Left Algiers, transited through Istanbul, and landed in Bahrain. Man, oh man, Manama. I feel like I am on the moon.
After getting in late last night, I enjoy the cushy bed here at the Gulf Hotel. Today I am celebrating Sari’s birthday in absentia.
Back-to-back hotel lobby interviews with English-language papers The Daily Tribune and The Gulf Daily News. Bahrain is deep in the midst of parliamentary election campaigns, and before the interviews my Embassy handlers advise me to speak on any topic except the elections. Only a “democracy” since 2002, politics is a touchy subject here in Bahrain. There’s no tradition of public debates here, so campaigning seems limited to six-foot-tall roadside campaign posters (all hilariously similar: with the candidate’s name and a mug shot) and small-scale electoral rallies.
The country is a tiny archipelago connected by a causeway to the tip of ultra-conservative Saudi Arabia. Incredibly liberal by Arab standards, Bahrain bills itself as a regional business and entertainment destination. (In fact, Saudis flood into Bahrain during the holy days of Friday and Saturday, eager to take part in family activities, movies, and the like, which are expressly forbidden in Saudi Arabia during those days. And many relatively liberal Saudi families send their daughters to study at Bahraini universities, which offer the girls many more educational/career options than they are allowed back home.) In ages past a land of small villages and pearl divers, Bahrain has undergone an incredible building spree — apparently with no consideration of urban planning. Giant office towers and ultra-modern hotels loom over patches of empty desert.
You see many Saudi businessmen in their full formal outfits, the ankle-length thawb and the keffiyeh headdress. You also see women in all stages of “cover,” from burqas to a modest veil. The variety of veils and their configurations is amazing. I am most struck by women I see in tight, almost form-fitting burkas, with their heavily made-up eyes showing through in a most fetching way.
Almost 50% of the population is from India, and the country welcomes foreign guests of all stripes. You can get real pork bacon from hotel room service — and I did!
Off to meet Bahraini artist Abdulla Al-Muharraqi in A’ali, and then to the Bahrain Arts Society to present my work & some context for US comics. Two more interviews: one for live radio and one for Bahrain weekend TV.
Ran a fun collaborative mini-comics workshops for about 40 girls at the Royal University for Women. That afternoon/evening, I conduct two workshops organized by the Embassy in cooperation with Hewar Youth Society and the Bahraini Journalists Association. For the first workshop, with young, aspiring Bahraini cartoonists, I give them four stories from today’s paper. Then, acting as an “art director,” I have them work up illustration concepts for the various stories. My goal is to show them the difference between the dominant form of opinionated political cartoons and the more subtle practice of editorial illustration. I get a kick out of the way all the students in my workshops here call me “Mr. Josh.”
Professional Bahraini cartoonists from local Arabic and English dailies participate in the second workshop, during which they share their ideas and techniques, as well as discuss the challenges they face in publishing their own political cartoons. We wrap up our meeting — which is the first time the artists have all been in the same room together — with an illo jam (which sadly, I don’t have a picture of). Artists at the workshop include Sara Qaed, Hamad Al-Gayeb, and Nawaf Al-Mulla.
Today’s Bahrain schedule: workshop at the New York Institute of Technology (!), a meeting with the U.S. Deputy Chief of Mission, and an interview with an Arabic newspaper. Leaving my hotel, I see my first woman in a burka with a veil completely covering face. Not even holes for eyes. Husband leads her by the hand.
My time in Bahrain is winding down. it’s been fascinating, totally different in every way from Algiers. Leaving tomorrow morning for country-to-be-named-later, the final stop on International Comics Goodwill Tour 2010.
The agent at the Gulf Air check-in counter has no idea what country Tel Aviv (my “final destination”) is in — she thinks it might be in Europe. Because most Arab airlines don’t fly directly to Israel — I’m flying through Amman, Jordan — it’s almost as if the country doesn’t exist. (Later, I am informed that I should have told the agent that Tel Aviv is in the same country as Jerusalem. Everyone knows Jerusalem.)