April 1995: Monday
The euphoric feeling of last night lingered as I drew back the curtains in the morning. The view far below was idyllic. The square white buildings along the shoreline nestled in the sun, as a few tiny cars criss-crossed the causeway into town. A tall sculpture of twin dhow sails stood alone on a swathe of sand as, in the far distance, a speedboat rippled the hazy blue waters of the Gulf. A wonderful sense of peace and sea and sand and sky. And air-conditioning.
I met BK and Stephen for lunch in the Veneziano Restaurant on the ground floor of the hotel. As the name suggested, it was decorated to represent a café in Venice; a three-foot high white balustrade topped by pot plants separated the dining area from the main lobby. I also discovered that this was to be the venue for the Wilde show tomorrow.
The conversation meandered on to the topic of hairstyles, in particular my own shoulder length mane. BK said: “You must be the only man in Bahrain with a haircut like that.”
“Well, I need it to play Oscar Wilde, you see. It’s part of the act. I don’t go round the world looking like a redundant member of the Troggs for nothing.”
He mentioned that we’d been invited to a Rotary meeting tonight. Rotary? In the desert?
About noon, I went out for a stroll along a few blocks of the main Government Avenue. Despite warnings that the temperature was nearing 100F, initially it did not seem too hot. Nobody else seemed to be out on the streets though – (except for a couple of mad dogs?)
Downtown Manama appeared to be in the middle of reconstructing itself as a surreal American city, with the same emphasis on high-rise blocks separated by vacant car lots. However, the sharp clarity of sunlight and shadow had the effect of turning what was in effect a vast building site into something attractively Cubist.
After twenty minutes, the initial enjoyment of the sun had evaporated. It was now beating down on my unprotected head. ‘Beating’ may be a cliché but it exactly described the sensation. An hour or so of this and your brains would bake in your skull.
Back at the hotel, we met for the technical rehearsal at 4pm. Stephen introduced me to ‘Joy’, an Indian electrician, who had been called in to fix a few overhead spotlights. I smiled hallo and put out my hand. He shook it hesitantly. A small tingle of embarrassment ran through the group. BK took me to one side. “You don’t shake hands with the sub-continentals here. He’s probably never shaken hands with a European before”.
It seemed that, in the Gulf, all Asians were known as ‘sub-continentals’. I was not convinced. Quite aside from any racist or sociological issues, in my experience the surest path to theatrical disaster is a resentful backstage techie. I tested the acoustics by booming out a few Wilde speeches. It sounded reasonably good except that some of the volume tended to get lost in the glass dome roof.
Then Stephen mentioned an unexpected problem. One whole side of the restaurant consisted of panoramic windows that opened out on to the hotel swimming pool.
“On Wednesday night there’s going to be a poolside ‘Arabian Nights’ party. And the entertainment will include a camel. It’ll be difficult to keep it out of sight.”
This was the first time that I’d ever had to worry about being upstaged by a camel. Stephen said that he’d try to fix it.
I left with BK at 6pm and we drove to the Al Sawani Restaurant, an impressive building overlooking the sea front. I queried the Rotary Club’s connection to Arabia. BK explained: “It’s so that important people can meet each other. The whole purpose of entertainment here is really business.”
The interior of the restaurant matched the ornate exterior; exquisite Islamic tapestries and gold lanterns adorned the white walls. We mingled into the throng of about fifty people and sipped wine. Most of the Rotarians seemed to be German, Dutch, or Scandinavian businessmen representing various companies and projects, but there were a sprinkling of other nationalities.
One of them was an American woman who seemed to be one of nature’s hostesses. She bubbled with bonhomie – a real Southern belle. “Ah’m from liddle ol’ Arkansas. Jist a simple country gal.” My own impression was that she was about as simple as nuclear physics; behind the social front, one very sharp cookie indeed.
The undoubted star of the gathering, though, was a tall, gravely elegant Arab who stood aloof from the crowd and acknowledged the obsequious greetings of the others with an air of wary disdain. BK: “He’s one of the Al Khalifa Princes. He’s the richest man in Bahrain and the real power behind the Emir. If he doesn’t like someone, they’re off the island in 24 hours.”
We took our seats for the dinner; my Pakistani neighbour introduced himself as the managing director of ‘Consolidated Business Solutions’ – about as meaningless a nomenclature as I’d come across.
Earlier, a Rotary official had asked me what I did and I’d replied flippantly: “Oh, I just potter around in fringe theatre.” To my surprise, the Rotary chairman, a burly Dutchman, suddenly rapped on his glass to attract attention and called on me to stand up. I was introduced to the room as ‘the ‘famed actor and director’. I bowed to a round of applause and sat down again wondering how ‘pottering around in fringe theatre’ came to be upgraded into ‘famed actor and director’?
The Dutchman continued with a speech that consisted mainly of a desperately dull story about bulls screwing cows; it seemed to go on forever. There is something about Middle European ‘jokes’ that make me feel as if I’m wading through marmalade.
Eventually he finished and introduced the guest speaker – the Finnish Ambassador, called Matti. It seemed that most of these ambassadors were basically sales reps. Matti had only just been appointed and it was fairly obvious that he hadn’t got a clue. Firstly, he was visibly nervous and secondly it turned out that his prepared speech had been removed by a waiter under the impression that it was an unwanted table napkin.
The hapless Matti was left to fall back on his film slides and his own resources. He bumbled on for a bit:
“In Finland we have many lakes ………. some of them are large ……. and some of them are …………… small.”
The audience received this information with fortitude.
He managed to keep going by describing his straddle carrier (some sort of crane that he was trying to trade to the Arabs). At the end I was no wiser as to its function. Finally the poor devil was allowed to sink into his chair to desultory clapping. The Emir’s hitman looked grim. I could see the sales of straddle carriers dissolving.
By 8 30pm, the event ended. The company circulated in a last frenzy of net-working, and the rich Bahraini departed amidst some of the most blatant grovelling by the Euro business squad that I’d ever seen.
To his great credit, BK was not among them. His only attempt to ingratiate himself was to address the man with: “Hallo, Prince. Fancy a pint? They do a good Bass Charrington here.” The offer received a frigid rejection from the (presumably teetotal) Moslem prince.
BK seemed to be making a habit of this sort of thing. At a recent cocktail party, on being introduced to the British Ambassador, BK stared at him in amazement and commented:
“If you’re British Ambassador, I’m Queen of Sheba.”
Later in the evening, we walked to the Gulf Hotel, another vast palace of five-star Manama hospitality. However, this one boasted an additional feature – the Sherlock Holmes Bar. This place was an exact replica of a traditional London pub, the only difference being the flowing white robes of the clientele sitting in a row on the bar stools.
We talked quietly about the local troubles that I’d seen in the British press. BK said that he thought the authorities were over-reacting to the trouble.
“It’s because Bahrain has never really had any experience of war. In fact, not since the British Navy ended piracy 150 years ago. The Italians tried to bomb the oil refinery in 1940 and missed completely. Then Saddam Hussein aimed a Scud missile here in 1991 but it fell in the sea. Other than that, nothing.”
As we downed a bottle of red wine, one of BK’s acquaintances joined the conversation. He was a large Scotsman and the head of security for an international oil firm. He said that, given the present emergency, he was doing an 18-hour day.
“Most security is window-dressing though. We have to work on received intelligence. I estimate two in three Bahraini phones are tapped.” He added that empty rubber dinghies had been found on the northern beaches yesterday, signifying that Iranian agents were probably arriving at night.
He explained that one of his responsibilities was recruiting Gurkha soldiers to work for the oil company. Because of their reputation the Gurkhas could become the Swiss mercenaries of the corporate world. It was a new concept to me. This could mean the end of national armies in favour of corporate business armies. The Wallmart Fusiliers? Weird.
Having collected his dog Scamp from BK’s house, we went for a late night stroll under the palm trees. Scamp chased a cat along the road, then had a barking exchange with a guard dog inside the heavily fortified Kuwaiti Embassy. BK said that there were very few dogs in Bahrain because the Muslims considered them to be unclean animals. Scamp then rather let the side down by crapping on a neighbouring doorstep.
As I returned to the Diplomat, BK wished me luck for tomorrow’s show.
“Thanks. I think it should be OK, God willing.”
April 1995: Tuesday
It is always difficult to relax on the day of a performance; one automatically counts down the hours knowing that there is an unavoidable denouement ahead.
By 10am, I was sitting in the lobby, under the ten feet tall portraits of Bahrain’s three top Emirs, distracting myself by reading a book borrowed from BK. It was a well-written history of the Gulf by Molly Izzard and one of its salient points was that in 1930, nobody suspected that there was any oil in the Gulf States at all. The chief geologist of the Anglo-Persian Oil Company had announced: “I’ll drink any oil found in Bahrain”; a judgement almost on a par with the record producer who turned down the Beatles.
Occasionally I observed the mostly Arab guests around the lobby. On arrival, the men greeted each other with a handshake and a kiss on the cheek. When departing, they stood and almost ritualistically folded back the drapes of their red and white check head cloths. These were held in place by black head ropes, (originally the rope with which the Bedouin hitched their camels at night, according to Izzard, my new oracle.) They nearly all seemed to have large bellies and the sheer white gowns did not exactly flatter them. It seemed that the more important you were, the larger your belly.
These reflections were interrupted by the arrival of a team from Channel 55 to carry out a TV interview. Again, I was struck by the incongruity of the film crew’s centuries-old traditional white gowns and Bedouin head wear, together with their state of the art hi-tech equipment. The interviewer was a young Australian woman who radiated harassed impatience. Stephen bustled up from the reception desk and suggested that we moved upstairs to a private lounge.
The interviewer, four film crew, their piles of machinery, Stephen, two porters, and myself managed to squash ourselves into the lift and then ignominiously spill out again at the 4th floor, an undignified rigmarole that robbed the occasion of any glamour that it might have had.
The interview itself was perfunctory; about five questions about Oscar’s life and times, and a plug for the hotel. It lasted twenty minutes. The interviewer was wearing a split skirt that every now and then suddenly divided and flashed her bare thighs – definitely not recommended for Arab TV. She spent most of the interview readjusting her skirt.
Afterwards, while the gear was being repacked, she told me that a month previously she had made a physical workout video for Gulf TV. She had not been allowed to show any skin except for her face, and had to perform the exercises while wearing a floor length cloak.
NJT with camel, Bahrain