My First Camping Trip (from To the Left and Write zine)
An essay about a childhood spent in a Kuwaiti refugee camp.
Whenever people in the United States ask if I’ve ever been camping, I say “No, but does refugee camping count?” Apparently it’s only Real Camping if you take a shit in the deep woods. I had to shit in the desert in the wide open, and there was no environmentally friendly self-dissolving toilet paper out there. We used the sand as soap. I still believe it works. I have to.
The year was 1990. Iraq had just invaded Kuwait, and we didn’t know what was going to happen next. I was eight, I never knew anything anyways. I remember my parents trying to hold on to Kuwaiti Dinars, the old money. I remember seeing Iraqi soldiers, who were nice enough in the city to Indian immigrants with little kids. School was closed and I knew it was bad of me to be glad, but I was. We had sleepovers every night with my two best friends Aarti and Aru’s families. We danced, played cards, watched movies, and stayed up late every night.
Then people started to leave and it wasn’t as much fun anymore. Aru and Aarti left on the container ship and I was sad. Papa asked Ma “Should we send the kids?” She firmly opposed. We would stay together and take our chances as a family. If we all died, at least she wouldn’t be abandoning her children as orphans.
We left one morning, but really it was afternoon by the time we got going. Us, and twenty-five other Indian families, stuffed into buses with our treasured, limited belongings. Astonishingly, I was allowed to bring Sher Singh, my stuffed lion. I didn’t know then he would come in handy as a pillow on the hard camp grounds. With Iraq to the north, Saudi Arabia to the south, and Gulf of Oman on the east, we headed west to Jordan. The journey was strewn with empty cartridges, despair, and prayer.
We traveled for hours and hours and days and weeks. I’m not sure how long. Time became useless. Now I wonder who drove. Did the men take turns? We sang and played word games to keep ourselves entertained. Or maybe I was entertained while the adults were just trying to stay sane. I loved spending so much time with my family. Nobody had to leave for any reason. There was no work, and no distractions. Even my mom didn’t have to cook or clean.
I don’t know how or when we got there, but I remember helping to set up inside our tent. It was massive. It fit entire busloads of people, all of our families with all of our belongings. People in trucks came by everyday to drop off blankets and food. We spread a thick layer of blankets on the floor to minimize the gap between the harsh desert ground and our softer tired bodies. It made a difference, but not nearly enough.
Sher Singh was very much in demand. I was always searching for him, only to find him under some uncle’s dirty unwashed head. I was too shy to ask for him back, but I would quietly stick around until he was released, then I’d quickly steal him back. He went through a lot during that time. He got older and dirtier too. I wondered if he wished I hadn’t brought him away from his home. But I needed him too much to anchor my shaky sense of belonging. Years later, my mother gave him away. I still feel guilty.
That rocky home was where my love of the non-grilled cheese sandwich first grew. We got apples, tomatoes, cheese, khubz (Arabic flatbread), and canned sardines everyday. I ate bread, cheese and tomatoes several times a day. Dinner was the only unifying meal which most of our group ate together. I remember eating khichdi too. Did the moms bring lentils, rice, and spices from home as we were fleeing war? Such a funny image, and so smart of course. Moms always know.
We found some white rocks one day. All of us kids gathered up as many as we could and carried them back to our tent. That night, we laid them outside the tent in the shape of a giant heart. We dug a pit in the middle, and built a fire. It was our stove and it kept us warm in the cold of the desert night. Next was the approximate outline of India, which got kicked around the next morning as we rushed to find out if the sound of the helicopter meant we were leaving soon. I was worried. I wanted to stay.
The bathing area was a big square with a hand pump pulling water from underneath the ground. Men bathed first, then the women and children. Just regular patriarchy. The adults stayed partially clothed but the kids got to be freer. Now I consider myself lucky because I was too young to have my period back then. But I have memories of women disappearing into smaller single-person tents, and me and other kids standing outside like Ganesha, the little bathroom bodyguards.
I spent my days carefree and exploring. I searched the sands for hidden treasures. Magical pieces of glass, glinting under the hot sun. Bottlecaps of strange colors and sizes. Words in languages I couldn’t read, which my imagination helped me trace histories of. I found incredible things every day. I don’t know now if my treasures were truly wondrous, or whether it was my starry gaze. I carried them around in a plastic bag, my sack of growing fortunes. I displayed the loot proudly to my mother every night. She seemed more amused by me than impressed by my finds.
Days later, more waiting, buses, and a vague motel room in Amman, I lost my treasures at the airport, on the last leg of our journey. I hunted everywhere. Heartbroken, I got on the flight to Ahmedabad, Gujarat leaving a piece of my star-eyed self behind.
In 1992, after things had settled somewhat with U.S. intervention, we moved back home. One year later my 6th grade teacher asked me to write a poem in honor of Kuwait’s Republic Day. I wish I could say that she asked because she recognized the budding poet in me, but it was because I had the highest grades on the last English exam. I wrote my first poem titled “The Invasion of My Home”, and so a poet was made. It was published in The Kuwait Times and my mother saved a clipping.
Eighteen years later, I went camping in the U.S. and took a shit in the deep woods.
"My First Camping Trip," and other stories and essays, written during the 2010 CSTI "Freeing the Writer Within" workshop are compiled in the zine To the Left and Write. You can download and read more about the zine here.
CSTI, also fondly known as “activist summer camp” brings together hundreds of community activists from across the country to attend dozens of workshops, such as Organizing 101, Social Media for Social Justice, Beyond Diversity: Dismantling Racism and more.
CSTI 2011 is July 29th- 31st in Portland, Oregon.