Pablo Skolnick and Corie Skolnick

Desto3: Postcards from The Middle East: Bahrain

The skyline of Manama at sunset

The Desto3 team spent the better part of November and December traveling throughout the Middle East. Join us virtually until you can go yourself. This stop? Bahrain

 

When the Desto3 team touched down at Bahrain International Airport, the Jewish population of Bahrain skyrocketed from 37 to 38. Yes, Margaret, of the total 1.2 million Bahrainians, a scant 37 individuals (or 0.0%) are Jewish.

 

The Grand Mosque in Manama

Slightly less than half the population of Bahrain are Bahraini citizens, and slightly greater than half are expats living in Bahrain to work, most of them from India. Religious identity seems relatively insignificant, although everyone seems to know on sight what everyone else “is.” And that is quite a feat since the human makeup of Bahrain is as complicated as it gets.

There are Sunni Bahrainis (arguably the most influential ethnic group in Bahrain) who might be either Arab or Huwala. The Sunni Arabs typically hail from Zallaq, Muharraq, Riffa, and the Hawar islands, whereas the Huwala are descendants of Sunni Iranians or Sunni Persians depending on who you talk to. And, please understand that people from Iran are NOT Arab people. You probably know that, if you are Muslim, you might be either Sunni Muslim or Shiite and, in Bahrain, there are more Shia than Sunni even though the royal family and most of the ruling elite are Sunni.

A good number of Sunni people are of Baloch origin, and among the African Bahrainis almost all are from East Africa. About 40% of the Bahraini residents are Christian, and they can be either Christian expats or Christian native Bahrainis. Among the many Asian Bahraini residents, you will find Indians from India plus folks from the Philippines, Sri Lanka, and Nepal. This group can be Muslim, Christian, Hindu, Buddhist, Baha’i, or even something called “unaffiliated;” although that last group is really, really tiny and only slightly more folks admit to no religious affiliation than admit to being Jewish. I promise you that I learned my lesson and I can tell you that I will never again admit to being “unaffiliated” in a foreign country that is so very “affiliated,” but that’s a story for another day.

 

Local women dressed in traditional burqas passing the time at one of the many air-conditioned malls

With a melting pot like this one, there are a lot of languages spoken but the official one is Arabic and, thanks to the British who made their usual significant occupation (1861-1971), all signage is bilingual in both Arabic and English – lucky enough for us. And nearly everyone speaks at least a little English.

 

 

Since Bahrain is an island, connected by causeway only to Saudi Arabia, it shares no borders and has a unique history and cultural identity. Bahrain was the first of the Middle Eastern countries to “get the memo” about diversification of investment and resources, so they are well on their way to being free from the yolk of oil industry dominance. They were first to discover and refine oil in this region, so it isn’t too surprising that they’ve been the first to move on from oil dependence. They are currently a major player in international banking and they do a very brisk business in gold and gold jewelry where, once upon a time, they were among the world’s greatest pearl traders. Large numbers of Indian families were spotted in the gold market presumably acquiring gold in preparation for those gigantic, ostentatious gold-laden weddings the Indians favor. Sadly, no golden trinkets were harmed (acquired) in the making of this Desto postcard. It’s okay. I’m beyond my conspicuous consumption days. I’m already over it. Still, a tiny pair of golden hoops for my ears wouldn’t have hurt anyone surely.

 

One of the many modern buildings along the Manama Skyline

Perhaps it’s the island thing, but whatever, Bahrain is known to be (and you can feel it) quite a bit more “modern” in terms of cultural tolerance. For example, there’s more than a tiny bit of inter-marriage between ethnic groups and it’s one of the very few Gulf states that doesn’t have a law against homosexuality on the books. One source told us that, while it isn’t technically illegal to be gay, it’s still frowned upon and gay people can find themselves jailed for other trumped up charges that basically amount to “breathing while gay.” Hence, gay Bahrainians are still a mostly closeted group.

 

Saudi Arabian men come to Bahrain on the weekends to drink alcohol and party

Yes, Margaret, there is alcohol to be had even though it’s a Muslim country. In fact, one night we walked right into a Lebanese restaurant in a large shopping mall and ordered a bottle of pretty decent wine from a not altogether horrible wine list. (Many other diners were also sipping fermented grape juice, all of them dressed in traditional garb, so we assumed that they were among the predominant Muslim population just out on the town sinning like us by wine consumption.) It was suggested (not confirmed) that our fellow diners were all visiting Saudis over for the weekend. Indeed, this theory seemed likely since we were advised against attempting to go over to Saudi Arabia via the causeway because a normally twenty-minute commute between the two countries on the weekend typically takes four to five hours sitting in traffic among the Saudis in their SUVs all coming over to party in Bahrain. Our waiter suggested that what happens in Bahrain stays in Bahrain if you get my meaning.

 

Locals come to visit the camel farms on the weekends

Women taking photos of the camels with their cell phones

Another group that likes to party, and likes to do it in warm climates with pretty beaches and for a reasonable price, is our Russian friends and there were quite a few installed at our hotel. They seemed to stick pretty close to their home away from home, utilizing the beach, the pools, and the bars, and doing very little sightseeing.

I know this makes me a horrible person, but next time I go to Bahrain I might think about inquiring as to how many chubby white people who have no business wearing bikinis and speedos I can expect to be lolling around the swimming pool at the hotel, chain smoking, and slugging vodka shots, and I’ll look elsewhere for my lodging.

I know. I’ll take a karmic hit for that.

 

One of the many women and men from India who come to Bahrain to work

 

First published by the travel guide Desto3 and republished with permission.

 

Pablo Skolnick and Corie Skolnick

Pablo Skolnick has visited and photographed over 130 independent countries. His wife/collaborator, Corie, has sent postcards from half of them. Together they lead the teams at the travel website, Desto3.com. Find Pablo's work at www.PabloSkolnick.com, www.Desto3.com, and Instagram @pabloskolnick. Corie's novels, ORFAN and AMERICA'S MOST ELIGIBLE are available from any bookseller. She has contributions to the adoption anthologies ADOPTION THERAPY and ADOPTION REUNION IN THE SOCIAL MEDIA AGE, in Nailed Magazine, and on the podcast THRILLS AND MYSTERY. She is a San Diego State University Hugh C. Hyde Living Writers choice and will Skype for free at any book club that adopts one of her novels. (This offer expires as soon as it becomes a pain in the ass.) THE BAFFLED KING will be published by India Street Press in 2021.

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