Bahrain

We often meet new friends from other countries when traveling and at our sad but inevitable parting we always exchange invitations to visit one another’s home country, whether it be the US, the Netherlands, China, Panama or farther afield. With so many disparate places to visit and so little time to travel, we rarely get to take up friends on their invitations. This made our flight into Bahrain seem somewhat surreal.

Caity met Ala about four years ago when she was working in Boston. He came from Bahrain on a Fulbright, but also studied music and Caity’s voice can even be heard in the songs on his first two CDs, which were recorded in the tiny closet of his Boston apartment. They became close friends and Ala even made it back from Bahrain to be the photographer at our wedding. They always spoke about Caity visiting Bahrain, but the right time never came up. That was, until we started living in Egypt, which is just a hop, skip and a three hour plane flight away.

It only looks big because we are really zoomed in.

“I will show you the entire country!” Ala excitedly told us as we were planning our winter trip to Bahrain. That is not exactly a heroic feat however, as all of Bahrain is about 3.5 times the size of Washington D.C. We were going to get to know the country very, very well during our weeklong stay.

We were staying with Ala’s family in a spare room and they were excited to meet the Caity that they had heard so much about (I just introduced myself as Caity’s husband and was quickly accepted). They could not believe that we spoke Arabic so well and we quickly had the mother chatting away with us about Arabic poetry and Reiki in the Egyptian dialect. Although we were easily understood because the Egyptian dialect is famous throughout the Arabic speaking world due to the prominence of Egypt’s movie and music industry, we had a much harder time understanding the Gulf accent that everyone else responded with.

Linguistic difficulties aside, we were quickly adopted into the family with heart-warming hospitality as we made ready to go out for the Ashura festivities. It turns out that we came at the unexpected confluence of two major holidays, Ashura and National Day, which meant that the whole country had about six days off in a row and was decked out in lights and posters.

As a brief Islamic history lesson, the celebration of Ashura goes back to the roots of the divide between Shia and Sunni Muslims. The death of the Prophet Muhammad brought about a crisis of leadership in the Muslim community. According to the Shia, Muhammed named his cousin Ali (and husband of his daughter Fatima) as his rightful successor, yet his words were not followed after his death. Although Ali eventually became the fourth Caliph, his authority was constantly contested and he was eventually assassinated, leading to the beginning of the Umayyad Caliphate. One of his sons, Hussein, was a central figure in the early Muslim community and refused to acknowledge the Umayyad Caliph. He was eventually betrayed, resulting in his death on the plains of Karbala, which solidified the divide between the Shia (the “party” of Ali) and Sunni (those following the caliphate) and became a turning point in the history of Islam.

Caity and I at a Ma'tam

The events of Ashura showed us the incredible variety of ways in which the date is commemorated by Shia Muslims today.  The night begins with gatherings or ma’tams throughout the main city to hear a retelling of the martyrdom of Hussein, which may be for just a small family or a room filled with hundreds of people. The streets will then be filled with various parades of people either performing the ‘azza or less often the haydar. Groups performing the ‘azza will march through the streets to the sound of a drum and amplified chanting, either ceremonially beating their chests in mourning with their hands or their backs with small metal flails.

The haydar can be found by following the sounds of ambulance horns. Those who participate use sharpened metal knives on the ends of flails to flay their backs or cut their forehead with swords and allow blood to pour freely over their intentionally white clothes. This is becoming less and less popular in Bahrain, with many sheikhs outlawing it altogether. Unfortunately, because of its shocking photogenic nature, it is often used to symbolize Ashura and even demonize Islam as a whole.

While munching on some tasty fried vegetables from one of the multitude of stands passing out free food, we made our way to what became our favorite aspect of Ashura in Bahrain, the marsam. Introduced recently to the festivities, the marsam provides a space where artists come together to display work inspired by Ashura, and also to paint on the spot! The two buildings we visited were filled with incredible paintings done by men and women, some of whom were still working as we watched. Ala’s fiancée Noor even spent the night contributing a painting! Throughout the whole city, the feeling of unity and brotherhood amongst the people was incredible and certainly one of the best parts of the holiday.

This was only the beginning of our trip however, as Ala drove us around the rest of the island in the days to come, visiting old forts and new malls, traditional neighborhoods and newer developments thrust out into the sea on artificial peninsulas. Bahrain turned out to be quite a contrast from Egypt. Bahrainis seem to be more educated and wealthier than their Egyptian counterparts but also make up a significantly smaller percentage of theircountries population. Unlike Egypt, Bahrain is filled with a very significant population of immigrants, especially from Southeast Asia, who work many of the service positions, including as maids in most middleclass Bahraini homes.

If one experience were to sum up Bahrain to me however, it would be “camping” in the desert. We arrived at the spot expecting to find a small tent surrounded by shrubbery and a tiny fire pit but were instead surprised to see a small fenced-off complex with two large tents filled with cushions and couches, a wooden gazebo-like structure, toilets with running water, a generator and to top it off, a small soccer field in the sand! This was camping, Bahraini style!

We spent hours before dinner having a fascinating conversation about the problems of international development and spiritual solutions to the world’s ills with Maysam, one of Ala’s good friends who had studied in Edinburgh for six years (we now have an invitation to visit there too!).  After a barbeque dinner, we surprised Ala’s fiancée with an early birthday cake, singing happy birthday (oddly in English first, then Arabic) before we all sat around the fire and started passing around a guitar.

As we found out, Ala is good friends with most of Bahrain’s current or up and coming musicians (being one himself) and they are both wonderful and talented people. Interestingly enough however, Caity was the only one who sung in Arabic! Most of the people there sang English songs from their favorite bands, heavily leaning toward the American 60s and 70s and especially favoring Pink Floyd. The song of the night for me was “Hallelujah” with the chorus sung in Arabic by all as the fire slowly burnt down.

After a long and very full week, we sadly left our new friends and made our way to the airport for our early flight to Oman. In the end, Bahrain may not have the oil of its Gulf neighbors or the long history and culture of Egypt or Syria, but it is filled with the sweetest, most wonderful and kind-hearted people, and that is the most important national resource.

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Burning Bushes and Mountain Top Churches

Our ferry docked in Egypt at around 5:30 in the morning, leaving us to scramble, sleepy-eyed off the ship and in search of a bus that would take us to Dahab and later Saint Catharine.  Our bus pulled away as the sun was rising and we watched as the swiftly passing jagged mountains seemingly rose straight out of the ground, making for a harsh landscape that has understandingly pushed much of the population centers to the coast.

We caught a minibus packed with British tourists from the lazy beach city of Dahab and headed out to Saint Catherine, disembarking at the monastery. Built at the base of Mount Sinai, the complex still houses a number of orthodox monks and therefore is only open until 12pm. During these constricted hours, it becomes apparent that the massive stonewalls, narrow halls and tiny single entrance that protected the monks from early invaders, were not made to accommodate the throngs of tourists that come each morning. The seething mass of people pressing to see the church inside are packed so tightly that your decision of how you would like to explore the area is subsumed by the greater tide (bringing back unfortunate memories of the Cairo subway!).

Note the fire extinguisher. Burning once is enough apparently.

Unfortunately any spiritual experience that I might have enjoyed from walking through the ancient church and seeing a descendent of the Burning Bush was lost in the pushing, pressing and continual camera flashes.

We left the monastery and got a lift back to our hotel for a quick lunch before heading up to hike Mount Sinai. It turns out that the owner of the hotel was the Sheikh of the main tribe in the area who seemed to have a near monopoly on the tourism business in Saint Catherine, providing the majority of the hotels, transportation and obligatory guides for all the hikes.

The guide who was provided for our trip up Mount Sinai was a thin, wiry man named Eid (whose name means holiday interestingly enough, as we came on our Eid break :)) who looked as though he could have been anywhere between thirty and fifty-five or so. We were joined on the hike by a couple from the Netherlands, one of whom was a Green Peace activist who worked on the oceans and the other was a fresh water ecologist. I guess they came to the desert for a change of scenery and humidity!

Eid set a brisk pace, making sure we would be at the top of the mountain for the sunset. Despite his chain smoking, he continually out paced us and kept making odd comments about how men were stronger than women, apparently missing the fact that the four of us alike were panting at our short breaks!

We took the long route up the mountain, circling through a rock-strewn valley with large cliffs on either side and dotted with small springs that our guide told us could be traced back to biblical times. As the shadows grew longer, our trail grew dramatically steeper and we rounded the bend to find the first rest house. After a two-hour hike, I was surprised the see that its small store had bottles of water, multiple types of soda and an impressive variety of candy bars. We did not ask the prices but I imagine that the shipping and handling fee alone was enough to clean out my wallet!

We continued up, passing a number of the small shacks all selling the same items and apparently relying on hikers getting alternatingly thirsty or hungry every 600 meters. After one or two more shacks, we made it to the stairs. Over 700 were apparently carved or assembled by a single monk as an astonishing act of devotion and determination. The stairs wound their way up the mountain face, which was getting increasingly steep and occasionally marked with bright yellow “Attention – Danger” signs. Somewhat amused by the fact that they were only written in English, I asked our guide if the signs were only for foreigners. He nodded his head in a matter-of-fact way as if to say, “Egyptians are not so stupid as to need them!”

Many, many stairs later, we finally reached the top of the mountain and were surprised to find a full-fledged mortar-and-stone church at the top! As the place where Moses received the Ten Commandments (or 15 if you are a Mel Brooks fan) this spot obviously merited a lot of time and effort on behalf of the monks to construct such a building. At least they had a stunning view while they were up there. One of the tallest points in the Sinai, mountains stretched out below in all directions, their jagged peaks rising and falling as far out as we could see.

We joined the small community of hikers at the top and watched the sun slowly set in front of us, gently dropping behind the hills that had been giving us shade only a few hours before. Apparently this is also a popular hike in the early morning, with tourists attempting to make it to the top of the peak in time for the sunrise. Having heard stories of how cold the wait at the top was, I think that we chose the right time.

After watching the sunset, we headed down the steps as the light was slowly fading, starting to wonder if it was a very bad idea to have forgotten our flashlights (perhaps that is the reason for the signs after all).  We were delighted, however, to discover that the moonlight was not only strong enough to see by, but our weary bodies also cast long shadows that raced us back down the path!

With the moon and the still-smoking Eid as our guides, we made our way back down the mountain and crashed into our beds back at the hotel, our shaky legs about ready to go on strike if we asked any more of them. The next morning found us on the 6 am bus to Cairo, leaving behind the quiet sleepy town, heading back to the big city.

Coming back to Cairo after the break was like coming back to another world. I jumped a little higher at the loud honks of the minibuses whizzing past me and quickly began to forget what it was like to have your breathing and footsteps be the only sounds around you. It was a great break, but it is always nice coming home. Despite being nearly hit by a car and then crushed from all sides by the mass of people riding the subway, I breathed a sigh of relief.

Jordan: Salt Water, Rock Canyons and Wanted Men

It was only an hour and a half flight from Cairo to Amman and the oddly lax airport security made the trip easier than taking a bus from New York City to DC. We landed and made our way to the bus that would take us to meet the friends we were staying with during the next two days.

On the ride through the city, I pointed out the window and asked Caity, “do you see the trash in the streets?”

She gazed out at the quickly passing buildings and responded “no…?”

“That,” I said, “Is how you know that we’re in Amman and not Cairo”.

If Middle Eastern cities were a family, Amman would be the quiet younger sister, organized and unadventurous, the one who does her homework and goes to bed early. This is quite unlike the larger, more boisterous and older Cairo, who parties late into the night, even on school days. That said, it was nice to cross the street and not fear for our lives and for Jordanian “traffic” to be akin to Cairo’s streets on a good day.

After a wonderful night chatting with our friends Annas and Gheda, we took a taxi early the next morning to our first destination: the Dead Sea. Our driver turned out to be an aspiring guide and took it upon himself to tell us everything about Jordan, from its population, the names of all the major cities, and a bit about the Dead Sea too. F

or your information, it is the lowest spot on earth and its waters are over eight times saltier than the ocean!

All this salt contributes to the most wonderful part of visiting of the Dead Sea; you literally float on top of it. Although we arrived in the morning, the public beach soon filled up with tourists from all over the world, all taking pictures of each other reading books while floating on the water. We had a great time, but made sure to shower off the salt before it turned us into white-specked crustaceans.

We spent the afternoon in downtown Amman with Gheda, who is originally Egyptian herself, visiting the large Roman amphitheatre and then made our way to one of Amman’s more famous restaurants: Hashim’s. Located in a small dead-end street and filled with cheap plastic tables and chairs, the walls of the restaurant are covered with framed photos of famous visitors (including the King himself!) who have enjoyed its hummus and drank its notoriously sweet tea. It is also wonderfully cheap and a party of ten can eat for about as many Jordanian dinars.

It also turns out that almost all of the employees are Egyptian and happily welcomed us once they heard our Cairo accents! There are over 300,000 Egyptians working in Jordan, filling up many of the service positions that Jordanians refuse to do. They treat each other well, demonstrated by our server who cleared people from one of the better tables for us and part way through our meal even took our half-finished tray of falafels and replaced them with freshly made warm ones! We waddled away from the restaurant in complete food bliss.

The next day we went with Annas and Gheda on a tour bus filled with Jordanians down to visit Petra, Wadi Rum and Aqaba, after which we would make our way back to Cairo. After a five-hour ride that started at 5:30 am, we arrived at Petra, recently voted one of the new Seven Wonders of the World. Unfortunately the tickets were priced accordingly and we paid fifty dinars to enter, an amount made more painful when we found out that the price was only one dinar for Jordanians!

Declining to rent camels or a horse drawn cart, we walked down the rough stone road as it winded itself deeper and deeper into the canyon complex that was once a thriving city. Although our tour did not give us much time, we were able to see the most famous and impressive building in Petra: the treasury (also known as the Temple of the Crescent Moon and hiding place of the Holy Grail to those Indian Jones fans out there). The surreal building suddenly jumps out at you from around the canyon’s bend and completely blows away any of the structures previously seen, making them look like child’s play compared to this pinnacle of ancient art and architecture. Unfortunately you are not allowed to get too close (perhaps for fear we will find the Grail!) but you quickly see that the building is all fascade. The gorgeous exterior leads only to a large unadorned square room with a bench running along its sides. It was almost as if they spent years carving the front of the building only to realize that their deadline was one month away so they hastily carved the center room to give purpose to the exterior. We saw some of the main city with our short remaining time, but had to quickly march out to make it back in time for lunch.

After lunch, the tour made its way over to Wadi Rum, one of the most beautiful deserts in Jordan and famed for its connection to Laurence of Arabia. We were looking forward to taking 4x4s out into the desert but when our bus pulled up to a tent compound located within a string of similar recently built settlements, we found out that we would have to pay for any further activities. We instead decided to hike into the desert ourselves and admire the stunning views. However, we were surprised to return and find music blasting and the tour group sitting around a large open circle and a few younger Jordanian men dancing in the center. Although we had come for the desert, it seems that many of the Jordanians just came to get away from Amman and relax. The music was still playing when we went to bed and the last thing I remember was someone doing karaoke to, and I kid you not, Hotel California by the Eagles. To say the least, I prefer it when the band sings the song.

The following morning, the group started the final leg of its journey and headed over to the port city of Aqaba. We quickly found out, however, that the Jordanians did not come to the city for its well-known Red Sea snorkeling spots. Instead, the bus took us to a huge mall where everyone quickly disembarked and, after taking pictures next to a life-sized Santa statue (what?!), began to shop. As we were not looking to update our kitchen in Jordan, we ditched the tour and made our way over to hotel where we were going to stay the night before taking the fast ferry back to Egypt the following day.

We booked a room, dropped our stuff and went to buy tickets for the ferry. Upon arriving to the office however, we found out that there was no fast ferry the next day! Our only option was to take the slow ferry, which left at 11:00pm that night, meaning we had to cancel our recently booked room.

Back at the hotel, we started explaining our predicament to the man at the desk, who turned out to also be Egyptian. He called the manager and worked out a deal to let us keep our stuff in the room until we had come back from snorkeling and letting us pay only part of the fee. He would not have done this for Jordanians he said, but since we were from Egypt…

Knowing that we had little time left in Aqaba, we took a taxi out to the southern beaches, right next to the border of Saudi Arabia. Renting flippers and masks, we waded out into the water where Caity heroically conquered a long-held fear of fish to explore the offshore reefs, valiantly clutching my hand the whole time.

After three and a half short days in Jordan we boarded the ferry that would take us to Egypt. We got our passports stamped and started looking around for a place to sleep during the five hour night trip. Most of the boat was filled with regular tables and chairs that quickly filled up. There was one room that looked really comfortable though. It appeared to be the ship’s theatre and was filled with rows of plushy red chairs with no armrests, perfect for lying down on. Although there were two or three men inside lounging on the chairs, the door was oddly padlocked from the outside. When Caity looked at one and motioned “how do we get in?” he smiled and shook his head.

Wondering why we could not get access to what was obviously the best sleeping area, I went and asked some of the crewmembers. The conversation went something like this:

In Arabic

“Why can’t we get into the theatre? It looks really comfortable.”

“It’s closed.”

“Yes I can see that, but why can’t we go in?”

“It’s closed.”

“But there are men in there, what’s the deal with them?”

In English

“Wanted.”

“What do you mean? They are VIP?”

“No they are wanted.”

In Arabic

“Like criminals?! Like from prison?”

“Yes.”

That explained the padlocks on the outside of the door and made Caity’s gestured conversation with one of the men inside the theatre seem quite comical. Following that conversation, we joined the group of “unwanted” people and paid and extra $10 for a small cabin.