Reflections from a Holiday in Bahrain

 It was the perfect time to go to the Arabian Peninsula because the weather in the winter is great. We had temperatures in the 70’s with cool evenings. I heard much about the stifling heat for most of the year, and I am not sure if that would be great to live in.

My perception of Arabs changed because of my visit. From the US media, I had a different impression of the Arabs. You hear much about the stern, fundamentalist Muslims, but the majority I met were kind and gentle. It was shocking to first see women covered in black robes and the men wearing the robes and headdress also, but after a while, one gets used to it.   Modesty is one thing, but I don’t think I’ll ever agree with covering up women and separating the sexes so much in daily life. It is very unnatural and bad for the psyche and well-being of both men and women. I do like the lack of alcohol in the society. Alcohol and drugs have ruined many lives and it was refreshing to see people drinking coffee and smoking from the communal pipes, rather than getting drunk.

Bahrain is regarded as the “Las Vegas” of the Arab world for it relaxed social mores. The Bahrainis were very accepting of western culture, and my family never felt any negativity. We had very little contact with actual citizens because most of the day-to-day business is handled by expatriate workers from India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Nepal, and the Philippines.

The effects of so much money being pumped into the region because of petroleum can be seen everywhere. The changes brought by this were overwhelming. I wonder what the place looked like before petroleum? The money has brought the Bahrainis the ability to build a modern city-state, with world-class highways, skyscrapers, shopping malls, Formula One racetrack, magnificent mosques, palaces, PGA golf course, etc. It also allowed them to import foreigners to not only do the menial labor jobs like security, construction, etc., but also skilled British, American, and other nationalities from the west to manage businesses and make it a financial hub. They do spend much time in shopping malls and I was impressed with the quality of variety of things one could buy. Manama had several malls that were bigger and better than the Usce Mall here in Belgrade. I wonder what effect that much money would have on any society? I see that with another 100 years of petroleum cash as well as an increase in communication around the world, these two factors will eventually change the Arabs into a less religious and more Western or consumer oriented society.

World Trade Center - Bahrain

The trip also got me to understand the Islamic world a bit better. I see four major groups of people, the Turks, the Arabs, the Persians and the Indonesians. There are struggles between the groups, which also have a Shiite versus Sunni undercurrent. It was palpable in Bahrain. The island was pearl and fish trading port for most of its existence and was controlled by the Persians for centuries. I had a reader comment on my use of the term Persian Gulf, when discussing our trip to the beach. The Arabs refer to it as the Arabian Gulf.

The pictures of the royal ruling threesome were everywhere. There were literally thousands of pictures of the king, the prime minister, and the king’s son. It was a clear reminder that democracy is not favored by the Arabs.

It was my first time in a non-Western country and I was fascinated with the exoticism. It made me want to visit other parts of the world that are different from what I’ve experienced. It was also great to stay with a “local” so we could see the places and meet people that ordinary tourists would not have the chance.

Latest Reading: “Dining With al-Qaeda: Three Decades Exploring the Many Worlds of the Middle East” by Hugh Pope

In preparation for my trip to Bahrain, I read Hugh Pope’s memoir of his 3 decades of reporting from the Middle East. He worked for several newspapers and news agencies, including the Wall Street Journal. He begins as a student in 1980 and finishes with the US war in Iraq and Afghanistan. He lived and reported from almost all of the countries in the Middle East from the Sudan to Turkey, to Lebanon to Afghanistan and many in between. He knows the region like few others. He speaks fluent Arabic and practically grew up there, beginning with trips with his parents as a child, to studying Arabic and Persian history in university. Pope stayed in the region throughout his career and this book is the culmination of his experiences. Below are some quotes from the book with my comments. I learned much about the region and recommend the book.

Interesting Quotes:

“Jean Pierre taught me how to use a magic cloak of unprejudiced openness that guarded him from all suspicion. It was a gift that would serve me well.”

– Pope is discussing his first mentor of the region, a French academic. I would use the term unprejudiced curiosity instead of openness. I have taken this attitude in my travels around the world. The people I meet will most always answer my questions and show me insights into their culture.

“I had no idea of the homosexual current that runs through much of the Middle East. Unlike in the West, consorting with another male is usually not a statement of sexual identity but mostly a pragmatic solution to the lack of available women.”

–          The Islamic traditions keep boys and girls separated during their most hormonal times. I see why this unnatural condition could lead to this kind of stuff. I also never thought about “Arabists” who specialized in studying the region because of the opportunity to meet men. Pope does not fit in this category.

“…Family legend has it that at the age of four I built of cairn of stones amid the colonnades of Palmyra, an ancient city in the Syrian desert, and announced, “I shall come back here.”

–          I hope that the travels we take with our children influence them to explore the world as I have, or at least profoundly change their personalities and intelligence.

“Brought up as I was in an Anglo-Saxon world of self-improvement, opportunity, and entitlement, I tired of hearing outsiders blamed for everything. Usually, it was an excuse never to try. The same defeatism applied to politics all over the Middle East. With the exception of the first centuries of Muhammad’s Arab and Islamic empire based in the Arabian Peninsula, this crossroads between continents has always been a cockpit for battles between the marcher lords of stronger powers elsewhere. From a Middle Eastern perspective, this has bred a sense that since foreigners controlled one’s fate, there was no point in trying to cure one’s own ills. It was so much easier, and politically much safer, to blame all problems on foreign spies, global conspiracies, and imperialist plots.”

Hugh Pope had some interesting views on Israel. I didn’t know that only 1/3 of the world’s Jews live in Israel. The USA is associated with Israel because of the US government support of their military. I don’t have an opinion of the Israeli-Palestine conflict, but someday want to visit Israel to see for myself. He writes that the Egyptian playwright, Ali Salem, when after visiting Israel, believed that the explanation for why Israelis got on so badly with their neighbors was the very Arabness of their country – “Is there any one more cruel to an Arab than another Arab?”

– That sounds like the conflict between the Serbs and Croats.

“Drink wine, Hafez, be glad, be wild! Don’t copy those who make the Koran a hypocritical trap.”

-This quote is from an Iranian poet. I didn’t understand the Arab-Persian rivalry in the region. It is sad that the US does not have a closer relationship to Iran, which is a big country. The Islamists who control the government are not in the majority in my opinion. The Persians are like the crazy Latinos.

“The Koran allows Muslims to have up to four official wives, if they can support them equally.”

–          Marita showed us the four huge homes of a rich Bahraini. They are all identical in a compound downtown, except for one detail. The wife that sired him a son, has her home painted brown while the others are white.

“Later I was to see that friends who married Middle Easterners, men or women, often had to work much harder than other couples to overcome differences of education, outlook, and expectation. It didn’t have much to do with religion, since Middle Eastern Christians and Jews can be just as traditional as Muslims, and similar issues challenged friends who married spouses from any significantly different culture. Perhaps it was just proof that, for everybody, tribalism can matter much more than we expect.”

–          As a person in a “mixed marriage” I understand what he is writing about.

“…the secularists are quite right, as in France, to insist that no head scarves be allowed in schools. A schoolgirl wearing a head scarf implies that I, as a man, might be lusting after her. I find the insinuation repugnant – if people really think there is such a general problem, they should first start reeducating the men.”

-Well said Hugh. I still don’t understand why the women cover themselves up. What a hassle for them.

“I hadn’t realized how problematic it is for husbands, fathers, and brothers. They have to rush home to drive women about, and to do themselves all the things women are prohibited from doing… why Saudi Arabia kept its women figuratively locked up: to sustain its image as the holy land of Islamic pilgrimage”

–          I see women driving here in Bahrain. Most are covered up to various degrees and dressed in black (so men can’t see through it)

Hugh’s explains the difference between the Shia and Sunni sects of Islam. 1,300 years ago there was a civil war after the death of Muhammad. The Shia faction were loyal to the Prophet’s family and are mainly found in Iran, Iraq, parts of the Persian Gulf, and Lebanon. The Sunni faction are of “tradition” and can be mainly found in the Arab heartland, Egypt, Turkey, North Africa, and Asia. The fight was who would head the Islamic movement after Muhammad, would it be a member of his family (Shia) or the best qualified non-family member (Sunni).

Pope writes about Wahhabism, the official doctrine of modern Saudi Arabia. This started in the 1700s by a puritanical preacher who wanted to stop the degeneration of high Islam. His family had and still has today, a strong relationship with the Saud clan of central Arabia. He also sees today the impossible choice between Wahhabi fundamentalism or with the flow of oil dollars, an utterly western lifestyle. Pope interviewed a Saudi who said, “In my family I have no credibility. I’m the Western-educated infidel,” he joked as we…My cousin didn’t finish school but goes to the mosque five times a day. Whenever he speaks, it’s him they listen to.” The religious studies of universities (2/3 of subjects were Islam oriented and 1/3 of students of the students were at all-religious universities) is no way to build a modern state. The Royal family of Saudi costs anywhere between 15-35 % of oil income.

–          Bahrain is a more permissive sheikdom and may be influencing Saudi Arabia proper. I wonder how much of Bahrain government income goes to the ruling family?

“Bedrock loyalty is usually bought pragramatically through a hierarchy of patronage, and if the ruler can tie in the loyalty of at least 1/3 of the population, the regime is probably safe indefinitely. “

“Gulf sheikdoms could seem unreal. They relied on the US to defend them, depended for services on majorities of their resident populations who were temporary laborers with no political rights, and their native citizens numbered so few that the ruler could be in personal touch with most of the people who counted. “  Attract tourists, financiers, and functionality – better than authoritarianism, Islam

–          57 countries in Middle East

–          22 countries in the Arab World

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