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From Detroit to Basra

Kuwait City.

Three months after the US-led “intervention” in Iraq, the automobile has leaped to the top of the wish lists of the liberated peoples of Iraq. For those opponents of the war that cried that the war itself was waged on behalf of the fuel that powers the internal combustion engine, it will be of no consolation to see how quickly the automobile has been in driving the new economy that is busy revving in to life in the towns and cities of Iraq.

When I first came to Kuwait over three years ago, I purchased my first car: a 1984 Chevrolet Caprice Classic, a 5 Litre V8 hulk of car that is still ubiquitous on the dusty highways of Kuwait. For just over a $1000, I thought it was a bargain, especially when you compare the price of petrol and insurance to Ireland, where the very thought of running such an automobile would be enough to bring out the wrath of an environmentalist and a smile to the face of the inland revenue.

Three years down the line, two failed MoTs (Ministry of Transport certification) later, it was time for us to part. The only problem was that it is impossible to sell a car in Kuwait if the vehicle is not registered and certified. I had been avoiding the issue for some time, until the stubbornness of two would-be dynasties met somewhere in a holistic universe to my own personal benefit once again.

The war on/in/for (take your pick) Iraq had already allowed me to attend the wedding of friend back in Ireland due a temporary evacuation order from my employer and now it seemed that it would facilitate the removal of a quintessential example of Detroit mechanized excess from outside my apartment, that had been busy collecting dust for a nearly a year.

Two days ago, while leafing through the classified section of The Kuwait Times, I found an unexpected answer to my prayers -We buy Chevrolet Cars, all models 1980-2003. One phone call later and I was in business, heading to Andalus, an area of Kuwait city off the beaten track for most foreigners in this country. There I met Hamad, a bedoun (literally without [papers]), one of the 125,000 stateless Arabs living in Kuwait, sometimes for as long two generations, but as yet without full citizenship.

After a quick bout of negotiation (that he excelled at far better than I) we came to a deal: 200 Kuwaiti Dinars ($600) and he would assist me with the paperwork. The later was indeed a major selling point. I pointed out the registration had expired due to a failed emissions test, but he told me this was not a problem. The car was not destined for Kuwait, but 200 km to the north, in Basra, Iraq.

Once business was out of the way, Hamad invited me in to his office where a thick Turkish coffee and a Marlboro Red completed the transaction. Being invited for coffee (as opposed to tea) is a much more magnanimous gesture in Arab societies, and can also be interpreted as an invitation to converse, an art in which the people here excel and revel in. He told me a little about his business, and how former Iraqi governmental employees are presently being paid $500 a month by the US authority administrating Iraq. This sudden influx of cash had generated a huge demand for a range of products, and top of the list it seems are cars, of all makes, shapes and sizes.

As I looked outside, and took in the long sky blue lines of a my first car, I was struck by how iconic certain things can become: these huge cars epitomizing the American car industry, and possibly the society as a whole in the 70’s and 80’s; large, powerful, prone to excess, slightly garish, great in straight lines but not so nimble taking corners or negotiating tricky terrain. While at the same it managed to go even further, embodying the oil-fuelled wealth and status of Kuwait during the same time, when it could claim to be the wealthiest country on the planet in relation to GDP per capita.

What about Iraq? Is there any significance to both the US and Kuwait sending such emblematic icons, though now worn and aged, to a once foresworn enemy?

As I put the money in my pocket and took a taxi home, there was at least one that sprung to mind. For both Hamad and myself, someone else’s adversity had provided us with opportunities, and both of us seemed pretty pleased with the result.

RAYMOND BARRETT can be reached at: r_barrett73@yahoo.com