Wednesday, January 9, 2013

The Friends of Frank Sinatra (T-14, Kuwait 1965)

Backpackers were so rare in Kuwait during the ten days we were there that the English-language radio station sought me out for an interview, for which they paid me ten dinars (ten pounds sterling). The City’s cheapest hotel was costing us ten shillings a night, so the fee did our budget the world of good.

The interview only lasted five minutes, after which the station would play a song between my segment and the next. Did I have a favourite song? “Oh, anything by Frank Sinatra,” I said. B-L-E-E-E-P! The station manager hit the stop-recording button and called down to me. “I’m afraid that singer is banned in Kuwait, Mr Barlow” he said. “He has friends who are supporters of Israel, and Israel is our enemy.”

Oh dear. Some Jewish Mafia don or Sammy Davis Junior, I guessed. (Sammy was a Jewish convert and a member of Frank’s “Rat Pack”.) I was given a second chance, and chose the most Gentile singer I could think of. As the tape rolled again, I said, “Oh, anything by Perry Como.” Sighs of relief all round, and my ten quid was safe! The Kuwait of the ‘60s was a popular place of exile for dispossessed Palestinians, and their presence no doubt influenced Kuwait’s hostility towards what the region’s Arabs all regarded as an illegal state.

7th January was Christmas Day according to the Orthodox Church’s calendar, and a Christian-Palestinian family kindly invited us to share their Christmas Dinner. The man and his wife spoke fluent English, so they had probably worked for the British colonial administration up until the successful Jewish rebellion and declaration of independence.

On their wall was a faded map of British Palestine, with the part claimed by Israel marked with criss-cross lines spanned by the English words “OCCUPIED TERRITORY”. The towns and villages were all identified by their Arab names (in Roman script), not their new Hebrew names.

That was the day we learnt of Winston Churchill’s status as a War Criminal, in Palestinians’ eyes. They held him responsible for authorising the invasion of the land by the European Jews, and the ethnic-cleansing program by which so many towns and villages came to be swept clean of their native residents.

We were quite taken with Kuwait. It was a long, long way short of what it is now, but was an oasis of prosperity in the midst of the Third World poverty we had experienced in recent weeks. I found the local Price Waterhouse office and asked if there were any jobs going; but the English manager-cum-messenger was too much of a prick even to meet with me. He spoke to me on his office intercom.

A Kuwaiti businessman offered Linda ten dinars a week to sit at a receptionists’ desk and look pretty. “No work, just lookee lookee”, he assured her. No mention of special overtime rates for special services; but we suspected that was an unspoken condition, so we made our excuses and left.

A few weeks after leaving Kuwait, we were sipping tea in the makeshift home of another Palestinian family (also Christians, from the icons on the walls) in a refugee camp outside Jericho. They spoke no English, and we no Arabic, so we all just sat around exuding goodwill. There was no map on their wall, and we had never heard of their home village.

The refugees’ political leaders have always sought an independent Palestine, within its old borders. The people in the camps, though, simply hanker after their ancestral villages, and trust in God to get them back there someday. They are a stiff-necked people, like their ancestors [Exodus 32:9].