Links to other sites on the Web: (for links to other chapters go to the end of the file) Back to Chapter 5: the Asil
VI: THE PALESTINIAN DILEMMA
An old Bedouin saying goes like this (Khalef, 1990): "The guest walks in as an emir, sits as an asir [captive], and walks out as a shair [social critic]....The guest is a prisoner of the host." (p. 232)
The saying makes two important points. First, the guest who comes initially enjoys certain rights and privileges due to the obligations of hospitality. However, once he enters the owner’s tent, he himself comes under obligations to his host, so much so that he cannot even leave without the owner’s permission. When he finally leaves, he leaves as one critical of whatever factors marred his stay.
This saying provides a fair introduction to the Palestinian situation in several Arab countries, but particularly so in Kuwait. Fleeing Palestine, the Palestinians initially took sanctuary in various countries, but over time the sanctuary itself began to seem like a prison. Finally, they left, only to criticize the country’s hospitality or lack thereof.
Before proceeding with this section, this author must note that the situation of the Palestinians in many respects proved the hardest part of this paper on which to get reliable information. Basically, the Kuwaitis and Palestinians treat their relationship together as a sensitive topic. Thus, one finds apparently straightforward quotations sometimes hold double-meanings. For example, consider the following assertion (Al-Ramadhan & Russell, 1995):
Concerns over "cultural security" grew with the migrant settlement and growing cultural heterogeneity of the population. The 1980 census showed clear signs of settlement: nearly 1/3 of the non-Kuwaitis had been living in the country for ten years or more, and nearly 30 percent had been born there. (p. 572)
This assertion apparently suggests a concern that people of various nationalities came to Kuwait and intend to stay. However, take this in conjunction with a portion of the chart shown in chapter four:
As explained in the fourth chapter, the dependents-to-laborer ratio in the last column indicates the number of non-workers per worker, and only the Palestinian number, reprinted above, rises above .5 (1 child per couple). Putting these two pieces of information together, then, one comes to the real meaning of the previous assertion: by 1980, the Kuwaitis had genuine apprehension about Palestinian settlement and the apparent decision of the Palestinians to stay in Kuwait indefinitely.
Individuals in the current post-war era (1991-) still find this a very sensitive topic for discussion. This author found Kuwaitis and Palestinians both very much at ease talking about current American policy and the Israeli "enemy" in the Levant, but they showed an extreme reluctance to mention the events of the War and inter-community relations. In fact, in talking to one ADM student of mixed Kuwaiti-Palestinian heritage, it took almost three days before she admitted to her half Palestinian nationality.
Charitably, one might describe the Asil as "visionaries" or even "entrepreneurs," those who come up with ideas rather than execute them. Less charitably, one might describe them as often "lazy," a laziness amplified by wealth and wastah. The Shia always enjoyed a reputation for hard work, perhaps necessary in a society that usually required that they work harder to achieve the same success. In general, though, as a Red Crescent observer explained to an American reporter (Kelley, 1991), with an ironic reference to the diwanniyah, the Kuwaitis "are very good at talking and drinking tea all day, but they do not have a clue about things like how to get a lorry from point A to point B" (pp. 23-24).
The Asil's laziness meant their companies required competent managers who would make the company operate on a day-to-day, hour-to-hour, basis. For this reason, they turned to the Palestinians. Not only did the Palestinians have an admirable work ethic, but they also came from a culture that, by necessity, relied on education for its survival.
The Palestinians enjoyed a number of advantages that made them the natural managers and high-level technical workers in Kuwaiti companies. First, they spoke Arabic, albeit a different dialect than the Kuwaitis, and many spoke a second language such as English. Second, they generally possessed a superior education to that of their bosses. Third, they worked hard and, unlike the Kuwaitis, respected hard work. Fourth, many could not go anywhere else, a distinct contrast to other foreign workers. Finally, their Diaspora meant that many maintained, through necessity, business connections all over the Arab world. In addition to this, the Palestinians already represented, to a certain extent, a known commodity. For example, even before the oil money started to accumulate, the Palestinians worked as Kuwait’s school teachers (Salih, 1992).
The Palestinians’ willingness to do the difficult and to achieve for, if not associate with, the success of their hosts led to their appellation, the "indispensable minority." To understand the Palestinian position requires retelling some of their story in Kuwait.
It seems ironic to use the word "Diaspora" when referring to the Palestinian flights and migrations, but in some curious ways, their journeys parallel those of their Jewish/Israeli opponents. Both lost their homeland to a foreign power. Both maintain a tradition of an eventual return to their homeland. Both settled as suspect, sometimes persecuted, minority within a variety of other countries. Both avidly pursued education for its own sake and as a means of maintaining survival.
However, one cannot continue these parallels indefinitely, and one particular distinction concerns the relative strength of the Palestinians in the various host Arab countries. Unlike the Jews, they came in far larger numbers relative to the host population, so much so that Jordan today includes a population about equally split between those of Jordanian and Palestinian ancestry. Unlike the Jews, they shared a language and, in some respects, a culture with their host nations, which sometimes led to attempts at assimilation (Szula, 1992). More ominously to their hosts, the Palestinians several times attempted to seize political control of their host countries, making them social critics of the most forceful variety. The experiences of the Palestinians in Kuwait will show most of these factors in play.
The Palestinians in Kuwait came in three waves, each linked to a political-military reversal (Rouleau, 1985). In each instance, some of the immigrants to Kuwait fled for political reasons, fear of capture or imprisonment. Others came because either the defeats led to a sense of despair about achieving freedom for their homeland or due to a perceived loss of economic opportunity. Hence the immigrants included both political refugees and economic migrants, and some fleeing for both reasons.
The first Palestinians came directly after the Israeli War of Independence. This wave consisted almost exclusively of young, single males who often endured harsh conditions to make the trip (Ghabra, 1988):
Palestinians were forced to travel via the dangerous "underground railroad" which operated between the West Bank and Kuwait. During the 1950s thousands of young male peasants, many as young as 15, came to Iraq this way. Then from Basra, they literally walked across the desert to Kuwait. Hundreds of others came to Kuwait in boats....[The] responsibility for the family fell on the young men and women who had the ability to endure the harsh conditions. (p. 68)
As these young men built their lives in Kuwait, inevitably they sent for other members of their families, at first young, strong males like themselves, but eventually females and older family members. As conditions improved, and Kuwait prospered, the Palestinians’ living conditions improved, and more came.
A second and larger wave came after the 1967 war. In this defeat, the Arabs lost control of the West Bank which became Israel’s "occupied territory." Egypt lost the Gaza strip which also became an Israeli "occupied territory." Meanwhile, the King of Jordan suppressed a coup against himself apparently launched by the Palestinians, and the resulting Jordanian crack-down on anyone suspected sent more into exile.
Finally, the last large group of Palestinians came in the wake of the Lebanese Civil War. Prior to Israel’s Lebanese invasion, Palestinians set up "camps" on the northern edge of Israeli’s border, the area today largely occupied and controlled by the Hizballah militia. Lebanon, already close to civil war, failed to exercise any real control of these areas which effectively became a Palestinian "state within a state." Israel’s invasion of these territories led, among other things, to the expulsion of these Palestinians and to the Lebanese Christian massacres of Palestinians at Shatila (1982).
The mention of all of these events only serves to give an introduction to some of the causes of Palestinian immigration and some of the issues discussed by the refugees. The Palestine Liberation Organization, headed by Yasser Arafat, actually formed in Kuwait, a country then comfortable with espousing pro-Palestinian sentiment and considered a fairly "safe haven." As a symbol of their solidarity with Palestine, Kuwait would not allow entry to anyone with an Israeli passport stamp.
That the Kuwaiti Palestinians came in response to these events explains, in part, the profusion and confusion of passports. Some Palestinians held Lebanese passports. Many held Jordanian passports. Others, after considerable difficulty, obtained either Canadian or Australian passports. Some of the oldest Palestinians held outdated, useless Egyptian-issued passports, relics of the time when Egypt controlled the Gaza strip. A very small number obtained Kuwaiti passports. A fair number held no passport at all, making them, truly, prisoners of Kuwait, trapped in an area no larger than that of the city of Boston. As one older Palestinian teacher at Al-Dharra Madressor succinctly summarized: "I have no passport any more. I cannot leave."
This brief recounting should emphasize an important point. To Palestinians, these events in Palestine seemed as real and relevant as those down the street from them. Invariably, as this author observed during the second Intifada (2000-date), almost any event on the West Bank or Gaza strip affected someone in the school through their circle of relationships, and indeed to the most ardent Palestinian nationalist, these events in Palestine seemed more real than those which occurred in Kuwait.
Arrival in Kuwait did not guarantee survival in Kuwait. For this, the Palestinians turned to their circle of relationships and, especially, their family, as they pursued what Shafeeq Ghabra terms "the Politics of Survival" (Ghabra, 1988). Support began almost at the moment of arrival and continued as Palestinians, like the Kuwaitis, relied on the family and extended relations until they, in their turn, helped others (Al-Thakeb, 1985). Ghabra (1988) concludes that, "For a dispersed, uprooted people such as the Palestinians, the family has proved to be a decisive institution involved in the preservation of their society....Palestinian family networks gave order and meaning to post-1948 Palestinian society" (p. 80).
Despite a much more strenuous work schedule than the Kuwaitis, the Palestinians maintained constant, almost daily, contact with relatives (Ghabra, 1988):
Visiting among relatives is a weekly or daily practice...during the 29 day fast period [of Ramadan], the family gathers at least once in the house of each family member...[Regarding family visits per day] 4% daily, 17% 2-3 a week, 37% once a week, 26% once a month, 14% occasionally. (pp. 67-68)
Al-Thakeb also finds the Palestinians heavily involved in and reliant upon family-based relationships within and outside of the country. Indeed Al-Sarhan noted that 60% of the Palestinians visited their families once a week and kept up constant contact (Al-Sarhan, 1976 cited in Al-Thakeb, 1985).
If possible, their rounds also included visiting those outside the country in Lebanon, Jordan, etc.. In this respect, the pre-Gulf War (1990-1991) political quiescence allowed a particularly high number of family reunions outside Kuwait (Ghabra, 1988, p. 68).
This closeness to and reliance upon relatives affected housing patterns. Hawally, the neighborhood of Al-Dharra Madressor school, Nuqrah, Salmiya, Khaitan, and Farwaniyyah became the heart of Palestinian settlement. In these areas, single families occupied 30-60% of the apartment buildings, and high Palestinian demand to live in these areas actually tripled the rents (Ghabra, 1988).
In the economy, the Palestinians took several important roles. While some, particularly young men, took positions at the very bottom level of the labor pyramid, most Palestinians quickly became professionals, managers, or partners. Here one must note that, while wastah might help enable a Kuwaiti to obtain a governmental position, both the government and private firms filled other positions on the basis of merit and nationality.
Among the professions, the Palestinians became classroom teachers, doctors, and professors. Their dominance of intellectual fields in Kuwait proved so total that some writers dubbed the Palestinian community "the intelligensia of Kuwait" (Hubbell, 1992), and they dominated the faculty of Kuwait University.
As company managers, the Palestinians invariably filled the levels of the Kuwaiti company directly below that of the Asil. Competent and hard-working, they ran the day-to-day operation of the vast majority of Kuwaiti corporations. Their work ethic admirably complemented the more lackadaisical attitude of their superiors.
Finally, the Palestinians set up their own companies, often multi-national businesses, within Kuwait. Compared to the political situation in other Arab countries, the environment within Kuwait seemed relatively stable and positive, but this stability came at a price. Since, technically, all businesses required Kuwaiti ownership, Palestinians often ended up bearing all of the expenses for the company, doing all of the work, and putting up all of the capital. In return the clever Kuwaiti partner supplied his signature as 51% owner, and the Kuwaiti received 51% of the profits. One Palestinian industrialist (in Rouleau, 1985) grumbled, "It is the highest tax in the world" (p. 14).
To cite a typical instance of what might happen, in 1997 Mr. Rabbawwit (pseudonym), who owns a computer shop in Hawally found that his mailed shipment of high-end, Intel computer chips never arrived. Later, he found a neighborhood, exclusively Kuwaiti-owned computer shop selling computers with chips whose serial numbers exactly matched those of his missing chips. He did not bother to report it; instead, he simply ordered another new set of chips delivered through express mail and wrote off the loss as part of the cost of doing business in Kuwait. He did not attempt to challenge the Kuwaiti businessman.
However, even this less than satisfying business situation still surpassed the precariousness of life in the occupied territories, Lebanon, and Jordan, where a Palestinian businessman might lose an entire business to unpredictable events or unscrupulous rulers. With hard work, a Palestinian in Kuwait could at least count on some stability and profit. Indeed, some Palestinians became rich.
To consider Palestinian Kuwait at its height, the eve of the Gulf War, requires taking a stroll through Hawally, once the center of Palestinian settlement. Whereas Asil neighborhood houses range from comfortable two-stories to palatial, the Hawally neighborhood consists almost entirely of aging apartment buildings. Most apartment buildings resemble those of the more run-down neighborhoods of cities such as Los Angeles, and some of the worst ones look as though the Iraqis shelled them during the invasion, though this did not happen. In these apartment buildings, some of them lacking even air-conditioning, lived families of Palestinian professionals. A family of five might live in, essentially, a two-bedroom apartment. The apartment blocks helped conceal a politically sensitive fact, the numerical growth of the Palestinian population.
While the Palestinians traditionally dominated important positions in the Kuwaiti economy, they gradually came to dominate the population as a whole. Sources estimates the Palestinians numbered more than 350,000 (Rouleau, 1985), possibly as much as 500,000 (Kelley 1991), in other words not only 15-25% of the entire population but a larger chunk than that of the Kuwaitis themselves.
Moreover, the working-age Palestinians concentrated in economically and culturally sensitive fields so that Rouleau (1985, p. 14) estimates that even by 1985 Palestinians numbered one out of four employees in the public sector and one out of every three teachers. The Palestinians heavily dominated the professions (Rouleau, 1985):
[There is a] very high representation among the teachers and professors....[The Palestinians are] numerous among journalists, doctors, engineers, architects, and top management of oil companies and private businesses. According to a 1975 study, one in four Palestinians working in Kuwait had a high-level professional or scientific job. (in Salih, 1992)
Consider the following figures:
Several facts become evident. First, notice the gradual desertion by the Kuwaitis of fields employing hard physical labor, such as agriculture, as well as low-status occupations, such as clerking, as the Kuwaiti population became more generally educated. Further, note the general decline of the Kuwaitis as a percentage of the working population as a whole in the period prior to the Gulf War.
In contrast, note the rising and continuing importance of non-Kuwaitis in science, the arts, business administration, and management. Given the stress the Kuwait government placed on education in these particular fields (Kennedy, 1998), one would expect a growing "Kuwaitization" of these positions. The fact that this did not occur testifies to two simple facts: a growth of these positions and the extremely low rates of Kuwaiti female work-force participation. The Palestinians filled this gap.
In comparison to the Kuwaitis, the Palestinians lived relatively stressful lives since they maintained as many social obligations as their employers and worked far longer hours. As one Palestinian said (in Blandford, 1976): "I get up a 5:30 every day. I stay in the office until late at night. I only go home to sleep. I'm killing myself with work." (p. 183)
As the dominant intellectual force, the Palestinians wrote almost all of the editorials for the Kuwaiti papers. This led to a curious situation in which the Palestinians often voiced more radical positions, ones held by the newspapers’ liberal, educated Asil owners, only to have the Kuwaiti government clamp down, even expelling some of the Palestinian editors (Graz, 1992). In other words, through the Palestinians, the Kuwaitis could express governmental and social criticism, knowing someone else would likely take the consequences. On one subject, the Kuwaitis and Palestinians generally agreed: the future of Palestine. On the Palestinian side, of course, this expressed their fervent desire to go "home," though some of those born in Kuwait had never seen Palestine. On the Kuwaiti side, advocating a free Palestine held two important benefits. First, it deflected criticism of the Palestinians from their second-class, non-citizenship status. Second, the promise of a free Palestine meant that, at some point, like the Lebanese and Jordanians before them, the Kuwaitis might rid themselves of their Palestinian "guests," guests whom, as time went on, they came to fear.
The visit of Edward Said to Kuwait best illustrates the curious relationship between Kuwaitis and Palestinians in the 1980s. Said, himself a Palestinian, visited Kuwait University, the country's intellectual showpiece. Despite the name, Palestinian intellectuals dominated the faculty of the school (Said, 1991):
In 1985, the one time I went to Kuwait, I was a guest of Kuwait University. Palestinians and Kuwaitis worked there together, and because I was an outside visitor, both of them sought my ear to accuse the other of malfeasance, usually on nationality grounds. You can sympathize with the Palestinian who is a minority in a country like Kuwait, but it breeds the whole atmosphere of people being identified ethnically and through the prism of a very narrow and narrowing nationalism; it breeds even in the victim a general lack of generosity. (pp. 310-311)
By the 1980s, the Palestinians had, in many ways, worn out their welcome in the country. Earlier generations of Asil welcomed the Palestinians because the Palestinians helped organize and run the vast army of foreign laborers who built modern Kuwait and their expanding commercial empires. Further, they filled the many positions in a developing nation that only an educated group of professionals can fill.
Now, with the infrastructure largely complete, the Kuwaiti began to see some of the defects of the Palestinians in somewhat bolder relief. These defects became particularly relevant because the Kuwait of the 1980s found itself in a number of difficulties economically due to the crash of the Manakh Al Suk (1984) and politically due to pressures caused by the long Iraq-Iran War (1981-1988). This era included five bombings, two hijackings of Kuwait Airways planes, and a nearly successful assassination attempt on the Emir (Graz, 1992), some of these events purportedly linked to Iran and others to the Palestinians.
However, one can trace an active dislike of the Palestinians to earlier periods. In 1976 Linda Blandford found the Kuwaitis worrying about the Palestinian presence and the Palestinians worrying about their own safety (Blandford, 1976, p. 182).
Part of this worry came from the PLO’s political adventures, many of them planned from the PLO office in Kuwait. This made for two fears. First, Kuwaitis feared that the PLO would somehow involve them in the conflict with Israel either through military or, more likely, financial ventures funded from Kuwait (Plascow, 1982):
[The Palestinians] have no state to return to, and their sojourn is heavily dependent on the resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Thus their mere presence in the Gulf is regarded by the local regimes as a menace by virtue of their persistent political expectations regarding their yet unresolved plight and the duties of their "hosts" which stem from that. (p. 78)
Some Kuwaitis greeted with caution the PLO’s involvement in Lebanon (Plascow, 1982). Some writers feared that, as in Jordan and Lebanon, the many Palestinians might attempt a coup or to set up a "state within a state" in Kuwait itself. Various Palestinian plots surfaced, including some instigated by Arab nationalists (Plascow, 1982; Bulluch, 1984) and one purportedly aimed at assassinating the Emir.
Support of the PLO, then, became a potentially dangerous strategy. Support them too much, Kuwaitis reasoned, and the Palestinians might become powerful and overthrow your own government; support them too little and the Palestinians might become angry at your regime and take revenge. This fear grew to such an extent that during the Lebanese Civil War the Emir reputedly dismissed Parliament to put fear into the Palestinians (Economist 314, 1990), a move repeated during the Iran-Iraq War.
This sense of fear on the part of Kuwaitis led to fear on the Palestinian side of a pre-emptive strike. Rouleau (1984) quotes a Palestinian teacher living in Hawally as saying of the Kuwaitis: "They are anti-Palestinian; they hate us....Sooner or later they will massacre us all" (p. 14). Rouleau wrote off this comment as "extreme," but history would prove otherwise. If the Kuwaitis looked down on the Palestinian as yet another example of "dumb foreigners working themselves to death," Palestinians looked down on the Kuwaitis as lazy and spoiled. Consider this Palestinian businessman’s description of Kuwaiti girls in Blandford (1976) and Blandford’s generally accurate assessment of his chances:
"Girls in Kuwait are all the same. They only care about money and clothes....I will never marry a girl from Kuwait." He's right; he won't marry a girl from Kuwait. No good Kuwaiti family would have him. No matter how much money they have, no matter how trusted they are on high, Palestinians are second-class citizens." (p. 183)
In fact, the attitudes on the two sides often seem to parallel that of racist Americans. For example, Blandford states of the famous Palestinian banker, Abu Saud (Blandford, 1976), "He's been conditioned by the Kuwaitis, and to them he's still 'brilliant but Palestinian'" (p. 185). With a somewhat malicious sense of humor some Gulf residents compared the intellectual accomplishments of the Palestinians to the Jews. Kuwaiti opinion depicted the Palestinians as smart, but scheming and arrogant (Rouleau, 1984):
[The Palestinians] are intelligent, resourceful, effective, and imbued with an uncommon work ethic. Unfavorable prejudices lead others to depict the Palestinians as a closed community: intriguing, greedy, prideful, insolent, and, according to traditionalists, inclined to Western corruption and turpitude. (p. 14)
At the heart of this dislike lay the nationality question. To Kuwaitis, holding the Kuwaiti passport symbolized membership in the privileged class, just as belonging to the great families distinguished the Asil. It almost went without saying that any other nationals living in Kuwait, except perhaps Americans and British, would gladly accept Kuwaiti nationality. The Kuwaitis naturalized an incredibly small number of foreigners, fifty per year (Kennedy, 1998), which only heightened the perceived value of citizenship. The Kuwaiti passport and the apparent envy of its possession, then, symbolized a sense of Kuwaiti superiority. Indeed, the government sometimes punished naturalized citizens by withdrawing their citizenship (Salih, 1992).
The Palestinians implicitly threatened this sense of superiority. While they constituted the majority of the few naturalized citizens, most Palestinians made it clear they did not even want Kuwaiti citizenship (Mansfield, 1978). Hence, their non-pursuit of citizenship devalued one of the most venerated attributes of becoming a Kuwaiti, and, thus, of Kuwaitiness itself. Of course, for Palestinians, citizenship functioned as the central core of their identity, such that on one KU study students actually valued their national identity even above their religious one.
Kuwait’s eventual decision to give citizenship to the Bedouin only fanned the flames. Many of the tribes held, at best, dubious claims to citizenship, and their past contributions to modern Kuwait in no way equaled that of the Palestinians who could claim, with some justification, that they built Kuwait. By giving citizenship to the Bedouin, the Kuwaitis returned the insult of the Palestinians in not avidly pursuing citizenship. Rouleau accurately portrays the attitudes of the two sides of the nationality debate in his article on the Palestinian Diaspora (Rouleau, 1984):"We feel foreign everywhere,," say the Gulf Palestinians. "They are un-assimilable," say the Gulf natives. "We do not want to assimilate," reply the former, "for Palestinians we are, and Palestinians we will remain." There are two nationalisms here: one exacerbated by the statelessness, the other developing among the people of the Gulf. (p. 15)
In this respect, one must remember that despite their achievements and numbers, the Palestinians, like any other nationality in Kuwait, lived as a separate, parallel community. Therefore, though they spoke Arabic and worked closely with the Kuwaitis, the two groups lived generally separate lives that came together only in the workplace. When not together, the two groups spoke different dialects of Arabic and lived with different standards of group behavior. To marry a Palestinian, as did one rare, female member of the Al-Dharra parent community, meant leaving one social world and entering another.
However, unlike perhaps any other group of foreigners, the Palestinians lived "lives" in the fullest sense of the word. Whereas every other group of foreigners ultimately came to Kuwait (a) for a limited duration and (b) to make money, the Palestinians ended up doing more than this. Since their departure never came about, they built a community. More than any other ethnic group, the Palestinian lived parallel and rival lives to those of the Kuwaitis, Bedouin, and Asil. Again, in contrast to all of the others, one can also describe a parallel civil society, albeit one politically and economically subordinate to the Kuwaitis.
This, then, gets to perhaps the heart of the "Palestinian problem." In a world of "masters and servants," the Palestinians did not easily fit into either category. In fact, in claiming they "built Kuwait" (Szula, 1991), they laid claim to an ownership stake. To put this another way, in the tribal world of Kuwait, they constituted, not an inferior tribe like that of the Egyptian Cairenes or the Bedouin, but a rival tribe, even a superior one.
Moreover, it probably seems obvious even from the references above that the Palestinians sometimes made little attempt to hide their feelings of superiority to the Kuwaitis. After all, they did most of the thinking and creating in pre-war Kuwait. Further, they came to Kuwait not so much as "servants," but often as "masters" in their roles as teachers, lawyers, businessmen, and professors. Indeed, even in the Post-War years whenever this author suggested that a Kuwaiti business needed a "smart Palestinian manager," Arabs of all nationalities always responded that few Palestinians remained; never did it occur to them to deny the intelligence or ability of the Palestinians not only to manage the company but to repair it from the damage that Kuwaiti mismanagement might inflict.
The feelings of fear and inferiority and anger on both sides came to a head when, on August 1 1990, Saddam Hussein’s army crossed the border. On that August morning when Saddam’s troops crossed the border, most Palestinians, despite the heat, went to work at their jobs in Kuwait. Meanwhile, most Asil awoke in their comfortable hotel beds in Europe and America to find their country occupied.
A Palestinian teacher of Arabic commented to this author (October, 1998), "The day Yasser Arafat signed the treaty with Saddam was the saddest day of my life." Like many a Palestinian, she had lived her entire life in Kuwait. She expressed extreme anger towards Arafat because he "didn’t know about life in Kuwait." As a result of Arafat’s decision, she and her parents lost their teaching jobs.
Whatever the sentiments of the Palestinian community as a whole, Saddam's invasion, Arafat's blundering "alliance" with Saddam, and Jordan’s ambiguous neutrality, effectively brought out the simmering antagonism between Kuwaitis and Palestinians, alluded to earlier. Undoubtedly, some Palestinians actively sided with the Iraqis, even aiding in the looting (Bennett & Flick, 1991). As Hubbell (1992) comments: "one Kuwaiti told me, several were observed touring the city with the Iraqi secret police, pointing out [Kuwaiti] resistance fighters" (p. 540).
Other Palestinians seemed simply to enjoy the irony of the situation which, for once, put them on top, or, at least put someone else on top. Hence, one Hawally supermarket bulletin board, on which one normally posts advertisements for Indian servants, posted a sign for (Hubbell, 1992) a "Kuwaiti maid and Kuwaiti driver" (p. 359). One Palestinian woman gave voice to a common sentiment voiced soon after the invasion (in Ajami, 1990-1991): "They are always blaming us, asking us why did we leave our country? Let's see how many Kuwaitis stay here" (p. 5).
Many Palestinians simply went to work, as always. To most Palestinians, this remained an act of economic necessity. They could not flee, after all. Many lacked the resources and the remainder any other destination. Some, including some teachers at Al-Dharra, did not even have a passport that any country would recognize. As the female teacher quoted above stated: "They expect us to leave? Where would we go?"
Kuwait's economy, then, continued to operate, largely due to the Palestinians, through the War (90-91) and in spite of Iraqi looting and pseudo-socialist management (Bennet & Flick, 1991). The economy ran also despite the active boycott of the Kuwaitis themselves and their sporadic acts of non-cooperation. Further, the economy continued despite the fact that the vast majority of company presidents and top-level managers, Asil, never came back from their summer holidays. This demonstrated something that everyone in Kuwait long suspected: the Kuwaitis, especially the Asil, added little or nothing to their own economy. In fact, the economy might run better and more efficiently without their "management." One US official observed (in Kelley, 1991), "The people who know how to run things, the people who always did all the work here, were almost all Palestinians." (pp. 23-24)
When the war ended, therefore, with the Allied freeing of Kuwait (1991), some American writers urged as a solution to the "Palestinian problem" that Kuwait not only invite back the Palestinians who fled but also grant many of them citizenship (Al-Ramadan & Russell, 1991).
However, this solution did not fit the mood of the Kuwaitis. In some cases, almost immediately vigilantes targeted the "collaborators." In some Kuwaitis’ minds, the Palestinian population as a whole seemed guilty (Hubbell, 1992). Hence reprisals hit not only those guilty of active collaboration but those merely having Palestinian nationality. According to Amnesty International reports (in Coser & Hausknect, 1991):
The Kuwaitis started rounding up Palestinians arbitrarily. They arrested six hundred Palestinians who are supposed to go on trial….In the meantime, the Palestinians were subjected to beating, electric shocks, and prolonged deprivations of food and water. AI was told that at least seven inmates died after torture. During the visit of the AI team from March 28 to April 9, victims were still being killed and tortured....Although revenge for alleged collaboration appears to have been the motive in some cases, many people seem to have been targeted simply because of their nationality. (p. 321)
Some Palestinians became the victims of reprisals, legal and illegal, for acts of actual or perceived collaboration. Recall that Palestinians filled the majority of the newspaper editorships before the war; some of the Palestinians convicted of collaboration worked for the Iraqi newspaper produced during the occupation (Economist 319, 1991). In some cases, international observers found the standards for guilt questionable (Mortimer, 1994). Some Palestinians simply "disappeared" (Al-Ramadan & Russell, 1995) into the no-man’s land of the Iraqi border. Those who did not get taken out or flee immediately quickly felt the changed atmosphere (in Hubbell, 1992):
"Whenever we go out we feel afraid," says one Palestinian woman in Hawally who is awaiting deportation to Jordan. "We did nothing wrong during the Iraqi occupation. This is my home, my country. Why are we to blame?" (p. 539)
It merits mention, here, that the attitude of the Asil, who relied on the Palestinians as managers, did not markedly differ from that of the other Kuwaitis. ADM’s school counselor, Jan Al-Khansa (2001), reports many students and adults felt extreme anger at the Palestinians as a group if not always at individuals. When an interviewer from The Nation spoke to the head of the liberal bloc, Abdullah Al Nibari, suggesting that Kuwait enfranchise long-time residents who could prove their loyalty during the occupation, i.e., the Palestinians, Nibari replied (in Hubbell, 1992):
"This is wishful thinking. These foreign workers represent 80% of the population. We are in a very precarious position. Would any society allow itself to become a small minority? This is just not possible." (p. 540)
Contrast this with Nibari and the liberals’ leadership of the fight to enfranchise women, a move designed, some claim, merely to give the vote to Asil women. Hence, the liberal bloc did not come to the defense of the Palestinians and instead sided with the government’s moves to change immigration policy so that it favored other groups less likely to threaten national security. When this author suggested to some students the idea of granting citizenship to the remaining Palestinians, they responded: "You do not really know them." They followed this up with comments as to the general dishonesty and mistrustfulness of Palestinians.
Whether guilty or not, the Palestinians got the message. They could tarry no longer. The majority of them packed their bags either during or after the War, with at least 250,000 Palestinians leaving by choice or through force (Al-Ramadan & Russell, 1995).
For the average Asil company, this meant, indeed, replacing top-level managers. In most instances, the Egyptians took the Palestinians’ positions. In other cases, the more technical positions fell to Indians. Other Arab nationals, particularly Lebanese and Syrians, took still other positions. Better to trade some inefficiency, many business owners reasoned, for loyalty.
The Gulf War, then, left resentment and bitterness. Part of this fell upon the Palestinians, guilty, innocent, or indifferent. Further, the government did not go out of its way to guarantee justice for the Palestinians because, like the Asil, it found it could dispense with the indispensable minority. The community of perhaps 300,000 shrunk to a community of 30,000.
The Palestinians and a discussion on education naturally go together. More than any other Arab community, the Palestinians pursued education. In fact, they boast a higher rate of college graduation than the Israelis (Szula, 1992).
In Kuwait, Palestinians both produced and consumed education. As the next chapter will explain, the first teachers in Kuwait came from Palestine prior to the Arab-Israeli wars. Until the time of the Gulf War, they provided the majority of the male and female classroom teachers in Kuwait. Before the war and after, they provided the bulk of the teaching staff at Al-Dharra Madressor. This domination reaches the extent that one can call Arab teaching in Kuwait "Palestinian teaching" even if the classroom teacher came from Syria, Lebanon, or Egypt.
Moreover, the Palestinians perhaps showed the most dedication to obtaining education of any parents outside Korea. The Palestinians, for example, tried to make the most out of the free, state-provided, public educational system. Blandford (1976) gives an example of a cab driver’s dedication:
The government offers free schooling now to non-Kuwaitis if they arrive here under the age of seven. When he [the cab driver] gets home at night, he sits over them [his children] as they do their schoolwork, reminding them it is the only way out. (p. 184)
Kuwaitis often commented upon the Palestinians’ unending pursuit of degrees. Note again, that the apparent Kuwaiti compliment below also contains a criticism as it implies a lack of dedication to Islam (in Rouleau, 1984), "Education is like a religion [to the Palestinians], an obsession" (p. 14).
Palestinians correctly perceived education as an asset that others could not take away from them. Given the chaotic world situation and their perpetual journey, education represented one thing easy to pack and, ironically, more easily obtained and universally accepted than a passport. As the editor of an Arabic newspaper in Ghaza commented (in Szula, 1992), "Just as with the Jews, adversity leads Palestinians to education and knowledge as a way to salvation" (p. 107).
Like other goals, pursuit of a degree became a family project, not only a personal one. Relative poverty did not deter Palestinians from their ambitions (Ghabra, 1988):
Palestinians in Kuwait and elsewhere have increasingly looked to Europe, the US, and other countries for higher education....Families have gone bankrupt or have lived on the bare minimum to educate their children....The amount of suffering low-income Palestinian families are able to endure in order to finance the education of their children is astonishing....In Kuwait, 4000 Palestinian students graduate from high school each year, and at least 1000 of them pursue education in the United States. Many of them belong to limited income families. (p. 72, emphasis added)
Prior to the Gulf War, as much as 40% of Al-Dharra’s students came from Palestinian families (Al-Jinnah, 1991). Considering the cost of Al-Dharra, $7800 per year (ECIS-Al-Dharra 2002), their attendance suggests a high dedication to the pursuit of education. During this author’s tenure at Al-Dharra, a small number of Palestinian students, children of staff members, attended and graduated from ADM. However, one can find examples among this small group, as little as 5% of the student enrollment, of the meaning of education. This group included, for example the 1997 valedictorian, the 1998 salutatorian, and the top students, respectively, of the classes of 2005 and 2006.
One can take one particular family, the Abu-Gaziras, as example of this dedication. When the mother secured a job teaching at the elementary school, this allowed the father, himself an Arabic teacher in the public schools, a chance to put his son and two daughters in Al-Dharra. Even considering their half-price discount, this came at a high cost ($11,700) per year, at least one third of the family income. The girls entered grade ten and eleven and the son grade eight. During the first year, the father visited the son’s English teacher weekly to check on his son’s progress.
When the two girls graduated from high school in 2001, one entered Kuwait University, and the other went to a university on the West Bank. It became clear that, given the political situation and their passport status, sending the daughter to the West Bank meant not only the physical dangers of the second Intifada but the extremely low probability of the family seeing her for an indefinite period. Still, they sent her. When our MUN group traveled to Jordan, she gave us a number of presents to return to her family in Kuwait since she, herself, could not go to Kuwait. She remains, at this writing, attending the West Bank University and pursuing her degree.
The Palestinian classroom environment merit a separate discussion. For that reason, this analysis turns to a picture of the teaching profession as envisioned by Palestinian teachers. The following quotation describes the teaching environment on the West Bank (Khatab & Yair, 1995):
The Arab educational system had always been patriarchal, governed by an authoritarian school staff. The educational system was perceived as a route to social mobility and nation building. Schools were expected to fashion the labor force for a modernizing economy and to pave the way for institution building. Accordingly, the prestige of schools and teachers was high. (p. 99)
Teachers enjoyed high social position and prestige, which may explain why so many Palestinians entered teaching rather than more lucrative professional positions open to them (Khatab & Yair, 1995):
Teachers in Palestinian society were well respected and had high social standing. As educated white-collar workers and representatives of a traditional, predominantly male profession, they held important positions of authority to which parents and students submitted. Teachers represented modern civilization and Western know-how and technology and were seen as tools for the future development of society; thus, they were the vanguard of the transition from traditionalism to modernism. (p. 99)
The teacher came across as an authority figure. One would best describe the classroom as teacher-centered, a finding replicated in the work of Abu-Said and Hendrix (1993). The following description comes pre-Intifada. Note, though, that all of the Palestinian teachers in Kuwait came to the country in the pre-Intifada period (Khatab & Yair, 1995):
Teaching was associated with prestige and a high social status in Palestinian society. According to one student, before the Intifada, "The teacher used to have total authority; he was a tyrant in the classroom." Another student said: "Teachers held the reins and never lost control. The lesson was always well conducted. A student who wanted a drink of water, for example, would ask permission of the teacher and could leave the classroom only if he had been allowed to do so.
Before the Intifada, the classroom was an authoritarian kingdom, a realm full of respect and personal fulfillment for many teachers. It was a secure place, both physically and psychologically. Teachers' dominance was normatively and structurally embedded within the traditional patriarchal system. (p. 99)
One can expect to see, then, a kind of Type-X teacher (McGregor, 1960) who dominates the classroom and around whom all else revolves. This arises, as previous sections have shown, rather naturally from the Arab social environment. The teacher enjoys the respect due to an elder. As a father-figure in the community, he receives prestige. Further, as a teacher of "the word," he follows in the traditions of the Islamic madressor which emphasizes memorization and respectful listening. As opposed to many Western classrooms, one can consider the Arabic classroom as teacher-centered (Kharma, 1981), not child-centered.
In fact, the Palestinian classroom often resembles the traditional classroom of a half century ago. Students sit and listen as the teacher gives a lesson. Later, they quietly and individually work at their assignments. Teacher and student interaction tends to circle around questions for which definite "right" answers occur. Students show their respect by listening quietly and returning these right answers. Tests rely heavily on rote memorization with good memorizers scoring well. Teachers seldom use such methods as group discussion, student presentations, and peer tutoring (Kharma, 1979). The description of the public schools in the following chapter will further enhance this picture.
Here, note that the description of the Palestinian classroom provides an interesting contrast to that of the chaotic world outside. A teacher could expect respect, deference, authority, and security, features often absent from the Palestinian experience in Kuwait.
Thus far, this chapter gave some background and consideration to the Palestinians and their experiences in Kuwait. Now, it makes sense to describe some qualities that distinguish the Palestinians from the Kuwaitis beyond language and nationality. Of course, the following generalities do not apply to all individuals and, given the Palestinian experience the last fifty years, one would expect to find a fair amount of variation between individuals.
First, one could consider the Palestinians more worldly than the Kuwaitis. Most did not have the wealth, of course, to travel the world like the Asil; however, their knowledge came from the Diaspora itself. Often their cousins lived in different countries; to visit them often meant entering another world, not another Hilton, and into worlds often filled with insecurity and hardship. This worldliness also led to a greater respect for diversity within their own ranks. Hence, some Palestinians adhered to fairly conservative beliefs while others followed the modernism usually associated with Arab nationalism.
Another attribute of the Palestinians concerned their work ethic. Whereas the Asil and Bedouin tended to value someone the more cleverly he avoided work, the Palestinians typically respected someone who simply worked hard.
Also, one must recall, again, their avid pursuit of education. In this, the Kuwaitis rivaled the Palestinians in that both sought degrees for every family member. However, the Kuwaitis often seemed more concerned about the social prestige and the Palestinians by the practical value of the degree.
A last, and perhaps most important, quality concerns Palestinian adaptability. Palestinians filled all of the roles accorded to them in Kuwait because they needed to make their own way. The Palestinian situation altered as did their social fortunes within Kuwait, and even greater changes affected their position around the world. As their situation changed, they adapted. Only the ability to survive these circumstances allowed the Palestinians to become "indispensable" even if, in the end, the Kuwaitis could dispense with them.
Continuation Onward to Chapter 7: Schooling in Kuwait
Back to Chapter 5: The Asil, Kuwait's Upper Class
Other: Back to the Academic Page
Back to Fruit Home