The Heat Comes Early This Year

The Heat Comes Early This Year
Photo by Wiros (copied from Flickr)

Photo by Wiros (copied from Flickr)

In March of 2009, when I was summoned to the Mubarakiya police station to give my official statement about the drug incident, the Major* insisted on driving me there in his powder-blue Porsche 911. I struggled to find things to talk about with him, the most bombastic of the three Kuwaiti siblings who owned our school, the kind of guy who’d retire from the military but still insist on being addressed by rank. So we talked about the heat, which had arrived early after a particularly dry winter, and to a lesser extent the choking dust storms with which we were plagued almost daily that year. The Major was as happy to show off his car’s impressive air-conditioning as he was his driving prowess, and so we blasted through the heat, at speed and in frosty comfort.

A couple of days earlier, I had discovered three grade nine students—Abdullah, Habib, and Hamad—breaking apart a tiny piece of hashish in the school bathroom. Kuwaiti law stipulated that suspects could be held and interrogated for up to three days without being charged or allowing anyone—family, friends, advocates, lawyers—to see them. Drug convictions were pursued and punished severely—trafficking in any form could be a capital crime. Even when the suspects were only fourteen years old.

***

That always stops me short. Teenage boys arrested, handcuffed, and dragged to the same holding cells where rapists and murderers awaited sentencing. Abdullah and Habib were there for at least three days and nights, although no one seems to remember exactly how long. That vagueness is a common motif in every conversation I have with my old colleagues, students, and friends, attempting to reconstruct that spring—five years is, apparently, enough time to become foggy on even the most pointed, horrible details. Yet something prevents me from reaching out to the boys or their families to find out—if it’s shame, I can’t say.

Kuwait wears its curious mix of constitutional and sharia law on its sleeve, its proceedings and punishments at once mysterious yet also on full display. I reconnect with Anthony, the priest of the church my wife and I attended while we were living in the Middle East, a good man and a good friend. He’s quick to cite the words he was given as he toiled in his ministry to the prisons and labour camps, quick to highlight the contrast with the systems with which we’re most familiar.

Guilty until proven innocent, he says. All it takes is an accusation.

This is true from the most basic to the most heinous crimes, and there is no pretence of presumed innocence. The police hold regular press conferences where the accused are knelt behind whatever evidence has been collected, hands cuffed, twitching and blinking in the barrage of camera flashes. A Google search for the death penalty in Kuwait reveals a small number of carefully produced executions. In the one I’m able to watch from start to finish, a serial rapist and a murderer are allowed a last cigarette, led to the gallows, and sent through the trapdoors when the dramatic black flag falls. Based on the YouTube comments, netizens are shocked at how the Kuwaitis seem more concerned about appearance than technique, zeroing in on how the condemned men bounce when they reach the end of the ropes. The ropes weren’t stretched with sandbags beforehand, standard practice to ensure that the neck and spinal column are broken cleanly, that death is almost instantaneous rather than inhumanely slow as by strangling.

For my part, I don’t watch the men die. I’m distracted by the setting—gallows erected in a police parking lot on the same compound where our students were held, and where two of them were tortured.

I call Bruce, my old principal, on Skype. He goes silent for a moment when he talks about the boys’ parents not being able to visit or speak to their sons for the entire time they were held. Not one to hide his feelings, he admits that he went home and cried for what was happening to those boys, students in his division, under his charge. He’s the father of two boys, now of middle-school age.

***

When I discovered the boys and the hash, what I mostly felt was inconvenience. I’d locked my classroom and was on my way home for the day when I encountered them in the boys’ bathroom, huddled around the sinks and whispering. One of the boys tried and failed to hide the hash up his sleeve—when it hit the cold tile floor, I knew that my work day was about to get much longer.

The infraction was bigger than I would have tried to handle on my own, so I marched them right away to the high school office. The boys—quiet, studious, and respectful kids I’d had the privilege of coaching on the middle school soccer team—didn’t protest their innocence, get angry, or try and weasel their way free from the big trouble they were in. They just submitted. To keep them from synchronizing their stories, we separated them, confiscated their phones, and stashed them in various places to be watched by other staff. Bruce and I closed his office door and sat down to discuss our strategy.

Back home in Canada, he said, we’d just lock the hash away until the police arrived. For such a small amount, they might’ve put a scare into the kid but almost never pressed charges.

But this was Kuwait. Islamic. Conservative. The hash, about the size of two rat droppings laid end to end, sat dark and greasy against the white copy paper on the table between us. My first drug sighting in almost four years—drugs were around, of course, but users were understandably secretive—so I couldn’t stop glancing at it. Thinking about its density, its weight, how heavy this discovery might prove to be. The boys were clearly in a lot of trouble, but who else would be touched? I became concerned about the plans my wife and I were making—we’d recently signed on with a new school in Seoul and looked forward to a clean departure from the country we’d called home for almost four years.

However, clean departures from Kuwait were never a sure thing. Its tribal roots and conservative Islamic ideologies seemed no match, at times, for the overwhelming influence and power of oil money. Wealthy Arabs had a term for the unofficial system of favours and power that really made things happen. Wasta. Displease the wrong Kuwaiti and an official travel ban could be obtained with a simple phone call. At that time, a British man from our church was in jail awaiting trial on five counts of financial fraud. He’d be found innocent of the false accusations after eight months, but it would take three years for the travel ban—most often handled away from the courts by the hazy workings of wasta—to be lifted.

Wasta could also be wrangled by ex-pats if they had the right Kuwaiti connections. We knew the boys’ nationalities—Abdullah was Egyptian, Hamad was Lebanese, and Habib had dual citizenship from Iran and Canada—but had no idea where their families sat in the social strata, what kind of interference we might expect. We talked briefly about saying nothing to anyone outside the school, our behavioural training telling us that this would be the best thing for the boys. All three were doing well academically and were very well regarded by staff and other students, but unless very influential Kuwaitis took an interest, the consequences would be disproportionately severe.

But everyone at the school knew, too, that we had to report it to protect ourselves and the school, and none of us—from expat teacher to principal to superintendent to owner—were prepared to sacrifice ourselves for three boys who had, after all, screwed up. And just like that, despite our educators’ protective instinct and training about how best to direct errant students toward rehabilitation, we moved into consequence and investigation mode. We spooled up the machine, perhaps thinking we could help control it later on.

We were wrong.

I was asked to witness the bag searches and initial recording of each boy’s story and to type out a record of my part in the incident. Afterwards, because everything had happened after school and it was growing late in the day, I was sent home and asked to keep everything confidential. The police weren’t called right away—instead, the parents were summoned to drive their disgraced sons home. I’d learn to cling to the small graces—such as the last night the boys were able to spend at home with their families—and avoid thinking about what would happen when the boys turned themselves in the next day. On my way home, though, I just kept seeing the hash drop to the floor.

If it hadn’t fallen, I’d never have known.

***

I mostly went to ground—an old army term for staying put, digging in, and waiting—after submitting my report in Mubarakiya. My wife and I can laugh about how stressful those final few months in Kuwait were, albeit with that hard-edged, forced laughter used to move on from the funniest, most difficult things. But it’s easy, too, to recall the tension of waiting for the news that I’d somehow pissed off the wrong person with the right nationality, that a certain phone call had been made, grounding a certain pair of Canadians and their ambitions beyond Kuwait.

As I reach out to former colleagues, friends, and students, this sense of unease, of never really feeling secure, reemerges. We all have the same stories. Influential parents running over staff like they were nothing. Administrators standing by when teachers were threatened. Fundamentalist students acting like morality police. Senior students phoning in bomb threats and planting fake devices as a prank. Teachers’ contracts getting terminated without warning or cause.

But I’m also reminded of the tiered system of how foreigners are treated by Kuwaitis, and see that, while our security as citizens of Western nations might have been less than stable, there was no risk of physical danger. Not so for everyone who adopted Kuwait as their home, particularly the labouring class—Indian cleaners, Bangladeshi construction workers, Pakistani oil workers, Philippina maids, and the like. And, although the boy’s parents were white-collar professionals, because of the curious and deep-rooted contempt Kuwaitis had for Arabic-speaking countries away from The Gulf, it’s clear that justice was never pursued, much less served, on behalf of our boys.

Emails from Phil, our school superintendent, are heavy with regret. Like Bruce, he leaped in straight away to find the culprits with a certain Sherlockian swagger, actions he says that revealed leadership at its self-righteous worst. He says that a wiser leader would have contained the hysteria and addressed the issue within the more civilized context of the school, but I think that’s hindsight speaking. Bruce, too, admits that perhaps things should have been handled in-house, but shrugs and cites an ongoing legal battle at a school in Kuwait that flushed the evidence and refused to bring in the police. Near the end of our talk, he interrupts himself mid-sentence and leans back in his chair.

I don’t know that we supported you very well as an administration, he says. We worried more about those boys than about you.

The unasked question. I pause, too. Bruce is a sensitive soul, and a friend.

It wasn’t that I didn’t feel supported by the administration, I finally say. It was just a lousy situation to be caught in. For anybody.

I don’t share my next thought, which is that I know I’d have been on my own if anything went sideways. Yet I don’t hold that against anyone, either—we all just acted as educators and guests in Kuwait and assumed things would work out. In truth—and this is hard candy to chew—I don’t know if I’d have done anything differently, given the unreliability of Kuwait’s legal system and the shadow of wasta lurking around every corner. Even if I’d known where the boys would end up.

I hate that I know that about myself.

***

After parking the Porsche, the Major and I walked into the police station. I must have looked nervous because he clapped me on the shoulder and told me not to worry, that my statement was merely a formality. Before I could ask why, an Indian manservant appeared and took us to the detectives’ offices, following a few steps behind and rushing forward to open doors. The Major smiled and embraced the moustachioed detective, swapping filial kisses on both cheeks, the requisite salaams, and rapid fire pleasantries in Arabic. Tea with cardamom and saffron was ordered and served.

It had only been a couple of days since the hash was discovered, but I’d eventually learn that despite the school’s evidence and insistence to the contrary, the police had decided that Abdullah must be the ringleader of our school’s drug ring, with Habib viewed as a trusted lieutenant. Both boys were interrogated, although Habib’s Canadian passport spared him the worst.

Sabeera, another of the sibling owners of the school, had reported the incident to the Ministry of Education, which ruled on the boys’ case with unlikely speed. The school was ordered to expel them immediately, regardless of the outcome of the investigation, and furthermore levelled a total ban from all education in Kuwait forever. When this draconian decree reached the school, there were many resolutions to fight it, but it would take weeks before enough nerve was gathered to begin covert tutoring for the boys, first in their homes, eventually after hours on site.

The Major translated the detectives’ questions and my responses. Many of his translations—written down by the Indian manservant while the detective reclined in his seat, sipped his tea, and chain-smoked—seemed either much abbreviated or expanded, which did nothing to reduce my anxiety. The pages I signed were dense with sweeping Arabic script, like windswept clusters of winter grass in the desert. I immediately regretted letting one of the school’s owners speak for me in a legal capacity, and would never know what omissions he made or extras he offered.

It wasn’t until I was back at school to teach my remaining classes for the day that I allowed myself to relax, knowing that my statement, as with so many things, was beyond my control. Still, the incident seemed to get bigger by the hour—whispered details of the arrest, interrogations, and parental responses were beginning to drift, dust-like, through the school community. I tried to focus on my lessons and clamp down on the inevitable questions. Dodge. Deflect. Fall back on confidentiality. But rumour picked the lock on my closed door and my unwilling ears couldn’t un-hear.

All three boys had turned themselves in for initial questioning and were released to their families. Wisely anticipating that a Lebanese passport would mean little in the face of drug charges and suspecting that other abuses would likely occur, Hamad and his family smuggled themselves out of the country and returned to Lebanon. Abdullah and Habib, being the only suspects the police had, were arrested and brought to the central police compound in the heart of Kuwait City and held for those three horrible days and nights. When they were eventually released, there was no more mystery about what happened to them in jail. To friends and the school counsellors, it all came out, every harsh word, shout, shove, scream, bruise, and welt. After a couple of months, Abdullah and Habib were permitted to return and finish the school year. On the day Habib returned, he was so worried about vigilantes Phil had to escort him into the school, sending a too-late message from bottom to top, in his words, that no child deserved to have his life ruined for a simple mistake.

Although I saw Abdullah and Habib a handful of times in passing, I fought the urge to look them in the eye, much less speak with them. And these were good kids, ones I respected and admired and liked, not the vindictive and spoiled troublemakers who I would have more easily ignored instead. But the focus was on getting away from Kuwait clean, guarding our interests. In the end, it wasn’t about them at all, and it’s easy to resent the part of myself that found the necessary strength to look away.

***

Facebook and email make my quest for information almost too convenient. I make contact with the colleagues, friends, and students who shared the Kuwait experience, hoping to fill in memory gaps as well as the events that transpired after we left the Middle East. I’m unprepared for the details, things I’d forgotten, things I never knew.

I initially focus on the worry I felt in those final months, fuelled by an ever-present sense of unease, that absence of safety one feels in a place where influence is king and law merely reinforces guilt. But something shifts. My thoughts, although full of how I was affected, also begin to swell with my role in the consequences endured by Abdullah, Habib, and Hamad. My heart hurts, an aching pressure behind my sternum that can stop my breathing. This should be helplessness, shame, guilt, or even righteous anger, definable emotions I could at least attempt to claim. But I still feel the necessity and rightness of my actions as an educator cutting up against what I could have done as a protector, and tend to regard after-the-fact regret as being so terribly convenient.

In many ways I’m not alone in this. But by the time any serious misgivings were openly expressed by anyone in charge, the siblings were engaged in the studied dance of using their wasta to control their and the school’s reputation, soothe influential and wealthy parents, toe the harsh line the government drew in the sand. Anger was thrown everywhere, at the school, the boys, the administration, and even me—some parents resented that I had said anything at all—and my low profile was encouraged. In the background, past the heat and dust storms and tucked into secret, air conditioned rooms, good people quietly rallied around good kids who paid far more than they should have for such a simple mistake. I wish I could say that I was one of those people.

In jail, the boys had been thrown into cells near the interrogation rooms. The police, fearing Habib’s Canadian diplomatic connections, did not lay a hand on him, but he was tortured day and night by hearing and feeling the screams of men—including his best friend—being tortured for their confessions. To get Abdullah to admit that he was the main drug dealer in the school, he was beaten on his back and the bare soles of his feet with a wooden stick. When he was released, the bruises and swelling rendered him barely able to walk. I can’t stop myself from hoping he confessed, if only to have earned one less stroke of the cane.

Somehow, through murky legal proceedings and intense lobbying by loved ones, diplomatic staff, and eventually the school itself, some months later the charges went away. All three boys made it to university and beyond, and by all accounts are doing well. I’m so thankful for that I can barely complete this sentence. But it’s a tough thanks, too, one I might not deserve to offer. Though charges are dropped, expulsions are undone, and children are escorted back to safety, what’s been stolen can never fully be restored. What’s left is a tiny bit of hashish tumbling to a bathroom floor and the torment of an empty wish that it never happened at all.

*All names have been changed.

Brent van Staalduinen is an award-winning short story writer and novelist who lives, works, and finds his voice in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada. He is the author of SAINTS, UNEXPECTED, a novel of magical realism, and the recipient of the Bristol Short Story Prize, The Writer Magazine's "Our Darkest Hours" Prize, and the Fiddlehead Best Short Story Award. His work appears in such notable publications as The Writer, The Sycamore Review, The New Quarterly, Riddle Fence, The Fiddlehead, Prairie Fire, EVENT, The Dalhousie Review, and elsewhere. A graduate of the Humber School for Writers and UBC's prestigious MFA program in Creative Writing, Brent teaches writing at Redeemer University College.

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