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Excerpt: Things Worth Fighting For

Writer, reporter, and editor Michael Kelly was the first journalist embedded with U.S. troops to be killed in last year's Iraq war. In a Manhattan bookstore Monday night, notables like Dan Rather, Tina Brown, and Kelly's young son read from a new collection of his work. From that book, here's "Rolls-Royce Revolutionaries," one of the three New Republic articles from the first Gulf War that won a National Magazine Award in 1992.

By Michael Kelly - April 23, 2004

KUWAIT CITY—Six days after the Iraqis stole away in the night, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers brought in the first supplies requested by the Kuwaiti government to rebuild its stripped and junked country. Food for the hungry? Water for the thirsty? Generators for the darkened city? Well, no. The first convoy carried furniture for the emir.

The truckloads of new sofas, beds, tables, and chairs were not for His Majesty Sheikh Jaber Al-Ahmad Al-Sabah's primary home. The occupiers had, in the hallmark style, looted, burned, and shat up that pleasant old palace. The Bayan Palace, where the emir is hanging out these days, is not even his second home. It is either number three or number four, and he rarely stays there. Still, the emir's new house is really a very, very, very fine house.

From the outside it looks rather like a community college campus, a collection of squat concrete boxes grouped around trim lawns and simple gardens. But inside it's all Trump Tower and Rodeo Drive. The architect's principal idea seems to have been: Say it with marble. The hallways and staircases are marble. The bathtubs and sinks are marble. Even the trash cans are marble. All of this marble comes from the quarries of Carrara, cut there in what the Italian stonecutters call matchbox, so that each polished piece precisely matches its neighbors, in creamy slabs of white, beige, pink, blue, and black, with rich Roqueforty veins running from panel to panel in perfectly synchronized streaks. The look is so buttery rich it seems you could scoop out a little spoonful of wall and spread it on a piece of bread, if there were any bread in the emir's city.

The palace's main buildings are situated in clusters of three; each named after a Kuwaiti island in the Persian Gulf. Every building has a ground-floor reception area and three floors of suites, two to a floor and each comprising five bedrooms, a like number of bathrooms, a kitchen, a dining room, a cabinet-level conference room, and a couple of sitting rooms. The bedroom and sitting room walls are dressed in watered silk or blond wood; the bathroom fixtures are gold-plated; the private kitchens are state-of-the-art in techno-cuisine; the beds are appropriately king-sized, the bathtubs are oval; the carpets are toe-wriggling plush. The flatware is sterling, each piece engraved with a crest that denotes which building it belongs to. The tablecloths and napkins are Irish linen, and they, too, are embroidered with crests. The doorknobs are brass, the bolsters and valences are satin, and the big chandeliers are crystal.

All of this had to be fixed up properly—stolen marble balustrades and gold showerheads replaced, denuded walls resilked, the 2-million-gallon reservoir linked up—before the emir, who sat out the war in the Saudi Arabian resort town of Taif, would come home. Some people suggested that Kuwait's leader had not returned to lead his struggling nation until 15 days after its liberation because he was concerned about his security in a city where the streets were filled with youths with guns and the air with falling bullets. Not at all, assured Sulaiman Al-Mutawa, Kuwait's minister of planning. The delay was entirely caused by the need "to find a suitable place for him to live in."

The job of rendering the Bayan Palace suitable fell to Wayne Urbine, a Corps of Engineers supervisor from Savannah, Georgia. On the afternoon of March 14, a few hours before the emir's plane was to touch down, Urbine showed me around the second building in the Bubiyan cluster. The place was due for completion the following afternoon, and it was hopping, the only scene of intense reconstruction work I saw in two weeks in Kuwait City. On the door to every room a little yellow Post-it note was stuck, enumerating the details within left to be attended ("Remove valence, replace molding on bathroom door"). One hundred and twenty workmen were moving about, from room to room, floor to floor, and as they finished each chore, one of Urbine's undersupervisors would check it off.

The crews, Urbine said, generally worked 12-hour days but had pulled some all-nighters in order to finish the million-dollar job in its allotted 10 days. Members of the royal family, he said, visited regularly—"a constant circus"—to check on progress. "Everything has to be visually outstanding," he said. "The cousin of the crown prince is here all the time.... The crown prince also came by last weekend to check it out and was very delighted with the way it was coming. The minister of labor was here yesterday. He sat down in the chairs to test them and made a few comments about the wallpaper. He said the chandeliers looked okay."

The whole scene bothered Urbine a bit. "It's sort of a value question," he said. "You go out there and see thousands of people in line to make a phone call and you come here and see all this opulence and someone is complaining because there aren't enough damn gold fixtures."

* * *

There did seem to be, on the day of the royal return, plenty of concerns of a more pressing moment than bathroom accessories. Garbage lined the streets in smelly, rotting hills. Running water existed only in some city mains and a few of the big hotels. There was no electricity other than that provided by generators, and there were very few generators. Food distribution finally had begun several days before but was limited mostly to a bare list of basics: rice, milk, sugar, cooking oil, and tomato paste. Trucks carrying electric generators, water, and food had been stalled for days at the border of Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, thanks to the Kuwaiti government's insistence on changing its customs requirements, it seemed, about every two hours.

Then there was the misplaced enthusiasm that the government, or at least young gun-toting men in army uniforms purporting to represent the government, seemed to have for the most unsavory aspects of life under martial law. Although the State Department professed ignorance of any mistreatment of Palestinians and other non-Kuwaiti residents, U.S. officials here said otherwise. Andrew Natsios, the director of disaster relief for the Agency for International Development and a major in the army's Kuwaiti emergency task force, put the number of disappeared Palestinians at "on the low side, between 200 and 300, on the high side, between 500 and 600." At the Iraq-Kuwait border town of Safwan, U.S. military police officers said men dressed as Kuwaiti soldiers had taken to dumping busloads of Palestinian, Iraqi, and North African prisoners in the no-man's-land. "They dumped 25 yesterday," said MP Steve Eaton. "They came up here, stopped, and told them to get out and start walking. The prisoners didn't have any food, any blankets. Some of them didn't even have shoes."

Apart from roughing up and chucking out undesirables, the Kuwaiti soldiers passed the time demanding identification papers at countless checkpoints and firing clips of machine-gun bullets into the air, the slugs of which bounced down on the sidewalks and bored through the occasional skull. They took a more laidback approach to the real work of re-establishing control. On the day of the emir's arrival, the beaches, the countryside, and various crannies of the city were still littered with unexploded Iraqi land mines, American bomblets, and other objects suitable for maiming and killing curious children. Huge numbers of weapons, everything from pistols to armored personnel carriers, had disappeared into private homes, garages, and warehouses in the chaotic days after the war's end. Tales of both random and organized violence were common. A major political opponent of the Sabah family had been shot in the chest in his doorway. Unpleasant rumors swirled about: A secret group called the Men of Jaber was threatening and killing liberal political figures; a secret Syrian army hit team had moved in to do the same. The gloomy conventional wisdom predicted a serious round of bloodletting once the Americans went home.

* * *

Returning to a devastated land filled with subjects who had strayed when he had left, and who had suffered greatly for seven months under Iraqi rule, the emir said ... nothing at all. He knelt and touched his forehead to the tarmac, greeted the several hundred family members, senior government officials, and diplomats he had allowed to attend the homecoming, and was whisked away. The masses were not permitted entry to the heavily guarded scene.

This is, of course, just the sort of thing, right down to the cliches (has there ever been a fabulously wealthy, unfeeling potentate who did not favor goldplated toilet gewgaws?), that has gotten other rulers their heads handed to them. So it was not surprising that, as the emir sped off to his palace, mutterings of dark discontent could be heard all over town.

At one neighborhood supermarket 400 or so people, mostly women, waited in long lines for a chance to get the few meager supplies the government's new food-distribution plan was offering. Unfortunately, the supermarket had closed for the day at noon, and most of those who had waited since 5 a.m. were going home empty-handed. Inside, a store manager lied with broad and smiling abandon. "At home, the people already have everything they need," he said. "Fresh fruits, vegetables, all stored in their homes."

Not far away several hundred Kuwaitis buzzed angrily about a police station. They were trying, they said, to get permission to leave the country temporarily, to buy food, generators, and other necessities. The martial law imposed by the government upon Kuwait City's liberation made that impossible without special permission. "They told us to come here for the piece of paper," said one man. "We have been here since 8:30 this morning, and there is only one little window for us to go to, and now they say the window is closed, so come back tomorrow. It is an outrage!"

The talk of the town hinted at some species of revolution. The Sabah family, which numbers about 2,000, has run Kuwait since the turn of the century, and run it absolutely since Jaber, who acceded to the throne in 1977, dissolved the 1986 National Assembly, and suspended the 1962 constitution. There has been some opposition, most seriously in 1989, but political upheaval is not naturally popular in a country where vast oil wealth is spread around in one of the world's most generous welfare systems. A fair idea of the general attitude toward serious political change can be gathered from the 1981 elections, called to form the first National Assembly since 1976. Of the 6 percent of the population allowed to vote (only male Kuwaiti-born citizens, and not all of them), half didn't bother.

Now the family's political opponents were suddenly uttering the unutterable. "This government should resign," said Abdul Aziz Sultan, a banker and a leading opposition figure. "A government of defeat cannot be a government of reconstruction.... The emir has done nothing, and the prime minister is spending all his time going to diwaniyat and bullshitting." A few days later the cabinet of the prime minister, who is also the crown prince, submitted its resignation. The new cabinet is to be formed by the crown prince, who is also still the prime minister.

Political discussion—indeed, all discussion—in Kuwait is centered on diwaniyat, late-afternoon gatherings of men drinking endless cups of tea and sitting in comfortable couches around the walls of large, and generally quite elegant, rooms. A few days before the emir's return, I went to one where I was promised I would find hotheaded, revolution-minded souls. I found a young man named Ahmed Al-Issa. He took me for a ride in his lovely, late-model Mercedes Benz. We went to his house, where he introduced me to two pretty young women who were playing pool in a big room that had white carpets and a superbly stocked bar. He talked moderately rough while the girls poured and posed with cue sticks. "The Sabah family has a problem," he said. "We all see that the failure of the government has been quite clear, and the government sees that we see this, so they come in with the whip now. But they are incompetent people. All is chaos."

Indeed, there was a striking contrast between the efficiency of the unofficial government established by the Kuwaiti resistance under occupation and the bumbling, lackadaisical approach of the reconstruction. By all accounts the resistance delivered the goods, at least to fellow Kuwaitis. An underground banking system kept hundreds of millions of Kuwaiti and Iraqi dinars in circulation and provided money on a regular basis for those Kuwaitis who had not fled the country. A food-distribution network provided ample supplies of canned goods and other basics. Volunteers picked up garbage and policed neighborhoods.

The Marafies, owners of hotels, stores, and other businesses, are one of Kuwait's top families, a leader in the group of 25 that the emir formally visits twice a year. They live exceedingly well. Thanks to their money and foresight, they even made do, on T-bone steaks, shrimp, and pate, during the occupation. They do not normally complain about their good friends the Sabahs. But at a diwaniyah just before the emir's return, the mood was a touch bitter. "The Sabah family said they would be ready to go as soon as Iraq left Kuwait," said Nader Marafie, moistening his lips with a little sip of tea. "We expected them to take two or three days to get things ready, not three or four weeks. We were told trucks of food were waiting to roll in. They were not. We were told the police force would be ready to come back right away. It was not. This is not good."

The real problem, of course, is the Palestinians. The 450,000 Palestinians of Kuwait, many of whom have been here for decades, made the country work. "The people who know how to run things, the people who always did all the work here, were almost all Palestinians," said one U.S. official involved in the reconstruction. "They were the judges, the doctors, the dentists, practically all the engineers, all the middle managers. The Kuwaitis in charge of things now are politically well connected, but not well versed in technology." A Red Cross official marveled at his difficulties in establishing a coherent relief system. "The people we are dealing with have no concept of the mechanics of actually getting jobs done," he said. "They are very good at talking and sitting and drinking tea all day, but they don't have a clue about things like how to get a lorry from point A to point B."

The obvious solution would be to encourage the 150,000 Palestinians remaining in Kuwait to get back to work, and encourage the thousands who fled to Jordan and elsewhere to return. This is not the solution the emir has in mind. Instead he and his government intend to reduce greatly the number of Palestinians and other foreign-born workers (the Filipino maids and gardeners, the Pakistani hoteliers and sales managers, the Sudanese trash collectors) and replace them with hard-working Kuwaitis. "We proved during the occupation that Kuwaitis are not ashamed of sweeping streets, collecting garbage, working in gas stations," said Nader Marafie, as he lit another cigarette and settled back in the cushions. "So what the government should do is supplement wages in the private sector for people like garbage collectors, and then you will see lots of Kuwaitis doing this."

* * *

I changed the subject. Why, if the government was botching the job of getting food and water to Kuwait City, did not the Marafie family, with its vast resources and empty stores waiting to be filled, organize its own shipments? "It is not easy," demurred Nader. "There is no official exchange rate yet, so how could we know what to charge people? Besides, it is not easy to get food. How can we get to Saudi Arabia? Where would we get trucks?"

No, it isn't easy. Although probably not any harder than it was for the Palestinian proprietors of the Al-Sultan Saleem Restaurant, a humble joint in the poor Hawalli neighborhood. By the time the emir came home the Al-Sultan Saleem had been open for a week, serving rough bread, tea, and the Arabic fava-bean dish called fool to standing-room-only crowds, taking payment in Kuwaiti dinars, Iraqi dinars, U.S. dollars, and Saudi royals.

Nader continued: "'The government must organize things to make it less difficult." As he was speaking, two members of the royal family dropped in for a surprise visit. They were seated in places of honor, and served tea and ice water, with much bustling and courtesy. The conversation picked up its pleasant hum again, as the diwaniyah settled into its fourth hour. No one said anything to the royals about the balky pace of the reconstruction, or what the government must do. It would have been impolite, and Kuwaitis are very polite, at least to fellow members of the ruling class.

This is excerpted from Things Worth Fighting For: Collected Writings, by Michael Kelly. Copyright © 2004 by the Estate of Michael Kelly and published by The Penguin Press, a division of Penguin Group (USA) Inc. Excerpted with the permission of the publisher. You can buy Things Worth Fighting For at

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