Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Unrest in Bahrain

During the almost 1 year I spent in Bahrain I fell in love with the place. It is a land tucked in the middle between India and the US and is truly between East and West in the literal and metaphorical sense of the word. It offers the comfortable infrastructure of the "West" along with the social fabric, warmth, glow and texture of India.  The people are friendly, weather always sunny, the infrastructure is modern and lifestyle is lavish. Well constructed roads, beautiful apartments, high-end entertainment avenues and unlimited power supply on one side, and eternal sunshine, vibrant social fabric, affordable domestic help, and a 3-hour plane journey closeness to India on the other.

For those who are ambivalent about living in the US vs going back to India, countries like Bahrain and UAE offer the perfect material solution. I would have loved to continue living there, but sometimes superficial comforts are just not enough to convince you. Only when you live in a non-democratic non-secular country do the principles of liberty, justice and equality start making sense to you. Only then does one realize the importance of the rights one takes for granted in free democratic countries. Whereas the Middle Eastern monarchs have managed to create nearly perfect looking kingdoms and have positioned them as the ultra modern civilization that paid western talent and cheap eastern labor can buy (tallest building, largest mall, man made islands, Grand Prix etc), they are 300 years behind on the intellectual and philosophical aspects of civilization.
Believe it or not, sometimes being able to go out for groceries in a T-shirt and shorts can be very liberating, and its not something you would find yourself doing comfortably in Bahrain. There are bigger issues too. My constant worry was quality education, schooling, and raising a girl child in a society with a restricted mindset. Not to say that the schools are bad, but public school education system is practically non-existent and I am not sure if colleges exist. (The rich kids go to UK or US for college, the not so rich ones go to India.) It makes me wonder that with all that oil money they managed to invest in glass towers and malls, but not in a good education system? It probably doesn't fit in the grand scheme of attracting tourists and creating a cool global image.

I will write more to complete this thought. but in conclusion I believe it is natural that an uprising defying monarchy, class-ism and feudalism should occur. In fact, its high time that it happened! We are well into the 21st century!

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Missing Bahrain

And so the short stay saw its end and we are back to the US of A. People have been asking me whether I like being back here. And I dont know what to say.
While I was looking forward to being back to the life that I was set in to and enjoyed, I am not sure that the pampered and laid back lifestyle in Bahrain hasn't got the better of me. 
I miss having all those comforts that I had - part time help for cooking cleaning and takig care of ALL chores, the convenience of ordering groceries over the phone and having them delivered within the hour, an apartment as huge as my New York office and much more lavish, bright cheery sunshine, sprawling malls, friends to go to the malls with, quality time with my baby girl, a vibrant social life, white sandy sea shores, turqoiuse blue waters...I could go on writing about it.  I had just started enjoying all of it when it came to an end.
Life is strange. The grass is always greener on the other side. While I was there, I can't deny that despite the comforts, I felt an emptiness deep inside. Though I was working remotely, it wasn't the same as being in the thick of the action and being caught in the clockwork of getting up, getting ready, running to catch trains, being in office and racking brains for something or the other, rushing back home on time for the little one, and running the entire household almost single handedly! Make me sound like a superwoman right? Kind of felt like that too. And I kind of missed it too. 
Life is strange. And life as a self proclaimed superwoman is tough. I had it easy back there. But was that what I really wanted? Or is this what I really want? I wish there was middleground somewhere, where the twain could meet. Its hard to get what we want, and its harder to like what we get. As Roger Waters mentioned, would you rather have a walk on part in a war, or a lead role in a cage. Well, I dont want to get all profound and Floydy about it, and no, it was not like being in a cage. The point is, we're never really quite sure about what we want. But I guess we try to derive some purpose and happiness out of everything that happens. Otherwise we couldn't sustain could we? 

Sunday, October 26, 2008

The Bridge to Saudi Arabia

There is a bridge over the Persian Gulf that connects the Kingdoms of Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. The first time we drove in Bahrain, it seemed to me that every highway in every direction eventually led to Saudi Arabia. I'm not kidding. I saw the green highway signs to "Saudi Arabia" in all directions for miles together. I would keep praying for us to not miss our exit, lest we end up in Saudi Arabia - a thought that I dreaded (because not wearing a burqa in Saudi is illegal, and can lead to an arrest)

However, the fact is that one can go upto a certain point on the Bahrain-Saudi border, and come back without getting into any immigration or burqa hassles. There are also viewing towers at this point from where one can see the Saudi city of Khobar in the distance. This "point" is actually a little man-made island on the Bahrain-Saudi Arabia border. We had heard about this island but only in passing, and weren't too sure about how to get there, which highway to take, which exit to get off on etc etc. And since this is not yet as advanced and internet savvy a country as the US or India, we could not find any good pointers online - more so because we had no idea what to Google for! So, we took our Bahrain - Complete Resident's Guide handbook (which has a few decent maps) and hit the road. We followed the signs to Saudi Arabia, and a few miles later, started noticing the vast empty barren spaces, which, for the first time gave us the feeling of being in the fabled Arabian desert (or close to it). We continued driving, and as the traffic started thinning, a fear of the unknown and the dreaded started dawning upon us.

At that time we knew absolutely no facts about this bridge, or the come-back-from island. We drove right up to the toll booth at the start of the bridge, and, taking it for an immigration checkpost, took that last exit before the "checkpost". There were many cars parked just before this checkpost, some empty and most of them with passengers - all in traditional Arabic garb. You must be wondering why we couldn't just ask anyone about what to do. I was wondering the same thing...but what can I say, men are just so bad about asking for directions!!! (But I don't blame him entirely, because people here are strange. Nobody seems to know too much, and language can be a bit of a problem. Some people just grin and say "yes yes" to anything you ask them. "Excuse me, what's the time". "yes yes :D".)
Anyhow, we gave up and asked, and got to know that the island on the border was 12kms from the toll booth, and that there were huge viewing towers which one could not miss.

So we hit the gas, drove past the toll booth, paid 2 Dinars to the King Fahd Causeway Authority - (that's the official name of the...causeway. A causeway is a road or railway elevated by a bank, usually across a broad body of water or wetland. So its really not a bridge, because the Persian Gulf is one large body of water!), and started heading West. The expanses of brown sand on the sides of the highway were suddenly replaced by an endless expanse of the clear blue sea! The fear and anxiety was not quite gone...but it was now accompanied by an awe and thrill of driving over the sea. We kept looking out for an exit...and took one too soon...which led to an island privately owned by King Hamad of Bahrain! Thrill and anticipation gone. Fear again. Luckily the Pakistani security guards could see the fear and knew that we were lost, and guided us back to the Causeway, in Hindi! They told us it was ok to drive back along the same exit (basically in the opposite direction on a one-way) and join the Causeway in the same direction - no need to take a U-turn, just be careful when you join the highway. Good. Flexible rules. I like. Very much!

We went back and kept driving over the beautiful blue waters...and then started seeing the CN-tower like towers in the distance...and heaved a sigh of relief! And thought - what were we scared of? We couldn't have missed this.

We drove to the base of the tower, parked and breathed easy! We had forgotten the camera at home! But the little island was so irresistible that we took a few pictures on the cell phone. By the time we reached it was beginning to get dark. It would have been better to have come earlier...and with a camera...next time! (yes, there will be a next time, because the place is quite scenic). Anyhow, we paid the measly 500 fils per head and took the elevator to the top of the tower.
This isn't a tower as high as the CN tower or as mighty as the Empire State Building, and it doesn't overlook a lake Ontario or a concrete jungle of other high rises...but it does offer a breath taking view of the Persian Gulf, a few offshore oil drills, and the surreal experience of having seen the Saudi Arabian kingdom...from a distance. The King Fahd Causeway is a magnficent structure. It is a 25km (15 miles) long dike and bridge combination, and in the evening it looks like a string of gold convoluting over the sea connecting the two land masses. Since we didn't have a camera, I am posting a picture I found online. But as I said, there will be a next time and there will be real pictures then.
If you go during the day you could probably have a picninc there but there isn't much to do or see in the evening. So after spending about two hours on the island, we turned back on the causeway, in the direction of Bahrain. The endless blue sea was now a mysterious stretch of darkness, and it was a relief to see the signs of civilization after exactly 12kms.
Once back in Bahrain, we feasted on a delicous north Indian meal of picked lamb, paneer kali mirch and pulav rice, complete with a meetha paan, at a really chic Indian restaurant.
It was an adventourous experience - it definitely felt adventourous when we started out :). And it was a weekend well spent, a weekend where we did something other than going to a mall.
I am hoping to explore more non-mall things to do over the weekends and will keep writing about them.
Till then, tada!

Friday, October 10, 2008

Dow Jones falls below 9000...but...

...that's not what this post is about. You must be getting enough of that on MSNBC, CNN, BBC or any other news channel you follow. This, as promised, is the blog about Bahrain.
Some readers have asked me "how is life in Bahrain city". Others have enquired where it is on the map. Some others want to know if I have to wear burka or not...
So I think its worthwhile to mention some facts about Bahrain.

Kingdom of Bahrain: Bahrain is a country. Its not a city, its not a province in Saudi Arabia, it is an independent kingdom/country/nation. It is an island country in the Persian Gulf officially known as the Kingdom of Bahrain. Manama is the capital city and chief commercial center. We live in Juffair, a few miles East of Manama.

Area: Area-wise it is smaller than New York City, so it is hard to locate on google or yahoo maps without really zooming in 3 or 4 times. This is based on data from wikipedia, where you can also get the exact figures.

Governance: His Royal Highness King Hamad bin Isa Al Khaleej is the ruling king of Bahrain. Bahrain is a constitutional hereditary monarchy with a bicameral parliament consiting of an elected House of Deputies and a Shura Council appointed by the king. The Executive Branch of the government consists of the king, HRH King Hamad, HRH Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khaleefa and the Prime Ministed, HH Shaikh Khalifa bin Salman Al Khalifa.(Yes, I copied that from a book. I could possibly not construct those sentences by meself!)

Names: I am told that "bin" actually means "son of", so you can see that the HRH King's name is Hamad bin Isa Al Khaleefa (son of Isa. Al Khaleefa is the family name) and his son is HRH Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khaleefa, and so on and so forth.(He who shall not be named is probably son of Laden) Also, whenever you speak of the king, you always say HRH before taking his name.

Attire: No, I do not have to wear the burka/abaya. Although a lot of the local women do wear them, it is not mandatory for all women to wear them. This is a fairly liberal place and one can dress up as per one's wish. However, you don't get to see skirts, shorts and sleeveless tees here that much. It is a conservative society after all and the dress code is mostly jeans, long sleeved shirts, kurtas and salwaar suits. I personally am more comfortable following the conservative dress code because one can feel horribly underdressed in a crowd where even the men are wearing 'ghutra' (head gears) and thobes (traditional long white robes which cover them from till the toes). The Complete Residents Guide to Bahrain also states "Visitors and expatriates are advised to show respect for the local culture when it comes to dress. While sleeveless and tighter-fitting outfits for women are increasingly seen, particularly in clubs and restaurants, it is advisable to dresss more modestly in souks, malls and pleaces where there are a lot of Bahrainis or Asian expatriates, if you don't want to have people staring at you"
The other day I saw a designer abaya store with the most gorgeous looking abayas (burkas). I was so tempted to buy one. This was in one of the more modern and stylish malls where every woman was out to do the others with her beautifully embroidered tailor-fitted abaya. Some wore head veils lined with sequins, others had patterns embroidered with silk and golden shining threads. And don't get me started on the makeup and accessories. Women here carry the most bling bling handbags, footwear and watches and wear the most nicely done eye-makeup I've ever seen.

Religous Freedom: Though Islam is the official religion of Bahrain, freedom of worship is permitted to other faiths. There are quite a few Hindu Temples (including the ubiquitous ISKCON temple), Gurudwaras and Churches. The majority of Bahraini population are followers of the Shia sect of Islam, but the ruling family follows the Sunni sect.

Formula 1!!!: Bahrain is the only country in the Middle East which has an International Circuit. There are a few F1 stars, whose names I can't remember right now, but they are the current heart throbs, and look handsome even in their thobes (one of them endorsed a breast cancer awareness event and was looking really cool in a pink thobe).
This is a picture of the Bahrain International Circuit.

Language: Arabic is the official language. English is popular. Hindi and Malayalam (language of the Indian state of Kerela) are fairly well-spoken as there are lots of Indians (particularly Kerelites) everywhere.

Electrical Appliances from the US: most of them work here, some have blown up. Luckily the laptops and hair-dryer have been working fine till now. The plug points have weird shapes. There is no standard shape and type, either for the plug points or for the appliances. They all come with plug pins of different shapes and sizes. I think its because everything is imported from different parts of the world. So we've had to buy adapters for every plug point in the house.

Not Made in China: Unlike in the US, you do get stuff that is not made in China. I was surprised to see that England and France also do a bit of manufacturing! And though their products are expensive, they are of good quality.

House help: is readily available and affordable. I have employed a part-time maid to help me with the household chores and it is such a bliss! She does everything! Cooking, cleaning, laundry, folding and ironing the clothes, baby sitting - everything you can ask for.

Despite the falling Dow Jones index (not that it affects my non-existent portfolio), there is peace and diversion to be found in these little things that I am discovering in this little island country.
Will write more - probably in a week.


Friday, September 26, 2008

Ramadan Kareem

...the weekend starts early here. On Thursday evening to be precise. The pre-weekend euphoria is such a universal feeling. It doesn't matter whether the weekend starts on Friday night, or Thursday night, or any other day or night of the week, the lightness of mood, the glow on peoples faces, and the anticipation in their eyes is the same everywhere!

The weekend mood was more visible today than during the last weekend because this is the last week of the Holy month of Ramadan, and the much awaited Eid holiday started this week. After a month of fasting, abstaining from food and water during the day, this holiday brings the same zeal, festivity and enthusiasm in this part of the world as Christmas and New Year in the West.

The interesting thing about the Holy month of Ramadan in the Middle East is that eating and drinking in public places is prohibited before sundown. It wasn't without knowledge of this fact that I had landed in Bahrain. I was well aware of this rule, but its practical implications had not dawned on me till I actually set foot here. Our flight landed at 9 in the morning at Abu Dhabi in the UAE (where we had a stopover). The courteous air hostesses in business class had not woken me up for breakfast, and just before landing I realized what a soup I was in (and I craved for soup, or anything edible). I should've asked for food! Will I really have to wait till EVENING for the next meal!? Luckily the business class lounge breakfast bar was open and I ate all I could - in order to sustain till evening.

The next shock came...the same day! When my loving husband looked at me very lovingly (and I knew something was up) and mentioned that he would need me to pack lunch for him next morning...because all restaurants cafes and eating places of all sorts are closed during the day....so up until the day before Eid, I would get up in the morning (despite the jetlag) and cook for him! A typical Indian wifey thing that I had never done till now, and was not expected to do.
Oh well. It was beginning to sink in now. I was in a truly different part of the world. A culture I had read about and heard of, but never lived before. Much as I was prepared for it, the practical aspects of the situation were but different.

Now because shop opens late during Ramadan, it closes late too. During the past few days, we made a few visits to a few malls. We would start late and come home really late. And no matter how late it was, the malls were always packed with shoppers. Since most Bahrainis can be distinguished by their traditional abayas and thobes (traditional wear), I could tell that, with Eid around the corner, they formed a large part of this pack of shoppers. What was more surprising was that, when we would drive out from the mall (well past 10PM), we could see a long line of cars waiting to enter the mall in the opposite lane! Being the shopaholic that I am, I wish malls everywhere would stay open so late!

Will be back with more on the malls and other things after Eid.

Till then, Ramadan Kareem and Eid Mubarak!! (have a generous Ramadan and best wishes for Eid)

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Blogging in Bahrain

And liking it!

Well now that I finally have some time at hand, and some idle time too, the devil has opened up workshop in this idle mind. And thanks to modern times, there is a quick and easy way to let out these works from the workshop - THE BLOG!

I have enough time now to forward forwarded emails to friends. Even those that say "forward to 5 people in 5 minutes for good luck in 5 hours"
Well the only good luck I had was two Mallu men make our apartment sparkling clean! Which is quite some luck given the fact that till last week I used to cook and clean and wash and fold and dust and tend to baby all by myself all day long...and go to work too! Well that was the US, land of the consumeristic and the individualistic beings. But this is Bahrain! The sun is always out, there are always people on the streets, kids are free to run around and yell without causing trauma to anyone, there are lots of kids, diapers can be changed anywhere (there is an incident I will narrate about this), apartments are huge, curtains (not blinds) are always drawn because the natural light is too bright...I could go on and on about the differences in the look and feel and cultures of the two nations.

But its time to call it a day and get some sleep now. 

Need to get up early!

Till the next post,

Take care and God bless,
Sanu and her mom