In The Land Of Veiled Women

Bahrain & Saudi Arabia
Bahrain & Saudi Arabia

I confess, ladies dressed as terrorists scare me.  OK, that’s not fair.  The gowns with full head covering worn by so many in Arabia aren’t really terrorist attire.  But there’ve been enough news stories of people wearing Islamic clothing to hide suicide bombs that these head-to-toe gowns can seem a bit intimidating.

In Dubai about half the women wear traditional Arabic dress (those black robes and such).  But of those, only a small percent wear the full covering where the eyes peer out from a tiny slit in the head covering.  I call these “eye-slit gowns” and the mysterious women who wear them, “eye-slit women.”  I’m sure that’s not the right term, but it works for me.   

In Dubai the other half of the women look like they’ve been whisked off a street corner in London, Paris, or New York.  And many of them have been—or, just as likely, Moscow.   So as you walk through, say, Mall of the Emirates about ten percent of the women are totally covered in black, except for their eyes.  At the other extreme, another ten percent are in miniskirts and halter tops.  Plus there’s everything in between.  One gets used to the diversity, but the eye-slit women are still kinda scary.  At least to us guys

The gowns where faces are fully exposed aren’t off-putting, because when you look at people, the face is the focus.  Are they smiling or angry?  Serious or playful?  Bored or alert?   If you can see another person’s face, social norms exert themselves and everyone interacts as we’ve been trained to since birth. 

But those eye-slit women pose a challenge.  You might think you could see at least their eyes, but usually no.  Islamic head coverings are designed to make even the eyes themselves not visible.  Yes, some have a wider slit (scandalous?) that give a clear view of the eyes themselves  But Arabic women generally have dark coloring.  And the face itself is always a bit withdrawn into the mask—meaning that part of the face you should be able to see is typically in shadow and close to invisible.

A traveler, new to the Arab world, will likely be quite taken with any of these gowns.  But the eye-slit women are like aliens from another planet.  So exotic, mysterious and—if not exactly alluring—at least very “touch me not.” 

And if these days Americans are confused about who is a man and who is a woman, there is no such uncertainty in this part of the world.  It’s a big deal.  The conservatively dressed women—knowing their role—never make eye contact with men.  And they are almost never alone.  Usually there is a male accompanying them, and sometimes you see multiple gowned women surrounding one male—who perhaps acts as kind of chaperone for the group.

Seeing these little “micro-harems” (multiple women—all in black—somehow attached to a single male), one can’t help but speculate.  A wife and daughters?  A wife and her female friends?  Multiple wives?  Hmmm.

I’ve also been told—hardly surprising—that it’s bad form to even look at these women.  It’s not a difficult rule to comply with, as there’s not much to look at.  Just a wall of blackness.  You know what they say.  After you’ve seen one woman in a black gown, you’ve–  well, not quite.  There are differences if you know where to look.  Not that I do.

Speaking hypothetically, the first way you differentiate black gown A from black gown B is the shape of what’s inside.   Most Arabic women are quite slender.  Some are matronly.  A very few: more than matronly.

The male brain can’t help wondering what’s underneath.  In fact—just speculating here—might that be a whole sub-branch of clothing in Arabia: under-gown fashion?  Is a full dress customary? Skirt and blouse?  A Hilary-style pantsuit?  Only lingerie?  Has a gowned woman—perhaps on a dare from a friend—ever spent the whole day shopping at the mall with absolutely nothing on underneath?  In the West these days, little is left to the imagination.  In the Middle East, the  imagination is all that’s left.

Back to the gown itself.  Often there’s elegant if subtle embroidery.  Sometimes it’s not subtle, but in shocking contrasting colors that visually leap off the gown itself.  Occasionally these decorations are in shiny material like gold or silver lace.  Once I saw something akin to rhinestones.  I suspect the male of the family had something to say about that.  One can only imagine the scene where the teenage, rebellious daughter, spends the night painstakingly sewing rhinestones onto her black robe, only for the horrified father and scandalized mother to see it in the morning and ground her for a month.  “You harlot!” screams angry dad.  “Didn’t I raise you better than this?” 

“I’m so ashamed,” says despondent mom, eyes downcast.  “I guess I can never take you back to the mall, if this is what happens…”

But while adornment of the robe itself is rare and almost always subtle there’s one fashion item that quite lets these mysterious Arabic women proclaim to the world their individuality: the purse. 

Anything goes with the purse, except what never seems to go: the blackness.  Yep, the purses are black too, and they quite blend into the robes.  But the straps?  Ah, now we’re talking haute couture.  The gown is black, the purse is black, but apparently women are encouraged to let themselves go when it comes to STRAPS.  Gold, silver, platinum, diamond-encrusted, thick small-loops, thin giant-loops, thick giant-loops…Arabic purse straps are a work of art. 

I’m guessing it’s all the rage to own multiple types of straps, and be able to interchange them, to fit the dress code of the event.  Heading out to do the town tonight?  Let’s see, should I wear my little black purse with the delicate gold filigree straps, the heavy silver chain links, the platinum twisted rope design, or perhaps the two-tone “medieval brocade” look? 

I’ve been to Dubai many times and have grown used to seeing the gowns, the purses and even the straps.   But this time I was traveling to Bahrain—an entirely new country.  I noticed something different immediately.  The ratio of gowned to non-gowned women (50-50 in Dubai) was bout 90-10 in Bahrain.  The only women not gowned were not locals—expate Indians or Filipinos it seemed.  And, even more surprising of the 90% who were gowned, most all of these were of the eye-slit-only variety.   I thought Bahrain was like a smaller version of Dubai, very westernized and modern.  Not so much, it seemed.

Leaving the Manama airport in an Uber (transportation options, at least, are modern) I noticed the buildings themselves were quite Dubai-like: tall, modern, and with somewhat-outlandish architecture.  There just weren’t so many of them.  Dubai must have thousands of skyscrapers.  Bahrain has a few dozen.   Bahrain was Dubai thirty years ago.

But the hotels are no less elegant and I was quickly asleep—after twenty hours of airline travel to get here from Denver.  Business meetings over the next two days gave me a closer look at those skyscrapers.  Most cities group their tall buildings downtown, all-next-to-each other.  Bahrain’s equivalent are spread randomly.  Look way over there!  Out in the middle of a field it’s, it’s—a giant skyscraper.  And, OMG, there’s another one, ten miles in that direction.  And so forth.  But Bahrain’s not stupid.  They’ve seen Dubai and they know where one of these springs up, others follow.  And they’re making sure they have plenty of room for the next batch.  And the one after that.  And so forth.

Or perhaps they share the concern of Congressman Hank Johnson, who famously worried that—with too much American military buildup—the island of Guam might tip over.  Bahrain—also an island—is keeping things well balanced at least in the real estate department. 

One of the business colleagues I was meeting gave me the Cliff’s Notes version of Bahrain.

“Here are the differences between Dubai and Bahrain,” he explained over dinner one evening, being familiar with both. 

First, of course is size.  Dubai is 1500 square miles and almost three million in population.  Bahrain’s population is half that, squeezed into a wee 300 square miles.

Second, as you’ve noticed, in terms of skyscrapers and such,  Dubai is several orders of magnitude beyond Bahrain.  Third, the place isn’t solid expates like Dubai.

This I knew about the UAE.  The local population is about 15% of the total.  Most of the rest are from India or Pakistan, and those residents—imported for cheap labor—do all the work.  Or at least the hard work.  Emiratis will skim off the cushy white collar pencil pushing jobs.  And they mostly all have generous benefit programs from the government anyway. 

In Dubai, the Emiratis are easy to tell apart.  They’re the ones who wear the long, white, flowing robes.  Or at least the men do.  The women…well, we’ve covered that, so to speak. 

The Indians and Pakistanis in Dubai wear slovenly worker outfits, kind of the grunge look.  But what do their women wear?  Well, there aren’t any.  Apparently when male laborers are brought in, their families (if they have them) stay back on the Indian sub-continent.  The workers send money home.  This is why you don’t see Indian saris in Dubai.  There aren’t any Indian women to wear them.  They’re all back in India, receiving checks from their men-folk lucky enough to have landed “high paying” jobs in Dubai. 

Of course they’re worked to death in the Emirates, and are paid pennies, but it’s enough to send cash home to families.  And that makes all the difference.  Why?  Because in India, if you can’t find a job—and many can’t—you starve.  I don’t mean in the American sense of living in an icky apartment and having to drive an old car and get by on last year’s iPhone.  I mean starve as in die. 

So the Dubai system works for everyone.  The Emiratis get cheap labor and live like, well, like Emirs.  And the Indians keep their families alive.  It’s not exactly slavery in the antebellum American South.  But it feels like that.   Americans fawn over the seeming opposites gods of diversity and equality.  Dubai’s got the first, but isn’t remotely interested in the second.  And how do westerners fit in?  We’re kind of a third thing.  We come for business and tourism, and bring plenty of hard currency, and keep the hotels and other real estate properties in business. We’re several notches above the low-cost laborers, but very much inferior to the Emiratis themselves, socially, morally, and likely in most cases—financially. 

And that brings us to the final way in which Dubai and Bahrain are different.

“The people here are friendly.  Super friendly,” explained my colleague.  “Have you noticed?”

I thought back on the encounters I’d had with hotel staff and such, and in the restaurants and bars.  All of them were friendly.  But those folks are always friendly.  It’s their job description.

But then I thought back to the airport, to the customs officials, the taxi driver, and even the government officials I’d been meeting with.

“Yeah,” I agreed. “Everyone’s friendly.”

“And you don’t have the caste system.  There are very few expates here.  Most everyone is a local.  And the locals do to the work, not just lord over everyone else. 

“The culture’s very different.  No one’s expected to live off a petro-dollar benefit check. Partially because there’s not much oil here.  So they’ve gone all in on the work ethic, entrepreneurship, and so forth.  That’s why I love this place.  It’s the people.  They’re real.  They don’t look down on us.  The smiles aren’t fake.”

Not knowing how much time would be necessary, I’d given myself  five days in Bahrain, but my meetings compressed into 72 hours.  Plan B, with any time remaining, was to visit Saudi Arabia. That didn’t used to be so easy. Prior to the last few years, it was almost impossible to get a visa to Saudi Arabia absent familial or business ties.  But these days you can apply for an eVisa.  I’d asked one of the hotel staff how long it takes, worried there’d not be enough time to sort it out.  “Ah,” he explained, “with eVisa it takes about fifteen…” (I was dreading the word “days” if not “months”) “…minutes,” he said. 

So, late that day I was heading by car (the hotel arranged this) across the causeway connecting the island kingdom of Bahrain with “The Forbidden Kingdom” of Saudi Arabia.  Lots of kingdoms around here.    What was that phrase: “One day, my prince will come?”  In truth, I had a very, very slight connection with Bahrain royalty.  Eighteen months earlier, in Dubai, I’d met Her Excellency Sheika Emmanuella Al Khalifa, married to the nephew of the king.  Did that make her at least a princess?  Not sure.  We were attending the same conference in Dubai, and one day the Sheikha and I did lunch.  But she wasn’t here now.  NO ONE stays in Arabia during the summer months if they can possibly help it.  Europe’s so close. 

My lack of royal connections caught up with me at the border, which in this case happens half way across the causeway.  There are four parts:  Bahrain customs, Bahrain passport control, Saudi passport control, Saudi customs. 

I assumed with my slick, printed-out-to-hard-copy, bar-coded Saudi Arabian eVisa, I’d be whisked right through immigration, perhaps even to salutes and bows and such.  Uh, no.  The driver inexplicably pulled off to a side parking area (this whole thing is a large several acre, artificial island half way across the causeway) and pointed towards a low, unassuming building of uncertain purpose.  “Finger,” he said.

It sounded like he’d said “finger,” but obviously that made no sense.  Maybe it was Arabic for needing a passport stamp or whatever.

“I’m sorry, what?”

“Go there!  In building.  Finger!”

Well, I understood the first part.   I walked through the door and inside was a scene from hell. To be clear, outside was also hell.  When the temperatures hit 120 degrees, if that’s not hell what is?  Ah, but there are several levels.  Inside was one of the lower ones. 

It was a room about 50’ square and contained perhaps 100 people.  They were all locals, about two thirds women.  The women all had eye-slit gowns.  A long high desk was at one end of the room, staffed with a dozen bureaucrats.  There were a dozen lines, roped off, each leading to a bureaucrat.  You know how this works, right?  Whatever line you choose will be the slowest.  But I entered one, knowing it didn’t matter, and was surprised to realize every person in line was an eye-slit veiled woman.  And the tallest was about two thirds my height.  I felt like I was surrounded by Lilliputians dressed as black ghosts for Halloween.   Twenty minutes later, I reached the desk.

“Finger!” he ordered.    Now I understood.  This was where we came to get our fingerprints captured by those little laser devices, plus a facial photograph.  I put my fingers in place, something clicked or twinkled, and my identity was captured for all time by the Saudi secret police.  Or whomever collects this data.  The veiled women suffered more.  Each had to bare her face for the photograph.  Talk about being violated. 

Exiting the causeway it was only twenty minutes to my hotel.  Hotel space was essentially free this time of year (no one comes to Saudi Arabia in August) so I’d splurged on the Grand Hyatt, at $90/night.  Inside was an oasis of cool, calm, sophisticated luxury, and they even had a camel parking lot where you could tie up your…  OK, I just made that up.  But I’m sure if I’d had a camel they’d have found a place for it.  Yet there weren’t any camels around.  In fact—other than inside the Hyatt—there seemed little sign of life anywhere.  Well, no wonder.  Not even camels could survive here, unless they had a room at the Hyatt itself.  Because there was no food.  Outside was a desert wasteland with not a single growing thing in sight.  There were buildings: rugged concrete structures of uncertain purpose.  A few cars buzzed about, but not even insects kept them company.  An insect flying through the air would have burst into flames.  In fact, maybe that’s precisely what had happened to all the flies which most deserts have—but not this one.  It was simply too hot.

Ah, but inside?  Beautiful architecture, marble hallways, wondrously high ceilings, dark wood paneling, plants, trees, flowers everywhere.  My room was obscenely large, very 5-starish.  Everything perfect.  How perfect?  Here’s an example.

Human civilization hasn’t done well when it comes to wastebaskets in hotel bathrooms.  In the United States they are just open containers.  But apparently in much of the world, that’s considered gross, as things which are thrown away are things that one wishes to thereafter not see.  So they’ve designed rubbish bins with lids, which are spring loaded.  A tiny (too tiny) foot thingy at the bottom—if you push it just right—will awkwardly open the lid, you toss whatever unpleasant thing in there you wish, and it closes with a snap.  These things are always under-engineered.  The foot thingy is hard to even get to, let alone exert the needed pressure to make it work.  The forces involved are sure to move the wastebasket itself all over the place—so you’re almost chasing it to get the lid open.  The contraption is just a miserable experience all around.  But at least…it has a lid.

At the Grand Hyatt in Khobar, Saudi Arabia, they’ve found a solution.  The “lid” simply swings open on a vertical pivot.   That is, you push one side or the other, and it spins vertically, almost like a top.  It’s perfectly hinged, and elegantly engineered, and takes almost no work to open.  It closes automatically, thanks to gravity.  I’m guessing there was some brilliant Arab mathematician in AD 800 or whatever who figured this out.  Because I’ve only seen this perfect solution to this global problem here, in Saudi Arabia.   Who knew?

I’d chatted with one of the friendly and competent front desk clerks about scuba diving.  He was quite keen to help, and was a diver himself, but there were only two choices both of which sounded bad.  One was an hour away, and involved a further trip to a beautiful island with great coral.  But they were fully booked up for the next two days.  The other choice was “Half Moon Bay,” which was kind of a beach hangout place, it seemed.  I  envisioned an Arabian version of Coney Island.  Lots of tourists.  Frat guys walking around in muscle shirts.  A zillion restaurants sprinkled among t-shirt shops, beach bars, and lots of water-activities for those who were interested: jet skis, kayaks, catamaran sailboats, and—he assured me— scuba diving!

“Oh it’s very informal.  There are folks with dive equipment and you just do shore dives and stuff.”

Shore dives are unpleasant on a good day, but I’d think about it.  The beautiful hotel was itself connected to an elegant upscale mall, which I visited before dinner.   Yep.  Upscale mall.  Lots of high end brands like Dior and Omega.  Lots of eager sales people.  No customers.  But there was at least a grocery store and I bought a few things for my room.

The buffet restaurant at the Hyatt was everything you could expect, including no alcohol.  I researched this and apparently there’s not a drop of alcohol in Saudi Arabia.  Apparently if you even SMELL of alcohol you’ll get fifty lashes with a whip.  Probably a half-pint of vodka would earn you a beheading.  That was fine, I didn’t need alcohol.  But I did need water.  The desert had been sucking it out of me for three days. 

Perhaps in apology for not having alcohol, the waiter brought me an apparently free beverage of some kind.  There was a beverage in there somewhere, buried under a whole garden-party of cocktail umbrellas, flower blossoms and elegant, upmarket straws.  I took a sip.  Far as I could tell, it was 7-up.  Uh, no thanks. 

Throughout the buffet experience, the waiter kept coming up to me offering exotic non-alcoholic beverages.  The conversation went on like this.  And on.  And on….

“Sir, may I bring you tea?”

“No, but you see I’m out of water.   Could I have more water please.”

“Certainly sir.”

Five minutes later…

“I have coffee I can bring you sir.”

“Don’t need coffee, but can I please have some more water?” I’d say, noticing my conspicuously empty glass.

Five minutes later…

“Hello sir…”

“Water please.”

“Yes, of course.”

This continued for many glasses of water until I was tempted to scream: “Can’t you just leave the whole bloody pitcher?” But one tries to fit in.

The next day, in the same place for breakfast, I was scandalized to see the many women in gowns were not wearing their compulsory face mask.  How could that be?  Had the whole country liberalized overnight?

But as I observed the phenomenon, and also watched as new women would enter from the lobby, and as others left, I figured it out.  It was like Covid.  The women were required to wear the masks EXCEPT when they were eating/drinking in a dining room.  Duh.  Of course.  How could you eat or drink with a full face mask on?  Still, I found it a bit unnerving, all these naked faces.  But other rules continued.  None of these gowned women ever looked at me, or even noticed me, far as I could tell.  I was invisible.  Perhaps all men were.  And as soon as they’d leave the restaurant, back-on would go the veil.  And they’d leave with the haunting mysterious elegance with which they’d entered, gowns flowing gracefully.

Finally I got one of these women alone in an elevator.  Some background.  It’s always an awkward social situation when sharing an elevator with a gowned, eye-slit, woman.  You can smile, but why bother since they can’t smile back.  And you’re not supposed to notice them anyway.  Nor they you.  It was always better if it was a small  group, perhaps a man and his several ladies.  Or at least two or more of them together.   You’d do the normal polite thing, like stand back while they enter, stand as far away from them as possible in the elevator itself,  and wait patiently and humbly for them to exit first. 

But, as circumstances conspired, here I was alone with one of these gowned goddesses.  Yes, she was slender, the material was elegantly embroidered, and her black purse was adorned with an expensive-looking gold chain.  There was nothing for it.  It was just the two of us.  She entered, and then of course I did as well.  But I was hardly at my best.  There was  a problem with my room key. It wouldn’t activate the sensor.   The girl was having troubles too.  Maybe it was a broken elevator.  Well, things weren’t going well and I quickly exited to sort out my key problem at the desk.  Ah, of course. I’d extended the reservation after the key had been issued.  The front desk cleared it up, and soon I was back to the elevator.  Here was the same gowned woman.  She’d tried switching elevators, and now the situation was much as before.  I entered, with my new key. 

But suddenly everything changed.  “I don’t know what the problem is!” she blurted out, like a frustrated teenager which she might have been.  “I can’t get this stupid thing to work!”   She actually looked at me directly while saying these words in English, and raised her hands in frustration. 

“Let me try, I have a new key,” I responded. 

This time it worked and my new key was powerful enough that she was able to activate her floor as well. 

“Thank you sooo much,” purred the fully gowned, eye-slit lady.

Well, did I ever feel like Aladdin! 

The next day was my big adventure to Half Moon bay.  I’d apparently misunderstood and it wasn’t 15 minutes by Uber as I’d thought.  After climbing into the car, the estimate said 45 minutes.  Well, what else did I have going on? 

The driver, a big Arab with an even larger Keffiyeh (that red and white head-dress thing), was determined to point out sights along the way.  Two things interfered with this.  One, there were no sights along the way.  We were driving through a god-awful, baked, treeless, everythingless desolate plain of sand and despair. 

Second, he spoke no English.  To his credit, he tried to make up for not speaking English by pronouncing the Arabic words ever so slowly and clearly. 

You can take a sound like “krulinalishla” and it doesn’t become easier to understand by being pronounced slowly and carefully.  My driver didn’t seem to understand this.  So I finally was reduced to just making non-committal noises in return, like “hmmmm….”   And “I see…”   And, “yes, I understand.” 

But what I wanted to scream was: “WTF dude!  What can you possibly be trying to describe to me?  There’s absolutely nothing out the window!  Have you looked?!?!?!?   I don’t need you to explain it to me.  I don’t need to know the details.  This is basically just world’s most horrid place.  That’s all you have to say: “World’s most horrid place.”

I was wrong.  Half Moon Bay was worse.  Not to sound high maintenance, but what’s worse than an endless baked desert?  A desert that comes up against an inland sea, with the water so hot you can’t even go in it.  I tried.  It was like a very hot jacuzzi—you wouldn’t quite burn yourself.  And the area itself was empty.  Just endless little open cabana like things, hard sided, with no one even bothering to ask money for them.  Well, no one was here.  This place was as empty as the desert itself.  Maybe in January it turns into Coney Island, but not a single soul was stupid enough to come here in AUGUST!  I can’t believe the guy back at the Hyatt had recommended it.  Well, perhaps not his fault.  He certainly hadn’t been crazy enough to come here in August either. 

Before even opening the door I made clear to the driver (with hand signals) that I was going back with him.  No way was he dropping me off in this lowest-ever level of hell.  I’d not last 5 minutes outside the cab.  He understood and nodded.   I raced from the parking lot over to the water.  Touched it with a toe.  Yep.  Near boiling.  And I was back in the Uber and rushing to the Hyatt Oasis within minutes.

He pointed out some more sights that didn’t exist, explained them to me, and I murmured my appreciation. 

Not convinced I’d seen everything there was in Al Khobar (the town on the Saudi side of the causeway) I pulled up TripAdvisor.com.  They always have the best information, the inside scoop.  Under attractions for Khobar the #1 was “City Center Mall.”   I’d done that.  The next was “Half Moon Bay.”  Hmmm.  The others were even less interesting. 

Time to return to Bahrain. 

That evening, from my room, I tried to choose a hotel for the next night.  I’d be flying home the following morning.  Well, I’d enjoyed and been impressed with Bahrain, and as far as Saudi Arabia was concerned, been impressed with…the Grand Hyatt, I felt deprived of a real “locals” experience.  You know, old town, markets, souks, native people doing native things.  Stuff like that. 

Manama, Bahrain’s capital, had an “Old Town” and that sounded perfect.  The nearest hotel—seemingly right on top of that area, was the Bahrain Grand International.  Four star.  Hmmm, four star’s plenty good enough for the likes of me.  Although I’ve learned you can’t always take those stars too seriously.  Best if you think of them as grading on the curve, like ski runs in Summit County, Colorado.  For example, what A-Basin calls a blue run, Keystone would call a double black. 

And this wasn’t Italy.  I was a stranger in a strange land and didn’t want to fall too far outside…the oasis.  I wimped out and splurged on the Intercontinental, about a block or so away from the souks.  I could handle the $50 difference in room rate. 

So the next morning I hailed another Uber, or rather entered the departure and destination info into the app.  “Three minutes!” proclaimed the app. 

Two  minutes later, I got a phone call.  “You go Bahrain?!?”

“Yes.”

“Sorry, no can go Bahrain!”

He cancelled and another Uber driver picked up the trip.

Two minutes later: “Wait, you go Bahrain?  No can go Bahrain.”

I went through 3 more drivers, before #5 was a hit.  Seeing him approach towards the hotel, I texted him.  “Can go Bahrain?”  (I was picking up the dialect.)

He sent me back a thumbs up icon.   OK, so six times was the charm.  I asked the hotel desk clerk why those who couldn’t go to Bahrain kept accepting the fare.

“Oh, it comes up on their phone apps—someone needs a ride somewhere—and they press ACCEPT instantly before they even look at the destination.  There aren’t many customers at the moment. 

Yeah, and those who had been, were probably dropped off at Half Moon Bay and died. 

The Bahrain Intercontinental was another welcoming oasis and soon I was ready to go explore Old Town, although I wisely waited until 4pm when “the souks will open” as the front desk clerk put it.  Yeah, if there’s one thing I hate, it’s a closed souk.

The first attraction I came to was the Bahrain Grand International Hotel itself.  OMG had I dodged a bullet.  I’m not sure who the customer base was, but this 4-star wonder was obsessively gaudy, smelled as if a tanker truck of incense had tipped over just inside the door, and a non-identifiable smell beyond incense vied successfully for attention.  But the air conditioning was good, and in the five minute hike from the Intercontinental I was a customer for anything cool.  Better yet, a long lobby area extended from the side I’d entered…all the way to the back door which opened on Souk City (my name.)   I took a long time going through this lobby.  A very long time.  In fact, I found a chair in the corner and used up half an hour trying to get cool again. 

Now closer to five, the heat might have ebbed half a degree by the time I ventured forth again.  Yeah, it was all here.  The little shops.  The overhanging shading common to all souks.  The touts.  The exotic looking people walking around, especially those eye-slit women.  They were here in abundance.  As were the Keffiyeh-adorned men.  Very exotic.  Plus lots of colored vegetables in huge bins, screaming: “Photograph me! Photograph me!” 

I captured all of it, but in less than an hour had had enough.  Time to head back to the Intercontinental, via the Grand International.  I sat in my favorite chair and tried to cool down again, watching as local-type people walked back and forth.  This was clearly no international business hotel.  I felt out of place.  But everyone was friendly.  Well of course they were.  This was Bahrain.   And some were more than friendly.

Here came an eye-slitted woman, walking past.  She noticed me and nodded slightly.  What!?!?  That NEVER happens.  Then she did the unthinkable and actually gave me a subtle wave of her hand.  I was scandalized.  But things were just getting started.

The eye slit woman laughed gaily beneath her mask, and said, “Where you from?  Germany?”

Perhaps I looked German. 

“No,” I responded, smiling, despite my shock.  “I’m from United States.”

“Oh, United States!”  She’d actually walked over to where I was sitting.  “I love the United States.”

I couldn’t have been more shocked.  Then I found out I could be.   The woman…removed her veil.

Yep, you read that right.  She stood there right in front of me and—removed her veil. 

She was not unattractive, kinda cute actually, but had the look of a hard life about her.  She smiled coyly. 


“What I really want is a drink!”  she said, teasingly, and suddenly everything became clear.  She was not some friendly local, with a thing for Americans.  She was a hooker!  Perhaps with a thing for Americans, but a hooker nonetheless. 

I laughed.  “No, I’m sorry,” I said, shaking my head but with a big smile, to let her know I appreciated the overture.  Is that the right etiquette?  And then I wondered.  Was this entire hotel a red-light zone?  Was it some kind of bordello?  It certainly looked the part, and to an extent smelled it as well—not that I had the experience to know. 

The young lady didn’t seem offended, just smiled sweetly in return, replaced her veil, and walked on. 

Well, that was about all the souk touring I needed for the day.  Soon I was back in my room trying to make sense of it all.

Bahrain had beautiful buildings, friendly people, an attractive business climate, and temperatures outside that could fry an egg on the sidewalk.  Not so far away was Saudi Arabia, with water so hot you could boil an egg at the beach.  And in the lavish 5-star hotels, they’d cook an egg for you anyway you wished at the lavish breakfast buffets while fawning over you obsequiously.  And, heck, even the hookers were friendly. 

Perhaps I should find out what the place is like in January. 

Photo album here:

https://flic.kr/s/aHBqjA4g8y

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