CMC Does Kuwait

On March 10, a group of twenty-three CMC students traveled to Kuwait for a ten-day exchange with Kuwait University.  Only near half the students had ever taken Arabic, and for most, it was their first visit to the Middle East.  Because of our overall lack of experience and knowledge, there were naturally some preconceived notions and concerns about what our trip would be like.  Some of the major issues we expected were conservative gender relations, hesitance towards befriending Americans, and an overall lack of similarities between Western and Middle Eastern cultures.  We could not have been more wrong. 

We were told that women do not look men in the eyes, do not shake hands with men, do not speak to men unless spoken to, and must be covered at all times.  Knowing we would be staying in the dorms, some of us even brought the most conservative pajamas we own.  When we arrived in the Kuwait airport, however, both male and female students were greeted by a male chaperone, who immediately extended his hand to all.  Our female chaperones even laughed at the girls when we said we were trying to cover ourselves up.  Most Kuwaiti women wear headscarves or "burkas," but due to a large number of ex-pats, it is commonplace to see the average Western style of dress.  Our Kuwaiti hosts also stressed that boys and girls can be friends… as long as they don’t touch each other!

The main gender issues in Kuwait occur at the universities.  Naturally, men and women are separated by single sex dorms, but the girls were shocked to have a 9:30 curfew, while the boys were allowed to roam free.  However, the most controversial issue is that of segregated classrooms.  When meeting the President of Kuwait University, Professor Abdullatif Ahmad Al-Bader, he explained that single-sex classrooms are taboo and unnecessary.  He does not believe that co-ed classrooms are distracting, but rather having two classrooms for each subject needlessly spreads resources thin.  Despite the President’s negative outlook on segregated classrooms, Kuwait University is government owned, and must therefore obey the law.

We also had no idea what to expect from the Kuwaiti classes themselves; even though some of us  had studied Middle Eastern culture, many of us had never really given any thought as to how academics differed across cultures, and whether or not our political beliefs and opinions would be similar to theirs or drastically different. After visiting several Arabic language classes and participating in an international humanitarian law discussion, we realized that even though our political opinions and beliefs were similar to those of Kuwaiti students and professors, our different traditions and cultures ultimately yielded different world perspectives. For instance, while most American students and academics tend to be skeptical of international law and its effectiveness in resolving international disputes, the Kuwaiti students and professor in the class we participated in had a very optimistic perspective of international law, praising it for its effectiveness in protecting human rights violations. This positive perspective can be traced back to Kuwait’s liberation from Iraq in the early 1990s, a liberation that was only possible because of international intervention.

 

One of the other major assumptions we made about Kuwait was that there would be a great disparity between the Western and Middle Eastern cultures.  We imagined camels and hookah in the desert, but instead were greeted by Dean & Deluca, Pinkberry, Chili’s and Forever 21.  Almost anything you can find in America is available in Kuwait, and probably is located next to a Starbucks.  It is not to say that Kuwait has been completely overrun by materialism – we visited Kuwait’s oldest souk, a market place where one can buy Arabic coffee sets and traditional garb, and we spent two full days in the desert, playing beach volleyball, lounging in goat hair tents, and feasting on traditional cuisine.  Having had both Pizza Hut and lamb shwarma, we literally had a taste of both worlds during our time in Kuwait.

Finally, we were amazed by the level of hospitality provided to us. When we arrived in Kuwait, we were immediately welcomed with open arms, warm smiles, and exclamations of “Marhaba! Welcome to Kuwait!” We quickly discovered that the Kuwaiti culture is centered around gift-giving, so much so that by the end of the trip some of us wished we had brought an extra suitcase just for all the gifts we had received! Our Kuwaiti hosts stopped at nothing to make sure that we felt right at home in Kuwait City. When asked to describe the trip to Kuwait, Professor Frangieh captured the kindness of Kuwaitis by saying, “We are very grateful for Kuwait University and for CMC’s Kuwaiti alumni, who hosted us in their homes, took us to many places, spoke to our students, and made us feel very welcome. The Kuwaitis were most hospitable and generous.” When the trip came to a close, we realized that even though we were only there for a little over a week, we all had made many lasting friendships.

Overall, the trip was a huge success.  According to Professor Frangieh, “The Spring Break visit to Kuwait presented a unique opportunity for CMC students to experience Kuwaiti culture, traditions, and to learn firsthand about the history of Kuwait and its special relationship with the United States.  The trip serves as a bridge between the two cultures.” This rings true, as any stereotype or preconception we had was shattered by the progressiveness and overwhelming hospitality of the Kuwaiti people.  We were welcomed by total strangers with open arms and constantly showered with gifts.  Furthermore, the trips to Dunkin’ Donuts or Starbucks didn’t leave us feeling too homesick.  Kuwait University will be sending a group of students to CMC in 2012, and we are eagerly waiting to provide them with as fascinating an experience as we enjoyed this March.