Kuwait Towers   World Federation of Mental Health Board Meeting  Kuwait City, April 1 - 4, 2000

Travel Notes, Social Development Office Conference and World Federation of Mental Health Board Meeting, Kuwait, April, 2000

Sylvia Caras


Janet Meagher and two of our Kuwaiti hosts

Janet Meagher and two of our hosts from the Social Development Office

WFMH Board members

Coffee break time at the WFMH board meeting


I am going to keep a journal of this trip for this report, adding, in order of occurrence, events and information that interested me. There’s a lot of travelogue and some of my feelings.

March 27: "May I see your visa?" I am at the San Jose, CA American Airlines check-in counter, and my mind is reacting to the clerk’s question with thoughts of being forbidden to board, just going home, unpacking. I have already spent about 45 minutes on the phone while the airlines checked their rules and finally accepted that Kuwait will provide a visa at their airport when I land. I learn that for international travel, it is the responsibility of the first carrier to verify all documents. American Airlines is being scrupulous. I unpack all the paper work, the conference invitation letter, the hotel confirmation fax, and a faxed copy of my visa, in Arabic. The clerk is from Pakistan and can read the visa and I am allowed to check in. My heart is still pounding and it takes me about 30 minutes to calm down

In Los Angeles my carry-on is randomly selected for a thorough check - a cloth with bomb-detecting chemical is patted on the bag and then "developed." My suitcase passes the test..

I’ve been saving my snail mail to read en route, and on the flight from Los Angeles to London I learn that Merck, Amgen, Lilly, Pharmaceutical Research, and Monsanto have each contributed over $2 million to US Congresspeople during the first six months of 1999 (Labyrinth, 4:1, Madison, WI).

March 28: On the bus from Heathrow Airport to Oxford a University PhD linguistics student and I start talking about the Internet. He speaks of addiction, I tell him Ivan Goldberg made up that term as a joke, but he hugs the concept of addiction to himself and when I talk about People Who and disclose my own psychiatric disability, he asks if I am violent.


March 29: My hotel is several buildings that have been converted from weavers’ cottages built in the early sixteen hundreds to a bed and breakfast. I am helped with my bags up two curving flights of triangular stairs to an attic room with slanted dormers, dark wood lintels and beams supporting plaster walls, electricity, plumbing, and very uneven floors! There’s a hotpot for tea, a hair dryer and towel warmer, and a tub five feet long beside a note about conserving water. Breakfast is served in two dim and charming low-ceiling rooms - fruit compote, cold meats, hard boiled eggs, cereal, yogurt, croissant and breads.

Then I went walking. The sky stays gray all day, the air damp and occasionally moist enough for an umbrella. When the wind blows it is strong and cold. In the university area, the buildings are old, made of stone, muted yellows, browns, greens. I walked on cobbles, down lanes, peeked into courtyards to look at rooted, stalwart structures. And then, around a corner into one square, and across from me, a stucco facade painted fuschia.

Huddled against the wind, clusters of guests stand attentive as their guide informs - I eavesdropped but heard no English; native speakers can read the signs <smile>. Oxford University souvenirs are everywhere. The one I like best, but have not bought, is a small teddy bear, dressed in sweater and muffler, the scarf tossed around his neck with debonair flair.

I had arranged to have lunch with Vivien Lindow, of Survivors Speak Out. She lives in Bristol, about an hour by train and came to meet me. We met in Japan, and again in Dublin, at WFMH meetings. She remembered how much the user/survivor track in Japan had impressed her and how strong the user/survivor presence was in New Zealand, due in large part to Mary O’Hagan’s organizing.

Mental health advance directives are not yet legal in the UK, and Vivien has been part of developing a user "carry card" to give some guidance in case of emergency. She has also begun a research project interviewing people who have been institutionalized as being mentally ill and violent. She made the point that fear is a significant piece of what becomes "violent" and when she presents, she is coupling the two words to implant the idea that the patient is scared, afraid, and that inner fear is what then converts to acting outwardly aggressive.

March 30: I saw the oldest museum, the oldest library, the oldest building in Oxford, and several of the University colleges. The day was gray, cold, windy, and dry.

Then I met ClubMad-UK’s founder Jill Goble for our own version of an early afternoon tea. Jill is petite, striking, dresses with flair, showed me ClubMad-UK development materials -- light, clear, witty – and we talked about how best to organize in person and how next to use the Internet. The afternoon was a very special treat!

March 31: Travel day - Oxford to Heathrow to Kuwait

British Air checked me in smoothly, noting, "I see you’ll pick your visa up at the Kuwait airport." I calmed down, only then realizing that this had been so much on my mind, and likely why I hadn’t slept the night before.

Waiting at the gate, my eye was drawn to a pair of women’s patent medium heeled women’s pumps aligned and neatly placed in front of an empty seat in a row of empty seats. I speculated about what would cause someone to forget their shoes!

I was pleased to note that the airplane video message about. seat belts and oxygen was also signed.

The first thing I noticed in Kuwait was men smoking inside the airport.

There was no visa waiting at the pick-up counter and when I telephoned I was told that they were waiting at the airport to pick me up, but they’d forgotten to turn in the visa. "How could they forget a visa?" I squeaked. Fifteen nervous minutes later a man introduced himself, took my passport, my carry on bags, guided me through customs, the VIP lounge, and into a car to the hotel. In the process he was joined by several other men, all wearing destasha, long caftans, white for summer, and white gutra, head scarves held in place with black bands. Their long quick strides created a feeling of swirling commotion which was almost hypnotic. I was confused and compliant and surprised. And didn’t listen to my intuitions to at least hold-on to my carry-ons. Intuition is one of the things I’m working, paying more attention to the information and clues and incorporating it in order to be more flexible and present.

The WFMH Board is meeting here in Kuwait City to participate in Kuwait’s International Social Development Office (SDO) Conference. Kuwait is on the Arabian Gulf which creates a pleasant breeze. Mid-day is hot and mornings and evenings pleasant. What I see of the country is flat, buildings of bleached sands and yellows and pale grays, off white with blue and sometimes soft green accents. Though SDO is a government agency, the conference hotel is luxurious. Attached to it is an avenue of shops representing fashionable name brands - Chanel, Lacoste, Aigner, Valentino, Tiffany, ...

April 1: We gather in the lobby to be bussed to the opening ceremonies. The day is mild, the light bright, the main streets wide, with occasional palm trees. The meeting starts on time, I am given head phones for English translation, some women in the audience are wearing head scarves, some are veiled, most are wearing somber colors, some men wear white robes and some men an additional beige or gold or grey sheer cloak. There are perhaps 500 attending for welcomes, an SDO video and presentation, and a dance performance by elementary school children. All reflected how Kuwait still is aching with the hurt of the Iraqui invasion 10 years ago and SDO’s formation to help to heal those wounds.

A luncheon reception follows with a vast array of middle eastern hors d’oeuvres and sweets and then a panel of presentations to start the conference. The panel is being taped and there are bright studio lights aimed at the audience and I can’t find any place to sit where they are not in my eyes so I’ve come back to my room to type up these notes. There will be an afternoon break from 1 to 4, then sessions until 8. Then dinner. I am eating foul, hoomis, labneh, lentil soup, baclava ...

I hired a car and driver for a few hours to get an overview of the city. The hotel staff who made the arrangements assured me that the driver would have a mobile phone so that, if I got a call at the hotel, they would put it through to the car. I was startled. Despite my passion for the Internet, I am not up to speed at 24/7 constant instant palm cell communication. I guess if I were online, I could give you the number and get a call <grin>.

And speaking of online, ...

April 5, aloft:

Speaking of online, the hotel has free Internet acess and an instruction card for creating a dial-up New Connection, IP numbers to use, log in, password. I guess I could have even gotten my e mail, but I didn’t set it up, because ...

Sometime while my bags were out of my sight being checked through immigration/customs, the laptop display was broken. Around the edges is a border of dark colored mess. It was making me too sad to look at it so I’ve waited to input the rest of my notes. I’m told this will cost about a third the price of the computer to repair <groan>. I come home from each trip with repairs of one thing of another. Maintaining my equipment in functioning mode for travel is feeling as much upkeep as maintaining a house!

Kuwait has just instituted visa applications by e mail. This is an instance of how modern the country is, and how proud they are of their modernity. Veiled women sometimes, and certainly protected, and a culture holding to traditional Islamic values, and wide streets, immaculate public places, streets, sidewalks, toilets. Buildings rise to perhaps 15 stories, not much landscaping, a few palm trees. From residences, arched windows peep out like the eyes of women behind their veils, – beguiling, protecting.

I heard repeatedly a phrase new to me – civil society and the Kuwait Times said "civil society organisations have replaced government boides in various aspects of life in advanced countries and many vital services were privatised." Is this the same as grass-roots or non-profit or a new model?

About a quarter of those who live in Kuwait are ex-patriates and definitely second-class not even citizens. For instance there is a tough technical test to get a driver’s license, but locals use influence to bypass it. Kuwait has the highest vehicle accident rate in the area.

Kuwait is very proud of its modern Western mall. The shops and contents were familiar, like suburban malls in the US and probably elsewhere.

The sunset displays behind a golden caramel toffee veil diffusing the light across the whole sky above the Gulf.

In the suburbs, row after row of oil towers parade away from town across the desert. Government housing clusters neighbor private homes. The sameness of the government housing is obvious and I still find it appealing.

I have noted one yellow and one green New Beetle and am told they cost a third more here than in the US.

I visited a memorial to the Martyrs of the War, bombed out houses and an evil feeling tank still holding them hostage.

The toilets, all Western plumbing, some with bidets, an occasional squatter, flush in a variety of ways that I am discovering. One is in the wall above the toilet, the size of a box of very large Kleenex, and one pushes the whole central panel. Another is a knob on top of the tank which is pulled up to flush. ...

We attended opening and closing conference ceremonies, where photographed and videoed and offered food and fluids continuously. Each of the WFMH Board members presented. Janet Meagher and I think we were the only consumers there, that the concept of consumer is alien, the disability perhaps not even acknowledged, hidden. The Board held many hours of meetings, had a long agenda, kept running over time, nothing seemed easy to decide, and sometimes tempers flared. Being out of synch with sleep and rest can also contribute to tensions.

I presented a little about self-help and how health care is changing, that people are first gathering information and then getting medical advice and about how we are using the Internet. There were three other presenters on the panel with me, flowers everywhere, all video taped, photographers capturing the group and each of us separately. No one asked a user related question; no one from Kuwait spoke to em about users. I think the whole concept is not part of the culture yet.

Of note to People Who from the Board meeting:

The Chair, and the Board in general, are user-friendly. Action plans note user inclusion. The list of nine components notes a User Committee (I think that is the Panel we set up in Finland.) So far this may be more form than substance but I don’t see problems as long as we monitor and ask for our role. The new Vice-President for Europe gave a presentation about coercion, knew about Breggin and the MacArthur work and I pointed him to MadNation as well. In his remarks the Secretary-General noted that most of the good work in the world that is seed- funded disappears - 90% of funded programs have disappeared by the fourth year. The brochure of the European Regional Council of the World Federation for Mental Health (Mental Health Europe) has a porminent titled photo of Clements Huitlnk and a paragraph about the European Network of (ex)Users and Survivors of Psychiatry.

WFMH has begun to solicit pharmaceutical funding more aggressively.

The World Bank will only loan mental health money to countries who demonstrate a reasonable and responsible plan. Generally this is interpreted as having a Mental Health Act which safeguards rights and reins in abuse and usually allows coercion – respecting rights and necessary treatment. I was told I’ve drawn the wrong conclusion that the World Bank is funding more force. I didn’t take the time to clarify. Spain was mentioned as having a model mental health plan and no coercion because they integrate mental health with all health. (As an aside I heard last week in an olive oil ad that Spain had the highest longetivity rate.) If any one could provide a summary of Spain’s laws and some feedback about it it would be a useful staring point. Middle eastern countries have no mental health acts, there no force, but also no protections, and possibly next to no treatment. Currently the laws of the Eastern European countries are being revised. Do we want to at least write to the World Bank about this, or launch some kind of media campaign? If yes, we’d have to do some homework to get my facts straight. www.worldbank.org

The Board discussed a change in the slate process, putting forward more names than seats in the slate given to the General Assembly. This would make it more of an election, not rubber-stamping. I’m not sure how this would affect consumer issues.

The Board will clarify its relationship to resolutions passed at the General Assembly. It was noted that there are two consumers on the Board, that the user committee is a component, that the Nominating Committee will better address diversity when creating the slate. I reported that users are quoting the anti-outpatient commitment resolution from Santiago.

Janet and I reported on user activities since Santiago, and reported the input you provided.

The Board will start using e mail and list discussion software and continue its emphasis on developing its infrastructure. If you would like to join WFMH, donate, help, see http://www.wfmh.org.


Iraq still holds 600 POW’s from the Gulf War ten years ago. Their memory is kept very alive. The WFMH Board passed a resolution presented in the Conference closing supporting the release of the prisoners.

The Board finally adjourned at 8:30 PM and I left for the airport at 11 that same night.

The best buy here for gifts to bring home is gold jewelry. It is 18 - 22 carat, brassier in color, and the designs are both more massive and more intricate. We went to the Gold Souk, avenue after avenue of small and similar shops. Sets of elaborate necklace bodices and earrings in the window and wall displays, so much of it that it didn’t seem at all real. Items were priced by weighing the amount of gold and then calculating the current gold rate and the currency exchange rate. Small earrings and brooches were $50 US.

Some women who wear long cloaks and head coverings, also wear graceful high heeled strappy shoes. Attention is drawn to the foot and ankle.

Kuwait Times reported on a prize awarded for disability access.

I was welcomed to a birthday party, women only, gowned and jeweled elaborately, in cocktail or ball clothes, enjoying each other, dancing in Arabic/Bedouin/middle-eastern style, with some of the moves of belly-dancing but not the bared flesh. Someone came up and said I looked familiar, like one of her teachers <smile>.

At the last minute, the transfer people noted they didn’t have my visa and there was a scurry to get it. In the meantime I had visions of another night, or two, or more in Kuwait as I remember traveler war stories of visa problems. All was well, but I get pretty worried about these details. I was escorted into the airport VIP lounge, large, carpeted and upholstered and still, while I sat waiting for 30 minutes while Salem took my papers, checked my bag in and get my boarding pass. Then I was handed over to another person who whizzed me through security and took me to the gate lounge. Nice as the VIP process is, I felt very insulated, cocooned from the local experience.

I’m 90 minutes from Chicago, will post this when I get home, and may add things I’ve forgotten. I’m wondering about how much e mail I will have and what you have all been doing.


Center for Research and Studies on Kuwait:   http://www.crsk.org/