It’s early evening and the heat is not so intense as at mid-day. People begin to stir as business resumes at 5pm when all the colours and wares from around the world vie for attention, with each vendor shouting the benefits of his goods to every passer-by.
Darkness falls at 7 o’clock each night when the gold necklaces, medallions, rings, bracelets and watches shimmer in the half-light of the kerosene lamps. Not a single piece of gold is under lock and key – every item is freely displayed, to be touched and admired by all comers.
Immediately next to the gold, sit fruit and vegetables nestling beside sweet pastries. Bright coloured fabrics clamour for notice alongside a variety of glorious rugs. A few yards further on a vendor extols the virtues of his coffee beans, inviting everybody to sample them. All the vendors consider their wares to be the best in the world: the juiciest water melons, the largest prawns, the finest gold, the thickest rugs, the richest coffee, the choicest pastries, the heaviest tapestries.
Amid all the hustle and bustle the raucous voices of the men can be heard bartering while the women in their black abeyas walk by. Through this melee the men move with a certain grace in their white jellabas and chequered guttras. These long white robes and the chequered head-dress lend an air of romance to the young men as they inspect the multitude of goods for sale.
One of them is impatient to inspect other wares. He moves away exuding an air of authority as the crowds automatically make way for him. As he finds what he is looking for, a smile animates his whole face when he focuses on a selection of music centres. After what seems an eternity he finally chooses the most expensive. Immediately he starts to barter with the seller and gesticulates wildly which contrasts oddly with his patrician bearing – the hooked nose, brown eyes and perfect teeth.
All through these negotiations his worry beads are constantly in evidence as he drives an even harder and harder bargain. The growing dismay of the seller is obvious as he can see his profit dwindling to almost nothing. Abruptly, it’s all over and the sale is concluded with both parties calling upon Allah to bless this deal, adding for good measure “Inshallah” (God Willing) as they vigorously shake hands before the young man returns to his friends.
The toddlers run around shouting, playing and giggling when they see a white face to which they point and show their friends who also giggle and then run away. Some of the little ones are shy and hide behind their mothers’ skirts, occasionally peering out with huge brown eyes, playing hide and seek. Many of the babies are already sleeping, lost to the sights, sounds, smells, colours and excitement all around them.
The heat becomes oppressive as more and more people congregate. The smell of coffee pervades the air along with the pungent aroma of the hubble-bubble pipes which drifts across from the nearby coffee shops.
Today, twenty six years on, these memories of Kuwait remain vividly imprinted on my mind. I also remember wearing a sheepskin coat and boots in winter there. I’d been advised to take warm clothes but fully believed I’d never wear them. How wrong I was ! I also recall the worst sandstorm I’ve ever seen. Every surface in our apartment was buried under layers of sand. In spite of the climate, at times scorching, at times bitterly cold, Kuwait will always have a special place in my heart.