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Thursday , January 23 2020

A life of love & valor

During the 53 years she lived in Kuwait, German-born Monika Al Khashti made an unforgettable mark on her adopted country. Active in both the Kuwaiti and German communities, she demonstrated incredible courage during the Iraqi occupation and was subsequently awarded a medal of valor by the German government. A loving mother of four and grandmother of thirteen, she was dynamic, enterprising, and down-to-earth, with a lively sense of humor. With her death on March 31st, 2018 at the age of 74, she left a void that is impossible to fill.

One recent Ramadan evening, some of her family members gathered in the cozy living room of the Al Khashti family home in Keifan, to share precious memories of the family matriarch. Joining Monika’s husband Ali, oldest son Mohammed, and daughter Ghadir, was long-time family friend Monika Al Gharabally, who came to Kuwait in 1962. Looking through family photos and news clippings there was laughter, a few tears, and many amazing stories about a remarkable woman who brought together the best of two different cultures.

Getting together this Ramadan to celebrate Monika’s memory, left to right: longtime family friend Monika Al Gharabally, Ghadir, Ali, and Mohammed.

A hospital in Kassel, Germany was the unlikely meeting place for Monika and Ali. She was a nurse and he was a young electrical engineering student with appendicitis. After his operation, at the end of his twelve-day hospital stay, Ali asked Monika if she would marry him. He laughs when he remembers her response. “You’re crazy!” she said.

But Ali was undaunted. It took him six months to win her over. She took him home to meet her parents, who promptly voiced their opposition to the marriage. Among Monika’s six sisters and one brother, four sisters were in favor of the union. The marriage went ahead on December 31, 1964 and the newlyweds lived in a rented room until Ali finished his studies.

One of Ali’s prize possessions is a small, tattered black and white photograph that he pulls out of his wallet and proudly displays. It shows Monika in her nurses’s uniform, smiling and looking fondly at him lying in his hospital bed. Perhaps it was that tender look that had given Ali the confidence to try and win her hand.

The following year the couple’s first son, Mohammed, was born, and not long afterwards they went to live in Kuwait. Things were not always easy for the young German bride. As one of very few Western women in Kuwait in those days, the petit blue-eyed blonde was often regarded as a spectacle. Ghadir recalls her mother telling her stories about how children on the street would call after her and tease her.

Ali is very proud of the fact that from the beginning, his wife did her best to integrate into the local society. She made an effort to be on good terms with everyone, quickly learning the language and customs. “She got along really well with my mother. They used to ride to the souk in a tuk-tuk to buy fish,” he says with a smile.

Mohammed remembers how his mother diligently attended night school in Faiha to learn Arabic. “My mother started her studies at the first grade level and progressed from one grade to the next. By the time my younger brother Ahmed and I were in government elementary school, she was able to teach us Arabic grammar and help us with all our homework.”

Monika Al Gharabally recalls how her friend would sit and read the Arabic newspapers. “She was more Kuwaiti than the Kuwaitis. On the other hand, she also put a lot of effort into the German-Speaking Cultural Association and used to run their video library,” she says.

The two German Monikas met in 1990, during the dark days of the Iraqi Occupation. “I called the German embassy and when I said, ‘This is Monika speaking,’ they said, ‘Which Monika?’ I didn’t know there was another Monika. They gave me her number, I called her, and she and Ali came to see me the very next day.

“We became close friends immediately. During the occupation we laughed and we cried, we were fearful and we gave each other support. In later years, even if we couldn’t see other as often as we’d like, we’d talk on the phone almost every day. Our friendship was strong until the very last day.”

With the topic of the Iraqi occupation comes a flood of stories, most of them about the heroic actions of Monika Al Khashti. Mohammed recalls the day he and his mother were out running errands and were stopped at an Iraqi checkpoint. Monika adjusted her headscarf and abaya and held her Kuwaiti passport ready.

“Good morning mother,” the Iraqi soldier greeted her.

“I am not your mother and don’t you dare address me as if I were. I would be ashamed to call someone like you my son,” Monika retorted in her fluent Kuwaiti Arabic.

The soldier angrily ordered Monika and Mohammed out of the car. They were forced to stand by the side of the road for three hours, without moving, flanked on either side by two Iraqi soldiers with machine guns. Had the Iraqis known the nature of their errands, they would have been in much deeper trouble.

After the Iraqi invasion on August 2, 1990, Monika had made the decision to remain in Kuwait. By this time she and Ali had four children: Mohammed, then 26; Ahmed, 24; Ghadir, 10; and Feras, 9. In September, Monika had the option of being evacuated with the two younger children when local German women and children were given safe passage out of Kuwait. Her husband and two adult sons, however, were staying in Kuwait.

Ghadir had stood in front of her father and swore she would never leave him, and after 27 years of marriage, Monika had decided she didn’t want to leave him either, just when things were difficult. So their decision was made.

As a Kuwaiti passport holder Monika was able to move about the city freely, in contrast to her fellow Germans who were forced into hiding when Saddam Hussein ordered that all Westerners be rounded up and taken to Iraq to be used as human shields. From the first day of the invasion, Monika and her family began supplying their German friends with food, including baby formula for a German woman with an infant. But the scope of their supply missions soon expanded and before long the Al Khashtis were regularly delivering food, letters, forged identification papers, information, and moral support to thirty Germans, four Americans, four British, and two French nationals who were in hiding at various locations across town. The missions were perilous and could easily have cost the Al Khashtis their lives as Saddam Hussein had announced that the penalty for anyone caught aiding foreigners was death by hanging.

The family members stayed busy around the clock. Ahmed was an active member of the Kuwaiti Resistance and had many close calls with the Iraqi forces. He would simply disappear for weeks on end and the family would have no idea what had become of him.

Mohammed, who had also been working with the resistance, took on a job as a baker when he heard that Kuwaitis were needed to work in the bread factory. “I worked the night shift, from 9 pm to 9 am,” Mohammed says. “Since my regular work was as a steward for Kuwait Airways I was used to working irregular hours and it didn’t bother me. The important thing was that I was able to supply bread to all the people in hiding as well as our family and the entire neighborhood.”

The bread became a valuable commodity as Mohammed was able to trade it for other types of food as well as give it to Iraqi soldiers in exchange for the precious petrol the family members needed to carry out their supply missions.

The Al Khashti’s brought canned goods and coffee to the German embassy throughout the occupation, a particularly hazardous task as all the embassies were sealed off and guarded by the Iraqis. But they managed to make their deliveries by going around the back way. The Al Khashti’s delivered the letters they collected from the Germans in hiding to the German embassy so they could be sent to the German embassy in Baghdad and then on to Germany in the diplomatic pouch. Most of the Germans in hiding were employed by German companies such as Siemens, Lufthansa, and Mercedes Benz.

When one of the Siemens employees told the Al Khashti’s he had a mobile radio transmitter/receiver at home that they could have they instantly recognised that it would be of tremendous value to the Kuwaiti resistance. Collecting it from the downtown Al Muthana apartment complex and transporting it to a group of resistance fighters in Keifan was one of their most dangerous missions. Ali was driving and Monika was sitting beside him with the radio set tucked under her arm and her abaya covering it. It was a sweltering day and they had no air conditioning but their sweat was mostly from fear. If the Iraqi soldiers had discovered the radio set they would have been shot.

Mohammed was able to keep them all stocked with bread up until just a few days before the liberation, but increasing food prices and the vast quantities they required to feed all the expatriates put a heavy financial burden on the family. By December they were nearly out of cash. So Monika decided to sell her jewelry and set off on a trip by car to Basra, Iraq, where she hoped to get a good price for it and where she wouldn’t run the risk of being accused of trying to sell stolen jewelry.

Monika, Ghadir, and Feras set off with an Iraqi lady friend of the family. Monika was afraid to leave the two younger children in Kuwait because she didn’t know what might happen to Ali, Mohammed, and Ahmed. The trip was a nightmare. They had to drive in between tanks and other war machinery, past troops of soldiers and over bumpy asphalt roads that had been torn up by the tanks.

When they reached Basra they found it in a shambles, but the local residents were out celebrating in the streets, shouting “Kuwait is ours!” When they learned Monika and her children had come from Kuwait, small boys began taunting her son. “You are Iraqi now,” they shouted at him. When he protested they began hitting him and only through the intervention of Monika’s Iraqi friend was the fight put to an end.

In Basra, Monika took the opportunity to call one of her sisters in Germany, as it was impossible to make overseas calls from Kuwait. Monika’s sister was sick with worry and although thrilled to hear Monika’s voice she was horrified to learn that Monika was in Iraq.

When Monika and her children returned to Kuwait there were more harrowing experiences in store. A relative of Monika’s maid informed the Iraqis that there was a German woman living in Keifan and Monika received a phone call from an Iraqi officer ordering her to report to the local police station immediately. “If you don’t come we’ll take your son,” the officer told her, so Monika went to the police station.

Monika was interrogated for two days. She was allowed to go home at night, but Mohammed had to go stay in her place. Finally, on condition that Ali pay the Iraqis 2000 KD, Monika was released.

The Al Khashti’s continued their efforts to aid expatriates in hiding, although conditions were becoming ever more difficult and dangerous. When the liberation finally came, it brought joy and relief but the hardships of daily life continued since for some time there was no water or electricity and food supplies were scarce.

Finally, in May, the Al Khashti family left Kuwait to relax and regain their strength in Monika’s home town of Volksmarsen, Germany. When the local newspapers heard her story, they hailed her as “the Angel of Kuwait.” For her exceptional bravery, Monika was awarded the Verdienstkreuz, a medal of valor that is one of the highest honors the German government can bestow upon a civilian.

After the ordeal of the Iraqi occupation, life for the Al Khashti family finally went back to normal. Ali worked as a teacher with the College of Applied Sciences while Monika took care of the household. She became well-known for her Kuwaiti cooking and baking skills and regularly won first prize in these categories in the Kuwait Sea Sports Club competitions. “Her machbous and tashreeb were so delicious,” remembers Ali, referring to two traditional Kuwaiti dishes.

The Al Khashti offspring, for their part, distinguished themselves in the world of sport. Ghadir became a taekwondo champion, ranking third in the Arab world in 1997 and 1998. She is now a physical education teacher in a government middle school.

Mohammed was a member of the Kuwait sailing team in the Seoul Olympics in 1986. Ahmed represented Kuwait in track and field events in the Seoul Olympics and the Los Angeles Olympics in 1984. Both brothers retired from Kuwait Airways in 2013.

Youngest son Feras has been participating in Kuwait’s annual Pearl Diving Festival since he was seven years old. For many years Feras was a diver, collecting oysters in the traditional method without using oxygen tanks. Now he is a nokhadha, or captain of a pearling ship, during the heritage festival. His twelve-year old son, Ali, has followed in his father’s footsteps and began participating in the pearling festival at the age of seven. Feras earns his living as a rescue firefighter and has displayed remarkable courage in the line of duty, a trait that seems to run strong in the Al Khashti family.

Ali senior proudly points out a picture hanging on the wall showing Feras at the end of one of the pearl diving festivals with HH the late Amir, Sheikh Jaber Al Ahmad Al Sabah. Another color enlargement shows Ali junior in the water next to a wooden boat with a pearl diver’s clip on his nose.

“You see, we have kept our parent’s names in the family,” says Mohammed. “Feras has a son named Ali and I have a daughter named Monika. Our parents’ names and memories will always live on.”

When Monika and Ali had their 50th wedding anniversary four years ago, Ali took his wife on her dream trip to Phuket, Thailand to celebrate. Ghadir opens a photo album showing pictures of the happy couple festively dressed for the occasion.

Ghadir discloses that during the last few years, her mother began to suffer ill health and was frequently in and out of hospital. When Monika had a stroke the end of last September and was admitted to the Amiri Hospital, her family and friends often came to see her. Now it was Ali’s turn to stay at her bedside during the long days, while Ghadir was always with her late into the night.

For six months, Monika fought for her life. She had also suffered lung damage and was on a respirator, unable to speak. However, at times she was able to communicate by writing on a white board.

On March 29th, 2018, it seemed a miracle had occurred. Monika suddenly became much more alert and actually started speaking. Friends and family were overjoyed, including her sister Johanna, her husband Rolf, and their daughter Yvonne, who had come from Germany to see her.

On March 30th, the family assembled in Monika’s hospital room, along with Monika Al Gharabally and other close friends, and Monika thanked them for coming and for not giving up on her. She ate a special German meal that Ahmed had cooked for her by request. The mood was happy as the hope was that Monika could go home soon. She and Ali gazed into each other’s eyes like newlyweds. Ali told his wife how much he loved her and the last words she said to her husband were, “I love you.”

Late that night, Monika’s heart stopped. Doctors worked feverishly and managed to revive her. She clung to life until 1:30 p.m. and then peacefully passed away.

“My wife loved this land so much and now she’s buried here,” says Ali.

Before I leave the Al Khashti home I’m given a manila envelope. Inside are newspaper clippings, pictures of Monika receiving the medal of valor from the German ambassador to Kuwait, the family in Germany and Kuwait, and a tattered black and white photograph showing a petit blond nurse smiling at her handsome young Kuwaiti patient. On loan to me to illustrate this article, the file is precious testimony to a remarkable woman and her very special family.

By Claudia Farkas Al Rashoud – Special to the Arab Times

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