Sunday, January 22, 2012

A'ali Pottery Workshop

Manama was cold this weekend. We’ve had a bitter northerly wind blowing over the island for the last week and it felt almost winterish out there. Looking at everyone decked out in heavy coats, scarves and gloves, you could be forgiven for thinking you were in Poland – that is, until you saw that the outside temperature was actually a pleasant 63 degrees (17 C). Like you’d expect in a country where a “northerly“ arrives via Iraq, “cold” is a relative term.

I haven’t been here long enough that I was going to be kept in by weather that, anywhere else in the world, would be described as pleasant and springlike, so Ms. C and I set out to visit the pottery workshop in the village of A’ali. A colleague had recommended the workshop as being one of the more interesting cultural sites on the island, and I was looking forward to my visit. Pottery has a long history on the island – beginning in the Dilmun period over 4,000 years ago and continuing until, at the very least, early last week. Seven families in the village are responsible for running the workshop, where two types of local clay are mixed to make strong, lightweight vessels, which are then dried in the shade before being kiln-finished.

Except on this particular Saturday, anyway. Ms. C and I wandered through lonely alleys thick with pot shards and hungry kittens, but no potters. When we finally found a building with intact pottery for sale, there was still not a soul to purchase them from. This did give us time to look things over, however, and I have to say that a lot of the work was indeed very, very cool. I started calculating how many human-sized amphorae I could buy before I hit the shipping weight limit for my household effects.

After another fifteen minutes of examining the wares, the empty shop and the howling wind just made the place feel creepy, so we wandered through the residential part of the compound until a teenager, who was not particularly interested in selling us anything, finally agreed to take way too much of our money, for a bizarre object whose sole purpose is to reduce the lighting efficiency of a candle. I remain a very, very bad bargainer. Still, we came home with something, and we are delighted with it.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Mission Impossible

"Mission Impossible" could easily be a reference to just how hard it is to find anyone who will speak Arabic with me in Bahrain, and while that is definitely a candidate for a future post, right now I’m actually talking about the Mission Impossible that will be familiar to millions of teenage boys the world over. The I-have-no-idea-which-one out of I-have-no-idea-how-manyeth installment of the Tom Cruise action series, in which he plays a secret agent working for, believe it or not, the IMF. Fostering global monetary cooperation and facilitating international trade never looked so good!

Back home, there is no chance I would have paid money to see a movie subtitled “Ghost Protocol”, even if Wes Anderson directed Bill Murray in it. Unfortunately, so long as we’re unwilling to drive further than the 20-screen mega-plex at the City Centre mall, Transformers III might be just about as art-house as we’re going to get here in Bahrain.

It’s too bad – because the theatre itself is kind of awesome. It is absolutely massive, with lovely stadium seating, and a sound system that is so powerful that you can barely hear anyone in the audience talking on their phones. If you must see an action movie, this is the place to do it. I didn’t really need the huge screen, though, because I was so excited about the Arabic subtitles at the bottom of it that I barely had time to look at anything else. It’s gratifying to know that after two years of study, I have nearly large enough a vocabulary that I could script a block-buster action film in classical Arabic. Now, if I could only learn enough of the local dialect to conduct a three-minute interview for the newlywed couple who are just trying to get a visa to go to Disneyworld for their honeymoon.

*Spoiler Alert*

The absolute highlight of the film, though, was watching the reaction of the audience when the story shifted to this part of the world. The second the camera began to pan over sand dunes and the subtitles lit up with the word “Dubai”, people started pointing at the screen and a delighted buzz rippled through the audience. I expect it must have been nice to watch a Hollywood action flick where the bad guys were Swedes and the only negative role the Arabs played was building the world’s tallest building in the middle of a real estate collapse.

Oh, and lest anyone worry that everyone in this part of the world wants to see America’s downfall – when the nuclear missile that threatened to destroy San Francisco fell harmlessly into the bay, the audience actually clapped. Can you imagine that in the US? I think American audiences across large parts of the country would have been a little disappointed to see San Francisco survive un-annihilated*

*Not me, I like San Francisco. I can’t understand why JJ Abrahms keeps trying to blow it up in his films. First the Romulans and now the Russians? Poor San Francisco, though it’s nice to see NYC getting a break from all that make-believe destruction.

Saturday, January 07, 2012

Manama, Bahrain!

The time has come to resume the blog. My last update had Ms. C and I on the verge of moving to Virginia (we did) to begin A-100 (finished it), where we would find out where we were going (Manama, Bahrain), and learn the language to do the job (I passed, al hamdu lillah!), before making the final journey to what would be our new home for the next two years (arrived two weeks ago - leaving in 102 more).

Without a doubt, the last nine months have been more eventful than the handful of parentheticals in the previous paragraph suggests, but, no doubt to the relief of my friends and family (and the Regional Security Officer), I’ve resolved to avoid discussing work wherever possible, and to stick to the lifestyle side of things.

Of course, I'm aware that while I post photos of sunsets, Bahrain has suffered greatly in the last year, and will continue to face difficulties for the foreseeable future. A post about the nice brunch at the Sofitel no doubt comes across a bit Marie Antionettish, but see previous paragraph: the political side of things comes under the work category, and my thoughts on the situation won’t appear here.

That said, let us eat cake. First impressions are that the life here on our 55km by 18km island should be quite nice. Traffic isn’t (quite) as terrible as we’d been warned, and that has given me the confidence to branch out a little from the daily work commute. This afternoon, for example, I drove to the south-western end of the island to visit a new hotel that had advertised a "Magnifique Eastern Orthodox Christmas Brunch". Because Ms. C and I had missed schismatic Christmas in the confusion of our arrival to Bahrain, and because I don't pass up meals that have four adjectives, we decided to take advantage of this second chance to celebrate the holiday.

Unfortunately, when I asked about the promised Christmas celebration at the hotel, nobody had any idea what I was talking about. Christmas, to the extent it was noted at all here, had happened weeks before, and I definitely wasn’t getting any support from the largely Saudi clientele. Fortunately, to me, Christmas is really about food, and that was provided in ridiculous abundance. I’d read about Bahraini brunches, and this one lived up to the absurd expectations I’d set for it. It also gave us a chance to set foor for the first time in the Gulf, and I’m looking forward to more time playing in the water. Ms. Chadha got a few minutes, but it wasn’t long before security realized we weren’t paying guests and shooed us away.

While it’s very possible that the next two years of updates will consist largely of pictures of food and stories centered on me getting kicked out of places for lack-of-membership reasons, I hope to do a lot better. Thanks to friends and family who have continued to drop by in spite of eight months of silence, your patience is admired, even if it was not rewarded.