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Fear and Loathing in Kuwait

Kuwait City is an American adult-contemporary paradise. Except for the gas masks, the lack of booze, and the scars left from the last time Saddam paid a visit.

6:30 PM, Mar 20, 2003 • By MATT LABASH
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Kuwait City

TUESDAY, MARCH 18--Flying into Kuwait City, one gets the impression one might be headed the wrong way. The airport aisles are clotted with people in a hurry to go somewhere else. The customs officials don't seem quite as pressed to in-process newcomers, who they reason will be here for awhile, on account of most airlines canceling flights. Even our British Airways crew seemed intent on making scarce. After depositing us around 11:00 p.m., they told us they were making a midnight run back to London with an empty plane, so as not to have to spend a night in Kuwait City.

Kuwait is a country of first-world amenities and third-world efficiency. The airport retailers offer "George of the Jungle" DVDs, and cosmetics by Christian Dior and Estée Lauder. The loudspeakers blast a pan-flute Muzak-y version of "Say You, Say Me." A sign for the restroom says "Gents toilet"--as if a leftover relic from Kuwait's days as a British protectorate. (Brits, here, are thick on the ground, walking around with the proprietary vim they often exhibit when visiting a former colony that they believe has gone to seed.) As if newcomers are not gambling enough on their very presence, they are encouraged to experience the "Power of Instant Winning" in Kuwait's scratch-off lotto game. All of this is set off by immigration officials in mismatching uniforms and billowy pants, who seem to misplace your passport for hours at a time, and who are hell-bent on delivering us through customs well after our rental car agents have called it a night.

As a colleague and I itch to make it to the Thrifty Rentals desk before they run out of Mitsubishi Pajeros (the 4-wheel vehicle of choice for those planning on making a run to the border in what journalists are already calling "the 51st state"), we watch an anorexic cat cross the baggage return terminal. He saunters up, hops onto the conveyor belt, and disappears through the rubber fringe, beneath a sign that warns "Please don't sit or stand on the conveyor."

The closest thing to command and journalism central in Kuwait City is the Hilton Resort, a five-star abode that abuts the Persian Gulf, and an ideal Americanized refuge in what a U.S. News colleague has called "McArabia." The Hilton boasts a Starbucks and a Pizza Express. At its various high-end retail emporiums, you can buy boutique items like gourmet kitchen knives, tweezers with an attached magnifying glass, and honeysuckle foaming bath gel with myrrh extract--a necessity for any war.

But to make it a true Saigon-worthy war correspondent's hangout, it is lacking one vital element: booze. Kuwait is a dry country, and consequently, many suggest that after we liberate Iraq, instead of marching on to Iran or North Korea, we might want to turn our attention back to Kuwait. There are ways around prohibition, of course. One newsweekly colleague, who made it here before I did, suggested sneaking in your amber spirits of choice in a Listerine bottle and your clear spirits an Aquafina bottle. Due to host nation considerations, I'm not saying whether I followed his advice. But suffice to say, the cleaning ladies are looking askance at us when we finish the day with a nice tall glass of Listerine Antiseptic. Such is your lot, I tell them, when you have a really bad case of gingivitis.

WEDNESDAY, MARCH 19--Not to belabor the point, but we being journalists, the booze quandary comes up in every fourth conversation. An Air Force captain tells me he is looking at the mandatory teetotaling as a "fitness opportunity." When I ask him if there's any bathtub gin operation, as has been rumored, he says, "Ask the Brits, they always seem to know about these things."

Later, in the business center, which boasts high-speed DSL connections, even though you are only able to place international calls on every fifth attempt, I do just that. A British journalist tells me a robust black market existed for weeks, but recently, "it seems to have gone to ground. The (provider) has probably gone to prison." Until it dried up, Scotch, he says, was going for about $150 a bottle. Consequently, he adds , "I haven't had a drink since Friday." This being the following Wednesday, this is no laughing matter in most British newsgathering circles.