arabic ability: wahit, ithnaen, thelaetha, arba, hamsa…..beladi amurrrika
sanity status: If you go to a Halloween party in Saudi Arabia dressed as a ghost, does that count, or do you just draw disdain?
Completed in 1986, the 16-mile King Fahd Causeway connecting Dammam/Al Khobar, Saudi Arabia to tiny Bahrain offers insight into true Saudi culture. As the Arabian mainland recedes from view, Saudi women remove abayas and hijabs, revealing hidden tastes for designer fashion. Meanwhile, Saudi men floor their cars towards Manama, in eager anticipation of boozing, whoring and the pursuit of all forbidden pleasures. Halfway across, last year’s hip-hop is briefly turned down in deference to border formalities.
Rulers have come and gone, markets have boomed and evaporated, but Bahrain has largely held the same role since the Bronze Age: important Persian Gulf port, controlled by foreigners. In the era of Ancient Sumer, many believe Bahrain was settled by the sparsely-recorded, little-studied Dilmun civilization. Cuneiform texts suggest to some that the island was the site of the Garden of Eden.* Over the centuries, the islands passed through Assyrian, Babylonian, Persian, Arab, Portuguese, Iranian, Omani, Ottoman, British and Al Saud control, as they fought over its strategic location, and the legendary pearls found in its shallow waters. Dating to ancient times Bahrain has been noted for freshwater aquifers that even bubble to the surface in places; it is the freshwater-rich sea that gives the pearls their distinct appearance.
*One of the Lonely-Planet-approved tourist sites, the “Tree of Life,” a 400 year-old mesquite tree that stands alone amid desert, some apparently believe marks the ancient location of the garden.
Of the 33 islands that make up Bahrain, only three are inhabited, but Bahrain Island accounts for most of its 270 square miles. Ever-expanding outward on land reclaimed from its shallow seas, the nation is still little more than 3 times the size of D.C.* The population of Bahrain is 1.2 million, about a third of whom are foreign nationals, contracting work on the 2 extremes of the shittily-paid-to-vastly-overcompensated range of employment, similar to other oil-rich gulf states. Most live in the capital, Manama, which sits on Bahrain Island’s northeast corner, although the airport is to the northeast on Muharraq island. The island is flat and almost entirely desert wasteland.
*Although it is somehow smaller than nearby Dammam’s absurdly big, largely idle King Fahd Airport. Passengers usually avoid the world’s largest airport by land-area (485 square miles!) due to its reputation for poor customer service, choosing instead Bahrain International. When I arrived at Dammam airport after a 20 minute flight from Bahrain with about 100 others, almost all Indian/Pakistani migrant workers, it took 3 customs officials over 2 hours to clear all of us–they were chatting, drinking tea, singing, and elaborately greeting fellow guards who strolled by, while we stood silently waiting…perhaps the most irritating 2 hours of my life, but a telling window into the treatment non-white foreigners receive here. After 2 hours, a flight from Dubai landed, and these thobed Saudis just strolled right to the front of our line, cutting everyone, and passed through in a matter of seconds. When the oil runs out, there won’t be a lot of sympathy/mercy…
In 1932, oil was discovered in Bahrain and a well drilled, the first on the Arabian Peninsula Regional power Great Britain then suddenly decided that they were interested in the country, and following WWII it became the HQ of British Persian gulf administration. Of course, the country was nominally ruled by the Al Khalifa family, from a tribe originally from the Sunni-dominated Najd region, or central Saudi Arabia, home of the Saud family as well. Citing Bahrain’s predominantly Shiite population, in 1957 Iran started to maneuver for control of the territory. When the British began to withdraw from an administrative role in the Middle East, the question of Bahraini sovereignty passed to the UN with Iran pushing hard to annex, but Bahrain gained its “independence” as a constitutional monarchy in 1971. The U.S. Navy then moved into the departing Britons’ quarters, setting up the 5th Fleet command on the southern tip of the island–what was their role during the protests, one wonders.
*With about 200 million barrels remaining, estimates predict it will run out within 15 years. By comparison, Qatar’s reserves are pegged at 15 billion, and Saudi Arabia’s at 260 billion, 18% of the world’s total…these estimates change, though, every year.
Despite centuries of history as a regional crossroad, it’s hard to care about the past in Bahrain, and not just because of the abundance of modern construction, 5-star hotels and opulent shopping districts. Over 100,000 burial mounds dating back up to 4000 years used to dot the entire island, but perhaps only 20% remain intact, the rest having been cleared for new construction. It’s little wonder, then, that everything in Bahrain outside of Manama, including most remaining historical sites, are largely inaccessible to anyone without a car.
But Saudis and their ex-pats don’t come to Bahrain for sites, they come for shopping and debauchery. The malls of Manama aren’t more modern than those of Saudi Arabia, and the shop selection no different (woman’s fashion ironically dominates Saudi malls), but women can shop uncovered, the malls are blessed with cinemas, and in a land where the main activity is mall-haunting, it’s probably feels refreshing to amble on tiles of slightly different size/shape, or hear a new voice utter the call to prayer, or find the food court on the 3rd floor, not the 2nd like at the mall back home.
Debauchery, meanwhile, takes many forms. On the water, young Saudis zoom about aimlessly on their pleasure crafts. In hotel rooms with hastily purchased brand name-liquor, young Saudis drink like college freshman (to be fair, some are). Bars range in clientele from Indians to Filipinos to American Marines to English teachers, predominantly male. It is the hotels, though, where Manama’s reputation is truly made, as young ladies, often Chinese or Filipina, without English or Arabic, ply their wares from door-to-door in the cheapest of dives or most luxurious of establishments.
That Islam is Bahrain’s state religion, and yet lifestyle in the country differs so vastly from that of the kingdom’s greatest trade partner just across the causeway is due to politics. The Al Khalifa royal family of Bahrain is Sunni, but Bahrainis are 70% Shiite. This means that the royal family tends to emphasize secular goals, so as to avoid antagonizing the population; Shiite clerics have a powerful role in the opposition party. Saudi Arabia puts up with this because the Al Saud family much prefers that Sunnis have control of the country. Its an open secret that the hypocrisy of KSA is exposed by the mass exodus on weekends of Eastern Provincers to the diminuitive kingdom across the land-bridge for the enjoyment of various haram activities, but thorough border patrol insures that the party doesn’t ever come home with the revelers. When demonstrators in Bahrain began to clamor for change in Manama’s iconic Pearl Square in February, Saudi troops arrived to bolster the police force. (Afterwards, Pearl Square was barricaded and secured with barbed wire and tanks, and then the iconic Pearl monument was “cleansed” by the government after the “vile” acts of the protesters; one ex-pat deconstruction worker died during its destruction from an errant falling chunk).
My afternoon visit to Bahrain was largely uneventful. It was a pleasant change of pace to see women on the streets, though since it’d only been a week since my arrival I hesitate to make anything out of this, given that I anticipate much longer stretches without such “sightings.”
For a country with such a long history of settlement, Manama seems devoid of traditional-looking structures or anything that would consistitute an old town. Everywhere new, colorful skyscrapers are popping up, demonstrating modern Arabia’s apparent aversion to right-angle architecture; designs show conspicuous inefficiencies and superfluous flourishes. The buildings are interesting to look at, but often stunningly garish–too much form and facade, without emphasis on function. I suppose they’re perfect symbols for the oil economy of a region where simply sticking a straw deep enough into the ground allows for seemingly unlimited wealth to be sucked out by whoever’s sucking the most. The economy of Bahrain is clearly booming, supported by a strong petrochemical refining industry (mostly Saudi crude) and the capital’s ascension as the world center of Islamic banking. (Best as I can tell, the main difference is that creative creditor-debtor contracts get around the Islamic taboo on charging interest, while still allowing for the robust profits all bankers crave, and when an Islamic bank fucks the little guy, it prefers the dā‘ī position.)
While I did indulge in some seaside “hubbly-bubbly” (Saudi Arabia forces shisha bars to move to city outskirts, allegedly for public health concerns but more likely to keep young people from congregating downtown), and a beer or two (never before had I appreciated so many subtleties in the taste of a pint of Guinness…although, again, it’d been a week), I didn’t quite find time for comparing the shopping malls, visiting any of the cinemas (Saudi saves me from myself in many ways…I mean, I saw the Hangover II in theaters without any coercion), or perusing the room-delivery prostitute menu. So much to time, so little do.
As evening turned to night, and the neon blazed to life, the city positively transformed; I knew I’d have to return at some point to see this other Manama. Small, forgettable shopfronts by day became beckoning beacons, and the mild evening became thick with pedestrians, peddlers, drivers, and western gentlemen in suits gently holding hands with young Asian women–yes, love was in the air!
On my way back across the causeway, a fellow traveler was busted for trafficking pork, and it was at that moment that I knew I was home again.