The War Nerd: Technology, culture wars & jihad

By Gary Brecher , written on October 9, 2014

From The War Desk

KUWAIT CITY — Islamic State is advancing unstoppably into the Turkish border town of Kobane—or not, depending on which story you read this morning—and the US, always desperate for something to be scared of, has decided to go officially insane about a West African virus with a mere single-digit KIA count.

But here in Kuwait, there’s no talk about jihad or disease. What matters is that we’ve got a holiday this week—Eid el Adha, commemorating God’s sadistic tease of Abraham over Isaac.

That means fun time, and in the Gulf, fun time means sitting around eating a lot, wandering around the mall and talking about cell phones. Which is how I found out what “Ooredoo” actually means.

“Ooredoo” is the big new cellphone company in Kuwait. I’ve been seeing their bright orange logo for weeks. It would be difficult not to, since the company has the whole city-state plastered with billboards. But we’re too poor even to think about buying a cellphone, so those billboards were just part of Kuwait’s urban color-splatter to me until this week, when I went on the Eid-holiday field trip offered by the local fly-by-night ESL “academy” I work for.

These field trips can be awkward, since they jam a small bus full of people who have nothing in common beyond a cash crisis desperate enough to bring them to the Gulf. Western, Filipino, Indian, Bangladeshi, Muslim and Infidel, bouncing along the freeways while the driver blasts his sermons at you full volume, hoping that sheer amplification will force Allah’s truth into your resisting heads, despite the flimsy excuse that most of you don’t speak Arabic.

The teachers keep to themselves on this bus. Most of them aren’t happy to be here, or with the way their lives have turned out. They resent each other’s company; it’s a reminder of that bad divorce, unwanted third child, or half-finished money pit of a house that brought them here. They’re happy to let the silence fill up with the driver’s Arabic sermons, and the roar of the air conditioning. They lean against the windows, watch the flat beige landscape roll by—a lot like some parts of Orange County, if you don’t look too closely—and sulk.

But on yesterday’s field trip, our driver must have been listening more intently than usual to whatever his favorite Imam was saying on the radio, because he took us up the wrong exit ramp. We were supposed to be going to a giant mall called “Avenues”—but he got off one ramp too soon, and then, realizing his mistake, stopped dead halfway up the exit ramp. This was a bit much even by local standards; brakes started screeching, horns blasted, and the SUVs wrenched around our bus, veered onto the ice-plant (Kuwait’s freeways are bordered with oleanders and ice-plant, just like California’s) and zoomed past us, yelling at the driver.

He thought it over a few seconds more, as the sermon continued its totally incomprehensible exhortations—and then he decided to do a reverse corkscrew, back down the ramp.

That was when every one of the passengers, each sitting as far as possible from all the others, suddenly realized we were going to die. Not “probably going to die”—that’s something you assume every time you hit the road in Kuwait, and it stops mattering much, but “definitely, right now”—which is a whole different thing entirely.

We looked at each other, for the first time. Til then, we’d stuck to minimal greetings—the turnover at these places is worse than in telemarketing or night shift at 7/11, and you learn not to get too attached to anyone. But you don’t want to die among total strangers, and we stared around almost tenderly at each other, as the bus tires screeched around the reverse turns, back through a long line of enraged drivers.

And then, to our own surprise, we were back on the freeway, and the driver calmly took it out of reverse and zoomed on. No one knew what to say, or how to draw back from that moment of intimacy. And now the driver turned off his sermon, as if to make the awkwardness even more intense.

The only noise now was the AC and the jouncing springs. We pulled up to the light, and there was total silence. It was the New-Age American woman who spoke up, pointing to the billboard that loomed over us:

“I see those signs everywhere! What IS that, ‘Or-doo’?”

No answer. She said again—she’s brave, in her idiotic, enthusiastic way:

“I mean the Orange thing, the big logo there—what’s it about?”

Finally, Ahmed spoke up. He’s an Egyptian from Luxor, one of the few of the group who’s fluent in Arabic and English. Very conservative, very devout, a very nice guy—which means he gets stuck with the thankless job of inter-cultural negotiator for the whole teaching staff, a role he hates.

So Ahmed hesitated and sighed before finally blurting, “It’s Or—ee-doo. A cell phone company.” Pause, then: “I don’t like it.”

The New-Age American was delighted at this opening: “You don’t? Why not?”

Another guy, ex-Army lunkhead, grunted, “Too expensive, huh?”

Ahmed said, “No… I don’t like the name.”

Puzzled silence. Ahmed rubbed his shaved head unhappily and finally blurted: “It means: ‘I want.’”

The lunkhead: “What does?”

Ahmed: “Ooredoo. That’s what it means in Arabic: ‘I want.’”

He said it almost angrily, though he’s generally the least angry of us all.

And then the light changed, the bus started again, and everybody relaxed, aware that we’d “chatted,” as the shared moment of terror had demanded, and we could resume our lives of solipsistic rancor. Next minute we were getting off at Avenues—a moment’s stumble into the white glare, sun and heat, and then through the automatic doors into the cool darkness of the mall.

I tried to process what Ahmed had said, “I don’t like it,” as I wandered through Avenues. At first glance, you’d think Avenues Mall in Kuwait is the homeland of “I want.” There are jewelry shops here selling watches that cost more than an ESL teacher makes in two years, which means more than a Bangladeshi laborer makes here in a decade, a decade of heat and dust. Sunni Islam, as practiced in Kuwait, doesn’t seem like a very self-denying religion.

I stopped to look at the display window of a jewelry store in Avenues, knowing that the prices would make me feel even more like a loser than usual, and they did! I didn’t even know there were watches that cost more than Rolex, but they were selling jewel-encrusted monstrosities that made Rolexes look like the candy-colored Swatches they market to tweeners in suburban malls back home. And you see Kuwaiti matrons, in the full Jawa hijab/niqab/abaya black-swath, buying these things, actually buying them.

What you have to remember is that when a Kuwaiti matron buys one of those watches, it sits on her wrist, maybe—or her son’s—but it makes a claim about the wealth of the family, not the matron as an individual striver. Her life has been invested in the production of children, and any ornament she wears is also a family investment, not an individual boast.

That doesn’t mean it’s a happy loss of self; there’s no need to idealize the clan system that used to consume women’s lives here. She may be very miserable about being absorbed by her husband’s clan. Her payoff is that she gets to take out her loss of agency on the maid—and you see that trickle-down misery all too clearly in the mall. Every Kuwaiti matron sweeping down the cool marble corridors has a Filipina or Indian servant-woman walking two paces behind her, wearing the demeaning blue uniform that identifies her as a member of the servant class. You can’t help thinking, seeing those sad women walking behind their mistresses, head down, of all the abuse stories. The mistress’s spoiled, fat sons play on those servants’ bodies like moving toys, climbing all over them insensibly. Not a self-denying culture at all, at first glance.

But there is something subversive about Ooredoo’s slogan “I want.” It’s not the verb, but the “I,” that first-person singular. A very corrosive pronoun. When I googled it at home, I was amazed to find there’s even a genre, the “I Want” song, popular in musical theatre and Disney musicals.

And here I’d been thinking of “I Wanna Be Your Dog.”

Typical of my foolery, dwelling on bypassed male shows of decadence when it turns out Disney has been peddling “I want” to the little kids by the millions, for decades, with a female protagonist doing the wanting, in supposedly politically-correct movies like Pocahontas.

Those are the two elements that make “Ooredoo” corrosive to conservative cultures like this: the first-person singular pronoun, and the gender of the first-person singular doin’ the wantin’. And if you look at the image in Ooredoo’s online page, you can see what jihad is against, right there:

A young woman, without veil or headscarf, holding the steering wheel, her hair blown back in an imaginary online wind. No car; she’s apparently moving by sheer first-person singular will. When you see this ad, you see why it’s so important for the Saudi patriarchs, just over the border, to maintain the prohibition on women driving, no matter how much bad press it draws to them. That’s too much agency in the hands of a woman who’s supposed to be at the disposal of her patriarchal owner; it offends their sensibility very deeply (not their Qu’ranic allegiance, because there’s absolutely nothing about that in the Qu’ran). Ooredoo’s name for the product line this floating/driving woman advertises is “personal,” another code word for first-person singular, and particularly first-person singular female.

That’s the corrosion that jihad tries to stop, the defection of the women toward that first-person singular. Most accounts of jihad take it easy on the gender dimension, but that is actually the most crucial line being drawn in this war. We see the grotesque and mostly ridiculous steps the reactionary young men who make jihad take against it; what we don’t see is the million ways it seeps in, no matter who they shoot. It’s easy to see in the mall in Kuwait, but you see it even in places which are devoting a huge amount of energy to keeping it out, like Najran.

My wife and I lived and taught for a year in Najran, Saudi Arabia, eight miles from the Yemen border. Najran is an ancient city, isolated by mountains and desert from the cosmopolitan oceans (Saudis don’t like the ocean, see it as a vehicle of corruption). If anyplace on earth could escape the contagion of “Ooredoo,” it would be Najran, with all the power of the insanely conservative Wahhabi Saudi state trying to maintain the Kingdom’s isolation. There are no tourist visas to Saudi Arabia, and your visa application says right off the top, “Jews are not permitted in the Kingdom…” and adds that druggies will be executed. These guys are serious about keeping the world out.

But it doesn’t work. Katherine found that out, in the year she taught at the “Girls Preparatory Year” program in Najran. There are just too many vectors for contagion. If you think the US is panicking about Ebola, try imagining the way the House of Saud feels about the Ooredoo virus, which doesn’t require any bodily fluids or personal contact to spread.

The vectors for contagion in Najran are legion, starting with the usual suspects: Facebook, where daughters of respectable families maintain private accounts which feature “risqué” photos of young women without the niqab (face veil), hijab (head scarf), or abaya (black robe). These accounts also allow girls to “like” one professional footballer over another, an expression of preference in male appearance which violates every marriage norm in the rural-Arabian book.

Then there’s the cellphone itself, Ooredoo’s trademark product. Cellphones are lethal for traditional female prohibitions. In Najran, girls can’t leave the house without a male relative, even to visit female friends. But with a cellphone, they can jump outside the compound without breaking a sweat, texting unrelated males to say God knows what in that krazy lingo you kidz are using these days. And because the older generation in Najran grew up in a world without telephones of any kind, let alone cellphone culture, they’re hopeless at monitoring this coded, corrosive language.

And in a way, the most corrosive of all the alien influences attacking Najran were the most seemingly innocuous: K-Pop and Korean Soap Operas. It’s amazing that there are still people in the old countries, like the US, who don’t realize yet that Korea has taken over world culture. They don’t need your stinkin’ American pop no more. They’ve got Sistar and they’re humming “Can’t Go to Sinchon.”

The Korean dramas Najran girls watch on their computers are intensely romantic—and “romantic” is a Western, alien import, a very dangerous one in a world where marriage is between or within families, and where young women expect to feel little or no affection for their husbands. When you’re stuck in your room—and your room’s windows have been boarded up to prevent heterosexual gazes from passing in or out—it’s quite a trip to be suddenly transported to a Korean beach, where two young lovers are strolling, having a heart-to-heart on a program called “Autumn in My Heart.”

All the girls who were sequestered inside the bomb-barriers at the Girls’ Preparatory Year Program in Najran loved these shows. Many of them wanted careers like the ones they saw the heroines of such programs following. And none of that—the romantic dreams, the careers, the mobility, even the chance to walk on a beach with your hair exposed sufficiently to blow in the wind—are possible. This is the sort of cultural tension that jihadis feel, and start shooting in their idiotic way to try to stop. And they have about as much chance, in the long run, as a man firing a rifle at a leaking levee to try to keep the flood out.

Then there’s the mall. I’ve talked before about the volatile effects of Najran’s HyperPanda mall on traditional norms—and that was in a very conservative rural town, in Saudi Arabia, the most avowedly reactionary state in the world. Here in Kuwait, a much more confused little coastal enclave swimming in money and without real Wahhabi discipline, malls like Avenues (and the even more luxurious 360) showcase kids gone wild, not just flirting but having full-on James Dean brawls. Seriously, there was apparently a real 1950s style brawl at Avenues over Eid, featuring brass knuckles and a sequel at the hospital. The distinctly Kuwaiti feature was that the lowly Egyptian security guards who dared to lay hands on brawling Kuwaiti and Saudi scions were also arrested.

And it’s not just good healthy brawling; there’s actual contact between boys and girls, as well. Kuwaiti girls strolling down the mall corridors have the chance to eye up boys patrolling on the opposite side, and, if they see someone they like, they can jettison a scrap of paper with a cellphone number on it. The boy picks it up, and the whole network of surveillance has been bypassed, with boy and girl now in private communication at all hours, on all subjects. Walls, nannies, aunts, moms, curfews—all in vain. Ooredoo triumphs.

[illustration by Brad Jonas for Pando]