January 23rd, 2009 by david

Perhaps it’s becoming a postgrad.  Possibly it’s my sparse CV. Maybe it’s just a phase. I don’t know what’s responsible, but I think I’m having a mid-life-crisis. Well, academic-life anyway. I’ve looked at what I could have done, and what I have done, and I’m a little depressed about the result. Sure I’ve made plenty of friends over the last four years, and had a great time too, but what’s happened to all that crap you only do when you’re a student? You know, the lacrosse and the tiddlywinks. It’s all been there, and I haven’t done any of it. What a fool I’ve been. Well, no more! I’ve only got one year left, so I’ve got to do something about it. NOW.

Maybe that’s a bit melodramatic, but you get the idea. Anyway, I’ve decided to have a go at everything that comes my way this year. So now, if a promising opportunity presents itself, I say yes to it. At least I’ll apply… I suppose it’s lucky that I made this decision after the fresher’s fair. But instead of prating on about the virtues of ‘grasping the nettle by the horns’ or whatever, and boring you to death with all the little things I’ve been doing, I’ll tell you about one experience I had just before Christmas. Hopefully then you’ll see that saying yes can be a good thing.

At the end of November last year, around the time above crisis was at its peak, I received this Facebook message from Emma, a friend on my course:

Free trip to KUWAIT!
This really is a fantastic opportunity; the embassy of Kuwait run a cultural exchange programme, which someone has had to drop out of. They’ve asked me to fill the spot, so if you are male, of British origin and free on 16th-23rd December, read on!

Basically, the successful applicant will get:
- FREE return flights to Kuwait
- FREE accommodation
- FREE meals
- FREE sightseeing in Kuwait!

If this sounds like you or one of your friends, send a copy of your CV to Mr Saif Basheer…

Now, for someone thinking that they’d been missing out, this sounded like a genuine panacea. Within minutes I’d sent in my CV. Even if Emma had somewhat over-egged the custard, it would still be a great trip. Hell, I’d even pay for it. Within hours, I got this reply:

I am writing on behalf of the Cultural Attaché, Dr. Fayiz AlDhafeeri, to inform you that you have been selected to participate on Kuwait University’s Cultural Exchange Programme 2008, between 16th and 23rd December 2008…

“Bloody hell,” I thought. “I’m going to Kuwait.” How odd.

Map of Kuwait. Obviously.

And it was quite odd. Over the next couple of weeks, whilst pushing through a thicket of deadlines, some sketchy details started to trickle in. I got my plane ticket. My Visa. A very rough itinerary. It all started to look very real. Very exciting. Very bizarre. We’d be staying in their university halls and every day was packed with meetings with high-profile members of Kuwaiti society (members of the government, heads of charities, community leaders etc.), loads of sightseeing, corporate visits and general cultural events. All that they wanted from us was that we’d immerse ourselves in Kuwaiti culture and society for a few days, and then come back and tell people about it. Could this be real? It was sounding better and better.

To me, at least.

Many of my friends and family that I told about the trip, after they’d gone a couple of rounds with the little green monster, put a bit of a downer it. “Are you sure it’s safe?” “Should you really be going there?” To be fair to them, they may have had a point.For those of you that have never heard of Kuwait, and haven’t yet Googled it, it’s a small country at the top of the Persian Gulf bordered by Iraq in the North and Saudi Arabia to the South. Indeed, the chances are that if you have heard of it (and you don’t work in the oil industry), it’s inexorably linked in your mind with Iraq. Kuwait was invaded and occupied by Saddam Hussein in 1990 until its liberation by the US and UK-led coalition in 1991 - the Gulf War. More recently, it was the main jumping off point for the current invasion and occupation of Iraq too. So really, I can see why people wouldn’t pick it as their top holiday destination. Nevertheless, I was going.

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When Saddam retreated, his troops set fire to over 700 oil wells. Before they could all be put out, Kuwait's share of world oil reserves went down from 10% to 7%.

But Kuwait is a constitutional monarchy, just as we are. Ever since it gained independence from the UK in 1961 it has gone from strength to oil-fuelled strength as it sits on top of 7% of the world’s oil reserves. And, it has to be said, aside from Saddam’s invasion in 1990, all with remarkable stability. The end result is that Kuwait, a tiny country that’s substantially smaller than Wales, is the ninth richest in the world per capita. Also, in comparison to its neighbors, Kuwait is religiously liberal for the region. Although Islamic, segregation isn’t enforced, and women have equal rights to men. So, swings and roundabouts.

So it was that, excited, bemused, and filled with a little trepidation, we, the chosen five, met at the Heathrow at an ungodly time in the morning for our trip to Kuwait. None of us knew what to expect. We hadn’t had that many details from the embassy, and there’s only so much you can learn from Wikipedia. It was, if you’ll tolerate such banality, a real adventure! But, now, you’ll be glad to hear, I won’t give you a blow-by-blow account of the trip. It would be long, and you’d probably get bored. I think I’ll skip ahead to the conclusions. Let me assure you, though, that it was incredible. It actually was something of an adventure, and possibly one of the best things I’ve ever done. We went to a traditional Beduin weddings, sat in tents in the middle of dessert and smoked shisha long onto the night, sat it high powered meetings with government ministers, and even played football against a Kuwait university team, and won! It was an incredible experience. But, you know, that was only one of the things that I got from the exchange. The other was a bit of an eye-opener, literally.

Aws, Freddie, me, Kenton, Jack and Jacob.

The group. From Left to Right: Aws, Freddie, me, Kenton, Jack and Jacob.

The embassy’s primary objective was to smash our preconceptions about the gulf: the stereotypes that we very easily fall into because of what we hear in the news. One day its car bombs in Baghdad, the next its human rights violations in Tehran. It’s not surprising that most of us “westerners” believe terrorism, violence and reactionary religious politics well out of the region just as readily as the oil that keeps their economies afloat. The embassy wanted to show us that this is emphatically not the case in Kuwait. By taking us on a whirlwind tour of the country, meeting as many Kuwaitis as possible, they wanted us to see that a traditional Islamic society could sit comfortably alongside a modern oil-based economy.

What we found, I think, is a country in the midst of an attempted reinvention. It’s not only still coming to terms with the Iraqi invasion and occupation, nearly 20 year afterwards, but it’s also trying to make the most of it’s oil money, while it still has it. Projected to run out in around 90 years, Kuwait’s oil is its economy. Without it, they won’t be able to even afford to run the expensive desalination plants that provide their water, or the costs of importing the bulk of their food. They know that if they do not invest the money wisely now, then they will regret it sorely when it’s gone. So they’re trying to do the same trick that countries like Britain have more or less pulled off which is to reinvent itself as a service economy. So, much as with Dubai and Abu Dhabi, the Kuwait city skyline is now dotted with shining new skyscrapers and cranes throwing up more. But they’re doing it with an important difference to their near neighbours – they want to keep their culture in tact.

Some of the new skyline.

Some of the new skyline.

Dubai, especially, is often criticised for being a faceless, characterless metropolis in the desert. Kuwaitis see it no differently - in fact, they see it as a warning. Kuwaiti culture, which is incredibly cohesive, is centred around the Diwaniya - essentially a large reception room in most houses where friends and family get together regularly to talk politics, gossip, or just play a bit of Playstation. Essentially, as long as you’re willing to talk, you’re welcome to stay. We spent hours at various ones across Kuwait city, and it’s a great way to spend time. The fear is, though, that if Kuwait follows Dubai, flinging money at development projects and opening its doors to the ‘western’ way of life, this incredibly welcoming culture will be lost. They’re scared of this, and rightly so. It would be a real shame to lose it. So they’re developing, but trying to do it sympathetically. Of course there’s the skyscrapers and massive shopping malls, but they’re limiting the number of jobs that ex-pats can take, trying to keep Kuwait as Kuwaiti as possible, and still include the Arabic and Islamic way of life. From what we saw, it seems to be working.

Kuwait stock market. One of out many trips.

Kuwait stock market. One of out many trips.

Now I wouldn’t say that I ever really believed the stereotypes of the region. Wholeheartedly, at least. I guess that I just sort of assumed that it was all a bit of a mess. Of course, I knew that anomalies exist - Dubai and Abu Dhabi being a case in point - but I think that it was easy to write them off as exceptions that proved the rule. It’s hard not to do when you’re faced with the deluge of bad news that seems to flow out of the region every day. I’m not suggesting that it’s the media’s fault that this stereotype exists. Negative events are newsworthy. They’re only doing their job in reporting them. I think that the fault really lies with lazy media consumption - failing to recognise that newspapers and TV stations have only so many column inches, only so much air-time to spare to cover everything that happens in the world. It’s not surprising, therefore, that we only hear about the negatives. I know that I’m definitely guilty of this. But I’m extremely glad to say that I can now add at least one more anomaly to the list, and approach any news story about the middle east with, I hope, a good degree more understanding about Arabic culture.

Jack at the Kuwait towers.

Jack at the Kuwait towers.

So, have I fallen for what the embassy is selling? Yes, there’s no doubt about it. I really liked Kuwait. All of the Kuwaiti’s we met were incredibly warm and open, welcoming you into their homes just so long as you were willing to sit a talk with them. The country itself, although still recovering from the ravages of Saddam’s invasion, is a wonderful place. I will definitely be more balanced in my thinking about the region. However, this has not been a hook-line-and-sinker deal. Obviously we only really saw the best that Kuwait has to offer. After all, you wouldn’t try and impress someone with British Culture by showing them Luton or Milton Keynes, would you? There were sides to Kuwait that I did not like. Sides that came uncomfortably close to reaffirming the seemingly naïve, media-driven image of the region.

Kenton and Aws at the Iraq border

Kenton and Aws at the Iraq border

For instance, I didn’t like the way that the Kuwaitis treated the non-Kuwaitis who worked for them. The way that they bossed them around or ignored them was quite unpleasant. The contradiction it offered in a Diwaniya when a Kuwaiti would be at their most relaxed one second, and then fuming the next over some minor oversight by one of the staff, was quite unsettling to say the least. Equally, I did not like the increasing levels of Islamic conservatism within the society. I am not one for religion, but I have no problem with it in society, even with its involvement with politics to a certain degree. However, in a relatively liberal country like Kuwait, I thought it was a great shame that there are plans afoot to segregate the new university campus by essentially building two of everything. Aside from being an enormous waste of Kuwait’s all too precious oil money, this is something that the students didn’t seem to want, and I felt was a real shame. If there’s any time in the world where people should intermingle freely, its university, and I don’t think the religion-influenced politics should get in the way of that.

Camels. Real camels!

Camels. Real camels!

But, in the end, even the best of picnics are occasionally afflicted by wasps. It certainly was an incredible trip, and, as I’ve said, it was a real eye-opener. I’m indebted to the Kuwait Embassy in London and the University of Kuwait for organising this trip and giving me such an amazing oppertunity. I’ll say it here publicly, as well as the million times we all told you in person; thank you! And for anyone considering it next year, as it is happening again, you simply have to go! Or at least apply…

So, what do you think? Is it worth saying yes to the opportunities that University can throw up? In this case, I’d suggest that it certainly was. But then, that’s just me. Opportunities like this don’t come up everyday, but when they do, I think that it’s best that you’re be prepared to jump on them. I’ve learnt that now, probably a bit too late, but at least I had an incredible time doing it.

January 5th, 2009 by david

Despite modernism’s best efforts, London isn’t an urban utopia. There’s no point in denying it. The streets aren’t paved with gold, and bits of it are more than a little rough around the edges. So, as with any city, there are parts that it’s not a good idea to go to, especially at night. Fortunately, Imperial is about as far from any of them as it’s possible to be. For the hapless student weaving back to halls, South Ken’s about as good as it can get. Unfortunately, though, my cycle route home strays out of Chelsea.

I started cycling to college a few weeks ago, and it’s great. Not only do I get a bit of exercise everyday (although that’s almost certainly negated by the air I have to breath along the way), but I also avoid the ridiculous cost to get there by tube or bus, and I get there quicker. It’s not even that bad when it rains. But one of the few problems is what lies between where I live and Imperial, and I’m not talking about the Thames. They have bridges for that.

Don’t ever let it be said that Transport for London doesn’t go out of its way to help. TFL’s ‘Journey Planner’ is one of the best things on the Internet. (Well, the most useful anyway. There’s plenty of better stuff on the ‘net.) You tell TFL where you are, where you want to go, and it tells you how to get there. Brilliant. However, its cycling route-planning function still needs a bit of work. Sometimes it’ll try and send you down the A4 at rush hour. At others, it’ll tell you to go round Hyde Park Corner – I’ve seen some people try it; it doesn’t look like fun. But it’s biggest failing by far is its tendency to draw the straightest line home, regardless of where it goes.

Now I’m all for economy of effort. The shortest route home is definitely the best. But sending me down the dark back alleys of housing estates is something I’d prefer to avoid. It’s definitely a false economy. Unfortunately, my complete ignorance of south London means that what TFL says, I do. So it’s with some unease that I pick my way along its suggested route every morning and evening – wherever it sends me.

Call me a snob if you like, but I don’t make a habit out of walking around high-rise housing estates. But nevertheless, last week I was doing just that - pushing my bike. I’d been riding past Battersea power station when I rode over a nail, or something stupid like that, and that was it, my first urban puncture. Now, fool that I am, I didn’t have a pump with me, or anything remotely useful. So, with the almost impossibility of taking your bike on a bus (it’s down to the driver… ‘nuff said), I had to push my bike home. Great.

Now, there’s something about a bright yellow reflective jacket that attracts a certain amount of ridicule. I don’t know what it is, but there you have it. But survivor that I am, I put my head down and ploughed on, hoping that the laughing didn’t turn into designs on what was in my bag. So when I heard some footsteps running up behind me, I almost chucked my bike and ran for it. After all, my laptop’s worth more.

Fortunately, this particular estate is to home to a keen cyclist who happened to be looking out of his window as I trudged past. An incredibly kind soul, he grabbed his pump and an inner tube, and legged it after me. When he caught up and said he was here to help, ignoring my rather startled (and scared) look, he wouldn’t even let me help. He whipped the wheel off, changed the tube, and saw me on my way even whilst I was still spluttering about how grateful I was. Whether his generosity was motivated by genuine kindness, or a desire to see me out of the place safely, I don’t know, but nevertheless, what a legend.

Everyone I’ve told about this since have either not believed me (they are no longer friends…), or tried to extract some sort of moral from the story: never judge a guy by where he lives, or something like that. I’m not sure about such moralising, so I thought I’d just tell the tale, and leave any moral making to you. Nevertheless, it was nice to find a bit of genuine kindness around in London. As I said above, it’s no urban utopia, and this is reflected in its architecture and its community cohesiveness, but there are always exceptions. I guess, and here comes the rubbish moral, you should never judge a city by its buildings… told you, rubbish. 

December 19th, 2008 by david

There’s nothing quite like the feeling of starting something new. I reckon that all of you reading this, no matter how reluctantly you’ll admit it, know the uncontrollable joy of opening a new Air-Fix model: cheerfully throwing the instructions aside and gluing the wings on upside-down. I get it all of the time. I’ve had to send new computers back to the shop because my exuberance has messed them up so badly. So it was with a certain unease that I began to feel it all over again, but on a much higher level.

Like many others in the country, I graduated at the end of the summer and found myself bewildered by the realities of the world outside. I’d have to start paying tax, and there’d be no more student-loans to cover it. I’d have to start paying those loans back. There wouldn’t be any more HMV discounts to feed my insatiable music and DVD habit. And, to add insult to injury, I wouldn’t even be able to buy Tesco’s Value food muttering the well-worn excuse, “It’s only because I’m a student”. There was no avoiding it: it was time to get a job.

Honestly, this was something that I’d been aware of since I started university four short years ago. However, I’d found my future surprisingly easy to ignore. But now that I’d had to acknowledge it, I attacked it with gusto, firing off applications as fast as I could fill them in. This was new, I thought; this was exciting. I could feel that feeling again. But, as fast as I sent them out, they came back with the increasingly familiar, “Thank you for your recent application, but I regret to inform you that…” I seemed to have glued the wings on upside-down.

Now, whether this was to do with the world’s economy choosing to fall apart at just the time I needed it most, or the fact that I still didn’t have a convincing answer to “So, just what are you planning on doing with your History and Philosophy of Science degree?”, it seemed that I’d done something wrong. Quite which of these two factors contributed most, I’m not sure, but I’m fairly certain that it has to do more with the latter than the former. So I’ve decided to specialise: to finally pick one of the options that have been sloshing about my mind over the last few years. So it was that on Monday I slunk into a classroom at Imperial to start an MSc in Science Communication.

So, here I am. A new University. New people. New options. That’s an awful lot of ‘new’ to get enthusiastic about, but I’m determined to do this one properly. I’m in this now to start a career. I’m going to do this by the book. Those wings are going to go on the right way up. So I was responsible at the Fresher’s Fair, signing up to only a handful of societies that I knew I’d go to. I took notes during the induction week lectures. I’ve even signed up to the gym. All’s good so far. But will it last?

I hope so. In fact, I’m going to make sure that it does. I’ve started many things before, and I know the apathy that easily overwhelms the initial enthusiasm. This time, it isn’t going to get me. I really have started as I mean to go on. Then again, I’ve said that before. I forgot to go to my gym induction…

So, hopefully, this blog should chart a year full of positive, CV-building stuff. You’ll have to forgive the odd rant that might crop up here once in a while, but, all being well, this should give you an idea of what it’s like to be a student at Imperial. Perhaps you may even enjoy what you read here. I can but hope.