I remember my first phone-dating experience. All I could think, the first time I saw him, was, “Oh my God, he’s driving a Dodge Viper.” I was thirteen; I have no idea how old he was. He would call me up and say, “What are you wearing?” and “What does your underwear look like?” It was sleazy, but I would play along with it, and by the third phone call he was like, “When are we getting married?” I saw him twice the whole time I was dating him, and I think I was dating him for at least a couple of months. The first time was when I saw him drive by. Me and my girlfriend were at this beach resort in Kuwait, and that’s how I met him. The second time I drove to my school. But I can’t even recall what he looks like. You know?
It was really rare at the time to be able to date more than one person on the phone, because you had to use your home phone. You’d have to be really rich to have a personal phone number. If you had a cellphone, it was shaped like a brick and you were a multimillionaire. And you wouldn’t want to give out your home number to three guys in a row, anyway, because you also had to give the illusion that there was only one Khaled — or whatever his name was.
But yeah, what else were we going to do? My older sister was a teenager in the Eighties, and she and her friends would just, like, hang out at record stores. Cruising wasn’t as hardcore as it was in the Nineties. I was born in the Eighties, so I was pretty young. When cruising started, every time you left the house, it felt like you were trespassing on male territory. If you were two girls in one car, you’d have a train of men following you in cars to your house.
Your phone number was something really sacred. If you gave a guy your phone number, you were taking a huge risk, because if your family found out, you know… . My father was terrifying, we nicknamed him “KGB.” My parents did their graduate degrees in Moscow, and he had this special way of interrogating people when he met them. He would size them up immediately. So there was always this element of fear to phone dating — for me, anyway.
So this guy was my first phone-dating boyfriend. He would usually call once or twice a day, when I came back from school in the siesta hour. My parents would be out, or they would be sleeping or something, and as soon as the phone rang, I would run and pick it up. He would usually ask, “What are you doing? Where are you?” and I’d say, “Hello, you’re calling me at home, where do you think I am?” Then, again, “What are you doing? What did you do today?” Blah blah blah. It was just, really, a lot of giggling, and then a lot of “You’re the moon! You’re the stars! When am I gonna see you?” And a lot of “What are you wearing?”
Actually, I think I did date another guy before my junior-high boyfriend. The only time I met him was at Pizza Hut. I mean, where else could you meet in Kuwait? At that time, nobody really had apartments. Now guys have apartments, but they still have to be relatively wealthy to have their own place. Everybody lives with their parents unless they’re married or they’re having an affair — that’s a different story; then you’re not dating a high-school girl. Although then again, maybe you are.
“Where are you now?” — always that question. “Where are you now? What are you doing now?” There was a lot of lying involved on both sides. The idea among Kuwaitis with phone-dating was to keep the other party guessing. Even if you were staying at home and, um, doing nothing, you’d be like, “Oh yeah, I’m going to dinner with my girlfriend.” You always tried to make your life seem much more glamorous than it was.
My persona wasn’t that different. I mean, I would have to be more Kuwaiti for the first two guys because they didn’t speak English that well. My bad Arabic was revealed, you know, they were like, “Oh, you don’t know what that word means,” or “You can’t say that,” and when I would say something in English, they’d say, “Don’t talk to me in English. Who do you think you are?” When I was seeing my junior-high boyfriend, it was different, because we were in a private school and his English was just as good as mine, so I was in a more comfortable linguistic situation. When I was with those guys, they’d always talk about their… you know. Like, “Oh, I’m really hard right now” or something, which was kind of crazy for me to hear while [laughs] I was, like, in my pajamas and really worried that my parents were going to pick up the phone. But they had, like, all these different words and names for it. One of them was, “Oh, I have a Jongar.” Jongar was like a Grendizer cartoon that was on TV in the Eighties.
I remember asking my girlfriend, “What is he talking about?” She was like, “Oh my god, you’re so naive, Fatima, you don’t know what that is?!” She was much more skilled, and her voice was so funny when she spoke to men. I remember being in the room with her when she would talk to guys, just to get some tips and pointers about what to say because I was really new to the game. She had started maybe a year before me and was much more savvy, much more sophisticated, more womanly than I was. I was kind of a nerd. Glasses and greasy hair and whatever. But her voice was so crazy [moans] and she would turn on her Lebanese accent. Lebanese women were considered more seductive, you know, they were easier to get. And to this day she talks like that when she’s on the phone with a man. It’s unbelievable! You’re almost thirty, like, when are you going to stop talking to guys that way? It’s this, like, infantilized, Marilyn Monroe voice. To me at the time it was really glamorous, and I wished I could talk like that without cracking up violently, but I just couldn’t. She was really good at keeping a straight face, and her mom was Lebanese, so, you know, she could speak Lebanese fluently without a problem. Anyway, eventually I got a real boyfriend from school, and I ended it with the phone-guy. I could see my real boyfriend at school every day, which was much better.
In a way, phone-dating was a strange stepping stone or testing ground for arranged marriage. Because the majority of marriages in Kuwait are arranged, it was always important for guys to figure out the possibility of a phone-date becoming a suitable bride. He might tail you to your house, or have a friend tail you. From your street address, he could find out through any number of sources — usually from dudes at some ministry that stores people’s addresses — who your parents were, your tribal status, your ethnic background and ancestry, your wealth, and, most importantly, your sect. Either you’d be a potential bride, if you ticked all the right boxes, or be relegated to being just another booty phone-girl. Someone to chat to until he got bored.
When I came back to Kuwait after being abroad, I guess it was in 2004, things had really changed. There were all these guys walking around with two phones and multiple phone numbers, and girls were doing it as well. You know, it wasn’t even like girls were saying, “Don’t call that guy, he’s calling, like, ten girls.” The illusion of courtship became so exaggerated and reached this strange dimension of virtual reality. It was more like an Internet thing, you know, but with voices. For example, a friend of mine was seeing three guys at the same time, and she had two phones. “Whoa, you’re such a player, you have two phones?! That’s crazy!” I didn’t know. Her parents didn’t know about her second phone, either, because that would really have given her away. Anybody with two phones was suspect — “Why do you need two phones, what are you doing?” You know what I mean, like where are you hiding the second phone? Especially for a girl. With guys it was more common for them to have two phones because they’re players, whatever, men could be players, but for women to be players, that was, like, you know, you were asking for trouble. Your reputation was much more at stake as a woman. If you were a player as a man, you know, men respected you more or whatever, whereas for girls, they’d respect you a lot less if they found out that you had two phones — unless they were easygoing.
In the Nineties, almost every kid that was gutsy enough to steal their parents’ cars during siesta would go to this one street in Kuwait called Sharia Al Hob, or Love Street. It wasn’t really called Love Street; it was, like, Third Ring Road, but everyone called it Sharia Al Hob. That was the place to cruise, and I would fantasize about going there when I was, like, fourteen. During siesta hours and during the nighttime and also on weekend nights, it was the place to be. There were a lot of words for, you know, guys, or cruisers. “Geezy” was the most common one. “Geezy” came from the English word “geezer,” a geezer was an idle man, you know, so we turned it into “geezy,” and from that word we made a verb, “to giz.” Like, “Oh, I’m going gizzing tonight” or “Let’s go gizing.” [Laughs] It was such a funny thing to do, like, literally roam the streets, and for teenagers, doing it was totally crazy.
It was such an exciting environment, just because everything was so forbidden, you know, kids were just freaking out and found their own way to deal with it. I remember when I was phone-dating, I couldn’t wait for the next phone call. I mean, malls were more immediate because you could see a person fully — unless they were wearing a niqab or something, and you couldn’t see who they were or whether they were really male or really female. What I mean is, they could have been anybody. I remember my girlfriend told me that in Kuwait University she would go to the bathroom and girls would take off their niqab, and they’d have, like, blue eyes and light skin, and they would take out their little black purse. They had painted their eyes white, and they were wearing blue contact lenses. Which is so crazy to me, that they would go to such extreme lengths to create a physical persona.
And by now email addresses were on bumper stickers. You know, “If you want this guy,” or “If you’re interested in this guy’s car” — it was all about status symbols. Why was I interested in that guy driving the Dodge Viper? You know what I mean? It was a really easy thing to do. A man could literally live in a hole, like in the worst, worst household in Kuwait, but if he was capable of renting a really fancy sports car, he could get a lot of girls. So it would make sense for him to put his email address on the car so he wouldn’t have to make much of an effort.
And then when Bluetooth started, you could just sit in the mall, turn your Bluetooth on, and stonesgirl69 would come up. Or Hotazhell, or geezy5000 or something, and you could have all these crazy conversations with people that were within ten feet of you. And you didn’t know who it was, so the options for cruising multiplied in so many ways. And then there were the new TV stations. In 2004, these Arabic satellites starting having all these music-video channels. Before, music videos were only seen on national TV stations and, like, one or two private stations, MBC and other stations, but now there were loads of these really low-budget, weird music video channels.
They were all hosted by these very ethnically ambiguous women, usually Egyptian or Lebanese, you know, wearing skimpy clothes and a lot of makeup and just standing there like, “Oh, we’re going to play this one, we’re going to play that,” and they would stream the music videos and underneath them, you texted in your request, and the screen would have the scrolling text messages like, “Hi I’m Ahmed I’m from Cairo I’m bored What’s your name?” And you’d start texting and cruising, and literally within three years there were a hundred channels like this.
You’re watching and texting the channel on your phone at the same time, and at some point you’ll give out your email address, if you’re interested, or desperate enough, and it will go like this: “Oh, no way, I’m in Libya, too! What’s your name?”