Sunday, November 09, 2008

Travelogue: Bahrain and Qatar

After three days in Dubai we boarded our ship and headed for Bahrain and Qatar, two countries that I never in my wildest dreams ever imagined that I would visit. Bahrain is an island in the Persian/Arabian Gulf, and there is a causeway that connects it to Saudi Arabia. Qatar is a peninsula also connected exclusively to Saudi Arabia.

We weren't in either country long enough to really get to know the place, only a few hours in each place. We were actually scheduled to go see a camel race in Qatar, but we forgot that we had signed up for it and ended up going to the local market instead.

I felt quite welcome in Bahrain. We spent most of the day in the national museum, with a few hours wandering around the local souk or market. We got around by taxi, and the drivers were mostly friendly and helpful.

Qatar, by contrast, was quite possibly the least welcoming place I have ever been. Normally on a cruise all the immigration paperwork is handled behind the scenes by the ship, which holds all the passenger's passports until the end of the cruise. But in Qatar everyone had to collect their passports and clear immigration individually. It only took us ten minutes, but we were told that some passengers were delayed by an hour and a half (we were only there for six hours). There was a shuttle bus from the ship which took us past the old souk (which is where we really wanted to go) and instead dropped us off at the City Center, a modern shopping mall that looked just like any other shopping mall in the world (complete with Starbucks Coffee) except that the writing was in Arabic. We took a cab back to the old souk, which was pretty much dead. We were virtually the only ones there. We were told by one surprisingly candid shopkeeper that Qatar has no local products (except oil). Everything in the souk -- including the shopkeepers -- was imported from somewhere, mainly India.

Wikipedia says that Qatar has the highest GDP per capita in the world. It was not much in evidence in the old souk and its surrounding areas. It looked pretty much like any other third-world country. In retrospect it occurred to me that everyone we saw there, and probably in Dubai too, was an expatriate. We likely never once laid eyes on a native Qatari or Dubaian. (Our cab driver in Bahrain was a native.)

One of the most striking things to me about Dubai, Bahrain and Qatar is the extent to which Islam is manifest in day to day life. You can't miss the afternoon call to prayer. It is broadcast over loudspeakers from minarets in every direction, sometimes with unintentionally comic results as imams improvise incompatible melodies and rhythms for the words "Allahhu Akbar." Women -- not all but many -- wear abayas, often with veils covering their faces which I personally find very creepy. Some women wear what appears to be a metal face mask that looks to me like it came straight out of a medieval torture chamber. I wanted to take a picture, but I could not work up the courage to do so. I was afraid that if I did it without permission I would cause offense. I was likewise unsure whether it would even be appropriate for me to ask. So I didn't. (Hm, I can't find any images of these masks anywhere on the web, so maybe photographing them really is a touchy thing to do.)

Like Dubai, both Bahrain and Qatar were hot and humid. I wouldn't rush to revisit either place.

(NOTE: we were told by supposedly informed people in the U.S. that Qatar is pronounced like the word "cutter", with the accent on the first syllable. But everyone we asked in Qatar pronounced it like most Americans intuitively do: kah-TAR, with the accent on the second syllable. Actually it sounded a bit more like kah-TEHR, but the difference was subtle.)


Lieven said...

You mean something like this?

I see women wearing that walking about in Brussels. It is creepy.

Ron said...

> You mean something like this?

No. What I saw was different. It was a separate item worn with a normal open-faced abaya. It looked like it was made out of metal (brass), but I was later told that it was actually made out of leather. It's difficult to describe. It had a strip of "metal" covering the mouth, and then another coming down from the forehead running along the bridge of the nose. It left the eyes and chin visible. The horizontal strip covering the mouth had a crease in it in the center, and the metal came down to a sort of point, so it almost looked like a beak. I was told that it was a Persian style. I have not been able to find any pictures of it on the Internet. I've also been told by people in a position to know that I did the right thing by not trying to take a picture, and not talking to the women wearing them.