7th Post: THIRD BAHRAIN – DESERTS AND DANCERS

Hotel pool, Bahrain

At 5pm, I brushed down the Wilde costume in the hotel bedroom and started to prepare mentally for the show. Suddenly, the lights in the room failed. ‘What the hell’s going on?’

After fifteen minutes, an Indian waiter arrived with a carafe of complimentary wine, courtesy of the management. It turned out that the Shi’ite rebels had blown up the city’s main electricity transformer.

“Well, I suppose that’s one way to start a show.”

“Ha, ha, sir, very funny, sir.”

After half an hour they flickered back on again. I went down to the restaurant to check out the props and found the head manager delivering a pep talk about the opening night to the staff. He told me that both the US and the British Ambassadors were going to attend the show. There was a shimmer of anticipation around the place.

BK came up. He had just arrived from delivering an economics lecture about the Chicago pork bellies market. The topic had caused much grumbling from the Muslim contingent of the audience.

“They reckoned the power failure was a sign of Allah’s displeasure”.

I returned to the bedroom and paced up and down waiting for the 9pm start. This was always the worst time for nerves. It wasn’t that I hadn’t done the show hundreds of times before but, with a new venue, there was no way of knowing what to expect from the conditions or the audience. Obviously it wasn’t as bad as a true first night but it was still nerve-jangling.

I lay on the bed and switched the TV to CNN. All the other channels seemed to be Islamic religious services.

At 9pm, the room telephone rang – it was a call from Stephen to tell me that the dinner was running late. “We have to postpone till 9.45.” I felt the quick jerk of relief that I had more time, quickly followed by the sinking knowledge that this was very temporary; rather like a condemned man who hears that the executioner’s car is stuck in a traffic jam.

By 9 45pm, I was positioned outside the glass doors of the Veneziano. The restaurant was very crowded and quite noisy. The delay meant that the audience had had an extra drink and were correspondingly livelier. The house lights dimmed, the music started, and I set off into the lion’s den.

Very quickly I found that I had a real problem with ‘cotton mouth’ – one’s mouth becoming so dry that the tongue starts to slur. At first, I thought it was just nerves but the damn effect lasted throughout the show. I was literally tongue-tied and it wrecked the timing. Also – and this was entirely my own fault – I had decided to use some high bar stools as the ‘Paris café’ chairs. Perched on top of them, I got the feeling that I must look less like the literary aesthete I was meant to be, and more like Tony Bennett crooning at Las Vegas.

Despite these hassles the show held up quite well, in fact there was a lot of laughter. There was a great response from the US Ambassador and his guests to Oscar’s wisecracks about America. The elegiac ‘Wilde in Jail’ sequence also worked fine – the hush across the room was 100%.

I came offstage to good applause and retired to the bedroom. I was still perplexed about the cotton mouth problem until I realised that it must have been the result of the hotel air-conditioning; it had never been this strong before. Still, things had gone reasonably well.

Central Manama, Bahrain

Part of the agreement with the hotel was that I should make myself available to meet the audiences post-performance. Admittedly, this was not exactly arduous – just sitting at the bar and lapping up whatever plaudits might be on tap.

The first person to arrive turned out to be this morning’s interlocutor, the Australian girl from Gulf TV. I jokingly apologised for Wilde’s crack about ‘I only had three choices left – this world, the next world, or Australia’. She actually took it seriously and seemed somewhat disgruntled. (Oddly enough, considering that Oscar insulted virtually everybody, in my experience the only people to get upset have been Australians?)

Next in the line was a charming Arab gentleman who explained that he was the director of a forthcoming Bahraini production of ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’. This was a revelation – I had no idea that Wilde had such international recognition. An Arabic Lady Bracknell would be something to behold.

Then the Kuwaiti Ambassador arrived with his wife, who had been flown in from Kuwait especially to see the show. He whispered: “And she never goes out usually. She stays indoors.”

By now, a queue had formed to shake my hand. It included the American, British, and Swedish Ambassadors. The only emissary missing seemed to be Matti from Finland, (probably recovering from the Rotary disaster). This was socially ludicrous. I felt dizzied by the sheer absurdity of the situation.

It finally started to thin out, except for one very inebriated Yank who kept pumping my hand and repeating ‘Buenas Dias’ for some reason.

I returned to the bedroom about 1am and, sated with compliments genuine or not, sank into one of the armchairs. Opening another bottle of wine, I thought back to a story told to me by Tony Joyce, an old London friend. He had also had dealings with the Gulf elite.

He had acquired a job in Abu Dhabi, part of which involved installing a huge fountain in the main city square.

“The Arabians have a thing about fountains. If you come from the desert, the conspicuous waste of water is the ultimate luxury.”

The ceremony of the Grand Opening was attended by most of the Royal Family, plus foreign dignitaries, envoys, etc. At a given signal, Tony started to operate the fountain but found that he had pitched the pressure far too high. This resulted in sending a vast jet of water about 100 feet into the air and drenching the entire audience as they scattered below.

Map of Bahrain

April 1995: Wednesday

As a special concession, the management provided me with one of the hotel’s air-conditioned limousines for a tour around Bahrain Island. About 10am, I descended to the lobby and was introduced to the chauffeur, a burly but surly Pakistani wearing a mauve hotel uniform. Stephen took him to one side and gave him orders that he should phone back to the reception desk every half hour. I wondered at this – it seemed a slightly strange instruction.

Chauffeur and car, Bahrain

The island was roughly the same size as the Isle of Man – about thirty miles long and ten wide. We began the tour by driving over the causeway to Muharraq Island and stopping by the house of one of the original Emirs – the Bait Shaikh Bin All, built in 1800. I had always imagined that the wide-open upper storeys of these houses were just top-heavy decoration. But it seemed that, prior to air-conditioning, this was the way to capture the slightest breeze which then circulated down to the room below – a damn good idea.

Crossing back and through Manama, we headed out of the city along the west coast. The road was bordered by distant mini-palaces. Allegedly the reason why they were set back so far from the thoroughfare was so that the wives or girlfriends of the owners would not be able to see passers-by. Dusty donkeys plodded along beside the wild desert bushes.

After fifteen minutes, we stopped outside a set of wooden shacks. It turned out to be a pottery centre. I walked inside, looked around at the hundreds of unglazed pots on the shelves, and watched the potters at work. An old blind man was in charge. As each pot was finished it was presented to him for quality control. He sightlessly passed his hand over the proffered urns and nodded his approval.

Through the open window I saw the chauffeur phoning back to the hotel on his mobile and muttering.

Chauffeur phoning home, Bahrain

At the next crossroads we passed a recent car crash. Three Arabs were checking the mangled metal for anything useful. There didn’t seem to be any official need or desire to clear the remaining debris. I felt that the Bahraini attitude to the desert was rather like the British attitude to the sea – somewhere to dump rubbish.

NJT on the road in Bahrain

Twenty minutes later, we reached the causeway to Saudi Arabia and drove along to the border a mile further on. An artificial island had been constructed to house the customs post, a coastguard station and a restaurant. Again I felt a wave of unreality. Just fifteen miles away, at the far end of the causeway, was the Kingdom of Saud! The land of the Empty Quarter, of the famous desert writers like Wilfred Thesiger and St John Philby, the heart of Arabia. I could see the coast shimmering through the heat-haze and the turquoise sea, the sun bleaching everything into a pastel watercolour. The air seemed to hang in the air.

Saudi Arabian coastline from Bahrain

We turned the car around back into Bahrain. And had to pay two dinar at the customs post to a hawk-eyed guard with a sub-machine-gun.

Military reminders seemed to be everywhere. Outside another five star hotel compound, I spotted two Arab guards who were draped with so many weapons the effect was comic – Saladin meets Rambo. Then, as we passed through an industrialised district that included the largest aluminium smelting works in the Middle East, we came across a row of armoured cars. The accompanying troops were squatting on the ground brewing coffee over primus stoves. To the south, beyond the only real hill in Bahrain, (Jabal Ad Dukhan, about 400 feet high), lay an American naval base, tucked away and ‘jist being real friendly, folks’.

Jabal ad Dukhan, Bahrain

The settlements dwindled as we drove out into the desert. This was something I’d always wanted to do. Fair enough, it wasn’t the middle of the Sahara and a real desert hand would roar with laughter at my pretensions. All the same, this was desert as far as the eye could see and a bit further.

I told the driver to halt while I walked around alone for half an hour. There was an extraordinary feeling of space, deadness and solitude. Even in those few minutes I got some inkling of what attracts people to it. Deserted land and all that meant in simplicity. There was a tug of the heart towards it. Rather like vertigo – the real fear of heights is that something inside yourself might impel you to leap into the void. Here, the suicidal attraction was the heat and the silence and the possibility of deliberately losing yourself in it.

However, I noticed also a half buried rusting barbed wire fence. In this context it was comforting. Years ago, I read some of John Milton; in his time, towns and cities were regarded as things of beauty in their own right, as opposed to the dangers and ugliness of nature; i.e. before nature was tamed in time for Wordsworth and his pals, it was seen as alien. There was some similarity here. In the desert even a squashed tin can of Pepsi could be cheering when surrounded by blank nothing.

Two opposed emotions; the safety of the rusted barbed wire, but the sheer attraction of that other emptiness. I think I had a glimpse of what Thesiger and Philby were on about.

The Tree of Life, Bahrain

We drove off north and entered a dilapidated mud wall village – presumably Shi’ite. The chauffeur peered ahead with a worried expression and slowed the car. I looked around but could not see a soul in the place. Suddenly, the chauffeur slammed on the brakes and then reversed rapidly until we were clear of the buildings. Then he performed a quick U-turn and we drove back towards the sea. He shook his head: “Too dangerous.” I had been so absorbed by the experience that I hadn’t noticed just how nervous he was. I assumed that it was because of the hatred that was felt towards the Pakistanis due to their police links. We drove through the old town of Manama – minarets and palm trees and arches and domes.

Back at the Diplomat, I had lunch with Stephen and BK. Stephen said that rebels had attacked in Manama again last night. They had burnt down an Indian workers’ hostel and killed seven of them.

“That’s why I told the chauffeur to report back every half hour. I didn’t mention it earlier because I didn’t want to alarm you.”

Next week: A trip through the Souk and then a nasty surprise. 

 

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