I spent one year living in Bahrain. Yes, I’m sure most of you reading this will ask yourselves aloud, “Where the fuck is Bahrain?”. Or you’re asking yourselves, “What is the current political climate in this island kingdom what with the ruling Sunni Khalifa family that have invited Saudi and Emirate troops inside the country to quell the mass protests by the repressed and down-trodden Shia majority by brutal force?” Why am I hearing crickets? Bueller? Well then, let me tell you a tale of some of my experiences during my time spent in this small, desert kingdom.
I first arrived in a very hot July at around 11pm. Within 30 seconds of the plane landing, all of the cabin’s windows were fogged up from the extreme humidity. When I say extreme humidity, I’m not kidding. Stepping off the plane and onto the tarmac, even in the middle of the night, was like walking into a demon’s barbeque. Or Jabba the Hutt’s taint. The summer temperatures in the Gulf countries average around 110F and up to 125F with the high humidity added to that. It tends to make the heat index over 130F. Even though I had just arrived from the humid state of Georgia, I knew right away that it didn’t come close to preparing me for the climate onslaught that I was about to endure. The Kingdom of Bahrain is a tiny island nation in the Persian Gulf right next to Saudi Arabia and Qatar. It is also the home of the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet and the reason I was spending a year in one of the hottest, most humid places with shopping malls.
Arabs love to shop. No…seriously.
Shopping malls? Yes. Many Arabs have a lot of money and they love to spend it. Therefore, Manama, Bahrain’s capital has three shopping malls. This is one of the things you’ll first notice when traveling to the Middle East. Western media and movies like to portray it as some backward, barbaric place. In fact, they have all of the same modern amenities that we do, and amazing air conditioning. I think many people are still led to believe only the stereotypes, such as that all Arabs wear the dishdasha and that all women wear the hijab. In fact, in many Arab countries, Bahrain in particular, most of the people wear mainly European fashions. Of course you’ll see men in the iconic white, desert robes and women in the black ubayyas with hijab, but it’s not as commonplace as you would think.
I was sent to Bahrain by the Navy, serving as an Arabic translator, security liaison, and command investigator for the base. I worked with NCIS (nothing like the TV show by the way), investigated fraud and DUI hit & runs, and went out with Navy dive teams in the middle of the night to search for survivors when a party dhow capsized. I spent some time standing 12-hour watches in the volcanic infernos known as “daytime” with an M-16, 9mm pistol, and ammunition strapped to me. I was called upon to locate injured American sailors in the Sulimaniyah Hospital in downtown Manama. Navigating that hospital is like navigating the DMV. Anyway, I made it through all of that. But none of it holds a candle to Middle Eastern traffic.
Driving in the Middle East is a contact sport. There is a phrase in Arabic, “Insha’allah“. It means, “God willing”. Basically, anything that has happened or will happen is God’s will. To me it seemed that many people there also applied this philosophy to driving. So after starting their engine, some may think to themselves, “If I die today, then God has willed it. Insha’allah.” I swear one time we were sitting at a stop light, and one driver near us got impatient. He gunned it onto the sidewalk and drove the entire length to the intersection to make his turn. Behind us was a Bahraini police SUV. Did they do anything? Sure they did. They pointed and laughed.
Bahrain is also connected to Saudi Arabia by the King Fahd causeway. It’s a seventeen-mile long bridge that connects the two kingdoms. In Bahrain, it’s more progressive than its theocratic neighbor. Women can drive. They’re not required to wear the hijab, and can go out and about without a male guardian. Also alcohol is legal. In Saudia Arabia, and in many other Muslim countries, alcohol is illegal. Most of the Saudis enjoy having fun as much as anyone else, which is why they pour into Bahrain every Friday and Saturday (the weekend in much of the Middle East). I’ve met a few of the younger Saudis in Bahrain who just want to enjoy life. So, they come to Bahrain to play pool while having a few drinks, flirt with girls, and get silly on the dance floor. That is another misconception people have about Arabs, particularly Saudis. I think that due to our Western media, people get the image that all Saudis only wear the white dishdashas and are overly conservative. Sure, the older Saudis tend to dress and act more traditionally, but the younger ones I met were more open-minded and progressive. One of them, upon learning I was American, said to me, “I’m very sorry for 9/11. It was not true Islam, but a bunch of extremists.” You won’t see that on the evening news.
Anyway, for two days a week, this small country swells with Saudis, Kuwaits, Qataris, and Emiratis who just want to have a good time. Oh, and drink. A lot. A Navy friend of mine, Greg, and I went out bar hopping on one our first weekends off after arriving. Most of the hotels in the Gulf countries also have several nightclubs and bars in them, and we were staying at a hotel in Juffair until our apartments got sorted. We wandered up to the 2nd floor and found a nightclub in the same hotel we were staying at. We go inside and it’s set up like any typical nightclub. Only the music and clientele are vastly different. Arab club music is a hybrid of traditional doumbecks, ouds, violins and songs in Arabic, with a techno beat thrown in. It’s actually pretty catchy. Out on the dance floor are usually Arab males in their white, desert robes. Out in the wings were the ladies of the night. Working girls if you will.
We hadn’t even gotten to the bar when the club manager approached us and asked, “Ah, Americans. Would you like Russian girl? Thai girl? I’ll send them to your room?”.
Let me clarify that in Bahrain, prostitution is technically illegal. However, the economy benefits so greatly from people coming over every weekend and spending their money on liquor, expensive nightclubs, expensive hotels, and hookers that the government tends to look the other way.
On the elevator up to the nightclub, we met a young Arab male who happened to be the DJ there. He was a cool guy, and while I was chatting with him, he was thrilled that I could speak Arabic. Honestly, it is a novelty to find an American that can speak another language. I sometimes think there are many of my fellow Americans that can’t even speak English. Anyway, this DJ loved that I could speak his native tongue. So much so that in the nightclub, he decided to play some American music. He asked me what kind of music I like, so I told him “heavy metal”.
I must say that it’s quite an interesting sight. Seeing a bunch of men in their white robes attempting to do a drunk line dance, while their Russian and Thai prostitutes waited for them as the DJ played Metallica over the sound system.