Saud timed his runs to avoid people. But even in the dark hours before morning he sensed idle eyes tracking him across the neighborhood and imagined whispers of ‘ayb. ‘Ayb for being outside amongst the laborers. ‘Ayb for straining his sweating body past the climate controlled neighborhood walking paths.
He had tried navigating past mall-walking mamas and babas who made their laps around vacant luxury brand shops and the occasional SADU CO sportswear boutique dotting the retail desert. The rush of sweaty air Saud left in his wake clashed with their clouds of ‘oud. They wrinkled their noses and whispered ‘ayb. He ran for the same reason they powerwalked. Because there was time, because there was nothing to do.
Outside is for the working-class. But even with hot air coated in dust and sweat trickling down his back, Saud breathed more easily outside those air-conditioned enclaves. He relished the heat wicking SADU CO fabric that let him escape. The distinctive red of Kuwait’s historic flag ran in vertical stripes down the sides of the tight-fitting white garment that stretched across his body.
Saud sprinted across Gulf Road and through the covered promontory that connected the coastline to Green Island. It wasn’t an island in the true sense—it jutted into the sea like a flower bulb bursting from the earth. He ran clockwise on the outer path circling the island. His heart thumped against his temples like a metronome, his feet pounded out a syncopated rhythm. Each lap brought Saud closer to sunrise, closer to the raging heat of day. He eased into his runner’s flow.
Stagnant air carried the sounds of migrant workers and their families from the island’s interior. Saud followed the path as it made a sharp turn left, then stumbled when a child with tight braids darted in front of him. She tripped on her sari, bangles clinking as she fell, eyes wide with fear. Saud wiped the saliva frothing at the sides of his mouth and jerked his head around, ready to berate her parents. The girl edged back toward a mound of sand where a large crowd emerged from a derelict restaurant. They were a mix of people from south and western Asia, and the smell of spices ripened in sweat billowed from their bodies. Saud was uncomfortable. There were too many migrant workers gathered, too many different nationalities conversing in English and Arabic, their only shared languages among the dozens they collectively spoke. At this time of morning, so close to the day’s swell of heat, they should be well on their way to wherever it was they lived and worked.
While the crowd made its way toward a large concrete structure covered in steel and black fabric, Saud kept to his course, taking comfort in his well-honed route. But murmurs lured him across the gravel and into corridors that spit him out into an open-air amphitheater. He’d watched national operettes filmed in spaces like these. Instead of Kuwaiti girls lined up on the concrete stage, bouncing their long hair side to side in time with nationalist songs, there was a cacophony of nationalities garbed in uniforms of all levels of working class: bright yellow trash collectors, pastel-clad caregivers, even checkered-shirt professionals. It reminded him of his grandfather’s stories about mosques where people lined up shoulder to shoulder in prayer. These people weren’t bowing their heads in worship and murmuring prayers; they raised their heads and their voices were full of anger. Many held hand-painted signs ablaze with the SADU CO logo covered in painted teardrops. What was there to protest about? SADU CO makes clothes. Worried that he would be seen, Saud folded his arms over the logo emblazoned on his outfit. He edged out of the amphitheater to continue his run along the outer path, glancing at his Wrista-Comms. He was behind schedule and worried about getting trapped on this side of Gulf Road as the sun rose into the full heat of day. He picked up his pace and drew on his anxiety for fuel.
Saud wondered how these workers had found each other in their common cause across language, country and religion. Kuwaitis had isolated them from one another with six- and seven-day work weeks and only allowed them to gather for religious services. With its open spaces, stages, playgrounds, and barbeque pits, Green Island had served as a container for these people far from their homes and families.
The sun breached the horizon and its rays stretched across the sea, glinting against the Kuwait Towers in the distance. Three spears pierced the sky, two of them skewering spheres filled with water reserves that glittered in sea foam mosaic. The largest sphere was hosting his boyfriend’s fashion show, his debut collection for SADU CO. He had imported a new synthetic fabric from Korea and designed a collection to raise awareness about the latest water crisis that had compelled so many Kuwaitis to leave, using their summer homes in Switzerland, Lebanon, London, Turkey, France and elsewhere to claim status as climate refugees.
The full-full citizen Kuwaitis who had needlessly fled as refugees had found no place in other Gulf countries. Saud had been brought up with the fantasy of Khaleeji brotherhood, but over the past few years he’d watched those countries close their borders in their efforts to secure fresh water for their own citizens. The Emirates hitched a glacier from the Arctic and were reaping success from decades of cloud seeding. Saudi Arabia had desalination plants powered by endless solar fields. Iraq’s leaders had secured reparations from countries that had used its land for their proxy wars. Rising water levels claimed Qatar and Bahrain. Oman was the only Gulf country that had preserved its water tables and natural oases. Kuwait relied on its emergency water reserves funneling through ma’alsabeel scattered throughout the country’s neighborhoods.
Saud was halfway through his run and needed to replenish his water pouch before making his way back home. The island’s aluminum clad ma’alsabeel was still a few hundred meters ahead in the Whistling Dome, a large geodesic dome formed of metal bars that rose from the lagoon, connected to the main part of Green Island by a short bridge. Saud drew a ragged breath and exhaled through the cramp in his side. He pumped his arms at a faster clip and sailed along the stretch of sandy beach hugging the top part of the lagoon. The water sluicing in from the sea was red, not from the sun’s rays that slid across it, but from algae ravaging the fish that swelled up the coastline. Saud stretched his shirt fabric over his nose and mouth to stave off the worst of the decay. It was his boyfriend’s adaptation to the vintage design, combining the niqab and ghutra to create an effective filter against pollutants and dust. A gust of hot wind whipped the putrid odor of the decaying fish into his path. The wind sang its way through the triangle formations of the Whistling Dome’s geodesic shell.
People were amassed in its interior and all along the triangle truss bridge, obstructing his path to Green Island’s only ma’alsabeel. Saud glanced at his Wrista-Comms to check the temperature. It was rising rapidly. He gnawed his dry lips until he pierced the skin and tasted iron, then shuddered as he edged his way through. Why was there such a dense line at dawn? The crowd was unyielding, but Saud pressed forward.
“Hay Nako!” A stream of Tagalog burst from the crowd in front of him. A short Filipinx with cropped hair patted their companion’s hand. Saud slowed his progress, out of breath and curious at the intimacy unfurling before him. He recognized in them the caretakers that had raised him, folding their arms around his small body and filling him with love they could have poured into their children back home. The bodies around him pressed together so tightly they lacked borders, their faces pulsed in and out of focus. Here was the cook from his childhood that had passed away from cancer, the bookkeeper at his boyfriend’s atelier, the bagger at the grocery store, the Iranian baker. Words like “access,” “equity,” and “transformation” punctured the crowd’s murmurs, transforming them into a variegated mass clamoring for their humanity.
Saud pressed forward onto the metal bridge, the aluminum ma’alsabeel glinted at him from the other side. He thought of the staff at his boyfriend’s atelier, their own families tethering them to home. These were the people who cooked and cleaned, and reared children for families like his. The more he tried to shut them out, the more the details clamored for his attention. The hand-painted signs, whispered chants, and prayers were ramping up in energy. Saud felt elbows and arms cram into his sides, as he tried to sidle closer to the ma’alsabeel. His muscles ached as they started to cool down, so he shifted from foot to foot, keeping his arms folded over the logo on his garment. A senseless exercise since the colors were so iconic.
When he finally burst from the confines of the bridge, he saw a woman pressing the biometric spigot for each person in line. The black abaya draped over her head was vintage SADU CO, the first collection to weave in heattech. She pulled the abaya back and squinted at him over her aquiline nose, akin to his own, a trait he felt self conscious abou,t but that his Aqalal family line flaunted.
The bright aluminum surface of the ma’alsabeel rippled with the sun’s reflection. A laborer wrapped his mouth around the spigot and the water dribbled from his mouth and down his chin. Saud shuddered in disgust at the scene of grotesque conviviality.
The woman in the black abaya withdrew her finger. Why was a full-full Kuwaiti with an unlimited allotment of water standing here doling out rations? Pure royalty on both sides as far back as the country’s founding meant she should be anywhere but here.
He thought of his boyfriend reaching into the shower to thumb the biometric tap to give him a longer shower after a run. Normally, Saud enjoyed the intimacy and care of this gesture, but now shame surged through him, and he quickly shrugged off the memory. Something about the woman’s ease with liberally dispensing water to these workers was unsettling. There were other ways to be charitable than to expose yourself this way.
The woman clicked her tongue. Saud was next, but he was daydreaming and holding up the line. He inched forward and flicked his finger against the spigot. A single drop fell into his water pouch. He pressed harder, wiped his finger against his side, and tried again.
She laughed and drew her finger to the spigot. Henna’s wet earth scent pooled out of her abaya. Saud recoiled and bumped into the person behind him. He normally passed for full-full, but moments like these betrayed the faith his mother’s line had in government: that women would one day earn the right to pass on citizenship to their children. But like the bidoon who had shrugged off citizenship at the country’s inception, Saud and others like him born of foreign mothers remained without citizenship. A hundred years after the last oil well had gone dry, the ruling class needed a new class of people to marginalize and secure their control over diminishing water reserves.
“Uff, let me help you for God’s sake.” A whisper traveled through her voice, which lilted with an AraBrit accent. Every syllable enunciated; every “r” rolled into a luscious timbre.
“I’m Smoodhee.” She let the abaya slip to her shoulders and tossed her long black hair over her shoulder.
“I’ve never heard that name before,” said Saud.
“I needed a stage name when I started performing drag in the underground clubs, so I named myself after my grandmother Moodhee.” She ran her fingers along the side of her face and down her throat. “After all, I worked hard to get this smooth.” Her tongue flicked the end of the word into a heavy “thad” sound. “Besides, my family always called me a firebrand.” Smoodhee’s eyes flickered, reflecting the sheen of light bouncing from the ma’alsabeel. “I’ve seen you run here nearly every day. You’re the only other Kuwaiti I’ve seen on Green Island in years.”
It was true that Kuwaitis had turned their backs on the sea, which for generations had sustained them through fishing, pearling, trading, and shipbuilding. Women and children had crowded the beaches to hail the sailors and divers with songs and prayers. As years went by and oil wealth surged, they withdrew from public spaces. The coastal roads they built interrupted the fluid movement from desert to sea, and as they retreated, their relationship to both withered.
Saud wiped the water from his chafed lips. “Why are you helping these people?” He’d trained his eyes to focus on the horizon, to skip over the masses that accumulated at the edge of his vision. This was the largest crowd he’d ever seen on a run, and they were lingering well into the heat of morning.
“These people aren’t the only ones who need help,” said Smoodhee.
“Habibi,” Smoodhee snapped her fingers in front of his face. “Wake up. They’ve cut ma’alsabeel access to anyone who isn’t full-full.”
Saud followed the line Smoodhee traced with her finger to the Kuwait Towers.
“We’re protesting the SADU CO fashion show. It’s a pathetic attempt by one family line to kiss ruling-class ass,” she said.
“That’s not true, they’re raising awareness of the water issue,” said Saud.
Smoodhee spread her arms out, “You think these people aren’t totally aware of the issue?” She waved Saud to the side to let the next person hydrate and refill his pouch.
“Did you know SADU CO is launching a new fabric?” Smoodhee asked him.
Saud selected his words with great economy. “It’s special. From Korea.”
“Do you know why it’s special?” Smoodhee didn’t wait for a reply. “The fabric desalinates and filters seawater. SADU CO could develop water pouches for every single person. We could collect water from the sea. What they’re doing is frivolous.”
Saud shook his head, “It’s not their responsibility. Besides this ma’alsabeel is clearly malfunctioning. These people can just use the other public ones in their neighborhoods.”
Smoodhee laughed. “Maybe I should ask you why you prefer running out here in the elements, amongst the rabble, rather than in the comfort of a mall or the safety of your neighborhood.”
Silence filled Saud, a familiar void to retreat into. He craved the pounding heart that filled his head on runs and forced his thoughts away.
She cast a disgusted look at him. “For a public space to exist, it needs a public. We need a space where we can communicate, interact, intermingle. People need to look at each other with something other than judgment and contempt. We need to sympathize, connect, flirt. We need to function without the overbearing weight of surveillance that goes into maintaining this system of purity that says I can have as much water as I want. Just because my family line has no foreign mothers and yours does–that’s how we decide how we distribute something we need to live? What about these people who helped build this country and raised us?”
Years of unspoken shame roiled in Saud’s gut. Each moment of this day’s run seemed to perforate the privacy he sheathed himself with, and now Smoodhee threatened to tear him open. He was unsure what would burst forth.
“The only reason Green Island hasn’t been taken over is that it’s caught in a bureaucratic limbo between the Public Works Ministry and the Tourism Authority. For years, inertia has been the only thing standing between people’s last public space in Kuwait and a theme park. Now the efficiency of capitalism is here, and the needs of the ruling class, above all else, matter more than the public’s needs.”
She looked at him, dropped her tone to a tantalizing whisper.
He leaned in, listening carefully.
“You can say something,” she said.
“What good would that do? I’m not full-full, who would listen?” he said.
“We have our voices. We have our bodies. We’re marching on the Towers today.”
Saud looked up at the gray swathe of sky, the sun bearing its full force, lifting waves of heat from the pavement. The people around him put on their makeshift heattech wear, umbrellas and ponchos made from scraps of SADU CO.
He should run back to the safety of the atelier. He should call his boyfriend and warn him. But something had seized him. The guilt and shame he had experienced his whole life, had been shunted aside because of his closeness to his boyfriend’s pure line. He’d enjoyed that privilege, but here was someone who had given all of that up to join others in their movement.
He did the only thing that made sense to him when his mind was full. He ran. Across the triangle truss bridge, across the covered promontory connecting the mainland. The ruins of restaurants stretched along the coastline in both directions joining a long constellation of centers of science, politics and religion—all submerged under the rising sea. They’d all succumbed under the weight of their failed promises for a better world. Green Island had survived, its architect had to design it high enough above sea level, with just the right ratio of cement wave breakers lining its edges to keep the waters at bay.
Before Saud leaned into his final sprint to Gulf Road, he knew it was too late. Tires screamed past traffic lights and pedestrian walkways. Joyriders surged down the road, looping through the interchanges into the next ring road, maintaining their day-long unbroken loop.
Behind him, the protesters moved as the ocean moves, their quiet murmurs whipped into swells of protest chants. It was just a few kilometers to the Kuwait Towers. Saud hopped from foot to foot, waiting for a break to allow him to cross. The protestors’ chants roared. Even if he couldn’t make it home, there was still time to warn his boyfriend. The din of people and traffic overtook his thoughts. The protestors moved away and their chants became a murmur, like the susurrations of prayer.
The traffic’s ceaseless flow halted. A clear path forward with just enough time to dash across. Saud glanced down the length of the road towards the Towers. The protestors were out of sight, and the entire area was still. Each path was a way forward.
Saud took a deep breath and ran.
Note from the Prize Jury:
“Barrak Alzaid’s “The Runner” is a fresh take on political action and city planning in Kuwait City. “The Runner” unpacks themes of capitalism, belonging, marginalization and climate change, but most of all, the story confronts the tension between public and private spaces with a dystopian water-scarce reflection of the Kuwaiti capital.
Through skillful world-building, Alzaid ensures he is not telling a story set in the future. Rather, “The Runner” is tightly rooted in its own time. A potent cast of marginalized characters, meanwhile, presents a panopticon of class and culture divides, while inviting readers to ponder similar questions about their own cities.”
The Barjeel Mudun Prize is an international competition inviting writers to showcase, in fiction, a city in the Arab world they know intimately. The competition aims to produce short stories and narratives that reflect the urban spirit of cities, neighborhoods, and structures in the region.
Barrak Alzaid is a writer and founding member of artist collective GCC, whose current project, FABULOUS, relates his queer coming of age. Excerpts are anthologized in The Ordinary Chaos of Being Human: Tales from Many Muslim Worlds, Emerge: 2018 Lambda Fellows Anthology, and New Moons. He has conducted workshops and residencies through Delfina Foundation, Fine Arts Works Center and Lambda Literary. His poem Fa’et was awarded a first place prize by Nasiona Magazine.