‘He was always the lazy one.’
Sitting in a shisha café, Abdulla smirks but there is no reaction from Hakeem, who is clearly used to being called lazy by his cousin. Hakeem and Abdullah are three years apart in age, and Hakeem, even though they are both now in their late 30s, takes on the role of the older sibling. In between puffing at his cigarette, Hakeem tries to explain the situation to me.
‘Our mothers aren’t just sisters, they are best friends, and spend most of their time with each other. I don’t think as kids we really noticed anything. Abdulla would come to our house to play, we would go to their house to play, but mostly they would come to our house. Especially during Eid. Everyone always came to our house for Eid. Abdulla’s house would have been too small for everyone I guess.’
Both of the cousins have a way of smoking the shisha that could have only been refined through decades of practise. ‘I think perhaps we both knew that we grew up in different types of areas, and that our dads did very different things, but I at least never really thought about it when we were kids. I think the way this difference affected our individual lives, didn’t really start to sink in until our late teens.’
Abdulla is silent throughout. He is clearly used to Hakeem being the talkative one. Finally, he chips in. ‘For me, it started off with the dynamic of our friendship groups. We had always hung around with the same friends, but when we grew older, it became more and more difficult for me to do that. They could one day decide, ‘let’s go to Dubai for a trip’, or ‘let’s go to this restaurant’, or they would talk about applying to study in the UK or the USA.’ He looks out of the window for a bit before continuing. ‘I could neither travel, nor afford to go to expensive restaurants. In a way, that left me behind with people who share my status. It became easier for me to hang around with them than with my own cousin and his friends.’
Abdullah and Hakeem went to different schools. They could not go to the same school because of their different status. Hakeem knows his school was better, and that he could choose from many different career options that his cousin could not. That seems to make him feel guilty about his laziness. ‘Abdullah was without a doubt the hardest worker. I’m not sure whether that was in his nature or, because of how his father struggled. He knew that because of their situation, he had to work extra hard to do anything. If we compare how hard we both studied, if the world was fair, I would have his job and he would have mine.’’ Abdulla only nods slowly.
Despite not going to the same school, they were both keen Judo players and went to the same club together.
‘Abdullah thinks he would have been world champion if he could have travelled to the competitions and represented Kuwait. But that’s just what he made himself believe. I could have beaten him any-day.’ ’ Abdullah gently punches Hakeem on his arm and goes on to tell me how good a judo player he was, and that he was also amazing at karate and boxing. However, Abdulla gave up quite soon knowing there his successes in judo would be limited – he could not travel to competitions. A week after he quit the club, so did Hakeem.
Hakeem, like his father, is a Kuwaiti citizen. His cousin, Abdullah, like his father, is a stateless person, considered illegal in the country to which he belongs.
Hakeem is an engineer and works at a government ministry, whilst Abdulla works in sales in a private telecommunications company. Abdulla is happy with his job, but wanted to do more. ‘I wanted to become an engineer too, I wanted to create, to invent. I wanted to really build my career and become rich. But then at the same time, it’s difficult to say what I wanted to do as I do not know what my potential is or was. Maybe I would have been bad at all of these things. What hurts me the most is that I never got the opportunity to know or try. I just needed to survive so I don’t really know what I could have been.’
Hakeem sits silently, staring at the floor, not responding to this.
We leave the café and head to Abdulla’s house where he continues the conversation on the road. ‘And now my children will be the same. Their opportunities will be limited. Hakeem knows how much I love his children as my own and wish them the best. But it can be hard to see that they have the whole world in front of them to do and be what they want. My children though, their life is not defined by their potential, but rather their legal status.’