by Zina Carman
Living in Kuwait was exciting and exotic, a little scary sometimes and constantly challenging! The saving grace was the Kuwait Little Theatre (KLT). It was here that we westerners could get together and be ourselves.
Here we could dress normally, talk without having to watch our words, and share a drink, a real drink. Here was where we gathered to have rehearsal suppers, production meetings and of course cast parties at the end of a show. And where help was available on all issues. The best shops for some western items. The best souks for second-hand furniture, rugs, pets.
Where to buy your gold, how to get your driving licence, and most importantly, how to get a drink in a completely dry country?! Even non-drinkers joined the challenge of drinking in Kuwait. It became a major project.
You could get real alcohol in Kuwait of course; it was common knowledge that the top five families controlled that import supply! If you knew a connected Kuwaiti, it was reasonably easy to buy. I did know such a Kuwaiti and decided a rare bottle of real whisky for Him Indoors’ (HI) birthday would be a great present. That great idea went out the window when I discovered a $A25 bottle of rather ordinary Red Label Johnny Walker would cost me $A125!!
However, travelling in and out of the country a couple of times a year gave me the opportunity to smuggle alcohol in and I am ashamed to say I took it on rather gleefully! We knew that all luggage coming into Kuwait was x-rayed and any bottle-shaped item would be checked and, if alcohol, confiscated immediately. We had all tried the shampoo/conditioner bottles method – no go, they opened and sniffed all those. To be honest, the alcohol always tasted a bit strange anyway!
So how to get it to not look bottle-shaped? Easy – use boxed wine bladders instead! They look like cushions in your suitcase. Back in Oz, I would buy 3 or 4 boxes of wine, decant the wine and keep the bladders. These washed-out made wonderfully large containers for mixer drinks – gin, whisky, vodka etc. Fill ’em up and pop them in the suitcase. The bladders did not show up on the X-Ray, the tap did but the Kuwaitis had no idea what that was, so home & hosed! The thrill of getting something illegal into the country was addictive! It gave me an insight into why people turn to crime – it is rather exhilarating!
Although I tried entering with contraband every time I returned to Kuwait, I wasn’t always a successful smuggler. Once, when returning to Kuwait from England, I spent my last thirty pounds on a pork roast, pork sausages and some bacon, none of which were available in Kuwait – yum! Having been assured by all that Kuwaitis would not under any circumstances touch pork products, I packed it all together in one largish parcel. And flying back to Kuwait I amused myself with who would be the privileged few invited to my pork roast dinner!
I got to the airport a little keyed up about my smuggled goods. My bag got opened by the customs guy, nothing unusual there. Still, he looked at me, and saying nothing, looked down into my suitcase and carefully removed my parcel of pork. I, also saying nothing, took it from him and placed it back in my case.
He calmly removed the pork from my suitcase again and started to turn away. I wrenched it back but he held on, tightly, and we proceeded with quite an impressive Marcel Marceau rhythmical to-ing and fro-ing. With one last wrench, he got rid of my clinging hands. I responded in frustration and for the first time during the whole exchange a rather loud, somewhat confrontational voice was heard – mine! ‘I’m feeding this to Christian friends, what do you care what we eat?’
Marcel did not answer, just pointed a finger behind me. I turned, prepared to do battle and came face to face with the Captain of Customs. About to repeat my last question in the same confrontational manner, I opened my mouth, took in a breath, looked again, and in a rare moment of common sense shut up and watched mournfully as my pork disappeared. But I still had my alcohol! Ha! Take that Kuwait!
As we did not leave the country often enough to smuggle much alcohol in, we had to make our own. Now according to the KLT backstage advice, there were two ways of doing this; you could make your wine using grape juice and sugar, or you could buy ethanol. This was available if you knew someone who brought it into Kuwait legally for ‘cleaning their computers’.
Not knowing an ethanol importer at that time, we decided to make our own wine. Lots of people were doing it, so why not? We’d been given the recipe, we knew what was needed: an extra-large plastic rubbish bin, bags and bags of sugar and a case or two of grape juice – purple grapes for red wine, white grapes for white wine – yeast, tubing and taps. HI oversaw this operation so off we set to buy the necessaries, HI warning me, ‘we’ll have to go to different supermarkets for different stuff. Don’t want anyone seeing us buying loads of sugar and grape juice, they’ll know immediately what we are up to.’
He was right. Kuwaitis arrested people for what they called bootlegging – anything that looked remotely like the making of alcohol.
We hit the first supermarket, we put two boxes of red grape juice in our trolley and feeling a little nervous we approached the checkout. What’s this? A cleverly arranged mountain of boxes containing grape juice bottles surrounded by artfully balanced bags of sugar. All topped off with a huge placard: TODAY’S SPECIAL: BUY TWO CASES OF GRAPE JUICE AND GET 50% OFF SUGAR BAGS! Hmmm…. fairly sure no-one was in any doubt as to what was going on!! We promptly acquired everything we needed then and there and went off home to become vintners – after a fashion!
I will finish the homebrew story by saying it turned out HI and I were lousy at winemaking. Still, we made our mark on the community with our ethanol concoctions!
Eventually, at a party, I met someone who legally imported ethanol into Kuwait for industrial purposes who told me he could get me some. Excitedly I asked him if I could buy a couple of bottles. He burst out laughing and explained as if to a child, he only dealt in 25-litre drums. Embarrassed, I asked if he could get me a drum? Oh dear – I knew that ethanol, being 99% pure alcohol, had to be watered down 3 to 1 so one did not die of alcohol poisoning. That meant I would end up with 100 litres of the stuff! What on earth was I going to do with that amount? OK, thought I, I can sell it off to all my friends if they want some. Thereby, without a thought, joining the bootlegging business – oops!
I say I joined, but when the guy rang to say he had my drum at his apartment in Kuwait city, a 20-minute drive from our house, I sent HI off to collect it and bring it home. That sounds simple enough, I guess, except for the fact that the Kuwaiti police, bored senseless, would decide to set up roadblocks for no apparent reason on the major road in and out of Kuwait City. For entertainment, they would make you stand while they checked out your car. HI set off, both of us wondering if we would see each other again! Strangely enough, he did get stopped but for some odd reason they did not bother to check the car – phew!!
Once we had the ethanol, and after offloading most of it, we still had quite a bit left, so we got creative. Everyone made what was fondly called eth-gin, a good taste-alike, but it could have strange effects on your body….
A married medical advisor from a prestigious hospital in Melbourne which shall remain nameless, came to Kuwait to advise on the hospital in Ahmadi. On her second night in Kuwait, she came to our house with a friend of ours. I offered her a G&T. She tentatively enquired whether it was real gin. ‘Oh no’ said I, ‘I wish it were! It’s eth-gin but tastes quite good.’ She reared back in horror saying vehemently, ‘Keep it away from me!’ Apparently, the previous night she had been at a party, drinking fairly liberally of eth-gin. Problem was, she went to the party in a dress and high heels, she returned home in a large man’s t-shirt and high-heels with no knowledge of how, why, what or when that had occurred!
Eth-gin wasn’t all we made. I discovered I was a dab hand at eth-Cointreau, and George was incredibly proud of his eth-Kahlua. The Christmas party at Kuwait Little Theatre that year was exceptionally merry. Both HI and I handed out presents of mini Chrissy puds accompanied by small bottles of Cointreau or Kahlua to all and sundry! Yep, definitely a time for bootlegging, Christmas in Muslim Kuwait – not bad, not bad at all!
Read part 1 of Zina’s story ‘A Faraway Stage’ about establishing Kuwait Little Theatre here.