When I lived in Bahrain, oh, those many years ago, every Friday morning they would head out to the beach, but I was never invited. Thursday nights we roistered late, eating grilled Thai satays and all manner of Asian dishes washed down with exotic beverages. On Friday evenings we met again, they with newly-acquired tans and I armed for a game of trivial pursuit and a small drink to wind down the weekend…
The political hurly-burly of post 9/11 America spawned a growing animosity against the Arab world, even the Muslim world (the two can be mutually exclusive, although it’s virtually impossible to see the difference for the caterwauling), reaching its apogee in Donald Trump’s appeal to the xenophobic fears lurking in our national psyche. It prompted me to look back on my sojourn in the Middle East. Did 9/11 create its own bogeyman or was the resentment brewing long before that? Shared blame abounds in the morass of political shenanigans and my reluctance to venture into that crossfire of accusations might have caused me to miss clues as I went about my daily business in Bahrain; clues in the street among such common folk as I that could have pointed to a breakdown in relations on such a grand scale, if 9/11 was merely a symptom of a disorder in Arab-American relations that had festered over time. Can I actually remember what life in Bahrain was really like those thirty years ago? If psychological science is right that every memory alters the original occurrence (thus negating the existence of eidetic memories), is it possible to reminisce about what seems now to have been a more innocent time without a romantic filter to distinguish it from the cultural events of today?
My ingenuous recollection is that even as late as the mid-eighties, so-called Westerners, specifically Yanks and Euros, strolled the deserts of Arabia with the popularity of minor celebrities. If there’s a modicum of truth there, how did we get here? Were Arabs and Americans/Europeans solely to blame for their souring relations? Where did we migrant workers from every corner of Asia fit into this equation? Did we transmute into some sort of catalysts in the dynamics between these opposing cultures? We couldn’t have been innocent bystanders; after all, we were there, millions of us, integrating and ingratiating ourselves into an evolving international community. Perhaps not woven from the thickest skeins, but still colorful strands in the fabric of a global society. By virtue of our presence we had a role to play. Or did we manage, as is our peculiarly non-partisan Asian wont, to cluster in our own corners, creating a world apart a world away from home?
Compared to the other Gulf States, Bahrain appeared to be a quiet island (which is why the uprising of 2011 first surprised me until I realized that the Arab revolution had roused a simmering Shia discontent), despite the myriad nations represented there—a cosmopolitan workforce driving the off-shore banking institutions that flourished after the “fall” of Beirut; to staff Gulf-Air, the national airline shared between two other States; and to operate the shops in the souk. Quiet is a relative term, especially when applied to an oil State in the Persian Gulf, for Bahrain in the early eighties had transformed itself into the entrepot of the Middle East, siphoning goods and services throughout the area. Perhaps it has more to do with a perception of character than a description of life on the street, Bahrainis being less wealthy and consequently less aggressive than their neighbors. Although Middle-Eastern oil was discovered first in Bahrain in the thirties, the rest of the region was blessed with greater deposits and embarked on ambitious expansion and construction projects—Kuwait, Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Oman, and, of course, Saudi Arabia. Surrounded by a gush of oil and dinars, Bahrain quietly (there’s that word again) focused its attention on trade, banking, and the monetary profits and goodwill to be accrued from refining Saudi oil. Oh, and it also became home to a little airbase for the U.S., which sought to consolidate its position in this oil-rich region. By the eighties plans were afoot to attach Bahrain to Saudi Arabia with the King Fahd Causeway, a project that filled Bahrainis with trepidation as they anticipated a massive influx of their cruder, repressed neighbors seeking all the pleasures denied them in the “holy land.” Of course, they also knew that Saudi money would pour into their comparatively poorer country. Three decades later all their fears and hopes have been realized!
When I arrived in Bahrain in the mid-eighties I took with me, I must admit, a certain prejudice against Arabs, for my only experiences were of those who had descended on Bombay in search of nightclubs, women, and Indian cuisine. That they seemed arrogant might have been more a reflection of my lower middle-class state of penury than of anything else, although anyone who lived in expensive hotels with the express purpose of having no real purpose other than to spend money was arrogant to me. How naïve I was in the ways of the world! They bought anything they wanted, everything I couldn’t have—arts and crafts from specialty stores, fabulous night lives, jewelry, and leather goods; and they always had beautiful women in tow. And I was jealous of all of it—the money, the women, and the luxurious lifestyles. More money than brains, was my generalization about all Arabs! I viewed them the way Brits saw American GIs during the War—overpaid, overfed, oversexed, and over here!
It was with some foreboding, therefore, that I landed at Bahrain airport that October day in 1984, carrying in my resume several years in the theatre and short careers in advertising, banking, and teaching, and holding in my hand a visa that stated I was a goldsmith! How I came by that visa is a tale in itself. The short, stress-deleted version is this: after my wife left for Bahrain as a stewardess with Gulf-Air, I tossed about Bombay listlessly, working for an advertising agency but desperate to join her through a job anywhere in the emirate. Finally, when most of my attempts had foundered, she met an Indian Businessman (we never really discovered what business) who sold her a visa which he had acquired from an Indian goldsmith whose shop was owned by a local Bahraini who had worked in the Labor Department and therefore had contacts to procure visas. So—I was suddenly a goldsmith! If they wanted me to pretend as I went through Immigration, I’d give them the best impression of an alchemist. After all, I was a good actor, and the visa was only my entry into the State; beyond that, I was on my own and at the mercy of the Businessman who extracted more money from us before surrendering all my papers!
My story was not much different from millions of other Indians thronging the Persian Gulf; indeed we congregated from all over the eastern hemisphere, with hope in our hearts and bluff at our fingertips, ready to work anywhere, for almost any job paid us more than we could have earned at home. And it was tax-free. At one point there were more than fifty countries represented in Bahrain—blue and white-collared workers from major cities and remote Asian villages, so-called specialists from every part of Europe and America, and traders from any manufacturing hub around the globe. Surely, with my education and experience I could find a job in this desert waterhole. After all, my years in the theatre and my education in the English system had endowed me with a lilting voice, clipped syllables, and the attitude of an intellectual. I was shocked out of my naiveté to discover that the contents of my career portmanteau mattered little; what I lacked was a white skin. This was my first foray into the international arena and I soon realized what I had suspected in India—the lighter your skin, the better your chances.
Caucasians, particularly Brits and Yanks, had an automatic ticket to virtually any place or job in the Middle-East. The beach I referred to at the beginning of this piece was the Emir’s private beach and only white-skinned people were allowed there—even the local Bahrainis were barred entry! So my circle of friends (which included a Dutch woman and her son, an Englishman, and an American), fraternized with me everyday except Friday morning (the weekend), when they quietly strolled into the sun and sand of the Emir’s private “public” haven. I remember their mild embarrassment the first time they told me I couldn’t join them, but then they fell into a comfortable routine. I was always a little put out by it and compensated by gleefully destroying them at Trivial Pursuit!
Should they have stayed away from the beach in solidarity with me? Would I have done so had the situation been reversed? I wish I could aver in agreement, but the truth is that I have in my life been to several places denied to my less-privileged friends. The way of the world is such that almost everyone has less-privileged friends; and the privileges of race are in effect often not much different from the privileges of class and wealth!
What surprised me was how pronounced the distinctions appeared to be. After all, I was from India and we wrote the book on social divisions. Perhaps they appear less egregious when you grow up with them, when they play themselves out across your childhood, hoping you won’t notice, skulking in your consciousness to accuse you later of having permitted them to flourish through silent acquiescence. But in the Middle East it seemed as if we were all pilgrims with the same purpose, except that some were more privileged than others. I met a self-styled automotive engineer from Manchester whose experience, I gathered after a few draughts of ale, had been a year spent in his father’s backyard garage. There were free-lance writers who penned articles for in-house magazines and whose qualifications were that they were from Britain and, therefore, apparent proprietors of the language; ad-men and women who had never worked in an advertising agency, salesmen with not much more than a good smile, secretaries with great smiles; managers of large hotels from the wayside inns of the European countryside, and bankers, bankers, and more bankers, who seemed to be the only ones with bona fide qualifications, for they were employed in the branch offices of multinational investment and financial corporations.
We met only a few Americans, for most of them lived in gated communities in the posh suburbs. In memory, Bahrain now seems rather like a border town in a Star Wars movie, full of a strange conglomeration of people with much to sell and buy. I was quickly reminded in this “third-world country” that despite my master’s degree and nice voice I was still a denizen from a “third world country.” This was before the cyberspace explosion, in the pre-outsourcing age, when the only good Indian was a scientist or doctor! Indian merchants and shopkeepers had made their presence felt in the malls and souks across the Middle East, but I was looking for a job in advertising where all campaigns were created overseas and thumbnail versions sent to the Middle East, which was seen as a rich outpost to be exploited as inexpensively as possible. No attempt was made to study the buying habits of Bahrainis or the other thousand expatriates living there. It was deemed sufficient to place a simple press advertisement informing the consumer of the sale price. The implication was that they/we had money to burn; no need to court “their” sensibilities, if indeed they had any! All that changed later into much more professional models, but at the time advertising business depended on handshakes, roughly-hewn campaign sketches, and relationships built over time.
In the two years I lived there I met a few Bahrainis, particularly the men (rarely a woman) who worked for Gulf Air, but I never socialized with them. It would be easy to say they kept to themselves and viewed us as foreigners to be tolerated and then ignored. The fact is that we saw the Middle East as a transient oasis on the way to somewhere else; a place in which to make money and then move on to the real business of living and settling down. I didn’t know where I was going, just that I was going. This was a common attitude among us, that there was money to be made from the oilfields and we were going to get ours. It was colonization in a minor key.
No wonder, then, that the Bahrainis left us alone. They knew why we were there; they knew we had scurried from the flats and tenements of Southwest Asia to exploit their land for work and opportunity and, if truth be told, in those days they were glad for our presence.
In the late seventies and early eighties local Bahrainis had not recognized the new garb of their state as an international commercial center needing to shed its old attitudes and ways. Bahraini businessmen were exhorted by their Labor Department not to depend so much on a foreign workforce, but the locals were loath to alter their working hours to a full day when much of the Middle East had been used to a half day workload, particularly in the scorching summer months. In fact, during the really hot months the day was divided into a morning and evening session, separated by a Spanish-style siesta. I often heard my boss complain about his inability to comply with Labor regulations because he couldn’t always find qualified Bahrainis willing to work long hours.
This became another bone of contention. Asian immigrants work endlessly, perhaps in an effort to make ourselves indispensable, for there is no going back. Such desperate, single-minded diligence is hard to compete against, for it precludes any meaningful social life. Such work ethics breed resentment from those who prefer a more relaxed lifestyle, in much the same way Asian communities in Britain felt the antipathy of their white neighbors as they gradually began controlling that economy. Undeterred, we scratched and clawed and built our little nest eggs, then left for Canada and Australia and the United States, and in our wake was an interminable stream of our countrymen eager to fill the vacant spots.
Does it matter that I look back with some shame at not having attempted to understand the local culture better? I remember my quasi-intellectual eloquence, quick to criticize my English friends over a glass of beer for perpetrating their “colonial propensities” all over the world. European colonists of the past went looking for spices, gold, oil, and other minerals; we descended on the Middle East in search of the jobs to be had in an oil nation. Both of us could rationalize our actions by pointing to our social and commercial contributions (the same argument British colonialism used in India), but in retrospect I can’t shake the feeling that I was there for one reason only—to make a quick buck and get out of Dodge!
Can I console myself with the thought that every expatriate in the Middle East had the same approach? Even the Saudis saw Bahrain as a playground to indulge their forbidden whims. Is it a viable excuse that citizenship was not available to foreigners, thus encouraging short-term residencies and the cavalier attitudes that spring from a lack of emotional investment in a city/state? I can’t really decide now if Arab societies, at least in Bahrain at that time (it’s much different now with plenty of Indian investment in the Arab economies), seemed closed to us because we were seen as just the hired help or because we did not care enough to understand the culture beyond the business district. American military families around the globe find themselves in similar predicaments—it is convenient to create a world–within-the-barracks and to venture forth only for a change of pace or in search of some new entertainment. I have already admitted to my prejudices and I’m sure they worked against my integration into the local culture, whether I realized it at the time or not.
Should we wonder at the resentment of Arabs towards such a blatant profiteering of their homelands? From the least politically influential group of Asian workers to the super-powers jockeying for control of Middle Eastern oil, everyone saw the Gulf States as the avenue to some version of economic stability. It is easy to criticize governments for failed foreign policies in the Middle East, for propping up one dictator as a bulwark against the rise of another; for preferring Israel over the Arabs even as they reached for Arabian oil. The sordid truth is that all of us are to blame. We forced a closed society to close even more, to feel exploited for their natural resources and misunderstood for their traditions. We went there with our preconceived notions of culture and lifestyle and democracy, with our prejudices of race and religion, with our highly critical attitudes towards foreign traditions, even ones as ancient and established as those in the Middle East; and, with little or no effort to understand and accept beliefs and practices different from ours, plundered them and left.