8th Post: FOURTH BAHRAIN – The Souk and Some Trouble

Manama Skyline

After a siesta, I returned to the Veneziano at 5pm to carry out a technical check. Outside the windows, the camel had arrived for the evening pool-side party and was nonchalantly chewing a sun-lounger. Stephen was frowning at him and debating where to put him so that he didn’t shatter the illusion of 1890’s Paris. “He’s a bit difficult to disguise.” I left them to it.

At 9 30, I returned to the restaurant and peeped inside. It was very crowded – we had a complete sell-out. I waited for the music cue, then strolled onstage. The lights came up, I settled on the bar stool and delivered the opening lines: “Ah, August in Paris.”

A Wildean Dinner and a ‘young’ actor?.

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the camel pacing past the window and giving me a superior smirk. I ploughed on.

Once again I found that I was getting ‘cotton wool’ mouth. This time I knew it was the air conditioning, and decided to change the stage blocking as I went along. I started to take a sip of water after almost every paragraph; it totally threw out all the usual moves, etc., but it worked rather well. It not only kept the mouth wet but it slowed the delivery. In fact, the show was reasonably good; it went better than last night, even if the audience weren’t quite so responsive. I really let rip through the final ‘exile’ section, and there was a lot of applause at the end.

Dancers in the Dark

After the queue of post-performance well-wishers had departed (no ambassadors this time), I went to another bar across the lobby. A floor show was in progress. It consisted of eight Philippine girls dressed in very demure bikinis dancing to Euro-pop. It was about as sexy as you could get under Islam; in other words, about as sexy as a 1950s TV variety show. As they finished their act, they grinned and curtsied to the few bored, half pissed ex-pats slumped around the tables.

I was turning back to the wine when the lead dancer left the stage and walked straight towards me. She seized my arm and gasped: “You are wondairfool, Meester Oscair.” It turned out that she had watched the Wilde show from the kitchens. I felt absurdly flattered – this was better than any amount of ambassadors. She turned and beckoned her troupe – they came across and stood in a row, giggling shyly. The leader introduced me to each of them in turn; as we shook hands, I loomed over them like a tipsy Duke of Edinburgh: ‘Have you come far?’

After the Philippino fan club had disappeared backstage, I was joined at the bar by a Bahraini banker. He was a pleasant man who was happy to talk about his country.

“We like to be cosmopolitan. Arabia is too closed down and full of bigots. We are happy to have visitors, not like most Gulf countries.”

We drank on. He continued:

“I know you are an artist. I can see it in your eyes.”

I reckoned that the only thing he could have seen in my eyes at that moment was Chardonnay, but no matter. We continued on the topic of ‘the meaning of life’ until he finally left.

I sat back in the now almost deserted bar and listened to the distant sound of a muzac tape playing the Serge Gainsbourg song ‘Je T’Aime’: the gorgeous Jane Birkin was orgasming away. Syrup to the spirit.

Well, the shows were finished and it had been a hit. A feeling of pure pleasure crept over me – a mixture of achievement and nostalgia. Magic.

Dhows in the Gulf

April 1995: Thursday

After Tuesday’s performance, an Irishman named Colum had offered to show me round the old town. Accordingly, he turned up at the hotel at 9am and we drove into Manama. He was about sixty and a charming, informative guide.

The Bab Al Bahrain

After parking in the old town, we started the tour at the Bab Al Bahrain. This was a large ceremonial gateway built by the British as the entrance from the sea into the Souk. That it was now 200 yards from the sea showed the amount of land reclamation that had taken place.

Colum: “Bahrain was not a colony but the British had a lot of influence here from 1800 till 1970. As an Irishman I am reluctant to admit it, but they did rather a good job. They charted the Gulf coasts, they built the lighthouses, they stopped the arms trade racket, they made Bahrain the main port for Arabia, they oversaw the rise of commerce here, they ended the East African slave trade, and they built the Bab.”

I could not resist it: “But apart from that, what have the British ever done for us?” Colum look blank; obviously not a fan of Monty Python.

More Dhows

The Souk was the large market section; some of the shops displayed prestigious European labels – Givenchy, Christian Dior (Islamic Dior?) Many of them dealt exclusively with gold. Colum knew several of the traders and stopped to chat with them. Considering the blatant wealth on display, the goldsmiths’ area was tattier than I’d expected; a cross between Hatton Garden and a car boot sale. Police armed with rifles stood at every corner.

Colum: “This is where all the disturbances start. After the 1970s oil price rise, Bahrain was bringing in £180 billion a year; now it’s down to £80 billion. The heyday is over and now they have the rise of fundamentalism as well. There could be big trouble ahead.”

We passed what Colum said was one of the oldest houses in Bahrain. It was a square building with an inner courtyard, roughly eighteenth century, with a gorgeously painted mahogany door set into the wall.

Colum: “At one time this would have been a rich merchant’s house. Now the rich have moved out to the suburban mansions and the poor have moved in. There are several families living in this one now. But not for long. It’s going to be scrapped, including the door. The Bahraini attitude is – if it’s old, pull it down.” Next to the house was a pile of rubble that until last week had been a similar old beauty. To my Western way of thinking, this was irritatingly nuts.

Manama street scene

As we walked we met one of Colum’s friends – an attaché from the British Embassy. He was one of those people who wear a permanent secretive smile. (I think it stems from the concept that the secret of power is to have knowledge but not to divulge it.) They probably issue them at the Foreign Office, together with the diplomatic bags.

Moving on through the Awadiya district, the alleyways became very crowded. An old blind mullah in white robes and a long grey beard walked down the centre of the street tapping his staff on the ground; people moved respectfully out of his way. He could have stepped straight out of a Biblical illustration – an utterly timeless figure.

Colum said that the Arabs insisted on traditional dress as a matter of pride. “It’s so that they are not mistaken for outsiders.”

The day was getting hotter and I was beginning to wilt. Having given directions back to the hotel, Colum said goodbye and disappeared off down a side alley.

Another Manama house

I window-shopped as I strolled back. Some of the Islamic artwork was magnificent, but unfortunately too expensive.

At one shop there was an array of cards on a Christian theme, presumably for the Indian Christians to send home. They displayed some particularly bloody images, nearly all of Christ being crucified; the crown of thorns on one card had reached the proportions of an Afro hairdo.

I was struck yet again by the incongruity of the Cross concept, the slavering absorption with what was, after all, an execution. One could not really imagine the Buddha dangling from a gallows rope or Confucius strapped into an electric chair? The Anglo-Saxon Protestant world seemed to have realised the oddness, which is why their reproductions were increasingly mild. Most of their crucifix images resembled a rather bored male model in pallid marble. But the more Catholic and more Oriental you got, the more the pain and blood was ladled on. Judging by these cards, the Christian East had gone the whole hog into sado-masochism.

I passed a group of Arab women as I approached the hotel. They were veiled and, dressed in long shapeless black sheets, they looked like small bell tents. The Islamic fundamentalists were insisting on a return to the most severe of clothing for females.

The lobby was crowded at lunchtime, Thursday and Friday being the Arab weekend. As I stood on the first floor waiting for the lift, I glanced out of the window to the swimming pool. About ten air hostesses were sunbathing topless. It was an unbelievable culture contrast. Within 100 yards of each other – walking shrouds and bare breasts!

As we sat in the Sherlock Holmes bar in the evening, I mentioned this extraordinary social schizophrenia to BK. He said that, despite the shrouds and veils, a certain amount of flirting with the eyes did go on. Among the ex-pats, it was called ‘eye f—–g’.

The Docks.

We talked with a couple of young Bahrainis in the bar, both working for international corporations. They expressed a vehement patriotism for the island combined with a sheer passion for business; they didn’t seem to comprehend any other way of thinking. Manama was the capital of an empire in 3000 BC and there seemed a strange contrast between this present day frenetic money-grubbing and the timelessness that surrounded it. They said that the main short-term aim was to become self-sufficient via Western know-how, but the real aim was to turn Bahrain into the Singapore of the Gulf – the rise of the ultra-rich city state. I wondered if this was the way that global corporatism will develop? I also learned that, of a basic Arab population of less than 350,000, there were 5000 footballers.

Later BK talked about the Molly Izzard book that he had lent me and said that she had made a crucial point – that Arabia was not a land of ideas but one of prejudices.

The thing that struck me most was the almost mind-bending time warps between the old and the new. Bahrain seemed to have moved from the 19th century to the 21st century without bothering too much about the 20th.

The Wind Catchers

April 1995: Friday

As BK was travelling back on the same flight to the UK, we shared a 6am taxi to Bahrain Airport. While we pondered the duty-free shelves, BK nudged me and pointed ahead to a short man in shirtsleeves pushing a luggage trolley.

“It’s the British Ambassador.”

“Well, that’s a bit naff. You would expect at least a plumed hat, a Rolls Royce and a guard of honour!”

“It must be the cuts.”

The plane left an hour later. The pilot’s voice came over the speakers: “We are flying at 30,000 feet over Saudi Arabia. And it’s turned out nice and sunny again.” It was good to hear BA keeping up the standards of English irony. BA pilots all have the same breezily reassuring voices, like an Etonian house-master encouraging the Lower Fifth to bungee jump. Heathrow RADA.

Well, at least, we’d got away with it with no trouble.

{News report – The Guardian (three months later)}

‘The Islamic Front for the Liberation of Bahrain claimed responsibility for a bomb explosion yesterday evening in the lobby of the luxury Diplomat Hotel in the capital Manama. At least four people were injured.

This was the second bombing at a prestigious Manama hotel in just under a month, and followed weeks of anti-government unrest. A man claiming to represent the radical Islamic group told AP – “Tell the government, which has arrested 2000 people that, after Ramadan, we will destroy every place. AP, Manama.’

To add insult to injury, they had even placed their bomb in my performance patch – the Veneziano Restaurant.

Traffic in Bahrain

NEXT WEEK August 4 – Moving on ten years – to the Kingdom of Jordan and more trouble.

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