fed-Ex and never had this happen to me before except for that one time during the war on Saddam a few years back.

January 11th – There is still no “specimen number.” I lost hope so I reordered them through my doctor there.

January 14th – Called them again and finally at 7.30 p.m. I got my number – almost screamed out ‘Bingo!’ even though I never played the game. Bear in mind that I was the one who called (‘customer care’ being such a cliché’) and it was a Thursday so nothing could be done until Sunday morning.

I was told to go to the Ministry of Health, the ‘Drug Inspection Department’ near Sabah Hospital where I can collect my “specimen”.

January 17th – Finally we hit Sunday. Woke up early, no breakfast, rushed out to avoid traffic and after a few wrong turns I was there at 8.20 a.m. It was a Department all right, more like a low ceiling three room apartment. It was a “chabra” literally like the ones they put temporarily for engineers at a building site. As I entered the door I couldn’t help but notice the pieces of glued grey thin carpet on the corridor floor. To my left was a closed door with a ‘Parcels’ sign on it. Next to it was a window counter with a man wearing a lab coat.

“Where can I get my Fed-Ex parcel?” He pointed to the door next to him.

“But it’s locked,” I said. He came out and said “Wait shwaya, he’ll be back” referring to the man ‘in charge of parcels’.

Can’t you call him?” I asked.

“No mobile.”

I waited, and waited, shifting from one foot to the other trying to hold on to my favorite but extremely heavy bag resisting the urge to place it on such an ugly, filthy floor.

My legs seemed fast asleep even though I didn’t get more than 4 hours of sleep that night. I had to sit. No sign of any chair around, so I decided to explore. There were three or four rooms to the right and one more to the left. I peeked through one and saw a woman working behind a desk in a minute room with two chairs placed in a straight line near the door. I asked her if I could sit and she welcomed me in. The chair was of the old black leathery dusty variety, with a folded table attached; the kind used for students. Why would they place such a chair there is beyond me. The room, like all the others, had rubber floorings of something like a tile design. (A bit of mix and match decor with the dinghy carpeted hall I guess!).

As I glanced around, my eyes widened in astonishment; I saw their method of file storage: a large Fed-Ex box. a used, old torn half-cut Fed-Ex box. Even the logo tape was struggling to hold on to the sides of the box. That was only one of many of the collections of carton boxes used for storage on the floor.

Then I heard a woman complaining to a man, also wearing a lab coat, that she has no “specimen number” only her Fed-Ex paper and I knew it was my queue. I followed her and the man who finally opened the sacred ‘Parcels’ room. I couldn’t believe it. It was so minute that if you were claustrophobic you would have suffocated with the three of us in there. To the left was a glass cabinet where all the small parcels were and on the floor were all the bigger boxes. The man was very helpful trying to match the woman’s name to any of the numbers he had in his big lined notebook (or as we call it “kashkool”). Don’t even think the word computer is going to show up here – we are talking 1965 stuff here, folks.

He looked at his ledger, shaking his head in dismay.

Numbers 1 to 19 all had names and their parcels had arrived.

Numbers 20 to 30 had no names and no parcels (i.e. blank pages).

Numbers 30 to 40 contained names and parcels.

As the woman talked to the Fed-Ex office pleading for a “specimen number” so she could take her post-surgery meds, the man found my name one number below my given one.

The parcel was stacked with others in the stuffy glass cabinet. Thank God it was not August otherwise I would have needed meds to recover from my expired meds! Just when I thought I was done, he looked at me with a sympathetic smile, “Sorry can’t give you without a prescription”.

I was shocked.

Well I don’t have it with me now! I do have it somewhere at home” then I stopped myself before blurting out “I think“. So he motioned me to follow him. We walked until the door at the end of the corridor leading to a considerably large room. There was a woman behind a desk inside that spacious room where scented candles were lit. She was so into her pink laptop that she did not even lift her eyes to look at me as she answered my “salam“. Eye contact was wishful thinking. So I decided not to even bother explaining anything to her.

The man explained the problem, assuring her I had the prescription paper at home as he placed the form near her laptop. She took one glance (at the paper of course), nodded, and gave her approval.

I was so relieved my parcel hunt was over but even more relieved to leave that place. It was yet another reminder of our reality when we are supposed to be one of the richest countries in the world and still have decrepit systems and processes in place, not to mention surroundings.

I’ll write again when my next “specimen” arrives and Fed-Ex kindly inform me where to pick it up (Door to Door 2010 style). That is if they ever let my meds through after today.

4 thoughts on “Arabesque Kafkaesque, Or: How Fed-Ex, Customs & Health Ministry Taught Me To Chase My ‘Specimen’

  1. Thanks for your contribution, Nameless. I can imagine the bureacratic hell-hole that you and most of us go through (with or without ‘mandoobs’ to get simple paperwork done in Kuwait.
    When you spoke of dinghy conditions and files in boxes, I am not surprised, as this happens in many a ministry and even in the municipality (hence the stolen ‘title deeds’ and files).
    E-government should not just be checking out your voting district online, it should encompass renewal of licences, business, integrated communications between ministries and customs, and security apparatus.
    There is a hell of a lot that needs to be done and throwing money at something is not going to lead anywhere unless people learn to work effectively, have proper HR, and treat the public as customers not as ‘hindrances.’
    In Kuwait’s case, the over-abundance of bureaucracy protects the corrupt and serves no productive purpose whatsoever.

  2. Hello. enjoyed your piece, Nameless, and i am afraid this seems to be the norm in most of Kuwait at the moment, missing papers, mandoobs, lazy bureacrats, etc.
    I enjoyed your piece and hope you can write more, you have a fresh voice 🙂
    ps – hilaliya thanks for featuring all these writers, nice work

  3. I don’t usually take the time to drop a comment,but I enjoyed this piece on the fed ex – health detour you had to take, was shocked to see the conditions inside the department you went were at to collect your package.
    Doesnt really surprise me the bureacrat still uses a ledger and the files are in boxes. Fed Ex should have done a better job anyway of faciliating this issue for you regardless of the bureacratic hurdles.

  4. Nameless, I had a similar thing happen to me as well and hope this article can get the authorities to at the Health to find a better way for people to cope with imported prescriptions. This is a total farce the way it is now.
    Ministry of Health, are you there?

Comments are closed.