It’s been months.
You know how if you let something slide, sometimes it’s really hard to get it back? I settled into routine, which left me apathetic about blogging.
But I’ve been traveling a fair amount over the past couple of months, so it’s about time I share some stories.
I’ll break things up into a series of posts. Expect to read about the following soon:
- My surprise trip to Canada and North Carolina for the holidays.
- Traveling to Oman with my parents.
- Hosting my parents and the Newells in Bahrain.
- Visiting Kuwait for a long weekend.
- Hosting Kara for a weekend and settling back into regular life here.
But for now, I’ll highlight a few key events from October through December.
Our friend Ben hosts Olivia’s birthday party. I make strawberry cake, but the glass pan cracks all the way through as soon as I take it out of the oven. It appears to be a clean break, so we keep the cake. I cut out the areas that may have glass. We tell the guests after they’ve eaten it. We also make margaritas, and I am criticized for my “put the whole lime in the blender” technique. The birthday girl says they are the best margaritas she’s ever had.
Eid al Adha
We decide to stay in town for the Eid-al-Adha break. We drive to Malkiya Beach along the western coast. The highway to Malkiya winds through Shia village after Shia village. There are checkpoints and char marks and that’s all I’ll say about that.
Lisa and I swim in the clear, shallow water even though we must remain covered as this is a Bahraini beach. Sure, technically every beach in Bahrain is a Bahraini beach, but some cater to an almost exclusively Western crowd—here’s where it’s fine to wear a bikini and grab a mojito. Malkiya, however, is frequented by Bahrainis. The children may splash about, and the men may strip down to their skivvies for a dip, but the women typically remain in their black abayas and hijabs.
Al Fatih Grand Mosque
During Eid al Adha, Al Fatih Grand Mosque in Juffair hosts an open house. We go, dressed in long sleeves and long skirts, of course. At the check in, we’re ushered into a large tent. On one half, there are folding chairs and banquet tables serving tea in little plastic cups. The other half is the abaya station. It’s like a department store: a dozen women toothing through a rack full of abayas. One lady squeezes into a skin-tight abaya. She is asked to change. Olivia and I don abayas and cover our heads. Mosque-ready!
The courtyard is lined with tables distributing literature—the basics of Islam, Islam and Christianity, etc.—trifold boards with titles such as “What does the Bible say about Islam?” and “What is Jihad?” and activities booths for children. We’re given a tour of the mosque. We’re told that most of the building materials have been imported: the light fixtures from France (Cyril is pleased), the glass lightbulbs from Egypt, the crystal chandelier from Austria, and so on. We observe prayer from the upper level.
Tree of Life
The Tree of Life is an old, hard-to-find tree in the southeast desert/oil fields of Bahrain. We attempt the drive, equipped with maps and two GPSs. The asphalt roads are unmarked and are dotted with occasional speed bumps. The drive winds past oil rigs, campsites, and workers’ camps. Bahrainis love camping. I don’t find the campsites particularly compelling, but I guess it’s an excuse to sleep outside your own home. You can tell the difference between the campsites and the workers’ camps by locating the satellite dishes.
The Tree of Life is famous just for its age. Some claim it is the last remaining tree from the Garden of Eden. In reality, it’s probably only a few hundred years old. I’m betting even hardline creationists would have a hard time with that timeline.
The tree is gnarled and covered in graffiti. It appears someone has built a crutch for one of the bigger branches. Seems the fellow has seen better days.
We visit A’ali Pottery, a large pottery complex right in our neighborhood. A’ali is known for it’s pottery tradition, a craft dating back thousands of years in this area to the civilization of Dilmun. On the same street as A’ali Pottery are a few large royal burial mounds from the same era, and beyond that is the field covered in hundreds of burial mounds. It’s quite something to see modern life moving around these icons of bygone eras. Fruit and fish vendors set up outside A’ali Pottery; boys on bicycles wheel around the burial mounds. And this little neighborhood of ours is riddled with signs of making a new history, but more on that when I’m back in the States.
Olivia dresses up as Frida Khalo and spends the evening explaining why she has a unibrow. I dress up as Shanna the She-Devil and spend the evening explaining who that is.
Thanksgiving and Staphy
For Thanksgiving, I fly to Egypt to visit the Newells. They host a few other American and Egyptian friends and serve the best Thanksgiving spread you’ll find in the Middle East. While I’m sad I can’t be home for Thanksgiving, I’m grateful to be at my second home. I’m reminded just how blessed I am.
Unfortunately, about a week before I fly to Egypt, I get what looks like a bug bite on my left wrist. It gets slightly worse throughout the week, so the night before I leave, I consult my friend, Mike, who is a doctor in the Navy. Mike is vacationing in India, and he suggests I start an antibiotic. The situation is somewhat complicated by my being allergic to augmentin, the go-to drug in this situation. Olivia and I attempt to lance it to no avail. The next day, I pick up the recommended antibiotic at the airport pharmacy about an hour before boarding my plane. See, in Bahrain, you don’t need a prescription to pick up prescription drugs. You just pick out what you need. I am still hesitant in the airport. I ask the pharmacists, “So, do you, like, want to even look at it? Or, should I just . . . is it okay that I just buy this?”
Through the course of the flight from Bahrain to Dubai and Dubai to Egypt, the tiny “bug bite” swells to a fluid-filled abscess, my hand is so huge with cellulitis that I can’t see my knuckles, and my forearm swells and reddens.
The next day is Thanksgiving. I go with Kara to the school where she teaches and meet some of her coworkers. We try to see the school nurse before I go to the hospital—just to get a preemptive second opinion—but she isn’t available.
We go to the hospital. We walk through a woman in labor in the waiting room. We walk through a glass tunnel and up some narrow stairs to dermatology. The ceilings are lower than I’d like. The waiting room seats remind me of a bus stop. The room into which I’m ushered is small and the cot has a regular sheet on it instead of those papery ones they normally use and now I’m crying. Kara and Mr. Newell distract me with talk of their recent decision to buy a new TV. Mr. Newell is asking “which brand do you think we should get?” as the doctor is injecting a local anesthetic and then making an incision and squeezing, squeezing, from all different angles. I’m squeezing Kara’s hand.
We go home and enjoy a delicious Thanksgiving meal. I struggle to eat with one hand, but I’m not one to let a harrowing medical experience keep me from turkey and sweet potato casserole. I message Mike, and he recommends I double my current antibiotic and start a large dose of a different antibiotic. I’m convinced he is the best telemedicine doctor, and I’m grateful he’s willing to consult on my case even while he’s a few time zones away.
The next morning, Mr. Newell changes my dressing, and the swelling is down some. I send pictures to Mike. There is improvement with the evening dressing change. Kara reads from This Is A Book by Demetri Martin while Mr. Newell plays doctor. While I’m sad I can’t be home for Thanksgiving, I’m grateful to be at my second home. I’m reminded just how blessed I am.
I fly back to Bahrain and make an appointment with a hospital Mike recommends. They run a culture. Based on the results, we learn the staph bacterium (which we later name “Staphy,” but that’s a different story) is resistant to the first antibiotic we tried but is very sensitive to the second. So we’ve got it under control. It’s classified as having “moderate growth,” meaning had things gotten much worse, I would have likely been put on an IV and injectable antibiotics.
The infection subsides and the incision heals. All that’s left of that infection now is a pink scar, maybe an inch wide, right on the wrist bone.
Harlem Globetrotters Game
We go to a Harlem Globetrotters game on the base.
Al Dar Island
The gang plans a trip to Al Dar Island—an island even smaller than Bahrain off the coast of Sitra. Sitra may be the armpit of Bahrain, but Al Dar is lovely. We rent a chalet for the night. We drink Christmas beers and soak up the afternoon sun. Ben goes spearfishing. Suz makes friends with the Pakistani family next door. They decorate Suz’s hand with henna, and they are much better at fishing than Ben. We watch the dhows make waves as the sun sets.
We decide if we are a TV show, we are “Sitra Shore,” so we come up with our Sitra Shore nicknames. They are situational and comedic.
The university hosts a gala of sorts where different departments and organizations host booths. There is tea and dancing men and a football match and a lot of dioramas. Everything is red and white.
Cyril, Lisa, Olivia and I go to Prince Khalifa bin Salman Park along the causeway for National Day festivities. Bahrainis—and a few Saudis wanting in on the fun—have decorated their cars with their national colors, decals of the royal family, and flags draping out of windows. People waiting in line to park honk, “Beep! Beep! Beep, beep, beep!” That is: half note! Half note! Quarter note, quarter note, quarter note!” This is the celebration honk generally recognized in the Arab world. At least in my experience.
The park is flooded with Bahrainis wearing beautiful red abayas, flags as capes, face paint, red wigs, and all sorts of other national garb. There is a concert and a stage and promise of fireworks. We grab tea in the café at the top of the viewing tower. This is where your wealthy, suburban Bahrainis have come to celebrate their country.
Embassy Christmas Party
The embassy hosts a Christmas party for embassy workers and their families on the ambassador’s lawn. As part of our official Fulbright duties, Olivia and I are elves, and Scott is Santa. Every child gets his picture taken with Santa before Santa and the elves are allowed to eat pizza and gingerbread.
Dr. Deller and I decide I should continue teaching the first unit for our three classes and that we will take a more active role for the next two units. I write the test for Animal Farm. There are three sections: character identification, questions related to specific quotes, and short essay questions. While I think I’ve put together a strong test and have given the students everything they need in order to succeed, the students do not, as a whole, do well on the test. A few students are on the money, but most of them give disconnected answers and write poorly. I try to remember that they’re young students and are used to multiple-choice, reading comprehension questions. A test focused on writing seems a bit out of their skill set at this point. But at least we’ve pushed them.
We have a few extra days to fill in the fiction class. Dr. Deller asks if I wouldn’t mind if we teach a story I wrote so that the students have the opportunity for a Q&A with the author. I feel weird about this, but I’d be lying if I say I’m not also excited. I give him a copy of Colonnades: the Art and Literary Journal of Elon University so he can read “Rabbit,” the short story I wrote that’s published in it. The story is about a man led by his own concocted religious narrative to sacrifice rabbits to the river. I still have the story saved on my computer, so I edit a copy for language. Now, the protagonist says things such as “con flab it,” and “fire in heaven.”
We decide not to tell the students I wrote it until after they read it and we discuss it for one day. We don’t want the knowledge that I wrote the story to cloud their judgment. Dr. Deller leads discussion on the first day. He walks through the plot and asks the students to respond to specific sentences and phrases. I sit in the corner taking notes on my own story, and it feels like an out-of-body experience. At the end of the class, Dr. Deller reveals that I am the author. The students turn in their seats to look at me, eyebrows raised—it’s a dark story, and I practically chirp and bounce when I’m teaching.
I teach day two of “Rabbit” discussion. See, in teaching literature, I tend to phrase questions in terms of authorial intent. Why did Orwell choose to voice his criticism in the form of an allegorical novella? Why does Shakespeare use iambic pentameter in some places and free verse in others? Why does Tolstoy open The Death of Ivan Ilyich with the funeral scene instead of jumping right into the biographical narrative style he maintains throughout the rest of the book? So now, through teaching my own story—however narcissistic that is—I can actually speak to authorial intent.
Discussion goes well. Students ask why I made certain decisions regarding religious references, dialogue, and even how the idea came into my head in the first place. When all is said and done, I hope I communicate this to the students: writing is decision-making. Can you make decisions? Can you decide upon characters and watch them react? Can you decide how to describe a blade of grass so that it evokes pleasure or pain in your reader? Yes. If you are a decision maker, you are a writer. Literature, then, is a means by which we connect to our world and to each other—it is accessible, it is valuable, and it is doable.
For the rest of the semester, I teach maybe once a week and hold office hours for students to meet with me regarding classwork or their own creative work. Students have brought me poetry, fiction, and even the makings of an essay. This renews my faith in my students. Several of them are willing to meet with me on their own time to discuss their own work. They’re willing to read and write responses to articles I’ve assigned outside of class in order to decide how their creative essay can utilize the same techniques. They’re willing to draw character sketches, talk through revision ideas, and take criticism. And they keep coming back. There isn’t a creative writing department, but the students seem to be hungry for one.
So. I’ll get you all up to speed eventually. But that’s a couple of months, at least. Next up: home for the holidays.