Saturday, December 1, 2012

28 Hours in Bahrain

While it may have appeared that I disappeared from the planet with my lack of postings, I actually just moved to the middle east to not make a name for myself, teaching in a place most Americans have never heard of, i.e. Bahrain.  I've decided to post some articles about this location that continually melds the West and the East.

This first entry is after having a long day/night a few weekends ago that I realized could only happen in Bahrain, so I'm sharing it with you.  Hopefully, you'll get a feel for the place...

It is 12:45 in the afternoon and about 88 degrees F on this early November day.  As I am about to get into the cool water to snorkel, a large boat filled with bikinis and vodka race a mere ten feet from shore, laughing at their wake disturbing bathers, who make rude gestures as they regain footing.  The boat's path was directly over the coral reef I was about to snorkel, which caused me to reflect on how loud boats sound underwater.   Even from across the bay, their volume makes me jerk my head above the water line to make sure I’m not about to get brained by an unobservant partier.  I can’t imagine how horrible the sound is for fish.      

It is 1:00 in the afternoon.  I am snorkeling what’s left of a small coral reef at the beach near my apartment. While there isn’t much variety of underwater life today, I love floating in the middle of the school of fish, silver circling me with one hundred shimmering bodies. On previous days, when the tide is high, I've seen blue and yellow fish darting among the oysters, small (2-ft) sand sharks, crabs with appendages long enough to wrap around me, and large, brown-striped jellyfish that lie upside down on the ocean to capture their prey. The school is on it’s own island, but they don’t have a beach so much as mushy sand pit filled with millions of snails. the product of sand reclamation.  Across the bay however, is the Miami Beach of Amwaj, complete with cigarette butts.  It is guarded by Filipinos in matching blue uniforms who question sun bathers about their residence as the beach is private for residents of Amwaj.  They do this scrupulously, but ignore the boys doing tricks on their wave runners next to signs that indicate no jet skis or boats with gas motors are to be used on the lagoon.

It's 5:30pm and the sunset is turning every wisp of cloud into a fiery glow against a purple sky. Clouds are so rare here, that even the kids in school feel the need to point them out when they've drifted across the island.  The balcony that comes with the school-provided apartment is attached to my bedroom and overlooks the bay, with the city lights of Manama just beginning to differentiate themselves in the darkening distance.

It’s 8:30 in the evening.  I’m sitting across an enameled table from a fellow teacher and friend.  We’re in an American chain restaurant, the newest addition to a collection of eateries lining the water of the man-made lagoon on this man-made island, discussing life and swapping teaching stories of the week over meat burgers with beef bacon.  Beef bacon just doesn’t taste the same, but the room filled with black, synthetic abayas and white cotton thobes directs the menu choices.  Some restaurants here specialize in the fact that they serve pork, and you’ll see Arabs there, too.  But not as many as you’ll see in Chili’s or Johnny Rockets.  We’re greeted by several students from our school and we’re glad they can’t hear our conversation.

It’s 10:30 in the evening.  Under the full moon in a hotel courtyard next to a pool, I am dancing with a girl wearing a full face mask.  It is white and has flowers outlining the eye holes.  She isn’t the only one.  Her two friends have also traded their hijabs for this eerie masquerade. She says they know people here, which is code for Saudi women who have escaped their families to drink, dance, and pick up lovers.  It took me much too long to understand that two of the girls were a couple, and the skinny one with the peach bra strap slipping down her shoulder was actually trying to seduce me.  Then a red headed Russian woman, most of whom are usually prostitutes brought in by the Bahraini government to service Saudi weekenders, began to dance in front of me, looking intently into my eyes.  Then behind her a small, muscled woman with her blonde hair tied into a ponytail – trademark elements of a navy girl from the U.S. Fifth Fleet – stared at us dancing.  I knew that hungry, silent look from the gay bar back home.  As the night progressed, and I saw men beginning to dance with other men, I realized I had accidentally found myself at the gay circuit party of Bahrain. 

It’s 1:00 in the morning.  I’ve decided to attend the after party at a new bar on the top floor of a hotel downtown.  The bar has no roof since it rains so rarely, which provides a good view from 20 stories up.  There are lounging sofas at various levels with hot tubs tucked into a few recesses.  The hot tubs can only be entered for about a quarter of my monthly salary (champagne included) and so remain empty.  Everything is white.  Grape-mint shisha smoke (the Bahraini’s favorite flavor) drifts over groups chatting about everything from work to observations about the women hanging out with the DJ who was imported from Spain for the circuit party.  No one talks about the protests happening five miles away or the faint scent of tear gas you can smell at ground level.

It’s 3:30 in the morning.  I was going to go home, but my friends, expats from Turkey and Palestine, have texted that they’re at a new after-hours club. It takes 15 minutes to get inside due to the wait for the elevators.  Typical of Bahrain, access and egress has been poorly, if at all, planned out for this public venue.  The single men have to wait the longest since the ratio of men to women in this country is 5:1; as a woman I get escorted in quickly and free of charge.  The club throbs with dancing and laughter, but it isn’t a scene to be seen, but a place for people who like good music after the clubs have closed.  There are many Bahraini, including friends that I dance salsa with occasionally.  It is the first time I’ve danced anything besides Latin around them and it is pure joy.  Despite the tall security guards attentively manning every 20 feet of club space, it almost feels like a club back home.  The relief from raging techno makes my soul sigh.  Like everywhere in Bahrain, including restaurants, the bar fills with cigarette smoke.  Between the lax health laws and the ridiculously cheap cigarette prices (Marlboros are 900 fils/$2.50 a pack), ex-smokers rarely stay that way.

It’s 4:30 in the morning.  Sports cars zoom past me in a highway drag race.  Boys on sports bikes without helmets ride on the back wheel for minutes at a time, aching for attention.  Cars running on exuberance and Arabic pop are filled with young men breaking the Muslim rules.  This is Friday night, after all, the last weekend night before Sunday morning work. And, of course, at this late hour there are no local women in a single passing car.

It is 4:40 in the morning.  You can tell a city by the cargo traveling the highways in the wee hours.  In the northeast it’s logging trucks.  In the southwest, it’s modular homes.  Here in Bahrain it’s boulders, construction materials, and workers.  The boulders are the size Scottish men would hurl and are off-white, like salt for giants.  The construction materials feed the animal of progress - a cityscape of skeletons with ants crawling over them once the sun has risen.  The workers, the ants, come from Pakistan and live in huts near the construction sites. They swaddle their extremities, leaving nothing but essential eyes to the sun, every bit of melanin taking them one step farther away from being the ideal pallor they believe should accompany their meager savings, a kingly sum in their home country.

It is 5am.  The  morning prayers are calling in their usual monotone when suddenly the voices from the two nearest mosques stop competing and come into harmony.  The voices that usually sound of nothing but lamentation become, for a moment, a harmonic praise. I take one look at the the pinking skyline from my balcony overlooking yet another man made oceanic bay and put Bahrain temporarily to rest. 

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