Wednesday, April 05, 2006

On the Way Out

Kuwait sneaks up on you.

Just when you're convinced that it's just an uninspired desert dressed up in Pizza Huts, you start to like it.

At least that's what happened to me.

When I'd arrived, I saw tan concrete buildings on beige ground, broken up by ribbons of asphalt. I saw a strange society of wealth made of oil, that runs on the backs of Indian and Filipino laborers. I saw shopping malls, American chain restaurants, and ridiculously bad drivers.

I wasn't wrong. Just superficial.

Sure, there's 40 McDonalds, 32 Starbucks, loads of Pizza Huts, KFCs, and Chili's. There's also a handful of Costa Coffees, Fuddruckers, Burger Kings, and a few TGIFriday's, Chi-Chi's, and Coffee Bean & Tea Leafs. One of the most anticipated openings in town is not an art or theater opening—it's the opening of the Salmiya Dunkin' Donuts.

And that, I figured, was all right. I wasn't looking for a party. I was hiding out in Kuwait, seeking an escape from distractions where I could write my book while earning an income, and also looking for near-anonymity, where I could lick my leftover wounds from 2005 in peace before I faced the world again.

For a while, I just operated on automatic. I worked at Marvel Comics for 13 years and not being at the top of my form wasn't really a hindrance. I can traffic comic books in my sleep. Funny skill to have, I know.

Then, somewhere along the way, I made some friends. Tired old jokes I'd make in the work minivan evolved into funny jokes. The office helper would smile with genuine delight when I'd tease him. I flirted with a designer ten years younger than me once in a while (innocently, I assure you). Who'd have thunk it? I even got him to wear his seatbelt.

Even more surprising? I developed enthusiasm for our company product. We're flawed, no doubt, but our goal is to put out superhero comics based in this Middle Eastern/Gulf world, not in the world of New York or Gotham City. In a time where most people I know cynically assume our villains will be Israeli, positive role models from the Gulf are sorely needed. I bet most readers out there are not even aware that in Islam, suicide is forbidden. Most readers probably have some pretty negative stereotypes about where I live, in Kuwait. So many people expressed concern for my safety in Kuwait. In fact, it is much safer than being home, where readers maybe recall I surprised a burglar in December. The biggest danger in Kuwait is auto accidents.

My co-workers charmed me with their multi-culturalism and good humor. The women I shared an office with—Lama, Maya, and Lena—were hilarious and good-natured. I never tired of explaining comic books to them, and laughed when Lama and Lena complained about having to translate old X-Men comics (very wordy). When our first Marvel posters came in, they put them up on the wall and practiced naming every character. They got stuck on Gambit. We haven't featured him anywhere yet.

Most of the people at my office reminded me that work does not have to be filled with hot air, with blustering and stepping over others on their way to the top. I had special relationships with Kutub—our Indian-Muslim-scholar-webmaster—who was so wise and patient and always reminded me to aspire to be the same, Nabeel—our staff writer/jack-of-all-trades—who patiently took my lessons on em-dashes and how to spell the word separate ("two a's two e's") and learned them to the point where he was throwing them back at me when I'd bend the rules, Alec—our genial and incredibly talented Filipino art director—who burns the midnight oil and freelances without spare time in a way I can relate to, and Muneer—an Omani designer who started working for the company only a week before me and who took all my teasing with a laugh instead of a frown. Did you know that Oman has beautiful mountains? I didn't, but now I know a lot about Oman.

Sven is my old friend who brought me to Kuwait, and Naif oversees us all. Frankie—Mr. Fixit—is the backbone of the organization, ably assisted by always-smiling Hector. Without Frankie, I am sure our business would not exist. He is Hong Kong British, and is one of those people who can do about 18 things at once. Sven has a calming influence on chaos and has a great skill in diffusing tension.

Two days before I left, Naif took us all out for Lebanese food at Mais Alghanim. There were about 20 people there. We had less than half that number at the first company-wide meeting I'd attended in early January. The food at Mais Alghanim was delicious—kebabs, hummous, babaganoush, lots of things I can't recall the names of. Nabeel made me try some kind of interesting juice. I think it was pomegranate juice. Alec spent most of the time playing with Naif's oldest son. Lama cracked jokes at her end of the table, and Naif congratulated Maya on her (obvious) pregnancy, which I think was a secret until that moment.

The next day, Naif brought in a Kuwaiti feast in my honor.

"I should leave more often," I said. I'd never had so much respect accorded to me in 24 hours.

I went around and said my good-byes that afternoon. Hector arranged for a taxi to pick me up at 5:30 in the morning. Muneer, it turned out, had split without saying good-bye. I couldn’t believe it.

"He just left?" Alec nodded and smiled.

As I was packing up my laptop and gathering my papers (I'll be freelancing for the company from Jersey City), Nabeel came into the room.

"Will you be home at seven?"

"Uh… yeah. Why?"

"Alec, Muneer, and I are coming over. You don't have a choice."

With that, he left, leaving me to wonder what they were up to for my last evening in the country.

They showed up later and showered me with gifts and cards. Then they took me to dinner at a great Thai restaurant that I'd never heard of. Alec told me that he sometimes played pool in my building lobby with the guy who'd looked for DOS on my Mac.

As we shot the breeze over Thai food, I realized I had a social life. That's pretty much the last thing I expected when I'd accepted Sven's offer to come to Kuwait.

And actually, it was pretty great. Kuwait had become more than a way station. It was a place where I'd accidentally carved out a life when I'd been in no shape to do so and had least expected it.


Steve Buccellato said...

Wow! A social life! And here I thought you were just dehydrating yourself!

It's been fun reading about Kuwait. Thanks, MJ!

Di Mackey said...

I loved this, and I'm glad it worked out for you. :)

Unknown said...

another faithful reader in another country! how do you do it marie?

next stop barcelona!

Steve Buccellato said...

I was just wondering if "On The Way Out" is a reference to a certain, catchy song by Freedy Johnston. That song is about shoplifting, which begs the question: Did you steal anything from Kuwait, Marie? Inquiring minds want to know!