* 7 mins
Note: It seems Kuwait updated its policy. I was lucky to meet a person who lived in Kuwait as of 2013. (updated on July 19, 2015)
America, the melting pot of the world. Other large cities around the globe have followed suit. Paris, London, Rio de Janeiro. There will always be pockets of ethnic divisions and discriminations and prejudices will inevitably exist, but we are living in the modern era. I mean, we have had a black president for the last eight years, and it is very likely that we will have a female running for president in the next election. Through all of this sociocultural progress, Americans are taught to be sensitive to other cultures. And when Americans visit other countries, they do so with an open mind, a free spirit, and a large appetite. They know how to respect the host nation’s values, even if the language barrier is challenging to overcome, or if the air or water is not as clean, or if there is an obvious distinction between the richy rich and the slumdogs despite living side by side, or if there are noticeable prejudices that exist. I can truly appreciate the way Americans conduct themselves abroad. But I am a Naturalized American, and my perspective on host nation’s values when I travel is not quite the same.
Before I tell you a story from my own experiences, I would just like to state that I will describe this story as objectively as possible so that you can visualize it strictly through a cultural and political lens. At the same time, I have strong opinions that result from this story and I hope I can invigorate in your hearts and minds the very true feelings and impressions that don’t generally surface after you read TripAdviser reviews and traveler guide books.
The story I am about to tell you is ten years old, based on shopping for a gold cross in Kuwait in 2005, yet to this day and age, it has proven to be timeless, because Kuwait has not progressed the way America has. As a contractor for the U.S. Army and part of the process of mobilization to Iraq, I had to connect through Kuwait. I probably would have never even thought to visit Kuwait if it weren’t for being part of the U.S. Mission in Iraq.
During one of these trips, I had a chance to visit ‘gold souks’ – an Indian-dominated gold market near the Sheraton Hotel in Kuwait City, but owned by Kuwaitis. On this beaming hot day, I found myself casually strolling through this culturally infused market, happy to be walking around freely with a bottle of water tasting so crisp and refreshing. Meandering from one shop to another, in my button down shirt, top two buttons undone, creating a ‘V’ at the chest, just how I like it, I was happy to be off-duty. All of a sudden, I felt a deep, profound connection to God, and reached up to my chest, only to find my chest naked and yearning for links of gold to adorn it and make me feel at ease. I THOUGHT I was in the right place.
I began window shopping for a gold cross. After passing a number of shops, I could not find any crosses on display. So I decided to go inside one of the shops and ask for gold crosses.
“Do you guys carry gold crosses?” I asked. “I don’t see any gold crosses on display at any of these shops.”
“Yes…But we are prohibited to display them,” the salesmen replied.
Then, he opened a drawer behind the counter and grabbed a couple to show me.
“Wow!…Kuwait makes it a policy to prohibit the display of crosses even in gold shops?!”, I said surprised and a bit perplexed.
I looked at his face and wondered…Is he even afraid to show me? Is it even a favor that they were allowing the selling of crosses?
My mind automatically, without any conscious control, played the following movie that in a roll of cosmic dice, one of those Kuwaiti clergyman sheiks opens the door and walks in. What would have happened to us? Would he catch us in the act of committing some kind of crime against the Islamic Sharia law? Would they imprison me for life as a punishment for this crime? Or worse yet, did this warrant the gravest penalty of all: stone in public.
I felt like I turned into a pariah. And I decided not to buy it. And I certainly did not want to buy it if it were considered to be committing a shameful act.
“No, thanks! I changed my mind.” I said.
I left the shop, my chest still naked, my happiness transformed into rage, and my free spirit and connection to God feeling locked up and suffocating. I left the market wondering how a whole country in 2005 can discriminate against an entire religion, how ancient times can still be among us?
Americans are taught to observe and record these encounters as normal, maybe even analyze history to conclude why these type of cultural phenomena should be perceived as normal.
But for me, I refuse to accept that this is OK. No! Absolutely not! Someone needs to speak about these issues and make them known.
Over the last millennia, Christians have been shoved off into the shadows in Arab Islamic countries, ostracized by religious Muslims. What seems to be a relatively small issue in being unable to purchase a cross safely and openly is actually a very big deal in my mind.
As Middle Eastern Christians, I (we) see these policies as an attempt to marginalize our values in The Middle East by the Arab Islamic governments. It is another pitiful method they use to mute our voices and restrain our freedom of expression – a cultural insensitivity against the Christian faith. It is no difference than a Jewish person wearing a kipa.
Hmm…Ten years later and thinking to myself, did ISIS do the same? They are banning the crosses from public and destroying them from the rooftops of churches.
I remembered Saddam. At least under his dictatorship, my father had crosses and Virgin Mary on display in his gold shop – a heinous dictator was even more liberal than the Kuwaiti government ten years ago, and even today.
In an attempt not to maneuver around the issue, indigenous Christians live better off in Syria than in Kuwait under President Bashar al-Assad.
The experience might not be a big deal to most Americans or to the world in general, but I just sit here and wonder, how long will this go on?
We just cannot escape its history.
How can I ever set foot in Kuwait again? Not that I have a strong desire to, but Christians inhabited Kuwait for centuries and have always been subjugated by religious Muslims, even to this day. In my life, I can get a healthy dose of travel in and visit Greece or Turkey or the French Riviera. But what about my children? What about the generations to come? Will they never visit Kuwait? If they do visit Kuwait, will they be welcomed or resisted?
We need to unite and create a forum of laws, rules, and regulations that are just ancient and inconceivable in modern times. We live in the global age of social media for Christ’s sake. It is time for us to educate the world on not just prejudices against Christians, but against all religions, that we create such an intense energy and revolution that puts an end to the Middle East and the Arab Islamic world discriminating against us. I encourage all you travelers and vagabonds to look for these not-so-obvious policies and understand the meaning behind. Bring them to light. Post them on Facebook and Instagram and Twitter. Let the next generation be aware. They are our strength. They are our courage. They are our power. They are everything that is pure and innocent and we will raise them the right way.
For all Christians from the Middle East.