Saturday, January 13, 2007

A little bit of Arab culture

It has been an interesting last few days, with five straight days of Area Reaction Force and recon patrols all over the desert.

At a forward location, I spent some more time with Egyptian guest workers. The main socializing areas for them are the bunkers where they keep the Narguile pipes, and the television. Most of what they watch on television is Egyptian drama and music. An interesting and rather annoying feature is that people from all over the Arab world e-mail each other over the television. So while a music video is playing, messages in Arabic interspersed with red hearts scroll over the screen. As for the narguile, they showed me an interesting fermented tobacco. It is placed in a hermetically sealed container full of sugar cane juice. That concoction ferments in a warm place for two weeks, and the juice (called "black honey") is drained. The resulting tobacco is called "shisha." It is sweet and fragrant, and probably low in nicotine because of the drained juice.

Most of the Egyptians tell me they do not like the Kuwaiti people. I was told, among other things, that the Kuwaiti people are lazy, and consider the guest workers who make up the majority of the population here to be another form of property. According to one Egyptian, the Kuwaitis are also scared of the guest workers, who form very tight communities. The Kuwaiti police (KMOD?) is unpopular, and feared because they can expel guest workers from Kuwait. That would be a huge loss, because a two-year work visa to Kuwait costs them two thousand Kuwaiti Dinars (almost $7.000 - enough to start a business in Egypt).

The other guest workers we saw were Indian and Sudanese sheep and goat herders. Apparently, there are also Bedouin herders out here who have their own animals. However, I haven't seen them except at the ranges, scrounging for leftover brass. I was told that most of the Bedouins live around Jahra, that they are stateless, and that if they need to travel (to perform the Hajj, mainly), they are issued a two-week provisionary passport that they have to surrender upon returning to Kuwait.

As for citizens, who are few and far-between out here, at first we only met a couple of soldiers doing their military service obligation at checkpoints. However, on the fourth day we got lucky and ran into a group of recreational falconers.

The falconers were very friendly, very rich Kuwaiti brothers and two kids who loved us after we gave them patches and took pictures of them. One of their falcons was new and in training, so we stayed away from it, but another one was shown to us. Some of us were even lucky enough to get to hold that falcon. The saker falcon looks large from far away (I had seen two wild ones a day earlier), but on the fist it is a very light and not too large bird.

Although I have been told by the Egyptians that saker falcons are bought here for about two thousand dinars, this falconer told us that he traps his falcons by placing a snare onto a live pigeon whenever he sees a falcon fly by (saker falcons do not nest here, but they pass through and sometimes winter). He then trains the falcon to hunt for the rather rare houbara bustard. He had a decoy made from leather, twine and houbara bustard feathers that he would tie to a live pigeon and fling out. The falcon would strike the whole setup and partially eat the pigeon. They also practice on pigeons that they buy and release, and smaller birds that they find because they only find a couple or three houbara bustards every year. The Houbara bustards are tracked through the desert in trucks, then once the hunters reach the birds they get out, release the falcons and get the birds. The bustards are then eaten as a rare delicacy (a dark red meat, apparently, better than pheasant), and the feet are kept as little trophies tied with twine. As for the feathers, they are used to replenish the beat-up decoys.

Interestingly, both houbara and saker turn out to be Arabic words. Saker, however, might be more correctly written "Saqr," with a strong S and the Q of "Qatar." I was told that eagles are also used.

As for wildlife, aside from the falcons, a few insects, gerbils and lizards, I found few animals. I did find a dead black kite, a dead desert hedgehog, and a dead desert fox, but not their living relatives.

On our roaming around near the old border one day (Kuwait seems to have helped itself to some contested Iraqi territory after the Gulf War), I found heaps of junk, including an old, rusty object that is probably an anti-personel mine, and an artillery cartridge.

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