Bahrain: A Love Hotel in Dilmun
According to Enki and Ninhursaga, creation legend of the Mesopotamians who live in what is today Iraq, also the world's oldest civilisation:
The place is pure...
The land Dilmun is pure...
The land Dilmun is clean,
The land Dilmun is most bright
That place is clean, that place is most bright.
In Dilmun, the raven utters no cry,
The lion kills not,
The wolf snatches not the lamb,
Unknown is the kid-devouring wild dog,....
The sick eyed says not, "I am sick eyed"
The sick headed says not "I am sick headed",...
Dilmun's old woman says not "I am old,"
It's old man says not "I am old
The Land of Dilmun, according to the Mesopotamians, is the sacred land of the gods, one that is pure, innocent and without evil, and where everyone men and animals - lives for all eternity in peace and harmony. This is the earthy paradise, and according to archaeologists, the original inspiration for the Garden of Eden. The story of the Eden was adapted by the ancestors of the Hebrews and brought to the Land of Israel by Abraham and his tribe from their original home at the Mesopotamian city of Ur. The story became part of the Jewish Torah and subsequently the Christian Bible and the Islamic Quran.
According to many archaeologists, Dilmun is todays Bahrain, a small island state of 665 sq km and 700,000 people, right at the heart of the Gulf region of the Middle East. The Kingdom of Bahrain, as it is officially known, is ruled by the Al Khalifa family, who have governed the island since 1783, with some interruptions.
Bahrain was where oil was first drilled in the Gulf East, and after civil war broke out in Lebanon, the pre-eminent regional financial centre of the Middle East. However, with other centres in the region opening up their banking sectors and further initiatives to cultivate offshore banking activities, Bahrains status has come under significant threat, particularly, from Dubai, the up and coming hub for anything that smells of money. Bahrain, which has long regarded itself as a prosperous smart kid of the Gulf, now looks worn-out.
I flew into Bahrain after a one-day stopover in Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates. I got into a taxi for the 6km journey into town. At 5 Bahraini Dinars (US$15) a ride or at least thats what I was quoted by the taxi driver this is a rip off for such a short journey. My hotel had told me that it should only cost 3 dinars but the taxi wouldnt move for less than 5. So Bahrain has certainly failed my taxi test (http://groups.yahoo.com/group/twc-nomad/message/284 ) - visitors here are at the mercy of unscrupulous taxi drivers. Yet another country with some hardware but little software to match.
The following Friday would be National Day and there were banners and public decorations along the road. Huge billboards stood at intervals of 10 meters or less along the main coastal boulevard, all of them with the three members of the Bahraini royal trinity in various postures King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifah, Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad bin Isa Al-Khalifa, and Prime Minister since 1970, Khalifa ibn Sulman Al Khalifa, who is also uncle of the King.
According to Wikipedia, the Prime Minister is one of the longest-serving heads of government in the world; also known to be the richest member of the ruling family and one of the biggest merchants in Bahrain. He is also generally viewed as the most corrupt member of the royal family and opposed to King Hamad's democratic reforms. According to Le Monde diplomatique, after two pension funds under government management went bankrupt in April 2003, the Government donated US$45m and several plots of land in the capital to the two funds, so as to counter any risk of the personal implication of the Prime Minister.
Whatever it is, these highway billboards reminded me more of the self-congratulatory posters of Third World regimes than that of an international financial centre. They also made me wonder, whether the country was celebrating its national day or its royalty.
Bahrain is a country ruled by a minority ruling class. Over 70% of its population are Shiite Muslims many of whom have Iranian roots, but ruled by the Sunni Al Khalifa clan who invaded the island from the Arabian Peninsula in the 18th century. Since independence, there have been allegations that the Bahraini state distrusts and discriminates against Shiites, and the latter were excluded from many jobs. With the Islamic Revolution in Iran, the Bahraini government has been suspicious of the loyalty of its Shiite subjects. During the last decade, riots and bomb explosions have occurred, upsetting the semblance of political stability in this country.
King Hamad succeeded his father as Emir in 1999 and declared the country a constitutional monarchy in 2002 following a referendum on constitutional reforms that also granted women the right to vote. Accordingly, the State of Bahrain became Kingdom of Bahrain, and the Emir the King. Whats the difference between a king and an emir? Semantics perhaps, to the critics of the Bahraini monarchy. The Shiites still complain about discrimination and the many thousands of Sunni Syrians and Saudi Bedouins who have been given citizenship to dilute the Shiite composition of the national population.
Some of Bahrains larger neighbours in the Gulf are sarcastic about the newly proclaimed royal title. After all, he was previously a Sheikh who was an Emir. In the Arabic language, a sheikh refers literally to an old man, a term which has come to be used for a leader, elder, noble, tribal leader or even wealthy businessmen. The website of the opposition Bahrain Freedom Movement (www.vob.org ) refers to the King as a Sheikh, even though he had been a king for four years. The emir is certainly a much more dignified term but common enough in the Muslim world. It is a title reserved for leaders and military commanders.
In some ways, this is a term appropriate for rulers of the Gulf States. Historically, these were poor lands with tiny nomadic populations, hardly within the control of sultans and kings (malik in Arabic) which tended to be rulers of larger polities. Instead the Gulf were the realms of nomadic tribes, roving military contingents commanded by military leaders, hence the term emir.
Even in this constitutional monarchy, the prime minister remains a political appointee and a member of the royal family. The long serving (36 years!) Prime Minister is the uncle of the King, which underlines his political power over the state. If you have watched Chinese historical drama serials on palace intrigue involving the complex power network of old imperial China, you could almost guess how inherently unstable such royal structures are.
I wanted to go to Seef Hotel but the taxi driver tried his best to get me to go elsewhere. Travellers are normally apprehensive of such schemes, where the traveller eventually gets charged more for a worse hotel and the taxi driver getting a neat commission at the travellers expense. I insisted on Seef and was brought to this faded outfit in the centre of Manama, Bahrains capital.
Worn-out, mouldy furniture within the plain walls, Seef Hotel is run by expat Indians from Kerala who on that occasion seemed more concerned with following a Bollywood movie on TV than speaking to me. At 10 dinars (US$35), this is one of the cheapest deals in town. The TV comes with CNN and HBO, not a bad deal though not a must-have for me.
Five skimpily dressed Thai girls with partially see-through dress and thick make-up at the staircase, one of whom was chatting in English to a middle age Saudi in white robes. Thought I heard some numbers mentioned price negotiations, I suppose. Another of her friends, a sweet roundish face with watery eyes, her hair dyed brown, smiled at me. A working girl probably from Thailands poverty-stricken Northeast, here to repay gambling debts of her father or a husband or a boyfriend whatever. Despite the religious rhetoric and self-righteous, moralistic overtones of the official press, one do not have to look too far beneath the surface to find the worlds most ancient trade across the Middle East. Man, wherever they are, are often motivated by hormones after all.
In Dilmun, that original Garden of Eden, the Land of Purity and Innocence, Enki, the God of Sweet Waters and Wisdom, brought the water of life, fertility and plants to the world, in an ancient Mesopotamian creation legend that would be condemned by the modern day man as one of serial incest, underage sex and scandalous debauchery.
Dilmun lacked water; its goddess invited Enki who ordered the Sun God to bring fresh water here. In Dilmun, Enki met Ninhursaga, the Mother Earth, who fell in love and was impregnated by him. Nine days later, Ninhursaga gave birth to a daughter Ninsar, who is then impregnated by her father. Nine days later, Ninsar gave birth to a daughter Ninkur, who is also impregnated by promiscuous Enki, the result of which was Uttu, the goddess of plants. Oversexed Enki then seduced his great-granddaughter who had been warned by Ninhursaga to avoid the lusty Enki. As a result, Uttu gave birth to eight different sacred plants.
Greedy Enki ate all the sacred plants in an act that could only be described as vegetarian-cannibalism, was as a result cursed by angry Ninhursaga, and suffering in great pain with a hugely bloated stomach. The gods pleaded Ninhursaga to forgive Enki, for if Enki, who command the water of life, dies, all in the world would collapse. Ninhursaga relented, and ended Enkis sufferings in a process that led to the birth of eight goddesses each born from a different part of Enkis body including Ki, the Goddess of Life from one of Enkis rib bones.
Was Ki the original Eve, born from Adams rib? So much from the Garden of Eden and the loss of innocence.
Manama, or Sleeping Place in Arabic, is the capital of Bahrain. Indeed a sleepy place when compared to Dubai, though livelier than Kuwait City and definitely more so than Doha. There are few state-of-the-art skyscrapers unlike Dubai or Doha; it is a city of 1960s and 1970s old fashioned shopping centres and fading office blocks like those one finds in Birmingham and Gibraltar quaint but perhaps of growing irrelevance.
A stale air of stagnancy overwhelmed despite the lights of the (not surprising) South Asian-dominated souq and sleazy night spots whose main patrons were Saudis who drove here across a 25 km-bridge to drink, dance and have wild abundant sex, pursuits they are denied in their own socially repressed country but for which they are renowned for over-indulging when outside their country. Well, better hedonistic pursuits in Bahrain than craving for the 72 black-eye virgins promised by extremist Mullahs to the Wahabbi martyr. At the rate the world is experiencing martyr inflation, I wonder if there would be enough virgins in Heaven, or whether such a Heaven is any attractive for the virgin female.
Bahrain became the financial and business hub of the Middle East after Beirut plunged into civil war, but its predominance has been significantly eroded in recent years. Financial services accounts for 24% of the GDP. Bahrain remains the regional capital for Islamic banking and continue to benefit from the general benefits of the deluge of inflow of wealth arising from the huge rise in oil prices, but there is evidence to suggest that major international banks such as Morgan Stanley, HSBC and Merrill Lynch are now moving staff and funds to Dubais new Dubai International Financial Centre (DIFC) which has its own English-Law based legal jurisdictions and emphasis on investment banking, capital markets and fund management.
Bahrain is fighting back with the US$1.3 billion Bahrain Financial Harbour (BFH), a massive group of office towers cum leisure and tourism complexes like ancient Mesopotamian ziggurats rising as high as 173 meters already standing along the coastal road, with dhow like architectural designs that combine traditional Gulf and contemporary features.
New laws are enacted that allow foreign ownership in newly reclaimed land sounds like what some observers call increasing Dubaism copying of Dubais ambitious spend-and-build strategy to build whole new industries and know-how, and yet a kind of affirmation of the lead Dubai has over its regional rivals. But behold its easier to built towers than to fill them up.
Will Bahrain succeed? The country faces long-term decline in petroleum and related industries, which currently account about 60% of export earnings and government revenues. It is trying to diversify its economy with mixed success. For the moment, Bahrain has the fastest growing economy in the Arab world and the freest economy in the Middle East according to the Heritage Foundation.
However, Bahrain, beset with its political issues, can hardly be attractive as a sanctuary for the estimated US$1.8 trillion private money in the Middle East, 45% of which is held outside the region. Since 9/11, many wealthy Arabs are apprehensive that their wealth may get trapped abroad if another international crisis erupts, or if anti-terrorist funding rules get applied to their funds without exclusion. Perhaps, Bahrain will still be able to get a slice of this in the short-term, but it will have to try harder to retain that for the longer term.
Nightclubs with loud Arabesque-Turkish disco beat, a strange Jamaican restaurant, into the maze, friendly, old-fashioned convenience shops with signs proclaiming Cold Store, colours and spices of the Indian souq. Suddenly I found myself right at the heart of a Shiite neighbourhood. Three Chinese traders were showing local traders the garment made in the sweatshops of Zhejiang, Eastern China. Loud prayers call sounded amidst houses with portraits and paintings of modern-day Ayatollahs and revered Shiite saints, such as Ali, son-in-law of the Prophet and fourth leader of the Muslims, and his family members, all considered martyrs of Shia Islam in its terrible civil war with the Sunnis in the early 8th century. Even today, the intense rivalry and conflict between the Shiite and Sunni Muslims are only exceeded by that between Muslims and the Jews.
Considering the current controversy over the Danish cartoons of Muhammad, one may be inclined to think that human images are not allowed at all in Islam. Just go to any Shiite community and one would see portraits of Shiite martyrs. Can anyone explain to me why? Sometimes its all a matter of politics and unscrupulous politicians who use any opportunity to further their own fortunes.
Among the Gulf States, Bahrain must be the most liberal one. With a longer history of indigenous industrialisation where locals have been involved in the oil industry, as well as a longer international presence, Bahrainis are more enlightened than many Arab states when it comes to womans rights. Unlike many Arab states, there are hardly any religious police aka gangsters going around arresting people for breaking ridiculous fundamentalist rules.
I have seen many unveiled women in Bahrain, unlike in many traditional Gulf States where women are little better than slaves owned by their husbands, fathers or brothers. In Bahrain, women are allowed to vote and there are more female university graduates than male ones. Unlike in Saudi Arabia, woman in Bahrain can drive too. The Bahraini Chamber of Commerce and Industry even has a woman member. Women are half the world; how can a society progress if women are treated like mens property as in many Arab states?
Michael Jackson might have lost his magic in the US since being acquitted from the child-abuse case, but Bahrain seemed to have become his new homeland. This was where the superstar flew after his pyrrhic trial victory, and where soon after my visit he was spotted with his children at a local shopping mall in an Arab woman's abaya robe, gloves and veil. His children wore yellow shirts and sweatpants, and had their faces wrapped in black scarves. In November 2005, he was spotted in a lady's toilet in a Dubai mall, putting on makeup. Welcome to the Gulf of the Superstar, or perhaps half-fallen ones too.
According to the oldest epic ever written by humankind, Gilgamesh of the Babylonians which were found on 7th century BC clay tablets in the collection of the Assyrian king Ashurbanipal, Dilmun was the Land of Immortality - the home and playground of the Gods - the spot where Sun rose every day, where Gilgamesh, King of Uruk, went in search for eternal youth after seeing the death of his dear companion. After great effort and overcoming many obstacles, Gilgamesh found the boatman Urshanabi who ironically had orders never to take anyone to Dilmun. Nevertheless, Gilgamesh had his way and met Utnapishtim, the immortal king of Shurrupak, at Dilmun.
Utnapishtim told him about how the Great Flood came and destroyed all mankind because they were too numerous and noisy, and have disturbed the sleep of the God Enlil. Utnapishtim learned about the impending disaster, built a boat and invited all into his boat. Together with his wife and all those on his boat, Utnapishtim survived the Great Flood which covered all lands except the highest mountain. For his deed, Utnapishtim and his wife were granted immortality but confined to remote Dilmun.
Utnapishtim then told Gilgamesh that he could be given immortality if he could stay awake for seven days in a roll. Gilgamesh, unfortunately, failed the test, though he thought that he had only slept for half a second; He had actually slept for seven, as evidenced by a decayed loaf of bread.
Utnapishtim gave Gilgamesh a second chance: He told Gilgamesh about the Flower of Eternal Life that grew at the seabed of Dilmun, that could make him immortal too. Gilgamesh dived into the sea, found the plant, and just as he rejoiced and bathed in a well, a serpent ate the flower and disappeared. Thus the rebirth of the snake every time it sheds its skin.
Gilgamesh was devastated:
For whom have I laboured? For whom have I journeyed?
For whom have I suffered?
I have gained absolutely nothing for myself,
I have only profited the snake, the ground lion!
Gilgamesh was resigned to the inevitability of death and returned to Uruk, where he gawked at the great walls and monumental gates. Here he exclaimed at the greatness of the city and the enduring achievement of Man, mortal he might be, and that it was only through civilisation and culture that Man could achieve eternal fame.
Does this ring a bell? Twist the oldest pagan creation legend in the world and you get the Old Testament. So much for intellectual property rights.
I walked across town to the National Museum. An enormous complex with stylistic dhows and half columns symbolising the nation's maritime heritage. Here I was treated to an excellent display of artefacts on Bahrain's ancient heritage. The gems of the museum were the assorted iron pieces, carvings, beads and skeletons from excavations around the more than 170,000 mysterious burial mounds of ancient Dilmun, dating back to 3000 B.C.
Bahrain is the greatest prehistoric cemetery in the world. Each of the mounds has a chamber in which a person is buried in the foetal position. Even today, these strange mud mounds are scattered among the tin-roofed houses of Bahrain's central villages, like skin pores under the microscopes. Pictures taken from the skies showed mound plains that looked surreal, almost out of this world. Creation of visitors from outer space?
An ancient sacred site and burial site for prehistoric Arabians where immortality could be obtained, so thought many who passed by Bahrain. How could a small arid island support such a big population? Was Bahrain the island of the dead?
In 1954, however, this theory was overthrown by the Danish archaeological expedition led by Geoffrey Bibby. Through digs at the 16th century Portuguese built Bahrain Fort and a temple site to the west, as well as drawing a link to the ancient Mesopotamian legend, Gilgamesh, he found evidence supporting a new theory, that Bahrain was Dilmun.
It was in ancient Bahrain where Mesopotamians traded with people from the Indus Valley in what is today Pakistan and western India. This was the centre of an ancient empire that ruled over what are today the Gulf States. Dilmun was also an important religious centre, the place where the cult of immortality was worshipped. In many tombs, skeletons of snakes were found in funerary jars offerings to the gods, and a reminder to the legend of the snake that stole the plant of immortality from Gilgamesh.
In the museum is a special exhibit that celebrated those Danish archaeological expeditions which discovered the link between modern Bahrain and ancient Dilmun. It was they who told the world that Bahrain was richer in history than in oil. As I am writing now in the greatest and perhaps the only major anti-Danish fever in world history, I wonder whether the exhibit would survive it all. Until recent weeks, it was almost unthinkable that anyone would ever be upset with the Danes. But history has a way of making fun of Mankind, whose capacity to mess things up seems boundless.
A guy at the General Post Office told me that the Ministry of Transport has a department selling stamps for collectors. I went there late morning and yet was told that it wasnt opened. Yet no one could tell me when it was supposed to reopen or what exactly were its operating hours. What a surprise for a government agency, unimportant it might have been, in a place that considers itself an international financial centre. "Savage" was to be the over-strong response of the GPO officer when I recounted this later.
I tried to wave a taxi back to my hotel not more than 3 kilometres away from the Ministry. Yet passing taxis yes, all without meters asked for the leg and arm. One of the taxis almost ran over my leg when I rejected its cut-throat demand for 3 dinars (US$8). Third World service and attitude, First World prices.
I am reminded of the declining fortunes of Gulf Air, once the national airline of Bahrain, Qatar, Abu Dhabi (the richest of the member-states of the United Arab Emirates) and Oman, now only supported by Bahrain and Oman. Gulf Air used to be the airline of choice in the Middle East. Since the appearance of Dubais Emirates which has used its non-threatening startup status to negotiate the most advantageous air traffic rights in its early days, Dubai has been propelled into the status of a regional air hub with Emirates as a premier world-class carrier.
Gulf Air, however, was stuck in a never-ending tug-of-war of trying to be the national airline of four sometime-quarrelling rival states, with four different hubs to contend with. Ultimately, it is the Emirates that triumphs. Since then, Qatar has established its own airline (Qatar Airways) and pulled out of Gulf Air in 2002. Abu Dhabi set up Etihad Airways and got out in 2005. How long will Oman hang on to Gulf Air given that it has Oman Air?
Both Qatar and Abu Dhabi are pumping their petrol-dollars to build world-class airlines from scratch. Poor Bahrain is running out of oil and can only manage over-leveraged Gulf Air for cash. Budget airlines have appeared in Sharjah and Kuwait, hitting Gulf Air hard as well. With Dubai as a tourism and business destination in its own right, there are even fewer reasons for intercontinental travellers to transit in Bahrain.
I negotiated for a taxi to bring me 5km away to Qalat al-Bahrain, also known as Bahrain Fort, and back to Manama. Eight dinars (US$21) for a return trip. Another outrageously expensive venture. I bet the local gets charged a lot less. One never feels comfortable about taxis without meters. Especially financial centres that have no metered taxis. Whether or not the rate is fair, one inevitably smells a rat.
The fort was located on a tall artificial hill built over by multiple constructions over many millennia since the days of ancient Dilmun. The World Heritage Site was monumental, yet with its temperament toned by the green shady palms around it. This used to be the palace of Dilmun, excavated by the archaeologist Bibby. The Greeks came, followed by the Romans, the Arabs and the Portuguese. Each built their fortress after razing the previous one. One layer upon another layer. This is the archaeologist's Wonderland, a thick treasure trove of data from one era upon that of another era.
The Portuguese, who came in the wake of Vasco da Gama's voyages from Europe to India, built the fortress we see today. As the Portuguese sailed through the Indian Ocean, they clashed with local Muslim kingdoms and set up fortresses in the most strategic areas. According to Wikipedia, "In 1521, a Portuguese force led by commander Antonio Correia invaded Bahrain to take control of the wealth created by its pearl industry. The defeated King Muqrin was beheaded after Correia defeated his forces near present day Karbabad and took control of the fort Qala'at Al-Bahrain. The bleeding head of King Muqrin was later depicted on the Coat of Arms of Antonio Correia."
The Portuguese ruled Bahrain as well as most of the coastal ports of the Gulf with great brutality, crushing any form of dissent ruthlessly. But how could a small country in Europe, with barely a few million inhabitants, control a vast maritime empire for too long? Once the other European nations learned acquired the technology of long-range ocean travel, the Portuguese trade monopoly was challenged. As increased resources were spent in battles not only with other great powers in East and West, Portuguese supremacy over the conquered lands was depleted with time. In 1602, an uprising in Bahrain drove them out.
I stood by the side of the deep moat, and marvelled at the massive walls and bulwark of the Portuguese fortifications. At the bottom of the moat were foundations and remains of the Dilmun civilisation uncovered by archaeological excavations of the past few decades. I would have loved to explore the fortress itself, but it was not opened on a day it was supposed to be. A pity, but was this the first time I caught civil servants here skiving off?
I walked to the seaward side of the fortress, standing by the hill overlooking the Arabian Gulf. One could see the foundations of the old Islamic fortress and beyond that the sea. Whereas the Portuguese fleet once moored here with valuable spices from Melaka and the Indonesian archipelago to the East, Bahrain has now become home to the US Navy's 5th Fleet, and a major base for US military operations during the Gulf Wars.
Small nations like Bahrain and Singapore are often vulnerable to regional intrigue. Like Singapore which also hosts an American base, Bahrain's flirtations with the US are also linked to domestic security considerations. Bahrain had long standing territorial disputes with Saudi Arabia and Qatar which were only resolved in recent years, not to mention its own domestic political issues. The presence of the US Navy is deterrence to those who want to upset the status quo, be it the Shiites or Iran. Is the past any different from the present? Will the future be any different from the past?
I came across the story of a Bahraini princess and a US Marine. Beautiful princess, 19, met handsome Mormon Marine boy, 23, stationed in Bahrain. They fell in love. The parents opposed. The couple eloped, with the princess disguised as a man, on with a New York Yankees ball cap and forged military identification, and off they went to Las Vegas. The princess was denounced by her family, while the Marine was demoted and then discharged from service.
Material for a Disney fairytale? Yes, they made it to the headlines and an appearance on "Oprah". But life in the Real, Bad World took a toll on their marriage. The ex-Marine had to live as a valet parker and the princess got onto a party lifestyle on the Strip. Personal, religious and cultural differences came to a clash, and five years after it all began, the couple divorced. End of fairy tale, even before it really began.
Coming from a very small country, the fate of small countries has always intrigued me. I can't help but think about where Singapore would be in the complex world we live in today. I left Bahrain wondering about the stories of Gilgamesh and Dilmun, and the decay, stagnancy and lack of "software" despite higher aspirations. The fairy tale certainly hasn't ended - Bahrain remains a well-off state, though sparkling Dubai and Doha makes Bahrain looks tired.
With that, I set off for Doha, capital of Qatar.