Friday, June 24, 2011

Bahrain

Today is hot and dusty.  The air is thick with dust and it covers everything like a blanket.  My car is covered with it and the heat and the dust make it difficult to breathe.  The day has just begun and the sun has only been up for a few hours but it is already approaching 100 degrees.  I am heading to Bahrain.
Bahrain is a tiny island just east of Saudi Arabia.  It is its own Kingdom, ruled by a Sunni Muslim King but inhabited in the majority by Shia Muslims.  This fact has been a source of much civil unrest over the past several months.  Riots, murders, unfounded arrests and death have all been the result of the people saying they no longer want the minority in power.  Today I learn that several people involved in an uprising about 2 months ago have been sentenced to life in prison.  I am uncertain if this includes the doctors and nurses that cared for the wounded Shia in a local hospital.
A large group of us are traveling to Bahrain today. All women – since women cannot drive they are the only ones allowed to take the shuttle.  I don’t really know anyone and I am going alone for the first time.  While I wait for the shuttle to pick us up I listen to everyone chat about their plans for the day.  Many, like me, are going to a hair salon.  There are a couple of American women on camp that do hair out of their house but both of them happen to be out this particular week on leave.  There are certainly hair salons in Khobar but the real difficulty is finding someone that speaks English well enough to trust with your hair!  In Bahrain the chance of finding someone American or English goes up exponentially and I am going to see a woman that comes highly recommended.
The drive out of Khobar is shocking as usual.  Since it is the weekend the roads are crowded with cars and people are driving with the usual madness.  The part of town that leads to the causeway is filled with empty buildings, empty lots with rubble from fallen buildings, patches of desert filled with the sand that is creating the dust, and businesses that remind you of an inner city slum.  The view of the Gulf rises out of the clutter like a Phoenix.  The Gulf of Arabia is beautiful.  Every time I see it I am immediately transported to Tampa Bay, Florida.  The water is still and blue – a color of blue that combines azure and cerulean with turquoise to create a color that is pure pleasure.  The causeway bridge is well built, well maintained and an excellent road for driving.  Once on the causeway a strange sense of normalcy begins to settle over me.  I am happily conversing with the new friends I have met and anxiously awaiting a haircut.
Check points are not too crowded this morning because there are several lanes open.  First the vehicle we are in must clear the exit process.  Next all passports are surrendered for the Saudi government to verify we have the necessary visa to exit Saudi.  The vehicle must stop to purchase insurance to enter Bahrain, again passengers surrender passports to Bahraini immigration and finally the car is searched for any contraband being brought into Bahrain.  Five checkpoints in all and the last one is a mystery – what is there to smuggle out of Saudi or into Bahrain???
Bahrain is like a tropical paradise.  The Gulf can be seen from almost every angle.  The buildings are a brilliant display of some of the world’s fines architecture.  The glass and steel high rises gleam with the morning sun.  We all feel a sense of freedom that is at times greatly missed in Saudi.  Here we are free to dress as we like – short skirts, crop pants, sundresses, tank tops and we are not required to wear the hot black robes called abayas that must be worn when off the camp in Saudi. 
The shuttle stops at two malls, the Ritz Carlton hotel and Trader Vic’s.  I am getting off at the mall for a short taxi ride to the hair salon.  The salon is a chain from Lebanon that has locations in three of the luxury hotels in Bahrain.  I have opted for the Regency Intercontinental because another girl I met recommended her stylist at this location.  The salon is modern and hustling with ladies in chairs getting haircuts, colored, blow dried and styled.  I immediately like to vibe of the grey metal, black leather, red towels, and white tile.  Filipino women greet every customer and place them in a black robe to protect their clothes and bring them coffee, tea, cappuccino, or water.  The stylists are assisted by the Filipino women to do everything from hold the foil pieces for hair color to shampoo and blow dry the hair.  I am fascinated by the way the stylists move from chair to chair performing the cutting, coloring, or actual styling and leaving the other work to the assistants. 
As I enjoy a relaxing shampoo complete with head, neck and shoulders massage and listen to the pop music play in the background I hear the ever familiar call to prayer waft through the air like the familiar scent of cookies baking.  Above the din of clacking scissors and humming blow dryers and ladies nattering about their day the Imam still manages to call people to prayer with his lyrical chants of the Quran.  I am reminded that as normal as it feels to me I am still a long way from home. 
Bahrain is an essential part of living in Saudi.  I can’t imagine living here without it.  It is an escape from the daily frustrations of language and communication barriers; hot, heavy abayas; always conservative dress; no alcoholic beverages; no bacon for bacon and eggs or BLT sandwiches.  Not being able to try on clothes at the mall.  Having your cosmetics and lingerie sold to you by a man.  All just little things that were taken for granted in the US but are actually quite disturbing.  Here, it seems as if all wrongs have been righted.  Of course, there are the armored tanks, machine guns, soldiers patrolling parts of town and such things as these that bring you quickly back to the reality you are still in an oppressive society without many of the freedoms we take for granted. 
After my hair cut I relax in the regal lobby of the hotel and wait for a taxi to take me to one of the malls.  I don’t have any plans to shop but I have to wait for the shuttle to pick me up there for the ride back to Dhahran.  I feel like a wealthy American tourist and enjoy the time watching the real wealthy tourists watch me! 
The mall is as all malls.  The summer sales are on now and everything is marked down 50-70%.  Business in Bahrain has been hurt because of the political unrest and the fact that for a while Saudis were not allowed in the country at all, and then Shia Muslims from Saudi were not allowed in.  It is now back to business as usual but the economy has suffered a serious blow and still people are leery of going over from Saudi.  I enjoy a nice lunch at a little French café, wonder aimlessly for a couple of hours and long for the freedom to get into my car and leave when I am ready.   I can’t, so I find a place to sit and read a book and newspaper on my iPAD.
The drive back across the causeway is the exact reverse of the five checkpoints coming over.  Traffic is bad and the ability of drivers to queue is being tested.  We narrowly escape being crushed between two inpatient Saudi drivers anxious to get back to their native soil!  Across the Gulf it is evident that the dust in the air has grown even thicker.  You can barely see the horizon and the sun looks more like a giant yellow plate hanging on a gray wall.  Everyone is relaxed and happy.  Most have had a few cocktails at Trader Vic’s and are animated as they recount their day.  A few good laughs and stories about past times and we are suddenly back safely on camp.  Hugs and farewells, wishes for the remainder of the weekend and we all part with the same thought – Thank goodness for Bahrain….we can’t imagine life here without it!

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