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
'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.
'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.
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