I’ve been here a month already, ma sha Allah. I can’t believe it.
I’m starting to fall into routines, which is nice, and I’m getting better at bearings. I’ve learned to make a map of Bahrain by flattening my right hand, keeping my fingers and thumb square against each other, and pointing my fingers down. My neighborhood is a little north of my middle-finger knuckle. The university is the garnet in my ring.
The goal, of course, is to make the I-know-Bahrain-like-the-back-of-my-hand pun as often as possible.
I’m still teaching two sections of Intro to Fiction and one section of Intro to Drama. The actual professor arrived this week, so he and I are working out our schedule. He’s asked me if I’m interested in team-teaching the course, so hopefully I get to stick with these students. They are such lovely duckies. And the professor is pretty great, too. We eat lunch together one day and discuss the disappointment that is top-40 rap music. It’s all just an ego trip, man. We are literally the two whitest people on campus.
I’d like to say I’m getting better at teaching, but I think it’s more likely that the students are just finally adjusting to me. The students are really getting into discussion! And while I am warned that students are not too keen on reading, I seem to have classes full of readers. It takes a little while to get them going. I do make one guilt trip/quiz threat, which involved the directive, “Don’t do anything fun this weekend. Go home and read.”
I have a discussion with another professor in the department who gives me some advice on teaching here. I’m warned that the students are used to memorizing and regurgitating material and that I shouldn’t expect too much when it comes to critical thinking and discussion. I am also advised that going into depth about the Russian Revolution—which Animal Farm is based on—would be a waste of time because the students aren’t used to making connections beyond the text.
So I assign a summary of the Russian Revolution and give a lecture on the historical context, Karl Marx, power dynamics, and the arguably cyclical nature of revolutions. This goes fairly well, probably because of all of the hand motions. See, because I have such long arms, I’m very good at clarifying historical obscurities and literary quandaries with gesticulations.
Although the students don’t know who Karl Marx is and have never encountered the word “propaganda,” they seem to be making smart connections. They know that Old Major is Karl Marx and that Napoleon’s name is no coincidence. But I do see the other professor’s point: after the lecture, a student stops by my office to ask what he needs to know for the exam. I tell him that dates aren’t that important, that I’m interested in knowing how Animal Farm connects to or satirizes or comments on the Russian Revolution. I reword and repeat that answer several times before the student leaves, either satisfied with the answer or tired of pushing the question.
The embassy treats us well. We get invited to all sorts of embassy and military events, including a welcome party for new staff members, hosted by the Deputy Chief of Mission. There, we meet all sorts of interesting Americans and Bahrainis and eat bit-sized niblets offered by servers weaving through the minglers. We meet the ambassador, who congratulates us on our Fulbright grants.
We also attend a happy hour at the embassy, where we’re given a bunch of leftover samosas. Looks like the Fulbrighters are the hungry college kids of the embassy.
Olivia and I got two cats. They are both six months old and all right for cuddling. We got them from a neighbor whose cat had kittens—she had seven cats in her apartment, so it was time to let a couple of them go. Olivia’s cat is Lentil. Lentil is a most aggressive cuddler—she yells if you’re not petting her or petting her correctly. My cat is Elphie. Elphie is short for Elephant because I have never seen a cat eat so much food. We got cats because it’s nice to have something that needs you, and we weren’t sure what to do with the spare room.
Weekend One: Mannequins
This is the weekend we finally do something culturally relative: We go to the National Museum.
First, let me clarify that “we” is now four: Olivia, Scott, Cyril, and me. Cyril is Scott’s roommate. He’s here for a semester working on his MBA. He is all kinds of fun and super French. He gets fed up with how American we all are, and his favorite video is a clip from “Are You Smarter Than a Fifth-Grader.” He quotes it all the time. “This might be a stupid question, but, like, I thought Europe was a country.” He’s afraid of hugs and very fond of eggs. He says “NEUU” a lot.
The museum has a giant floor map of Bahrain (Almost to scale! Funny joke!). We find our neighborhood, of course, and learn about the multitudes of burial mounds surrounding the area. We drive by them daily and have asked what they are; turns out they’re 4,000-year-old mounds of dirt marking tombs. Also turns out several have been destroyed in the wake of building infrastructure and housing. This means that it is likely that our apartment sits atop a few ancient tombs. I’ll let you know if we discover that our place is actually haunted.
The museum also houses an exhibit on Dilmun, a civilization from around 2000-2500 B.C. involved in trade with Mesopotamian societies. I take pictures of lots of pottery exhibits and tiny, intricately carved seals. The other main exhibit displays elements of traditional Bahraini life, including birth festivities, wedding traditions, main industries (pearl diving, fishing, and some manufacturing such as weaving), shopping, dress, and marketplace practices. Mannequins. Mannequins everywhere. Gratuitous mannequins.
More on the museum later—we plan on making multiple visits.
On our way out, we drive off the road to a small beach. We haven’t touched the water yet, and the sun is setting, and this is an island. Turns out the beach is littered with broken glass and cigarette butts. We touch the water for ceremony’s sake and then move along to dinner, followed by dessert at Lilou’s Café, which is rumored to have the best dessert on the island. It is French, so Cyril sounds like a show-off when he orders. We sit outside so we can watch the BMWs, Porsches, Mercedes, Lamborghinis, etc., cruise by. Most of the cars are white.
Weekend Two: YOLIBO
“YOLO,” an acronym popularized by Canadian rap artist Drake, means “You only live once.” We have modified the phrase to fit our lives here: You only live in Bahrain once (YOLIBO). The following section details our weekend starting to explore the cultural side of Bahrain that is nightlife.
We kick the weekend off at the welcome party for the new Regional Security Officers (RSOs), which is hosted in the basement of the Marine House. We get there early because we think it’s further than it is, so it’s we three Fulbrighters, the three Marines behind the bar, and one of the Marine’s wife and two children. We order drinks and play pool. We are uproariously bad at pool. Our game takes so long that by the time we finish, the party is well attended by embassy staff and Gurkhas patiently waiting for the table.
Gurkhas are crazy Nepalese soldiers—look them up. Or just judge their credentials by this quote from the former Chief of Staff of the Indian Army: “If a man says he is not afraid of dying, he is either lying or a Gurkha.” The U.S. pays them to guard the embassy. Their arsenal of security skills includes booty-popping to top-40 tunes (dancing by themselves in a group, mind you) and tequila-shot-taking.
We’re about to leave when a couple of the Pol-Mil men from the embassy convince us the party has yet to begin. So we stay. One of the Marines claims to be an expert at margarita-making, so the good tequila and a sombrero is issued forth for me. It is certainly the best margarita I’ve had in the Middle East.
We get invited to a club by another third-floorer, so we go home to change and meet her and a few friends there. We see dozens of white people at this club. We do more people-watching than dancing, especially after we trip on some stairs.
The club closes at 2 a.m., so we go with a few people back to one of the Navy guy’s apartment. He’s Naval Intelligence, and his place is nice. We drink Jameson, smoke shisha, and discuss politics and camel spiders. The group is a mix of Navy seamen, Marines, embassy Pol-Mil staff, and Fulbrighters. And also Frenchie. He tires of American talk, but he is a good sport.
We leave around 5:30 a.m. and watch the sun rise on our drive home. There’s a flat layer of mist spread a shoulder’s height above the sandy dirt. Everything is layers. Tans, purple grays, yellow pinks. Colors of the hand: knuckles, veins, nail beds.
The next evening we join the Public Affairs Office at a hotel lounge to be entertained by an American DJ and a break-dancer. We dance with the break-dancer, Frankie, who is from New York. He teaches me a few moves, so we take him out for pancakes afterward, meeting a Marine friend there, too. We find the IHOP of Bahrain. Pancakes at 3 a.m. must be a universal truth.
We spend the next day at a local beach club. All American military or embassy staff + Frenchie. We see some posh Russians girls, and the Intelligence folks joke that they are spies, but they seem maybe 15 percent seriously suspicious. We will never escape the Cold War. We swim in the water, which is salty and slightly oil-slicked. We meet more Naval seamen, one on the base and another a Seal in Lebanon. We climb up a boat and jump maybe 25 feet into the water. Dusk is starting to turn the water black. We pay our tab and agree we’ll be back.
More on the Blog
Now that we’ve started to settle into normal life here, I’ll probably switch to more topical blog posts. You can expect to see posts featuring cooking and food, attire, shopping, profiles of each of us, and more. I’m still learning all of this, and will be for the extent of my stay here, but I’ll do my best to inform you on various elements as I learn.
If there is something in particular you’re interested in learning about (excepting politics), let me know and I’ll see what I can learn and discuss here. An interactive blog is better than a static one, no?