Saturday, February 26, 2005

Tales of the Middle East, Part I

Bahrain, Arabian Gulf

(or how I corrupted Saudi Arabia’s youth)

“Mr. Mark, can we go see ‘The Show?’”

In the mid-90s I was tasked with training the overseas agents of the global shipping firm of which I was employed.

This assignment brought me to the island of Bahrain - a small Arabian Gulf sheikdom fueled by its oil reserves located directly off the coast of Saudi Arabia. Because of its declining oil reserves, it has had to diversify and liberalize its economy into banking and tourism. It’s where many in the region go to play, and Manama, the capital, is where we scheduled the training sessions.

Participants flew in from across the region, including Iran, Oman, and Kuwait (the war aftermath had died down), but most of the attendees were from Riyadh and Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Many of them were young, probably the sons of each agency’s owner.

The training got off to a bad start because the customs agents had seized the training video that was buried deep inside my checked luggage. Even in the relatively liberal Bahrain, inappropriate video tapes were strictly forbidden. The clerks in the Bahraini customs agency must have been seriously disappointed with their late-night viewing of a confiscated tape on the joys of cargo containerization.

As per custom, the first night I hosted a dinner for the entire assembled group. After an enjoyable meal, I began to hear rumblings about some after-dinner activities. Finally one of the Saudis approached me and deferentially asked: Mr. Mark, can we go see ‘The Show?’”

Being the polite American host, and mindful of international relations, I quickly acceded, although not knowing what to. Soon we were at the top of one of the few office towers in Manama, seated at a club overlooking the city.

The long causeway joining the Saudi Arabian mainland and Bahrain is notorious – Mercedes’ and BMWs were crashed nightly along the guardrails heading in a westbound direction, as young Saudis, resorting to binge drinking, returned home from an evening of partying in the “liberal” Bahrain, where alcohol could be purchased from one of the few clubs. As my young cadets took their seats at “The Show,” and awkwardly ordered their drinks, I began to wonder if things might get out of control.

But my bigger concern was the building anticipation amongst my guests of “The Show” and how to maintain some level of professional decorum in what I expected might become a compromising situation. Anxiously awaiting the curtain, the group looked both eager and reticent at the spectacle to come. I didn’t think this would be a routine night out in Tehran or Jeddah.

Lights dimmed, smoke swirled around the curtain. A soft, slinky jazz music began to play. Spotlights focused, and out stepped the star of the show.

The group’s eyes widened, their jaws dropped, and they sucked in every moment. . . Me? I couldn’t believe what I was seeing:

A stocky, middle-aged Russian woman with a butch haircut and expressionless face, loosely wrapped in a light-colored fabric that only left her hands, upper neck, and a small section of the top of her feet bare, legs firmly planted, slowly waving her arms in a see-saw motion to the music. Sheer ecstasy.

Thirty minutes later the siren was gone and the show was over. My group fumbled for cigarettes and quickly lit up in the afterglow. And luckily no one wrapped their cars around the Bahrain causeway.

You see I learned that night that excess is an unquenchable thirst, but deprivation is just as unsatisfying as well. The world is supposedly getting smaller and smaller and more interconnected, but our collective cultural norms might not ever find significant points of convergence. And that's a reality that weighs on our expectations for peace and harmony.

There’s a lightyear of distance between the poles of Vegas and Riyadh. And those two shows aren't likely to end.