The streets flashed past in a haze of light and the darkness shrouded the sky as the bright bulbs of Manama lit the way as our car sped into the suburbs to its rest point. The flag reflected brightly; prominently and proudly on the number-plates of the cars as they darted their way through the winding streets and then cruise along the main highway acknowledging the skyscrapers standing tall against the moon and the blue-orange haze of the sky as the city lights up its surroundings.
From the hot haze of the airport runway, this was the first images I encountered in the Kingdom of Bahrain; a country rarely visited by tourists. A trickle of those who enter the kingdom each year do so usually out of association with friends who already live in the country. A tiny island that takes about an hour and a half to cross, the desert landscape, scarred with the moulded metal of oil pumps, power lines and refineries that scatter the flat golden sands that distantly ripple in the heat, south of the capital, Manama. The inhabitants of one and a half million living in quiet residential districts leaving the rest of the island quiet and remote with only the movement of the oil pumps quietly nodding to a distant and unheard rhythmic beat.
There’s something beguiling about the Middle East even after visiting four countries. Combinations of factors spring to mind – The people, the geo-politics, the unique landscape, the history and the physical landscapes. A region that the news would have you believe lives in a constant state of conflict, violence, suspicion and deep conservatism that in person seems to exist really in a different entity. The vistor and even a travel guide such as ‘Lonely Planet’ that promises a line that only friendliness and hospitality awaits. The experience of the tourist and the national can be completely polemic.
Each summer, as a teacher I see the seven week break as a chance to re-connect with the world. The term only eats away your energy and free time. Term times a strange mix of unforgiving and relentless assessments, deadlines and paper trails alongside rewarding access to the young minds of tomorrow and the push for a better next generation.
The summer of 2017, included the central island of Denmark and its west coast as well as the UAE and Bahrain. Bahrain is something familiar, having only travelled there last October. The UAE however somewhere new and intriguing. After hearing so many negative stories about Dubai, I reserved judgement and wanted to experience it alongside Abu Dhabi, with a possible side trip to Sarjah with its incredible beauty if what I had been told revealed the detractors correct.
Truth being told, I had friends in both places so inevitably this directed the destination choice. I was visiting friends who I made in India. Unfamiliar with Middle East tourism before I visited for the first time, the thing that immediately struck was the vast number of South Asians living in may parts. Fifty percent make up the population of Dubai, perhaps more in Qatar. Oman was a revelation in itself, even after some time visiting other places. As I drove out amongst the rocky sand mountains and cliffs, many hours outside of the capital Muscat, the smallest towns still have coffee shops owned by predominantly in my experience Keralan’s (people from South West India). Coffee houses hosting delicious Arab breads, kebabs and fruit juices that defied the extreme heat.
The actual Arab populations of these countries in the Gulf is notably tiny. Qatar only has a population that is made up of twenty percent nationals. Dubai, possibly even smaller depending on statistics. The Arabs, long independent of British and French rule, still welcome foreign expatriates to develop their infrastructure, unleash the potential of their oil wealth and create one of the most diverse communities that you can find anywhere in the world.
It was Bahrain though that made the impression that personally defined a Gulf trip more than any other. The experience I generalise on above is no exception in the capital Manama. British folk in their floppy sandals, shorts and women dressed in floral dresses that look closer to something from Debenhams or Marks and Spencer rather than an Arab souk (indoor market). Bahraini’s are more frequently encountered. Fifty percent make up the population, many dressed in crisp white thawbs, headdress in a red chequered pattern, neatly adjusted and re-adjusted.
Passing through Manama’s streets, it would be easy to be totally fooled. Bright lights illuminate the soft creamy yellow of the walls and low rise buildings where distant glass reflects the new gleam of the city from the towering skyline of tall new builds. You see your reflection in the streams of white, gleaming cars as they stream past on the busy city roads, racing towards the next set of traffic lights that look more closely related to the streets of British cities than Asian metropolis’s.
Bars, restaurants and clubs lined the streets of the central streets of the capital. Westerners alongside Arabs laughed freely in the streets in their respective languages as the headdresses were neatly adjusted and western crisp linens walked side by side. Bars freely flowed alcoholic beverages as expatriates attended tables in the hot sweltering heat under the bright, cloudless skies. Pavements heavy with the mix of cultures, people and commerce. I felt a sense of freedom, excitement and carefree living as if the strictures of ancient texts had been long removed and the new life was to live in the present. No politics, seemingly no worries and families far away, young expatriates and youthful locals could drink and party long into the Arabian night, without fear of scorn or apparent consequence. The day would finish late and the next would start late. The buildings stood firm and the income allowed for free spending. It felt like all fears and worries never existed in the minds of those who I passed as they continued on with their fine dress and tanned skin.
The rest of the island, quiet and only disturbed by mechanics as the black gold was sucked from the ground ready for its transformation to cash returns and refined oils. Old fotresses continue to stand tall only looking young because of the age of the ‘tree of life’ that some speculate is the last remnant of the Garden of Eden. The tourism videos advertising this as the year of archaeology for the Kingdom of Bahrain.
It was only as I drifted away from the main streets in search of more Bahrain towards the quiet residential suburbs that a different face of the country greeted me, the one face that seemed more familiar.
The next evening that I ventured off, our driver taking me towards the quieter suburbs. Cars in their impatience that seemed to be a feature of driving standards here darted through the quiet roads as a stream of headlights in a tight line passed on the left. The bright lights that illuminated the main centre and the business park dimmed and it was only shops that gave any sense of what I had witnessed before. At this point, buildings still stood tall and their grounds extensive, alike the Surrey mansions that stood in rows that were familiar on car journeys in my childhood; only this time a modern Arab equivalent.
As I veered further into the suburbs where the streets emptied to the west of Manama off the signs of Barbar the only sense that something will arise, the atmosphere notably changed. Small, dark windows in cramped homes that looked closer to something I had seen off images of Yemen in relative peacetime with narrow lanes and grey painted concrete stood desolate. Arabic slogans daubed in thick black paint dirtied the walls. I asked the driver where we had come to. ‘Majority Shia areas. Notice the young men dressed in black t-shirts. It’s a sign of their protest against the government’. As I glanced out of the window as the sun faded with the street lights in a dull illumination as the sky drifted towards a heavy darkness, I say young locals along with South Asians. Some wearing different colours, but a young man wearing a black t-shirt, his thin waistline juxtaposed with a heavy beard, left to grow and hang roughly over and below the chin.
In truth, arriving here was an accident. We were looking for an clubhouse, something more of an expatriate persuit. Arriving an a congested junction, nothing more that a tight meeting point of three roads, facing us a three storey building pressing up to the boundary with small windows cut in the concrete in an uneven and seemingly unplanned accident, we turned around. The young man with the beard, his back towards us and his thin arms, walked purposefully away. As we came back to overtake him, the driver wound down the window, greeted him warmly and asked the direction. In confident English and a few gestures and pointed arms later we went off again.
I enquired about more graffiti as we drove to assuming the place was small, was the main centre where a small roundabout and shops were about. A small silence as hesitantly I pout forward an thought, ‘Were these anti-government protest signs?’. Uncertainty in the answer, I asked if I could take some photos of the mosque. It’s tall round dome, unlit towered the low line skyline, tucked behind some ugly houses decorated with dirty paintwork and sewage pipes with a narrow concerte alleyway towards it. On the roadside opposite, two young men, walked towards our car, hose in tow plodding in the stillness of the early evening. Young South Asians chatted on street corners as an old man in a the traditional Arab long robe stood gazing into the distance as I looked back in the mirror at the roundabout.
On the roadside, concrete stood low lying with thick bright orange paint with a touch of dark red that was interspersed evenly and again thickly with a heavy black. In white and black heavy Arabic script alongside neutral images of camels and more political ones such as flags, the paintwork covered the wall that stretched around to beyond the line of sight like murals. Both the drive and I couldn’t translate the Arabic but were both struck by the heaviness of the artwork and the prescient dark colours, particularly the black.
I asked to photograph the mosque and the driver pulled over. Carefully, I walked down the alleyway, careful to not photograph locals, only because women in full veil are to be left alone. Using my mobile phone, I sighed at the camera not really able to capture the impression I was taking away from this place. The stained concrete paint seemingly the main focal point. A picture of a man, proud with a neat white board dominated the entrance way and I thought he was some kind of local imam who had either a present or a past impact. The picture lightened what was an almost industrial gloom. I later learned that the man was Sheikh Isa Qassim, a shia cleric, stripped of his citizenship and the spiritual leader supported by Iran. Iran has no place in the friendly relations with of the Gulf states.
I walked back to the car, and we continued on as the sun further sank behind the edge of the horizon. Back to the main road; the rush of sleek white vehicles and fast paced traffic on the highway. We turned right and headed past more shops and a larger conurbation. A sign came close; ‘Diraz’. We pass a junction and the cars on our right stood in a line, indicators flashing. I imagine it’s a petrol station or some kind of shop, popular with locals until I see white SUV police cars.
Curious, I look beyond and another car greets my eyes. Police question a driver and I realise it’s a checkpoint. Blue signs ask drivers to stop. I learn that this is the place where major flashpoints have occurred. A road block greets the next entrance. High concrete barricades and empty dirt on either side like two sides of the world that are forever blockaded. So high are the barriers, that even in an SUV, you can only just about see over the top and the streets are deserted. Later, back in the house, I watch videos of protesters throwing homemade grenades and rocks at police as they fire back with either live rounds or tear gas pellets at exactly this point. Thinking back, as I passed the places initially, it was not in my mind that it was at this point that the vanquished hopes of the majority of mainly young youths and the distant spectators of worried elders played out it’s desperate struggle for the world stage to witness and condemn.
Another minute down the road and another checkpoint. The street entrance, totally blockaded on one side whilst policemen in enquire into a car window of an anonymous local at the front of another queue of cars. My mind immediately recalling the clear memories of news reports filming and escribing the checkpoints on the Israeli-Palestine boarders. Questions as you go in and questions as you go out. Where, why, what, when and with whom. For the locals this must be like a prison for your own home; all on one tiny patch of land as the waves of the Gulf seas crash into the sand.
Later, thinking on what I had reflected, what I had witnessed was neither dramatic, nor turbulent. Yet, the omnipresent feel of containment, something like imprisonment and hopelessness disturbed my thought patterns. This is not a country that allows debate. Neither Sunni nor Shia would dare seriously raise questions these days to the government without fear of harassment, arrest, false detention. Iran dirties the politics further with support to the Shia majority, placing in its hand, further geo-political unrest and suspicion. My only conclusion that night from what I had witnessed was further unrest, further isolation for this community of local Bahraini’s suppressed by their very own authorities without compromise, dialogue or solution. I reminded myself again that human to human, we can be very cruel.
One place, two voices; local alongside expatriate and tourist. Two very different worlds a gulf apart in a place we ironically call ‘The Gulf’.