The Middle East
There is something wholly beguiling about the Middle East. The region is an ancient centre of civilization steeped both in spirituality and spectacular wonders, the vast age of which have imparted to their facades a sense of timelessness that is extraordinarily humbling. The rock-cut palace of Petra in Jordan, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in the old Christian quarter of Jerusalem (where Jesus is said to have been crucified and buried), the eerily lit Jeita Grotto in Lebanon, and the Masjid al Haram in Saudi Arabia, the world’s largest mosque…the Middle East is home to innumerable archaeological and architectural marvels.
Then, of course, there are the vast desiccated landscapes rippling with sand dunes and being ripped apart by yawning canyons, where the silence is so absolute that it’s deafening. Dusty museums display artefacts dating back thousands of years, when the sweeping stories told by the ancient record were almost too grand, too opulent, and too savage to be believed.
The Middle East is a place to feel humbled by age, beauty, desolation, affluence, vastness, and the deep devotion of a people to their God and their religion. In other words, it is the Holy Grail of travel kicks and, one way or another, every traveller should make his or her pilgrimage here.
Maligned by War
Unfortunately, the very phrase ‘Middle East’ evokes strongly averse feelings from the rest of the world and particularly the West. Perhaps rightly so. Bloody, merciless wars have waged in this region for decades now, if not longer, and news of bombings, terrorism, and appalling atrocities continue to dominate the headlines streaming out of global news centres. It is a war fuelled by greed, creed, and the utter conviction from every quarter that the violence is a noble and righteous cause, when in fact it is little more than humankind at its dastardly worst.
But, not all of the Middle East is a battlefield. In fact, much of this ancient region is peaceful and offers travellers an incredible off the beaten track experience. One such haven is to be found in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and a collection of small islands and countries bordering on the Persian Gulf and tucked into the crook of Saudi Arabia’s landmass.
Dubai (International Airport)
It is in places like the UAE that intrepid explorers such as myself are provided with a somewhat sanitized, yet spicy taste of the Middle East without the terribly pervasive dangers one can experience further north in Iraq and Afghanistan, and south in Yemen. Dubai, the capital of the UAE and a hugely successful business centre, is perhaps the best-known city in the area. It is home to the Burj Khalifa – the world’s tallest building – as well as many other architectural oddities, such as a man-made island resort shaped like a palm tree, which is best appreciated from the air as you take off from Dubai International Airport.
I can’t recount how many times I have traipsed through this airport en route to some other international destination. It surely has to be one of the most sophisticated in the world but, other than its souvenirs of smirking plastic camels, burka-clad figurines, and oases trapped in snow globes (how does that work?), it doesn’t offer one much of a cultural experience. Although, curled up on an airport lounger at some ungodly hour, eyes crusty from arid airplane air, I have felt compelled to smile by the haunting warble of the Imam Muslim prayer leaders calling people to prayer. It’s what tells you that – in spite of the yawning marble, glass, and chrome structure that envelops you – you’re in the Middle East, baby.
Aside from that, all I can say about Dubai is that it is hotter than Lucifer’s taint. One day, I shall have to spend more than just 12 hours in that country.
Two Weeks in Bahrain
Shortly after I submitted my Master Degree thesis (or, rather, threw it at my supervisor yelling “tag, you’re it!” before running away from campus and the country) I spent two weeks in Bahrain, en route to Thailand, where I would be spending the following two years of my life. I had always dreamed of travelling and now that my studies were finally done, it was time to get the hell out of Dodge. I, or rather we, spent two weeks in the sovereign state of Bahrain because my then girlfriend’s father lived and worked there, and the opportunity to experience a country I would never have otherwise thought to visit presented itself.
Bahrain, officially the Kingdom of Bahrain, is another one of those havens where one can appreciate Middle Eastern culture without having to trade in one’s limbs for a debilitating case of PTSD: a lose-lose situation if I ever heard of one (pretty much sums up the U.S. war in Iraq, doesn’t it?) Coming from most places in the world, this island country in the Persian Gulf slaps you in the face as a totally alien place. Disembarking your plane, you don’t feel like you’ve stepped into another country; you feel like you’ve stepped onto another planet. And to support this point, Bahrain was used as the film location for Tattoine in the Star Warsmovies, the desert planet where Luke Skywalker was raised as a child.
The country comprises a small archipelago sandwiched between the Qatar peninsula and the north-eastern coast of Saudi Arabia, which it is connected by the 25-kilometre long King Fahd Causeway. What immediately strikes you as you touch down here, even in the wee hours of the morning as we did, is the intense, suffocating heat and humidity. Then, when the sun rises, you’re confronted by an atmosphere and landscape so white and hazy with desert sand and dust that seeing colour comes as a physical relief to your retina.
But while there are parts of Bahrain that are just vast expanses of white, crumbly rock and soil, there are, conversely, parts that have been nurtured into lush gardens, palm forests, and flowerbeds. It’s illogical and it’s beautiful.
Money, Money, Money
The Arab Sheiks, oil barons, business moguls, and royal family have the money to turn infertile desert into man-made oases of intense biological activity. These people are rich. They are richer than Bill Gates and Oprah Winfrey but we never really hear about it here in the West. This stratospheric affluence was evident in the sheer number of ambitious building projects there were scattered across the island: building projects that had been abandoned, not because their investor ran out of capital but because they got bored, leaving behind dinosaur skeletons of would-be super malls and palaces.
The homes of wealthy Bahrainis are almost senselessly palatial, the business district is dominated by spectacularly scaled and designed skyscrapers, everyone drives big expensive cars, and the kind of gifts that are exchanged between affluent members of society can be measured in acres (it’s the square footage that counts, right?) Even shopping malls are ostentatious brick-and-mortar odes to an incomprehensible level of affluence, with their polished solid marble flooring and gilded bathroom faucets. But of all the displays of wealth that leave one slack-jawed in Bahrain, by far the most outrageous were the beggars. Outside of a grocery store, right around the corner from where we were staying, a man pulled up next to us in an Audi – not the latest model but infinitely nicer than any car I have ever owned.
And he stopped to beg for money…money to put petrol in his car, fetch his kids from school, and feed them. Something that, we were told by our host, isn’t uncommon.
In Bahrain, the evidence of ancient custom, deep religious fervour and history is juxtaposed by the country’s thriving economic activity. This, in turn, is juxtaposed by desperate poverty. Blue steel-and-glass monstrosities rear up out of the flat white landscape, almost defying physics with their size. These monolithic entities give way to Bedouin camps and clustered, terribly impoverished housing where Indians, Thais, Filipinos, and other hopeful foreigners live. Oil and gas pipes ubiquitous to the island run for miles and miles through its white wasteland. Some of these pipes end in vents that sporadically erupt in a monstrous burp of gas and flame, which has, according to our host, roasted many a poor and unsuspecting soul.
Bahrain by Foot. Bad Idea.
For two weeks, we explored this tiny island nation mostly by car because, in spite of its size, daytime temperatures of 35 to 40 degrees Celsius made walking a very real health hazard. More than any risk of heat exhaustion, however, were the younger Bahraini men and the constant unwanted attention they slathered in copious amounts over us.
Eager to experience Bahrain on my skin and in all its intoxicating fragrances and fascinating scenery, we struck out on foot on one of the first few days of our trip. Within the first ten minutes, a man pulled his car up next to us and, leering out of the open window, gabbled something in Arabic. We tried to explain that we didn’t understand. He proceeded to stare at us, no, drink us in with his liquid dark eyes and with a revolting lecherous smirk on his face. Minutes later, another complete stranger pulled his car over, once again, to stare at us. It’s like we were tall glasses of ice water on legs and these men in their expensive cars were fresh from dying of thirst in the desert. We were fully clothed (long shorts and T-shirts that covered our shoulders, as was recommended to us) but I couldn’t have felt more blue-arsed naked. I was shocked to my core by their complete lack of what the West regards as rudimentary etiquette.
This is the incredibly confronting reality that visitors to most places in the Middle East have to come to terms with. This is a man’s world and women are second-class citizens for the most part. Seriously battling the temptation to pick up a dog turd and throw it in the next leery asshole’s open car window, we ducked into an air-conditioned mall for an hour or two before catching a taxi home.
The men of Bahrain were redeemed a day or two later when, attempting to catch a taxi home from sightseeing, a kind man stopped his car and offered us a lift. Thinking he was a taxi, we climbed in and were astounded (and somewhat shaken) to discover when he refused to take our money that he had gone completely out of his way to deliver us safely to our doorstep. He was friendly and chatty and simply welcomed the opportunity to speak to a couple of foreigners. I’m sure he was also concerned for our safety.
It must be said that most of the older Bahraini men we met during our two-week stay were polite and generous. It was the younger generations who appeared to need a serious clout about the ears.
What I Remember Most
In Bahrain, the morning dawns and the day closes with the haunting warbles of the Imam Muslim prayer leaders. Accompanying this gentle soundtrack are the spectacular sunsets and sunrises, which is what I think I remember most about Bahrain. With the atmosphere being so thick with white dust, the early morning light gets refracted into a billion shades of pink and blue pastels, and all of this gorgeous light caresses the Bahraini landscape’s white desolation and visionary architecture.
We spent two weeks exploring the ancient archaeological ruins of the Bahrain Fort, enduring the incredible heat, marvelling at the strange and exotic imported fruits in the grocery store, and trying new foods, the names of which I have long forgotten. We went to bars where we couldn’t afford to drink (thanks to the steep exchange rate), to the desert where I felt as though the emptiness and silence would swallow me whole, and to the beach, where the salty waters of the Arabian Sea lapped at our feet. We wandered the souks, the malls, and the streets of this very strange country, the first international adventure I’d had since travelling to Singapore as a child.
I enjoyed Bahrain intensely and the scene I carry – and will always carry – as my mental postcard for this magical place is of a gently pink dawn over the bridge to Manama.