11 - Reunion

Kuwait was invaded by Iraq on 2nd August 1990, and liberated 7 months later by forces from the USA and an international alliance in an operation codenamed ‘Desert Storm’. The British part of the operation was less excitingly named ‘Granby’. There have been no ‘Granby’ video games.

Kuwait, 21st March 1991
ROBIN'S DIARY

'And did you remember the presents I told you to bring?' my father asked.

I pulled out a red and white package from the enormous old-school satchel Ingrid had given me as I was crying anxiously into my packing. 'I just brought as many Marlboro as I could, is that ok?'

'You'll be the most popular girl in town. They've run out of everything, from electricity and water to vegetables and bread, but I think the lack of fizzy drinks and cigarettes would have pushed the population to breaking point if liberation hadn't come when it did.'

We drove through the trashed city centre, its buildings stark against the saffron haze of the sky, dark day time with no lights except in the mosques. The mid-day sun was glowing red. There were abandoned cars, lorries and wanettes everywhere, each vandalised in its own particular way.

We wove round the craters into the suburbs where some of the houses were surrounded by walls. Sand and debris between. It reminded me of our beautiful Ahmadi in the 1960s, each house encircled by its own fence. Sand and scrub between. These houses had two, three, four storeys where ours were all bungalows, except for The White House. Dad took a detour to show me a house which was attracting cars and wanettes full of whooping, singing, flag waving children, teenagers and adults. 

'This place was destroyed in an Iraqi attack on an active resistance group right at the end. They call it the House of the Martyrs.'

Spencer swerved to a halt and opened Genevieve's garden gates. We drove in past chickens, geese, guinea fowl and goats. The trees and grass were greasy dirty dark grey, startling green new stems and leaves pushing through. Before the firing of the oil wells the unusually heavy rain storms had started one of the beautiful desert January bloomings.

Genevieve rocketed out of the building, hair streaming. She was always struggling to pin it up or tie it back, but this time it was pitch black, with an inch wide red parting. She felt me pull back from her hug to study her hair, and said,

'Look, look, there's white in there with the red. I'm an old lady now, my love.'

She was thinner than I'd ever known her, a little lined, beautiful. My eyes filled with tears.

'Oh go on,' she said, 'let's both cry. We're all here. We're all well.'

So we clung together and sobbed for a bit, standing in her open doorway. My father made his way round us, patting us both on the shoulder as he went into the house shouting,

'Saleem! Aliah! Nisreen! Burgan!'

In the marble-floored hall there were house plants. They didn't look very well, but they astonished me.

Genevieve laughed.

'I know! Aren't they a little miracle. You must write to Cleo and tell her about them. When I married Saleem I resolved I would always have African Violets to give to my friends, just like Cleo. I've put one in your room. Now, look at the floor, and enjoy it. Aliah and I spent all morning making it shine for the first time since the oil well fires really got going. It's been a month at least since the rain turned black and we can't waste water on cleaning it. On dry days the dust that creeps into the house is black too.'

'Where have you hidden your family Genevieve?' my father asked.

'We'll see them all in a bit, but I've told them I want Robin to myself, just as a treat, just to get used to her. Not to share her yet.'

'Well, look, I can take a hint,' said my father. 'I should get back to work. These people are amazing, Robin. There've been 50 people running a company that used to have 5,000. They're nuts. They got information out on satellite phones under the noses of the Iraqis and sabotaged some of their operations. They're really upset by the well fires though, and some of the engineers, including virtually the only woman I've ever met anywhere in engineering, are on about putting out fires.'

'You're joking! Have they had any training?'

'No. They've watched the Texans at work on well fires over the years - Dynamite says they're always asking questions. Can't wait to see how it goes. Anyway, those of us not out in the field with the fires are trying to get the offices up and running again. The guys saved tons of computer data but almost every machine has been stolen or smashed, trashed, burned. It'll break your heart, I tell you. Ok, I'm off, I'll see you for dinner.'

As Genevieve and I galloped up the stairs I glimpsed a room furnished with fancy carpets and grand sofas round the edges. 

'We took the covers off so you could see them looking nice. Come on!'

Up another floor to Genevieve's very own enormous sitting room. Comfy squashy furniture, bean bags and floor cushions, covered in plain bright covers. A television and video player. But much better, strange and lovely, a whole floor to ceiling wall of books on IKEA 'Billy' bookshelves, revealed as she drew back the cotton that had been tacked to the top edge over the shelves. 

'We've got Billy shelves too,' I told her, 'but not with curtains.'

'It's just for now, to help keep the dirt off. Have a look at my Jeffrey Archer 'Kane and Abel'.'

It was easy to find, in the fiction section.

'I couldn't go out much during the occupation, and so I rearranged them, first just by author, then just by title, then I took them all off, adjusted the shelves and did them by size, but I settled on category and author. My mother-in-law Nisreen was confirmed in her view of my insanity. What do you think of 'Kane and Abel'?'

'It's an awful book.'

'Yes, I know. Have a look.'

I opened the hardback and found it had been made into a box.

'I know! The invasion revealed me as a true Kuwaiti.'

I stared at the book box. I stared at my excited friend.

'When I realised the invasion was happening I panicked about my friends and family. Then when I had settled in my mind where they all were, I panicked about where to hide my fine jewellery. That's how a Kuwaiti woman thinks. I mean, would you think like that?'

'I haven't got any fine jewellery except this.' I drew the dhow out from the high neck of my shirt.

'Oh my goodness. Cleo's dhow. Gloria-Jane gave it to her, didn't she. I miss Gloria-Jane. How lovely that it's come back to Kuwait. How is Cleo? No, later; this is my gold story. Burgan made the book into a box. I could bear to lose 'Kane and Abel'. I put my most precious gold in there. I put the rest in the air conditioning outlet in my room, up there. Aliah chose 'The Women's Room'. I was sad to lose it, but I liked her thinking. Eventually Nisreen came to see the value of my books - hers went in John Galsworthy's collected works; it's good and big. I liked the idea of the family saga protecting her family jewellery.'

'Well, honestly, that's incredible.'

'I got our sweeper Jahan to put my Billy shelves up when IKEA came to Kuwait in 1984. I hope Jahan got out. He'd been with Saleem's family for a long time. but the Iraqis said all Iranians must leave through Saudi before the end of August. But look, what would my mother-in-law say, I haven't offered you anything, will you have some tea?'

'Are you going to wait for Maghrib, isn't that what they call it?'

'Yes, the last prayer before they break the Ramadan fast each day. I keep the fast with them. It's odd this year, so little to feast on, such a strange time. Tonight we have reason to celebrate though, with you and Spencer joining us.' 

'I'd like to wait too.'

Genevieve and I talked until it was time for the call to prayer. We went to the roof. The city was dark and still, backlit by the setting sun to the west, red through the smoke haze, and by oil wells flaring against the horizon to the south and north. We stood side by side, arms round each other.

'Allahu Akbar.... Allahu Akbar.'

God is great.

The beautiful prayer rang out from the new loudspeakers of the mosques.

Below us in the house and around us in the city the people prayed. The end of the day, the end of the occupation. The beginning of the feast time, the beginning of the renewal. 

When the Maghrib prayers were finished we all sat down to rice, flat bread and stewed goat curry.

'I ground the spices myself,' said Genevieve.

I had never met Nisreen, and felt shy with her. When Saleem married a foreigner after the death of his first wife, she had made her distress clear. Living together during the occupation she had come to cherish Genevieve as much as Saleem's very cosmopolitan daughter Aliah did. Ingrid, Aliah and I had spent many nights in the bars and nightclubs of Soho while studying in London. Saleem was urbane as ever, and as ever I felt a little intimidated by him. Wealthy, intelligent and deeply involved in the complications of Kuwaiti politics and power, he appeared to glide through life both here and in London. 

By contrast, seeing Burgan was like seeing my own brother. I loved him, though our childhood romance had failed to blossom. I didn't know who to hug, or whether Nisreen would tolerate my even shaking hands with the men. I pulled out the cigarettes and held them out to her.

Go to Chapter 12

10 - The Desert is Burning

Kuwait was invaded by Iraq on 2nd August 1990, and liberated 7 months later by forces from the USA and an international alliance in an operation codenamed ‘Desert Storm’. The British part of the operation was less excitingly named ‘Granby’. There have been no ‘Granby’ video games.

Kuwait, 21st March 1991
ROBIN'S DIARY

The smoke had blotted out the sun. It was raining oil. Raining oil! How could we fly through that?

Staring out of the fragile-feeling Boeing 727 into the blue as we lifted off from Bahrain for Kuwait I rubbed the gold dhow round my neck between my right thumb and index finger as my mother used to do. She'd sent it in the little blue box she’d always kept it in. It was the first time I'd seen it since we'd left Kuwait, I didn't know she still had it.

There was a tiny typed note inside the box,

Darling,
I thought you might like to have this for your return to Kuwait, or leave it for Ingrid if you would prefer. I expect you remember that her mother gave it to me for our first Christmas there.
Look after yourself, and let me know you are alright.
Mummy

I couldn’t remember the last time she had mentioned Ingrid, much less referred to Gloria-Jane. Ingrid and I hardly ever talked about Ingrid's mother either. All too painful. I kept the dhow, I didn't even show it to Ingrid.

The sky was darkening towards Kuwait, or was I imagining what I expected to see? I was looking for the 700 oil wells that the Iraquis had set alight as they retreated before the onslaught of the Americans and their allies. 

The pilot was keeping us as far as possible out of the smoke, which was being pushed around by the desert winds, those otherworldly winds of the Middle East. Nose pressed to the window, I saw the fires for the first time. My heart leapt. Weirdly, I longed to get closer. My chest constricted with excitement, and with guilt at the excitement. 

For much of the time during the invasion the internal phone lines in Kuwait city stayed open, but there had been no international calls, and only precariously smuggled post. Genevieve had queued and called me from the telecommunications centre when international calls became possible. 

'We're alive. We're even well.'

It was too strange to talk, imagining her in a crowd of strangers, all waiting to say the same thing: 'I'm alive'. I imagined that the crowd would be surprised to hear her joyous exclamation in English. Most resident foreigners had left long ago. The foreigners in the clean-up crews had access to their own communications so would not need to wait in line for a phone. 

'Genevieve. We don't need to talk now. I'm coming. I'm coming back to Kuwait.'

I hadn't yet accepted the job, but that moment, hearing that voice, decided it. My father had been recruited by Intech in London long before the liberation operation was launched, and brought in through Saudi at the first possible moment, the first week of March. He phoned me on the company line, and said he was sorry he couldn't meet me at the airport. 

My father reminded me that I was arriving in the middle of Ramadan, which had started on the 17th March, so not to eat or drink in public during the hours of daylight. Ingrid joked that perhaps when the smoke blotted the sun out everyone could have a sneaky snack. I'd planned to eat on the plane, but only managed one gin and tonic and one small saucer of nuts. Never mind, the days are always short in Kuwait. 

I was nervous about landing – Ingrid’s journalist friends had been regaling her with stories of near disasters on bomb-cratered runways. The plane was almost full, the atmosphere earnest. Heads down, we read and annotated our briefing documents. To distract myself as we came down towards the wreckage-strewn airport I spoke for the first time to the man in the aisle seat.

‘Are you part of the British clean-up team?’

He seemed like a clean-up guy.

‘I'm putting my company forward for the clean-up in the Gulf. It's imperative we install more barrages to protect the mangroves and…’

My attention drifted off. As I thought. A clean-up guy. I had the impression the water clean-up guys were not getting the contracts quite as quickly as the land clean-up guys, certainly not as quickly as the fire-stoppers.

We were the do-gooders. The saviours. Kuwait was bringing us in to undo what the Iraqis had done to their country. What the rescuers of Desert Storm had done too, but we didn't talk about that.

The clean-up guy remembered his manners, and asked me what I was doing there.

‘I'm a sort of clean-up person too' I said, 'I've come to clean up the Sheraton.’

Ingrid's journalist friends had described the Sheraton vividly. Hotels in hotspots tend to specialise, deliberately or not. During the occupation, the Sheraton had been occupied by Iraqi officers, including the Republican Guard, while the secret police had gone to the Meridien and the Iraqi businessmen to the Plaza. Now the Sheraton was home, if it could be called that, to the less connected journalists. No room service, no water even. At the end of the occupation its manager was given an hour to clear the building before it was looted – everything from the piano down went. Then they poured petrol over the ground floor, mined it, and blasted it with tank fire. We were aiming to get it up and taking proper non-journalist business by September. Six months. The Iraqis had had seven months to wreck it - could we get it back in business in less time?

We landed. Kuwait International Airport. The winds were blowing the smoke away from us and the sky was blue, the heat and the runway smell familiar. My chest gripped again in a fever of confused joy. The physical feeling was that of home-coming as a child when we had flown back from England, but now I felt bad about my happiness, and ready to deny it. 

In the airport the tones and patterns of the voices were welcome; there are different accents you hear in each Arab country and I thought I could detect the ones I'd known as a child. 

‘As-salaam aleikum’

‘Wa aleikum as-salaam' 

Once I was through the barriers, I scanned the faces. I stared at each woman – would Genevieve be wearing a headscarf and black silk abaya? Would I recognise her even if she weren't? I had seen her every year when she and her Kuwaiti husband Saleem came home for a couple of weeks in August, every year for 20 years since they had come to England for the British half of their wedding. 10 years old, I had been so proud to be her bridesmaid. But she must have changed so much since August 1989. Maybe she had dyed her red hair black to make herself less conspicuous during the Occupation. 

But instead of Genevieve, here was oil industry legend Spencer Stewart pushing through the crowd. He hugged me, let go, grasped my shoulders, and laughed,

‘Why have you come for God’s sake?’

‘That's nice Daddy. Where the hell’s Genevieve?’

Then we chanted together, 

‘Char-ming!’

And we were both laughing.

‘Ah well, come to the car, we’ll talk there. It’s no red and silver 1967 Chevy I’m afraid. We take what we’re given for the time being and we’re very grateful if it goes. But darling, why have you come?’

I didn't want to answer.

‘What’s it like to be here?’

‘It’s like home. It's like I'm doing what I should be doing. What I'm meant to do. I'm glowing. I'm buzzing.' He laughed again, 'Maybe that’s just the chemicals. The hotel is hell, there's virtually no water, the rain leaves you black and the smoke blots out the sun, and everything is destroyed. And I feel happy. All day every day solving crazy problems, making crazy demands on the people I'm working with, looking at the problem in front of me, one foot in front of the other till one job is done then there are 2,000 more, and I fall asleep like the dead, and wake happy to face another day.’

‘You never seemed at home in Lymington. You never seemed happy in Head Office in London. Maybe when you were out on the boat.’

‘Really? Well, maybe it's my turn now. Come on Robin. Why did you come? I can’t believe tarting up the Sheraton is what it's all about.’

I still didn't feel the need to answer, so I asked him the next thing on my mind.

'Have you seen Dynamite? Now there's a man who's spent his whole life doing what he was meant to do - putting out fires and starting fevers. I remember him so well, and the oil fire summer. I think it's fair to say all the women were infatuated with him. He must be here surely?'

'Yes, he's here. He's busy. Our paths haven't crossed. Your mother at least was never keen on him - always said he was highly unreliable.'

Hmmm.

A few lines of 'Anthony and Cleopatra' came into my head:

'I am fire and air, my other elements I give to baser life'.

The smoke clouds had closed in, it was night in daytime. We drove into Kuwait city. The central streets were as I'd seen them on television - trashed by 20th century city warfare. But the domes and minarets were lit, in celebration of Ramadan. And then the call to prayer echoed through the streets, beautiful, spine-tingling. 

'Allahu Akbar'

God is great.


9 - Yacht Club Drama

The memories of Cleopatra Stewart, Company Wife to Spencer Stewart, mother of Robin and Richard and the impressions of her seven year old daughter Robin.



Ahmadi, Kuwait, Friday 2nd June 1967

I decided not to grace Spencer’s absence from the party with any attention, so I went to sleep. Early next morning, registering his sleeping presence, I slid out of bed, grabbed Robin from Constance in the kitchen and, yelling,

'See you there!'

left for the Yacht Club. He would have to make his own way, all alone.

Genevieve had turned down a lift, saying she wasn't up to it after the party. I'd wanted to talk to her about Boyd and Spencer. At the Clubhouse I sorted out the behind-the-bar rota, which had got messed up. The main thing was to keep Melvin away from it. Robin and her gang flew up and down between the Club House and the sea, covered with sand, shrieking with laughter, huddling with secret plots and exploding into complicated games. The girls' matching beach outfits each had different coloured spots. I fixed hair and drinks and towels and flip-flops. The Clubhouse was raised on stilts above the beach. It was air conditioned and there was a blast of warm air every time anyone came in or out.

An hour later Spencer turned up with Candida and Genevieve. Apparently Candida was due to crew for Spencer. There was some explanation about why the three of them were together and I talked blandly over it. Spencer had a lot of work to do, Genevieve's car had broken down, Candida wasn't fit to drive... Pretty little Bergan was with them for some reason. Robin dragged him off to join the beach gang.

Spencer asked Candida and Genevieve to check which boat he’d been given in the draw. As they skipped off to look at the list he leaned in, taking hold of my arm.

'Peggy, you didn't give me a chance this morning, I must explain darling.'

'Oh, heavens, don't worry' I interrupted, 'I expect it's just one of those things, when your work is as important...'

'No, it's not that...' but I pulled away. I didn't want anyone in the Club House to see us like this. I didn't want to hear anything he had to say.

'It’s Jessica!'

Tiny Candida clapped her tiny paws and jumped up and down. Her blonde mane flew round her tiny face. 

'That’s marvellous. Ooh, Jessica, I always think she’s the best!'

I hate a woman who coos.

'They’re supposed to be the same.' I wasn't cooing.

'No, Candida’s right, she is the best. I always do well in Jessica.'

'That does sound naughty, Spence.'

I hate a woman who purrs. Did she say 'Spence'?

'You are silly, Candida.'

Genevieve was lapping it all up, and what's more, she was cooing and purring too.

Spencer, between the two twenty year olds, looked foolish, puzzled, pleased. When had Genevieve got friendly with Candida? And what about all that supposed tragedy with Candida's father’s funeral? 

Melvin and Gloria-Jane pitched up late, as usual, still irritatingly close. Melvin seemed not to be adding his usual Flash to the Seven-Up served by Gretchen on bar shift.

The crews had to leave to get the boats ready for the race. I let Spencer give me a kiss, but turned away so it landed on my ear. I used to crew for Spencer myself. The race committee were on the starting platform.

To avoid watching the race I fussed around the children till they ran away down to the sea. Genevieve found me tidying the storage area out the back behind the bar. She already knew me well enough to realise I was unhappy. I was touched, and told her about Spencer being called away to work during the party.

Her reply stunned me. She knew he had been out; she knew why; she knew who he had been with. 

'Honestly, when you know you won't mind. Candida's father died last month, which was bad enough. Then she found out he'd been married to someone else, not Candida's mother, so she is, well, not legitimate, and the first wife, the actual wife, gets all the money, and her mother is going to be homeless, and Candida has no money. She heard all this before the party and tried to go Home to London and couldn't and got totally hysterical. No-one where she lives could help and she asked for Spencer, and he took her to the office to send some telexes from there. He's so kind.'

I waited a moment, to be sure my voice wouldn't shake. 

'Heavens, anyway, as I say. Yes. That's Spencer.'

I stepped out the back, walking away from Genevieve and into the car park.

The sandy square had filled up with little rounded British cars, big rectangular pointed American ones and even the occasional Japanese model. Two or three had a stripped section at the front where they had been caught driving in a sandstorm. The sandblasted windscreens would have been replaced already. A couple of unlikely vehicles dusted up – the trucks of the well fire company.

Round the Clubhouse and out to the beach bounded four brown and muscled young men, Dynamite's well fire team. My excited friends told me they had put out a small fire in the field that morning. The firefighters began playing beach cricket with the children on the coarse matting laid in paths to protect feet from the heat of the sand. The boys concentrated fiercely while the girls whirled around them. All the children were eager for the attention of these big bronzed exotic males, so unlike their fathers. Dynamite wasn't there – none of them had the inverted triangle shape we’d been privileged to witness at the Artemesia Club. I settled down with a group of friends in the comfy chairs turned to face the beach. Robin was concentrating less on the young men than on Bergan. Small though he was, he could keep up with the game. Gloria-Jane had torn herself away from Melvin in celebration of this very special spectator event, and Melvin had produced his home-distilled Flash and added it to his Seven-Up.
The men were fascinating, throwing every muscle and sinew into the competition; the children were involved as never before in a beach game with adults. How Richard would have loved it. 

‘Cowboy! Throw it to me!’ 

‘Chilly! It’s my turn!’.

Suddenly over the children’s shrieks and the men’s encouragement a much louder voice bellowed,

‘Cowboy! Chilly! Ranger! Dusty!’

Surprisingly the men reacted to the shout by sprinting for the sea, throwing themselves headfirst into the shallows, executing a few wild strokes and then turning, standing, wading out.

Dynamite was fully clothed, unlike the others, who were dressed only in swimming trunks, and although he could give the young men at least ten years, all eyes were on him. He was lit up with rage. He was filthy, and dressed in oily red overalls. He looked... good. 

Cowboy was the bravest of the crew.

‘Jeez Dynamite - the fire's out. Went out like a dream.’

The others stood and nodded, hands on hips.

‘Was out. Ain’t now. Get back in your vehicles and get back to the field. It’s cratered good.'

Awkwardly the men gathered the clothes they'd dropped in their exuberant arrival.

The women were still sitting, riveted and regretting the imminent end of the entertainment. No-one had glanced at the race for half an hour. Genevieve stood. 

‘Bill! Listen to yourself! All they wanted was a little rest and relaxation. They didn't know there was a problem. And look at you. You look disgusting.’

‘That’s ugly talk, lady. We worked six hours this morning, first so hot you're like to melt, then shivering with cold, the water from the lake we made pumping over us. Can't hardly move, so weighed down by soaking clothes. I need a rest just as much as these guys, but there's a job on.’

No woman ever likes hearing the word ‘ugly’ directed at her, and Genevieve was suddenly lost for words. I took advantage of this temporary state of affairs and removed her from the scene, escorting her out to the Ladies.

As we left Gloria-Jane rolled her shoulders back and sauntered towards Dynamite, who was staring slack-jawed at Genevieve’s retreating back. I shoved her in the toilet, staying outside to watch.

Gloria-Jane placed a hand on Dynamite's shoulder. Gazing soulfully up, she scolded him gently, in uncharacteristically low tones. She’d noticed he hadn't liked Genevieve’s squealing.

‘It’s not fair to blame them Dynamite, they just needed to cool off. They knew they would be welcome here.’

‘They did a damn good job this morning, and I can’t believe some damn fool let the fire start up again. The field operations here need nailing down a good sight tighter, and I don’t mind who knows I think it.’

‘Is there anything you can do in the next hour?’

‘Guess not. I've left the site team working on the water supply. Nothing to be done till the heat goes tonight. Maybe nothing even then.’

‘Then stay, sit, swim, relax for a while. You’ll all work better with cooler heads.’

Some of the air came out of his tense posture and he nodded. He made a gesture toward the men, waving them back, and they careered into the sea, followed by the children. A hail of shoes hit the shore as they were taken off and chucked onto the hot sand. 

Dynamite followed Gloria-Jane meekly. He turned down Melvin’s kind offer of a slug of Flash to go in the Canada Dry Gretchen poured for him, explaining that a clear head was kind of important for dealing with a fire. Melvin had been dealing with every aspect of his life for many years without the benefit of a clear head, so found this rather hard to understand, but let it go patiently.

Dynamite then wandered towards me, standing guard outside the Ladies. My spirits rose automatically till I realised he was looking for Genevieve. He walked right up to the door so that when she opened it and came out they were standing chest to face.

He stepped back.

Genevieve raised her eyes to his while keeping her chin lowered. I wondered if that looking through the eyelashes thing would work for me.

Go to Chapter 10