The air we breathe is free: For locals and expats (aka an open letter)

Dear You-Know-Who,

Nejoud Al Yagout – — Photo by Djinane Alsuwayeh

You may not remember me. I met you years ago when I was visiting someone who was volunteering at our local orphanage. I recall you mentioning how you love to visit orphanages and how your heart melted when you met an orphan in South America (Chile, if I am not mistaken). We bonded over our love for Italy. When you mentioned you had a house in Orvieto, we spoke of the beauty of the town and how beautiful Italy is in general. This was circa seven years ago. So imagine my enthusiasm when I heard you were running for parliament a couple of years back. Yes, it may be naive of me to have banked on a first impression, but I thought: 1) She is a humanitarian. 2) She is cultured and well-traveled, and 3) It’s a bonus she is a woman. Only a bonus – not a reason to have voted for you.

You became famous right away for your assertiveness, and that’s not a bad thing. It must be difficult being taken seriously as the only woman in parliament. I suppose you are vying to make yourself heard. But what broke my heart, and still breaks my heart, is your language toward expatriates. I can’t believe you are the same soft-spoken woman I met years ago.

Traveling unites us and transforms us into global citizens, yet here you are creating divisiveness between locals and expats with your rhetoric. At gatherings with foreigners, I hear what they say about you. They are afraid; too afraid to vocalize their fear. And I am dismayed, as a result. Because I voted for you. I had faith in you. I thought you would focus on protecting orphans and encouraging our citizens to embrace diversity since you yourself are a globetrotter. I thought your jaunts around the world would have made you more sympathetic to the plights of people, regardless of whether they are Kuwaiti or not.

Still, I will make an attempt to understand you and give you the benefit of the doubt. I know you want to make Kuwait a better place for locals. But can’t we improve our lives without demeaning anyone who is not originally from here? Let us respect those who are not nationals. They have made Kuwait a home away from home, some permanently, some transiently. Some are married to us, some are adopted by us, some are our employers, some are our employees, some are our mothers, our fathers. These are our nearest and dearest. The line between locals and expats is thinner than we know. In fact, it’s blurred, especially in our age of globalization.

And I will be the first to say I don’t mind paying taxes. I think citizens are responsible to pay taxes in their country and not foreigners. In every country around the world where taxes apply, citizens pay taxes. But if you insist on taxing foreigners, tax us as well. But not non-locals alone. Even if you think it would be preposterous for us to carry the burden of taxes due to the demographical imbalance in terms of the ratio of locals and expats, to use language saying that expats should “pay taxes for the air they breathe” is inflammatory, to say the least. And I didn’t expect that from you. Beneath your wailing and fist-pounding, I see a woman with potential. I see the human you are beneath the mask of a politician.

At the end of the day, you make the decisions; you are the lawmaker. I can only state my opinion to a few. And whatever you decide cannot be changed by me. You may even try to assure me that taxing expatriates will make our lives as locals better, but I will still find reasons why this is unjust (even if we are a minority in our country). You may even provide me with statistics showing me the number of illiterate people in this country and ask what they are doing here in an attempt to convince me that taxing them is beneficial. I will respond that these illiterate people are cleaning our streets, collecting our trash, a few of them are raising our children, cooking our food (using symbols to stock ingredients and prepare dishes with them, without the need for recipes). There are many jobs that do not require literacy, as long as the job gets done. We are not elitist as to turn away people who are not literate if they are working and providing a service.

Keep giving me reasons, but I will never understand why only foreigners should be taxed and why you have to be harsh while stating your proposals. Any changes or messages on your political plate can be served in a subtle manner. But I’ve said enough for now. And I’ve said what I’ve wanted to say for quite a while.

And regardless of what I have seen so far, I refuse to give up on you. I want my vote to count for something. I want to see that woman I met at an orphanage, not the one who has been swayed by divisive politics. Bring back the humanitarian, bring back the traveler, bring back the lady who I know is still within you. Stay blessed, dear You-Know-Who. This letter is not meant to reach you, but here’s to venting, to this peaceful and humble protest, to this message of love addressed to my brothers and sisters who are not from here.

And to the “expats” – I still consider this a dirty word but have to refer to it to make things clear, sorry – reading this: I love you. And I am ready to pay taxes for you. And breathe the same air as you, harmoniously. This air is for all of us. And it’s free of charge.

By Nejoud Al-Yagout

[email protected]

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