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Sins on Canvas

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As the #PaintToFreedom online movement grows and sparks more controversy and discussion and encourages people to speak up, many are wondering what the story is – who Shurooq Amin is. I thought that posting my old article “Sins on Canvas” from the LoYACY magazine in the November issue would help people get a good image of this great artist. I would also like to say that the Paint to Freedom movement is not just about Shurooq’s particular gallery being shut down, nor is it restricted to painters. It includes artists, poets, writers, film-makers, dancers, musicians, designers. It’s one that seeks to protect our right to freedom of expression and appreciation of art, literature, poetry, and beauty in all its forms. No one has the right to control what another person paints, writes, thinks, or believes. Paint to Freedom seeks to abolish the false assumption that the intellectuals will simply hand over the power to people who are blind to such beauty. Art, cinema, poetry, and literature are all tools to enlightenment and liberation – which is the exact reason that these groups are attempting to kill them, and also the reason that in turn, the intellectuals must retaliate by practicing these acts of rebellion from now on more passionately than ever.

Paint on the floor. Poetry in the air. Smiles in the hallway. Children here and there. The home of a woman whose fingers have formed a long-lasting friendship with her paintbrush since her early childhood: Shurooq Amin’s home. I was privileged enough to be invited to visit Shurooq’s studio in her humble home, where I felt more than welcome, and was greeted with warm hellos. After meeting her children, Shurooq and I went up to her studio. Within those four simple walls, I saw some of the most thought-provoking paintings I had ever laid eyes on. Pure taboo: everything that is forbidden, everything deemed unspeakable – painted on canvas, speaking thousands of words that would never do her paintings justice.
Shurooq Amin is an artist, a poet, a member of the Kuwait Arts Association, and a professor at Kuwait University, to name only a few of the high-status positions she holds. She is the first and only Kuwaiti artist to feature a nude painting in international art galleries. She is also a mother of four children: Nujood, Lujain, Khaled, and Abdulla. Just by hearing this, most people would say: there is no way she is managing all of those things at once. Quite the contrary, Shurooq says balancing every factor in her life has not been difficult – it was all a matter of time management.
She considers her job at KU to be a day job which she has maintained simply because it is her source of income, and that it is “not something [I] love anymore because of the education system”. I personally thought this was an interesting point, so I asked Shurooq to elaborate. She discussed how the university used to be an academic environment, but is now politically charged, where “everybody wants to be a politician, but nobody wants to do the work”. She expressed frustration at how the KU Student Union now “has more power than the faculty”. Naturally, her frustration is reasonable; one cannot help but question whether or not all of the KU faculty members feel the same way. As a result, Shurooq no longer feels passionately about her day-career – her students are only growing less and less enthusiastic about their major with each passing year, making it difficult for Shurooq to teach with passion.
Instead, Shurooq focuses on her conceptual, controversial art works and her children. She feels most strongly about those two things: her artwork, and her children, and puts all of her energy into them. I personally have spent my life around adults who said they were too busy with their career to give their all to their children, but Shurooq said that such talk was “merely an excuse”. She considers her children to be gifts, to be future citizens actively taking part in the development of their society.
The sensational artist has paint coursing through her veins. She grew up painting, and had the constant support of her father. Her father took her to art galleries and museums, and at the time, she didn’t realize how exceptional such opportunities were. She assumed all girls her age saw what she saw. At the young age of 11, her father passed away in her arms, and after that point, nothing scared her anymore. At the age of 11, she witnessed the death of one of the dearest people to her heart. Death, Shurooq said, is the most common fear. Since she faced that at an early age, there was nothing left to fear anymore. From that point onwards, all of the endless obstacles she faced didn’t seem so difficult to tackle anymore.
Death threats have surprisingly been amongst those obstacles. But Shurooq says she didn’t care. “They can’t judge me — we’re all souls, only God can judge me, or an art critic, which doesn’t exist in Kuwait. I won’t listen to regular people judging me just because I’m painting the truth. We have people preaching Haram and Halal when they are hypocrites, telling girls not to talk to boys and in the weekend he’s with his mistress.” Because Shurooq addresses taboo subjects in her paintings, she is met with violent opposition. She addresses religion, politics, morality, sex, socio politics.
Shurooq was kind enough to show me her upcoming series, “It’s a Man’s World”, consisting of a total of 18 paintings which depict the secret lives of Arab men, including factors such as homosexuality, polygamy, double-lives, hypocrisy, alcoholism, adultery, the demeaning of women by turning them into non-human objects of sexual gratification, all the while preaching against the very acts they participate in on a nightly basis. The one that most caught my attention was “My Harem in Heaven”, a painting that portrayed a Kuwaiti man laying on a couch, barefoot in his dishdasha. He is smoking shisha, has a glass of whiskey on the table in front of him, an ashtray next to it. The ashtray and the glass of whiskey are placed on a glass table, and underneath the table, you see his bottle of Red Label – the most common choice of alcohol in Kuwait. A key element painted that would be noted is that the table was made of glass, so everyone can see the Red Label. Regardless of how hard he tries to hide it, everyone in the society knows this man is an alcoholic. Furthermore, there are women all around him. Tiny, Tinkerbell-like women, representing the alleged 70 virgins in Heaven–sitting on his shoulder, grabbing his feet, swimming in his glass of whiskey, all posing very promiscuously. He is relaxed and seems to be immensely enjoying this overflow of sensual sinning – because no one can see him indulging in these pleasures. Shurooq says this painting was done with love and passion, it had been a “eureka moment, a vision, pure inspiration from God Himself”.
Another one of her paintings portrayed an Emarati man, a symbol of your average male from any of the Gulf countries, with a BlackBerry, an iPhone, and a pack of cigarettes in front of him. Around him you see symbols of Abercrombie & Fitch, and other popular consumer products within the Gulf region. Next to him you see newspaper articles. Egyptians still fighting for their freedom. Syrians slaughtered ruthlessly. Palestinians oppressed by Israelis. Parliament members stealing millions of Kuwaiti Dinars. Saudi women demanding the simple right to drive, while women in the West are astronauts. The Khaleeji man doesn’t care. He is living in his own little world of consumerism and materialistic values. So long as it does not affect him directly, he sees no reason to care about other people’s pain. He’s naive and happy, driving his expensive car, killing himself slowly with his posh cigarettes, drinking away his petty troubles with cheap Red Label, taking advantage of women and blackmailing them with pictures. He sees no real reason to care. Consumerism has made him grow numb to reality. It has created an alter universe for him, one in which he is content, one in which he does not acknowledge the guilt that should be gnawing at his insides for allowing other human beings to suffer while he lives in luxury and silence. Had he not been a slave to consumerism, he would realize that his silence is complicity.
Shurooq does not take part in that silence. She is doing what she loves, and uses her art as a message to society, to broaden minds, enlighten people, change the world. “Every single person who thinks about the message behind my work is being influenced. His mind works. He discusses it with a friend. Something has shifted. It has been passed on, a ripple effect, a pay-it-forward technique, a new generation of people who are activists, full of hope and power to do something, not just watch TV. They will reach a point where they will challenge themselves to be consistent with their actions, not just their ideas.”

So far, there have been tweets, blog posts, articles, and other forms of media published in support of Paint to Freedom all over the Arab world. Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and the UAE are only some of the countries whose writers and activists have took part so far. I particularly liked my friend Arie’s bold article here, and greatly appreciate his effort to support us. The influence has been overwhelmingly remarkable. You are more powerful than you think.

Arab Spring in Kuwait?

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For a while now, many foreigners have been asking us Kuwaitis why the Arab Spring has not reached Kuwait – and doesn’t look like it’s going to. The answer has been one and the same: because we’re living the dream. We have malls with all the clothes we could desire, restaurants to fill our mouths with food to keep us fat and quiet, jobs that pay us to do nothing, universities that accept and nurture students with zero ambition, public schools that only require you to do well on exams, and extravagant cars that don’t get stolen or vandalized when we park them outside our homes – something very rare, since this hardly EVER happens in other countries. Many of my teachers still express their surprise over how secure our cars are.

But, the dream is going to die very soon, when Kuwait will have to find an alternative for oil. And from the looks of things, no one has a back up plan yet. No one is even considering a back up plan. No one is thinking long term. Not even the Kuwaiti men and women running for Parliament right now. Everyone is thinking short term instead.

If we were to come up with a long-term plan to improve Kuwait’s future rather than sustain this materialistic, meaningless abyss everyone loves so much, then the key parts are social development and education. Socially speaking, our society is still living in the stone age, where you’re judged according to who your ancestors are. You don’t defy the ‘alpha male’ of your family. MP’s beat each other up at the parliament and disgrace the entire nation. Human rights are violated on a daily basis, citizens robbed of their right to freedom of speech, religion, sexuality, political views, and marriage.

I think that for the Arab Spring to reach Kuwait, it’s the youth that needs to make it happen. The hard part is actually getting them to wake up and realize that the dream they’re living in isn’t what reality is actually like. It’s a world that was created to keep them quiet and away from ‘trouble’ – i.e. freedom. It still baffles me that this is enough for them, that they’re satisfied with shopping and eating and tanning their lives away. It’s no coincidence that that’s all there is to do in Kuwait. Dumbing an entire nation down is a process that requires careful thought and precision. First you start with the education. You make sure that all the modern, revolutionary ideas of the evil West are not incorporated into their academic studies. Then you make sure that the language of those evil ideas isn’t taught well enough for the students to be able to go out and explore those ideas; that way, they won’t pick up a book that tells them all about oppressive regimes and their cunning ways. 😉 They won’t do that because, 1) they don’t understand the language well enough. 2) they don’t like reading. If you create an entire generation of people who hate books and who groaned their way through English class, a class that was supposed to teach them to be fluent speakers, writers, and readers of a universal language that could be their gateway to knowledge and enlightenment, then you are essentially creating slaves who will submit to your laws and rules without complaint.

Then you show them what their boundaries are by making examples of other people. You use the media to your advantage. You arrest writers. You censor magazines, newspapers, and movies. You ban books. You make TV shows that encourage the mistreatment of domestic workers, that demean the importance of treating your partner properly, that glorify disrespecting women, and tell girls that the only way to ‘be beautiful’ is to objectify yourself – by Kuwaiti media standards, that means dress in really tight clothes, rub your face in a ton of make up, and make your voice about ten pitches higher than what it naturally is.

Then you create laws that tell them there’s no escape, but you don’t make it obvious. You make it seem like a good thing. You tell the women that they’re never allowed to marry a man without daddy’s approval, even if they’re 40 year old well-known professors. Then you narrow it down even more. You try to avoid intercultural marriages by telling those women that if they marry a non-Kuwaiti, you will guarantee them and their children a crappy future. Then you move on to the Kuwaiti marriages. In that case, it’s the family who instills those values within their children’s minds. They’re taught not to fall in love with someone who’s from a different religious sect – because you don’t need to worry about them falling in love with someone who’s from a different religion. Then you emphasize the glory of your own ethnic background, so that way they look down on other backgrounds enough to find them unappealing, thus ensuring that they won’t fall in love with an ‘outsider’. Of course, this is all if they fall in love.

If they’re allowed to fall in love, I should say. This is all assuming that the family in question is one that’s not a big fan of arranged marriages, of hooking up strangers and hoping for the best. It drives me insane because I’ve heard too many stories of couples who genuinely loved each other and couldn’t get married because their families didn’t approve – and, legally, that’s exactly what was supposed to happen. A ‘bad’ marriage was prevented because the parents were an obstacle that the couple could not overcome.

There’s the question of whether or not you’re allowed to fall in love, and there’s the bigger question of whether or not you’re allowed to learn. University is one of the biggest ‘decisions’ a person is supposed to make. But when your options are narrowed down to AUK, KU, and GUST, you don’t have much to look forward to. If you talk to high school Kuwaiti students who are considering one of those three universities, most of them will tell you they’re having a hard time deciding because “they all have such nice campuses”. The education level is hardly ever taken into consideration if we’re talking about a typical Kuwaiti high school student. The other day I was actually surprised to hear one of my peers saying that she had ruled out one of those three universities because “girls smoke in public there!” so the princess felt like she wouldn’t be comfortable there.

Too many girls aren’t given the option of studying abroad, at a prestigious university that can provide them with the opportunity of an eye-opening academic and personal experience. And, once again, without daddy’s approval, there’s no way in hell that can happen for them. Let’s also not forget, a certain university in K-Town has different GPA requirements for both genders 😉 that way, 18 year old girls who didn’t do well enough to get into university can simply find a husband and make more Kuwaitis for the country. It also encourages young men to aim for a minimum GPA – what incentive would they have to do any better?

It makes no sense to me. The youth is robbed of so many basic rights, yet they’re also the biggest fans of this clever system. So long as they’re paid, fed, and given pretty clothes and cars, no one complains. I can only hope that soon enough their eyes will be opened, because when we’re no longer ‘living the dream’, it’s the youth who’s going to have to save the country.

What Makes a Girl Less of a Girl?

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I read a short non-fictional memoir by Eli Clare called “Stones in My Pockets, Stones in My Heart” from a book called The Disability Studies Reader given to me by my sister Shahd, who has taken several Gender Studies courses and is opening my eyes to an assortment of topics that relate to my womanhood and humanity. It was a powerful literary piece discussing how Eli coped with her gender identity struggles, beginning with how her father and his friends regularly raped her so early on in her life that she does not remember a point where she was not raped, into her teenage years and how quietly she ignored the pressure to wear skirts, paint her face with make-up, kiss boys, date in high school, shave her legs, strut in heels. She went through high school as an outcast, a reject, someone who always felt like she didn’t belong, someone who always asked her mother, “Mama, am I feminine?”. As she entered university she began exploring the possibility of her being a lesbian, and came to terms with it later on. Eli not only struggled with gender-labels, but also suffered from a chronic condition which made her hands shake consistently. She was labeled a ‘freak’ in every way. It was a long, bitter struggle, one that she described very powerfully and had a great emotional impact on me.

Last year I took a Psychology class as an elective, and I now remember studying gender roles at one point. My teacher was a 50-something-year old traditionalist, and once very boldly said “Girls feel that their hair is a part of their identity as females.” Because there’s nothing I hate more than a man telling us what girls are like, I told him that was not true. The old creep laughed and said, “Is that so? Well, would you cut off all of your hair?” And I told him I would. And I would’ve. He actually promised me an A in his class if I showed up the next class with a boy haircut. I kid you not, I was dead serious when I told him I would go through with it. The extent to which I am always determined to prove someone wrong never fails to surprise me. But – at the end of that day, my teacher hunted me down and told me he was only joking, and that he didn’t want my parents calling him yelling at him for getting their daughter to cut off her hair. I finished his old-fashioned course with an A anyway, with my hair in tact.

But I still stand by my point. My hair does not determine my identity as a girl or as a female. In fact, not even my body determines my identity as a female. Breast cancer is hereditary in my family – if someday I lose my breasts, and I lose my hair, then will I be stripped of the term ‘woman’ just because I don’t possess “womanly traits”? Do I not have a say in it?

One of my classmates decided to get a Rihanna-like haircut during our Junior year of high school, a bold move on her part. At the time, this meant a boy haircut, but it also meant that both sides of her head would be shaved. It was different, but she liked it, and that should be enough, right?

Wrong. Not in this world. Not in this country. Not in our high school.

Besides the bad treatment she received, my friend went through an incident that should never have occurred. A classmate known for his sexism and poor treatment and perception of females decided it would be funny to ‘playfully’ slap her, because he didn’t like her hair. Our teacher, a woman, was outraged and asked him how he would ever dare lay his hand on a girl. The jerk’s idiotic response was “she is not a girl”.

Now, put aside the fact that he assaulted a female classmate. What on earth made this guy think he had the right to determine what did or didn’t make a girl a girl? This is someone who honestly thought that “imaginating” was a word. So it’s not like he’s gotten an A in a Gender Studies course, or attained a Masters Degree in some form of criticism. Perhaps he was merely reciting what society tells him – but what does that tell us? That half of our society consists of mindless sheep who follow and recite whatever the rest of the herd is doing and saying?

Our society, according to most of the local male perceptions, believes that a girl with a boy hair cut is less of a girl. A girl that smokes is less of a girl. A girl that is not a virgin is less of a girl. A girl that is ‘too’ interested in sports is less of a girl. I know girls that have had their sexualities and gender-identity questioned because the people labeling them were genuinely jealous of what good athletes these girls were – girls that can beat any guy at any time.

We know that labeling stems from insecurity. But does that mean that our entire society is insecure? I would consider that possibility, but it’s difficult in our case. The people throwing labels around are too egotistical to be insecure.

Too egotistical to be insecure, and confident enough to believe they have the power and the right to decide not only what is right and what is wrong, but also what defines a man and what defines a woman. Though both standards are unrealistic, my personal point of view is that the standards set for a woman are much harsher.

The funny thing about smoking is, the idiots whose sole purpose in life is to put stickers on people, tend to use words that don’t really apply to the female smoker in question. There is no correlation whatsoever between smoking and sexuality, yet, these people attack her by calling her ‘promiscuous’, because that’s the only way they believe is a valid way of insulting a female’s womanhood. I can’t help but point out that it does nothing but prove their ignorance and stupidity, that they actually believe smoking is relevant to sexuality.

Smoking? Hair? Clothes (or lack thereof)? Is that all that defines what we are in society’s eyes?

Popcornopolis

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Popcornopolis recently opened at Baroue, Avenues. I stopped by this afternoon to check it out and I was very impressed. It’s not as good as Garrett’s popcorn, but still pretty good. Service wasn’t so great and there was no actual line, all the turns kept getting mixed up and it took ages to actually pay. But food wise, it’s delicious. Besides an assortment of flavored popcorn, they had shaved ice spiked with your choice of flavor (banana, lime, strawberry, cola, raspberry, bubble gum) and a bunch of different sweets.

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Mini Skirt of the Internet

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This was trending on my Twitter timeline tonight: #mencallmethings, where female bloggers and writers tweeted some of the things they’ve been called online by men who wanted to discourage them and who believed they were ‘too outspoken’ for a woman. These were the ones that most grabbed my attention.

* Jerk at my school said this as a joke after my rape: “Whoa there, can’t get too close. After all you are damaged goods”

* I’ve spent most of my online life avoiding #mencallmethings by attempting a genderless identity. So they call me ‘him’

* “Self-absorbed/bragging/self-involved” thing might be my favorite #mencallmethings. Makes it clear that you liking yourself is the problem.

* Man-hater, sex-hater, Free Speech-hater, fun-hater, baby-hater, humor-hater

* Insert the ubiquitous “dyke” slur too – even though I’m not a lesbian

* Vengeful, attention-seeking, hypersensitive, showboating, cowardly, fraud, Orwellian, dogmatic

* “We used to confine people to sanitariums for these kinds of outbursts.”

* unworthy of being addressed as “Ms.”

* you always remember the first time someone threatens to rape you, or kill you, or urinate on you.

* Does he know what it feels like to be subjected to regular rape threats or death threats? To have people send you emails quoting your address, or outlining their sexual fantasies about you?

* What frightens me the most is when an abusive message includes my personal details. I’ve had my own address quoted at me with a rape threat and — yes — that is terrifying. That’s when I call the police; they’re not much help.

* I was so nervous about the abuse I would receive when I wrote an article about cultural misogyny. It felt like I was exposing myself as a feminist.

* they focused on my age, used phrases like “little girl”, described rape fantasies involving me and called me “ugly” and “disgusting”. Initially it was shocking: in the space of a week, I received a rabid email that included my home address, phone number and workplace address, included as a kind of threat. Then, after tweeting that I’d been waiting for a night bus for ages, someone replied that they hoped I’d get raped at the bus stop.

* if the best argument someone can come up with against something I’ve written is to call me fat, I’ll consider that a win.

Read the article here: A Woman’s Opinion is the Mini Skirt of the Internet

You come to expect it, as a woman writer, particularly if you’re political. You come to expect the vitriol, the insults, the death threats. After a while, the emails and tweets and comments containing graphic fantasies of how and where and with what kitchen implements certain pseudonymous people would like to rape you cease to be shocking, and become merely a daily or weekly annoyance, something to phone your girlfriends about, seeking safety in hollow laughter.

An opinion, it seems, is the short skirt of the internet. Having one and flaunting it is somehow asking an amorphous mass of almost-entirely male keyboard-bashers to tell you how they’d like to rape, kill and urinate on you. This week, after a particularly ugly slew of threats, I decided to make just a few of those messages public on Twitter, and the response I received was overwhelming. Many could not believe the hate I received, and many more began to share their own stories of harassment, intimidation and abuse.

Perhaps it should be comforting when calling a woman fat and ugly is the best response to her arguments, but it’s a chill comfort, especially when one realises, as I have come to realise over the past year, just how much time and effort some vicious people are prepared to expend trying to punish and silence a woman who dares to be ambitious, outspoken, or merely present in a public space.

No journalist worth reading expects zero criticism, and the internet has made it easier for readers to critique and engage. This is to be welcomed, and I have long felt that many more established columnists’ complaints about the comments they receive spring, in part, from resentment at having their readers suddenly talk back. In my experience, however, the charges of stupidity, hypocrisy, Stalinism and poor personal hygiene which are a sure sign that any left-wing columnist is at least upsetting the right people, come spiced with a large and debilitating helping of violent misogyny, and not only from the far-right.

Many commentators, wondering aloud where all the strong female voices are, close their eyes to how normal this sort of threat has become. Most mornings, when I go to check my email, Twitter and Facebook accounts, I have to sift through threats of violence, public speculations about my sexual preference and the odour and capacity of my genitals, and attempts to write off challenging ideas with the declaration that, since I and my friends are so very unattractive, anything we have to say must be irrelevant.

The implication that a woman must be sexually appealing to be taken seriously as a thinker did not start with the internet: it’s a charge that has been used to shame and dismiss women’s ideas since long before Mary Wollestonecraft was called “a hyena in petticoats”. The internet, however, makes it easier for boys in lonely bedrooms to become bullies. It’s not only journalists, bloggers and activists who are targeted. Businesswomen, women who play games online and schoolgirls who post video-diaries on YouTube have all been subject to campaigns of intimidation designed to drive them off the internet, by people who seem to believe that the only use a woman should make of modern technology is to show her breasts to the world for a fee.

Like many others, I have also received more direct threats, like the men who hunted down and threatened to publish old photographs of me which are relevant to my work only if one believes that any budding feminist journalist should remain entirely sober, fully clothed and completely vertical for the entirety of her first year of university. Efforts, too, were made to track down and harass my family, including my two school-age sisters. After one particular round of rape threats, including the suggestion that, for criticising neoliberal economic policymaking, I should be made to fellate a row of bankers at knifepoint, I was informed that people were searching for my home address. I could go on.

I’d like to say that none of this bothered me – to be one of those women who are strong enough to brush off the abuse, which is always the advice given by people who don’t believe bullies and bigots can be fought. Sometimes I feel that speaking about the strength it takes just to turn on the computer, or how I’ve been afraid to leave my house, is an admission of weakness. Fear that it’s somehow your fault for not being strong enough is, of course, what allows abusers to continue to abuse.

I believe the time for silence is over. If we want to build a truly fair and vibrant community of political debate and social exchange, online and offline, it’s not enough to ignore harassment of women, LGBT people or people of colour who dare to have opinions. Free speech means being free to use technology and participate in public life without fear of abuse – and if the only people who can do so are white, straight men, the internet is not as free as we’d like to believe.

Equait

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Equait is a recently-established youth group in Kuwait founded by Faisal Al Fuhaid and other members living in Kuwait. Their main purpose is to promote equality in all its forms in Kuwait, since as we know, Kuwait is notoriously known for having all forms of discrimination. Gender inequality, social discrimination, racial discrimination, you name it – we’ve got it. The embarrassing part is that you see a lot of Kuwaitis discriminating against one another AND being hostile and condescending towards foreigners.

Equait will be trying to raise awareness and promote equality to begin with, and will later move on to taking action to help affirm that we are all nothing more than human. What name we carry or how much money we have does not identify who we are.

You can visit their website here: http://equait.org/

Facebook: EQUAIT

Twitter: @Equait

Faisal will be introducing me to the rest of the team soon, and it will hopefully be a step towards a better Kuwait – if we all collaborate. Support this brilliant young man 😉