Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

The Kuwait 'Street'

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

The Kuwait 'Street'

Article excerpt

In my hasty rush out of Boston, I forgot a few things: my toothbrush, electric adaptors, extra notebook.

My military hosts, however, seem to have forgotten to pack the gas masks and chem-bio suits that we reporters need before we join our units. As the days pass without any firm word on when the gear will arrive, I have been talking with residents of Kuwait City about how they are preparing for possible war.

Khadija Sekouri, a guest worker in Kuwait City, worries that she can't afford a gas mask. Good masks sell for upward of 50 Kuwaiti dinar (KD), or $150 US.

"For a family of five people, it's a problem. This is too much money," says Sekouri, a shopping mall clerk. With that much money, she could fly back to her native Morocco to wait out the war. A friend, Samina Kahar from the Philippines, says she's in the same boat. She makes 80 KD a month working at a children's clothing store.

With a US war on Iraq looming, the Kuwaiti government is recommending that citizens buy a gas mask and make a "safe room" within their homes. In the past few weeks, armed troops have been positioned along major roads in the city and the government has begun text messaging security updates to Kuwaiti cell phones.

Few people I talked to, however, have bought masks or sealed off rooms. But the possibility of war is the topic of conversation from barbershops to restaurants to shopping malls. Many seem to be taking a wait-and-see approach, telling me they will buy gas masks when the war gets closer. When a child's balloon pops unexpectedly in a downtown shopping mall, I am the only shopper rattled by the sudden sound.

Government forethought appears to have helped avoid panic. Newspapers announced the checkpoints days before Interior Ministry troops set up around the city. Subsequent text messages have relayed to the public that "Checkpoints are placed to ensure the public safety."

But retail businesses are hurting, an evident concern for many of the expatriates who come to Kuwait from around the Muslim world seeking service jobs. Almost two thirds of the population are not classified as Kuwaitis, and a clear class divide exists. As one Indian shopkeeper put it, disparagingly, Kuwaitis "make signatures" and drink tea all day.

Some of that bitterness percolates around the public security recommendations. Poorer workers do not have an extra room to seal off - in fact, some local fishermen said they live with three or four other people in 12-foot by 9-foot dorm rooms. Several people I spoke with believe a rumor that only Kuwaitis are being given masks by the government. In fact, the government has only issued masks to military personnel. And some civilian Kuwaitis agree that the masks should be free for all.

"They must give it to us, [we] shouldn't [have to] buy it," says Kuwaiti Alaa Malallh, a young woman wearing a white headscarf. …

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