MANAMA, BAHRAIN – April, 1995
Fort Arad, Bahrain
The first time I ventured the Oscar Wilde show beyond Europe was in 1995. In contrast to the utter failure of the 1993 attempt in the Czech Republic, I abandoned insouciance and planned this one down to the last detail.
Firstly, I had Brian K – a good friend who had spent the previous two years in Bahrain and who was adept at fixing deals.
Secondly, he had booked me into a local hotel that doubled as accommodation and as a venue.
Thirdly, the hotel had the responsibility for advertising, stage management, etc.
Fourthly, I would be paid by a fixed fee – a major relief.
And fifthly, an airline was prepared to give me a free return flight from London to the Gulf in return for their aircrew receiving ten tickets for the show each night.
This time it all looked like plain, and lucrative, sailing.
A few days before leaving, I received a phone call from BK.
“Look, I thought I’d better warn you. There’s some trouble at t’mill going on in Bahrain.” (Although usually resident in London, BK remained, and remains, an irrepressible Yorkshireman.)
“Like, there’s a bit of a rebellion going on at t’moment.”
“Well, there’s not all that many dead. But the hotel said that if you want to cancel they’d understand.”
Promising to phone him back, I pondered the situation. There was no way I wanted to drop out. On the other hand……?
I checked out the recent newspaper coverage and, in the furthest reaches of the foreign pages, there were some references. It seems that a few months ago, the local Shia Moslems had objected to women participating in a sports event. This resulted in such headlines as:
‘At least 10 civilians and three policemen have been reported killed and hundreds arrested’;
‘Shia mosques smashed as police answer Bahrain unrest’; and:
‘Protests have left many dead and banks, power stations and schools blackened and burnt out’.
Even the UK theatrical trade paper ‘The Stage’ had a piece:
‘Agents may stop sending artists to the Middle East because of increasingly ugly situations. Funny-man Jimmy Cricket had his tour cancelled at the last minute and Geordie rock band Lindisfarne were forced to perform in Bahrain with tanks rumbling nearby. One agent told The Stage “I’ve been sending acts to the Gulf for four years and it’s never been this bad.” ’
On the normally correct assumption that no situation is as bad as it seems in a newspaper report, I decided to ignore the omens and go ahead. It added a certain devil-may-care frisson to the expedition.
It was only on the night before leaving that a further thought struck me. I was travelling into a fundamentalist Islamic rebellion to perform a show entitled ‘Work is the Curse of the Drinking Classes.’
April 1995: Sunday
As the plane took a major southerly detour to avoid Iraqi (and Saddam Hussein’s) air space, I glanced through the Lonely Planet guide. As usual, my ignorance of the destination was spectacular, my most enduring impression of Arabia having been gleaned as a child from an illustrated oasis on a box of dates.
It turned out that custom in the Gulf dictated that one should always stand if someone entered the room, one should never sit with the soles of one’s feet pointing at anyone else, and one should not offer things with one’s left hand.
In specific reference to Bahrain, entry to the country was easy unless a) you had an Israeli stamp in your passport, b) if your passport occupation was ‘writer’ or ‘journalist’, or c) if you were a young, unaccompanied woman.
In other words, if you happened to be the female editor of the Tel Aviv Bugle and you were left-handed, forget it.
[Although some Islamic sensitivities might seem odd to the secular mind, occasionally the Jewish laws are equally tangled. I read a press report somewhere that the Israeli government had been forced to withdraw a postage stamp because it had the word YAHWEH on it. It is forbidden to lick God’s name. However, by the same token, it is forbidden to destroy it. After much deliberation, they had to bury the offending stamps in a sealed vault.]
Around 7pm, the plane started to descend through the darkness. The lights of the capital Manama twinkled below like strings of diamonds lying on black velvet.
Progress through customs was as trouble-free as promised in Lonely Planet. Despite their very visible presence, the Bahraini soldiers guarding the Arrivals Hall seemed to be quite relaxed, even friendly. After a half hour wait, I spotted my contact and friend – Brian K, the tall, black-moustached, Sheffield economist. It was slightly dislocating to see him here. I’d known him for over fifteen years but only in a London context. We shook hands and walked outside to his car. The night temperature was about 85F – after a British winter, it was hot but bearable.
As he drove out of the airport, BK informed me that our destination, the Diplomat Hotel, was not just any hotel. “When the Arabs do posh, they really do posh.”
We were heading towards one of the most splendidly palatial five-star glories of Bahrain. At least, we would have been, if we hadn’t got lost.
Firstly, we circled around an almost completely dark industrial estate on Muharraq Island – and then arrived in a Shi’ite village. BK peered out of the window with some concern and muttered:
“It’s one of them rebel strongholds, round here.”
Even as a raw newcomer, this did not strike me as a healthy move.
BK edged the car slowly down the very narrow streets. White-robed figures flitted down the side alleys like large moths; small groups of men huddled their heads together in dingy, dead-fly cafes; an air of menace in the night; dark eyes watching the Ingleesh pass by. A bit like Aberystwyth, really.
After a tense twenty minutes, BK managed to locate the road back to the airport, and we tried again. This time we found the main route along the mile-long causeway from Muharraq to the main island of Bahrain. Ahead of us, myriad lights sparkled from the towers of downtown Manama. BK pointed to the first one – each of its twelve floors seemed luminous with luxury.
“Welcome to the Diplomat Hotel”.
Concealed spotlights lit the palm trees outside as we walked through the entrance into an expansive yellow marble lobby and a bath of cool air-conditioning. The most obvious feature was a central sunken circle fringed by leather sofas where a few supremely relaxed Arabs sat sipping coffee.
BK introduced me to Stephen, the under-manager, a fresh-faced, friendly Englishman of about thirty, who signalled to a couple of porters to carry my dilapidated rucksack upstairs.
Stephen said that he had fixed two shows for Tuesday and Wednesday at 7 30pm, which would include a three-course dinner for the audience. He added that the management was pleased to offer me the best suite in the hotel and all my meals free of charge, in honour of my visit. I thanked him dazedly.
He led us to the bar and, opening a bottle of superb French wine, helped BK to give the real low-down on Bahrain.
BK: “Forget everything you know about democracy and civil rights. It’s feudal out here. They only freed the last slaves in 1930.”
In a nutshell, it appeared that out of the population of 500,000, there were only 30,000 actual Sunni Bahrainis, but that they controlled everything under the rule of the Emir and his Khalifa family. The rest were Shi’ites – 300,000 of them, who were the original occupants of the island and loathed the Sunnis. It was the only Gulf state where Shi’ites were the majority.
The remaining 170,000 were foreign workers. These broke down into a pecking order of 1) Brits (the traditional top dogs), 2) Yanks (who were rapidly taking over the number one spot), and 3) other Euros – the business community, etc.
Then, 4) Pakistanis, who were mostly police, and Indians, who worked as project workers, waiters, etc. Finally 5) Philippinos, the ‘service industry’.
4 and 5 were on desperately low wages but still far better than they could obtain at home. They were, however, disposable; if times got bad, they were simply deported. Therefore the question of rights did not arise.
BK: “Anything that gets in the way of making money is defined as ‘detrimental to national security’.”
However, it appeared that the Bahraini economy was largely phoney. It was kept afloat by the top Saudi Arabians who wanted it as a rest and recreation hideout. An alcoholic oasis where they could drink and have illicit sex without coming under the religious spotlight and ensuing hassle that they would find in Saudi Arabia itself.
BK: “They reckon at this rate they’re going to have to build a booze drying-out clinic on the bridge back to Saudi.”
Stephen added: “The Bahrainis are very sophisticated these days. Back in the 1930s, the Emir of the time bought two baths for each of his bathrooms, even though there was no running water. When he was asked why he had bought two each, he said one was for hot and the other one for cold. Well, that couldn’t happen now. Thirty years of massive oil money have made them just as clued up as any New Yorker. In no way are they subservient to the West.”
One look around the Diplomat had already proved that. Later, I checked out my star bedroom on the twelfth floor – the place was positively sybaritic. The best view in Manama, a huge bed, a multi-multi-multi-channel TV, a lounge area sporting a large sofa and three armchairs, a wardrobe the size of a garden shed, and a bathroom the size of a garage. And just to ease any other discomforts of travel, several more plates of smoked salmon canapés and another first-rate bottle of wine. Where did it all go right?
At 2am I lay in bed (or rather colonised about one-eighth of it) and thought about my misgivings concerning flying into ‘the hell they call Bahrain’. Yes, well … er … sort of.