I arrived in Kuwait City on the day of the killing of Osama Bin Laden. I was escorted to a sumptuous room in the airport with dark hardwood paneling, brass hardware fittings, the largest Persian rug I had ever seen, and huge portraits of the Emir and the Prince. I could only imagine this was a receiving room for visiting dignitaries.
I was met by a representative from the US Embassy (a Jordanian national) in a pressed suit who said "Have you heard the news sir"? I replied "No, I've been flying for thirteen hours". I was then introduced to the Kuwaiti Minister of Culture and given a lesson in the ritual of drinking Arab cardamon coffee. Due to my background I have always thought of myself as a musician in need of some sleep and a shave, and this day was certainly no exception. Who did they expect?
One of my wife's oldest and dearest friends is a brilliant and charismatic diplomat by the name of Deborah K. Jones (if only more of the people representing the US abroad were like her). She was the US Ambassador to Kuwait from April 2008 until June 2011.
In 2010 she wrote an e-mail asking if I would be interested in putting together some sort of presentation/performance that I could bring to Kuwait. It was not lost on me that she was really hoping to get my wife to come for a visit (which in the end, unfortunately, didn't happen).
I did some research on the music of the indigenous Kuwaitis and found that they were seafarers (fishermen and pearl divers) before they became oil barons. Their traditional music had its roots in sea bands that would go out on the water for weeks and months at a time to play work songs for the sailors. While I'm not an authority on the music of the Middle East, I had played the oud (most likely the Middle Eastern ancestor of the guitar) for a number of years. I proposed to give a little talk on the similarities of and differences between the music of the East and West, and then focus on the specific similarities and differences of the indigenous Kuwaiti music and its equivalent in the West: the sea shanties of Europe and America.......all the while playing and singing musical examples. This idea was met with approval and eventually a date was set.
After thirty minutes or so in the receiving room of the Kuwait City airport I was met by Ambassador Jones and we set off for the embassy compound with her entourage of body guards. It's a very odd reality living in the midst of that kind of security. The embassy in Kuwait is more like a campus, with a large administration building as well as housing for hundreds of people. There's a club ( no legal drinking otherwise in this country), and even social facilities like a teen center. All of this is inside a sort of no-mans land perimeter of concrete walls and razor wire, and with posted sentries at specific intervals armed with automatic weapons. I spent much of the time the first few days there at the Ambassador's residence rehearsing and preparing for my performance.
I'm not sure I've ever seen anyone work so hard as Ambassador Jones. At breakfast she has a personal cell phone, a business cell phone, and a blackberry, all three of which seem to be going off constantly. She seems to be able to put out fires in all directions and carry on a breakfast conversation at the same time with occasional pauses. By late in the day America wakes up and there's a whole new set of issues to be dealt with. And then in the evening, there are social events where even more of the business of diplomacy carries on with ambassadors from the region, as well as representatives from other parts of the world. It seemed like the only time she had to herself was after ten in the evening when she would take her Jack Russell terrier for a walk within the walls of the embassy compound.
Modern day Kuwait is a curious place. Less than a third of the population are indigenous Kuwaitis.
The rest are mostly Southeast Asians who have come to the country to work as domestics, waiters/waitresses, chauffeurs, etc. The Kuwaiti government provided me with a car and a driver for a few days while I was there and my Bangladeshi driver spoke only a tiny smattering of English and Arabic. Whenever he couldn't understand me he would dial up his brother on his cell (who had more English than he did) and hand the phone to me. His brother would then act as his interpreter. For those of you who were ever fans of the film "Princess Bride" (now long ago), this Bangladeshi driver had six fingers on his right hand, the six fingered man, no kidding.
Kuwait City was designed by American engineers with freeways etc. so that half the time if the person in the car next to you wasn't dressed so differently, you could have imagined yourself in any modern US city (with the exception of the fact that the oil wealth here keeps most of the infrastructure in near perfect condition).
My performance took place in a black box theater which I believe is the only performing arts facility in the city. After the brief academic musical discussion I sang some historic Western sea shanties (comparing them to their Kuwaiti counterparts), a couple of my own songs, and a few by my favorite songwriters. The audience was a mix of Kuwaitis (in their full Arabic dress), a few Southeast Asians, and many Westerners who lived and worked in the country. There was even one Kuwaiti man who introduced himself and said he went to university in my hometown of Boulder, Colorado. More than one of the Westerners came up afterward to tell me how thrilling it was to hear a more folk-oriented performance like this, since they usually had only jazz and classical music from the West.
After my performance I had one day to myself to wander around the city. Since the US liberated this country in the early 1990's from the Iraqi invasion, I felt relatively safe wandering around (even though I saw almost no faces as pale as mine). The "Souq" (historic downtown market) was interesting enough, but my favorite experience was when I wandered into the premises of a watch dealer to ask for directions to a musical instrument shop. The Kuwaiti proprietor ordered tea for us before we discussed why I was there.
Later that day I had the privilege of visiting The Arab Organization Headquarters Building that houses the Arab Fund (an organization set up by wealthy Arab countries to aid less fortunate Arab nations and their people). Even though this structure, architecturally speaking, was not remarkable from the outside, I have never seen its equal with regards to interior design and finish. The building contained a plethora of handwork highlighting the best art and craftsmanship from the Arab world.