The Kuwait City International Airport ranks highly among the most interesting places on earth.
The building, certainly an architectural marvel, is neither particularly wonderful nor particularly unique; as such, it might be at home in any major city of the United States. Curved ceilings and tiered lighting, Starbucks and Cinnabon facades, and a thousand Ikea-esque chairs serve as nothing more than a simple backdrop to the sensory overload that is the people. A group of African businessmen in Italian suits and traditional caps crowd the check-in counter. Two men - obviously relatives, if distant, of the royal family and marked as such by their well-tailored white desert clothing and silvery-edged headress cloth - bypass even the first-class only line and argue quietly with an airline representative who asks them to wait their turn; a youth in blue jeans and an oversized hoodie who trails behind them produces official-looking documents from his pockets which the two wave about, demanding recognition of their station. Women, all of whom would be dressed modestly by American or European standards, nevertheless run the gamut from flight attendants and tourists in pants or knee-length skirts and slightly less than demure blouses to dedicated Muslim women veiled to the eyes and carrying authentic Coach purses who order muffins - only speaking to their husbands, of course - at the more expensive coffee bar and whose hands sparkle with jewelry as they sip their lattes.
The airport security setup involves an initial secure area for check-in and ticketing, with a full complement of metal detectors and x-ray machines (although, thank goodness, none of the TSA’s ridiculous full-body imaging or mandatory sexual assault). Just beyond the security line - indeed, so close as to be nearly a part of it - stand dozens of porters, each of whom scouts a likely victim coming through the line and collects their luggage from the x-ray belt before the passenger has a chance to stop them. “What airline, sir?” they ask, and it is a positive struggle to inform these panhandlers that yes, I intend to carry my own bags the 30 feet to the check-in counter. Once divested of checked bags and entrusted with boarding passes, passengers again move to the unsecured terminal area before entering the second secure area where the gates are located. Once again, belts come off, pockets are emptied, and boarding passes are checked. Beyond this checkpoint is passport control and then the airport at large.
Again, the resemblance to every other airport in the world is at once comforting and dissonant. Duty free shops line the hallways; salespeople hawking watches, eau de cologne, and candy line the shop entrances. Inside one, a Romanian (perhaps, although I have a tendency to think I know more about accents and languages than I actually do) family picks out boxes of hard candies. A …curvaceous… woman passes by, struggling to walk in five-inch heels and painted-on jeans which no one of her …figure… should wear, even in private, along with a head scarf. A young Middle-Eastern man sits near one gate, wearing a bowling shirt emblazoned with the logo of an auto body shop in California and a name tag that reads “Steve” - he is clearly ignorant of his own ironic (hipster) genius. The piece de resistance is a pair of janitors, who must have, surely, been of Latin American origin, judging by their western boots and concho belt buckles, but perhaps my eyes decieved me.
Through all this, not one person looks around and truly sees anyone else. There is none of the studious ignorance of one’s neighbors common to Manhattanites, nor the desire not to see that’s common when one culture abuts a “less-civilized” neighbor. No, there is simply nothing remarkable here, in the eyes of anyone but the final outside observer. Perhaps there is nothing to see, or perhaps each group is so engrossed in their own movements that they have no desire to notice others. Indeed, I am nearly run over twice - once by a middle-aged Oriental woman in the traditional uniform of a Chinese tourist, who simply pretends that I am not there the first four times her luggage cart impacts my calves as she forces her way to the front of the security/check-in line, and again by a screaming four-year old who belongs to a portly, middle-aged African American in a Yankees cap and his Asian wife. Being ignored by small children in airports is nothing new to me, but it is fascinating to observe a check-in, security, and boarding system built without the concept of waiting in lines or queing, seemingly so fundamental to the Western model of efficiency in public spaces. Perversely enough, I make no effort to shoulder others out of my way or move with any sense of urgency, and I make it through to my gate faster than I have managed at any other airport, anywhere in the world.
“Coming home from very lonely places, all of us go a little mad: whether from great personal success, or just an all-night drive, we are the sole survivors of a world no one else has ever seen.” John le Carré