Friday, February 25, 2011

Remembering the Strangeness of Bahrain

The Holiday Inn, Manama, Bahrain. The gentlemen on either side of me are carrying automatic weapons and were at the entrance to the Holiday Inn, 24/7. And everyplace else, too.

I have been to at least one of the nations of the Middle East lately in turmoil. I was in Bahrain on assignment at the end of the first Gulf War, as we went into and out of Kuwait.

Bahrain is an island nation off the coast of Saudi Arabia, mostly paved over and full of modern buildings. But it was the first nation I had been to--outside of a nation at war, which Bahrain was not--that had military guys carrying sub machine guns everywhere, including in front of the Holiday Inn where we stayed. It was a surreal place.

En route to Bahrain and Kuwait, I spoke with my friend, the former Ambassador to the U.S. from Kuwait, Saud al Sabah, photo left.

The first strange thing was how long it took us to get our luggage. Turns out it took so long because they opened it and spent hours going through everything. I know this because I brought along two unopened plastic bottles of water--in case I needed them in Kuwait--and when I finally got my suitcase about five hours after we landed, it was nearly midnight and the water bottles had been opened and were leaking on my clothes.

Because we didn't have our suitcases after the thirteen-hour flight to Manama, another reporter and I went down to the Holiday Inn bar to wait. It was like the Bar At the End of the Universe in Star Wars. There were buff looking guys with military haircuts--Americans, Brits, and our other allies--none in uniform, as that was verboten, sitting at little tables and arguing about who was the toughest.

There were Saudis strolling around in their exotic robes looking for Western girls and alcohol--the supply of which is constrained just up the causeway in their homeland.

And there was an all-girl Philippine band playing "Welcome to the Hotel California." I noticed as we sat there, that the girls came and went at the direction of an Asian man on the edge of the stage. I think those ladies had other jobs on the side--besides singing.

Robin in Kuwait, at the end of a long day.

We spent the next day in Kuwait, but since it had been trashed by Saddam Hussein's soldiers, there was no place we could stay there, so we were back in Bahrain by nightfall. That night and the next day, my photographer and I noticed that everywhere we went, there were two or three guys following us.

We didn't know who they were and we finally stopped and turned around and asked them what they were doing. With great difficulty we were led to understand they were keeping their eyes on us "for our own protection." Right. We finally took a picture with the whole lot of them, and they seemed delighted to pose.

With my minders in Bahrain. Don't leave home without them.

We knew there was an American base on the island kingdom, so the morning after our visit to Kuwait, we stopped a taxi and asked the driver if he knew where it was.

"Oh, the secret American base?" he said. "Yes, Yes, I know. But you cannot go there." Instead he took us to the only thing in Bahrain that looked Middle Eastern: the old market, or Souq, (pronounced sook). There, for the first time, I saw women who were completely covered by black burkas, with just their eyes showing through a narrow opening. It was as if we had been transformed into the Arabian Nights.

And those guys followed us the whole time.

Yes? This way to the Secret American Air Base!

Now that I've read more about that part of the world and am not the naive girl reporter I once was, I realize the gun toting military presence and the secret police just over your shoulder, are all of a piece in Middle Eastern dictatorships, whether friends of the U.S. or foes. There is only one democracy in the Middle East, and that is Israel--a country much detested by all those dictators.

The military and the secret police are how they maintain control. Bahrain is an absolute monarchy.

Anyway, I was very glad to say goodbye to that Holiday Inn. It wasn't the least bit like the Hotel California.

Among my souvenirs. (BTW: after you make up my room, could you send those guys away who have been following me?)

Add to Google Reader or Homepage

Subscribe to Robin Chapman News


Don Meuler said...

I'm thinking maybe one was assigned, and the other two were "tagging along"... ;o)

Robin Chapman said...

Maybe they were assigned to keep me from taking home the "please make up my room" door tag!

Don Meuler said...

Ouch! If so, you're lucky to still have both hands.

peretzklein said...

In any event, definitely worth guarding.

peretzklein said...

Hey that looks like Rondinaro in the background!

Robin Chapman said...

Oh pa-leeeese. He didn't go on this adventure.

peretzklein said...

But it does look like him...