The first week I spent in Bahrain was an eye opener in many ways...and an early indication of what I could expect in the days, weeks and months (wasn't even thinking years at this point) to come.
I'm going to mention a very personal aspect of my marriage here simply because it played such a huge part in my life there. My every day existence boiled down to this ONE thing...or so it seemed to me on my very worst days.
From that very first night, after an exhausting 22 hour flight (all combined), in which I barely had time to take a shower and situate myself...he called me to bed...and for the most part expected me to "be prepared" whenever and wherever he chose for the next 20 years....but more on that later.
I fell asleep with my mind whirling with the "what ifs" of the unknown....only to be awaken by the sounds of a VERY loud cow...or so I thought. I jerked awake completely terrified, and shaking him awake too, trying to understand what that SOUND was. It filled the air and echoed off the walls. I heard myself practically shouting at him...WHAT is that...what is it????
Turns out it was my first experience listening to the fajr (morning) call to prayer, or the adhan. The nearest mosque was barely a stones throw from his house...so it seemed as if the loud speaker was right IN my bedroom. It scared the hell out of me with that first rude awakening...but in time I would come to love hearing it...and miss it when I didn't. Also, with time...it would awaken me naturally...better than any alarm clock ever could.
He woke me up around 7 am wanting more sex and then showered and went off to work...which was the BDF, or Bahrain Defense Force. The Emir of Bahrain's attempt to have a military that did little more than dress up and "play" soldier as far as I could determine (over the years mind you). Before he left he told me to go downstairs at any time...they would be waiting for me.
I showered and dressed...even put my shoes on (had no idea about the "no shoes in the house" thing at this point and old habits die hard) then sat down on the bed and wondered what to do. I considered putting my things away but I didn't really see anywhere to put them and he hadn't indicated a place before leaving. I turned on the little t.v. and flipped through the channels...all 7 of them. 6 were in Arabic (I assumed)....1 was in English but it wasn't broadcasting yet. It was just an audio recording of a man reciting something...eventually I would learn this was the Quran, of which I knew nothing about at this point. I turned off the t.v. and looked for something to read. There was nothing at all. Another thing I eventually learned is that my husband was not a reader. His only dealings with books were auto books that showed him how to fix engines etc. Looking back I can only recall a time or two that I witnessed him reading the Quran. Even during Ramadan he almost never opened one. This discrepancy in our reading habits would also eventually fan the flames of our ever increasing heated relationship.
I opened the door of our bedroom and was greeted with a sun that must have been no more than 7 feet over my head. Bright and hot...sending a burst of light right into my retina. I was blinded momentarily and jumped back into the safety of the room until my eyes adjusted to the glare. I hesitantly stepped out again and got my first good look around in the "light" of day. I could feel the heat tingling my arms and instantly little beads of sweat popped out on my forehead. It was like instant heat..no time to get use to it. One moment I was inside the room...relatively cool and comfortable...the next I was panting for a breath and feeling like a potato baking in an oven...and this was ONLY April. Little did I know that this was still Spring by Bahrain standards.
Around me I could see other roofs of houses. Those that were higher than ours that is. T.V. antennas and washing lines...not to mention the occasional rooster standing on a wall crowing the morning away. I could hear some birds chirping and the ever present sound of traffic. Traffic sounds were something that never ended on that little street. Morning noon and night the sounds of horns, brakes, bad engines and back fires were a constant background noise to whatever else may be going on. It never ever seemed to be totally quiet there. Even at 3 a.m. cars and peoples voices were the norm. Because the streets were so narrow...those sounds always seemed to be right in our bedroom. After having spent years with my father, who tried his best to build a proverbial moat around his family to maintain his idea of proper distance and privacy, this sudden closeness and feelings of having no privacy were overwhelming.
Right outside my door to the right was a small waist high wall. When I looked over it I could see down into the house. All the rooms were are built in a square...one on each wall of the house (3 rooms on 3 walls) and the outside door on the 4th wall...with an open "court yard" type thing in the middle of all this. Though it was barely longer than a large type car and not much wider. This house was SMALL. It was all quiet downstairs even though it was around 10 am by this time. Another thing I would learn...this family never really got started until around noon on any given day.
Over the years I would use this little vantage point as a way to get the vibes from downstairs...if I could hear my name mentioned frequently (though as my understanding of Arabic improved I realized my name wasn't always what they referred to me by) I would know they were upset about something...and could safely stay upstairs and out of firing range. At the moment the only thing that stirred down there was a cat. Not a cat that belonged to the house but a street cat. These cats were quite bold and would enter houses to steal what they could before bolting up the stairs and jumping on our wall and over to another and be gone. They were usually followed by a thrown shoe or other weapon of choice. Bahrain's unofficial mascot seemed to be the street cat...as there appeared to be thousands of them. In later years my children and I would play the game of Count the Cats we would see during an outing...we counted 52 one time before giving up...and that just while leaving our neighborhood.
I walked around the corner of the roof...it was shaped like an L...to the far wall. The wall was about 6.5 feet tall so I couldn't see over it...but there was a small ledge I could put my toes on and by grabbing the wall I could pull myself up and look out into the street. I looked down at my first morning in Bahrain and saw children running and playing...men on bikes (eventually I learned most of these were Pakistanis or Indians) and the occasional car speeding by...which was amazing considering the street was barely car width wide...and the doors of houses opened directly onto the street...plus the children and men on bikes in that space...but that appeared to be the normal speed of travel in Bahrain...full steam ahead regardless of the dangers.
I stayed perched on that ledge until the heat of the sun made the wall too hot to handle...but not before I noticed others noticing me. At some point some children saw me and stopped dead in their tracks, open mouthed and silent...watching me watching them. I could imagine the sight I made...a head barely visible over the wall...with red hair and fair skin. As yet I had not seen another soul that had anything but varying shades of brown....hair or skin. The interest of the children caught the attention of some passer byes and they too looked up to see what was so interesting....and stood equally silent and opened mouth. I pictured myself throwing peanuts down into their open mouths as my sisters and I use to do...and that made me giggle. My first humorous thought since I had arrived...things were looking up.
Being stared at by the children didn't bother me at all but watching the half dozen men gathered standing there so openly staring at me was rather disconcerting. They didn't seem to comprehend what they were looking at. A complete look of amazement covered their faces. Hadn't they seen a woman before? Well of course they had...hadn't they seen a foreign woman before? Who knows...maybe not.
Eventually I would learn (as always) that they were probably struck more by the nerve I had to be looking down into the street at all. Women didn't DO that. Then again...I had very short hair then...they might have mistook me for a boy...just an odd colored boy compared to everyone else. I was 18 then but I could pass for 14 and I was very boyish looking according to some...then and now actually. I've never been a very girly girl.
Eventually I grew tired and hopped down but I would eventually spend many many hours balanced up on that tiny ledge...holding on so I didn't fall and just look down into the street..it wasn't much of a view but it was the only one I would have...for many days at a time it was the only view of the "outside world" that I would get. Until his father "caught" me one time..and sealed it off so I couldn't do even that.
It was very hot and my skin was already glowing red...a sure sign of impending sunburn..something I had been forced to deal with all my life. I burned at the slightest bit of sunlight..and now here I was in a country that seemingly did nothing but radiate UV rays All day Every day. ugh! Talk about irony. Again...you bitch!!
I looked downstairs again and heard some voices but was too shy to go down there. I retreated to the room and shut the door...and wondered what I was supposed to do with myself now that I was here. I went and opened a suitcase and pulled out some books..and went and laid down on the bed to read.
Suddenly the door burst open and my husband strode in. I was happy to see him simply because I was bored to death...and rather scared to be alone so soon after arriving. He kissed me in greeting them told me he was in a hurry...he had made up an excuse to leave work (aka military) and had come home with one purpose....to have sex with me. And he did. When he finished he zipped his pants and advised me to go downstairs again before hurrying out the door with a slam. This particular scenario would be played out many many MANY times over the course of the years. He would pop in out of nowhere...quickly have sex with me...then be gone. Many times I had to do little more than bend over for him until he was through...then a light kiss and he was out the door again. Might I remind you of my earlier statement pertaining to what I though was my actual "purpose" of being there. This was one of the many reasons why I felt like that. It seemed he viewed me as little more than a receptacle for his sexual urges...that could strike at anytime of the day...or night. It seemed he also believed those urges should be met WHEN they occurred and not a moment later...hence his coming home from work at all hours..or waking me in the night...nearly EVERY night of our marriage. He never seemed to get enough sex....more on that later.
About 10 minutes after he left there was a knock at the bedroom door. His sister was at door holding a tray with some food and milk on it. She greeted me with "good morning, Layla"...Layla? Who was that? set the tray down and left. On the tray were eggs and kobuz...or fat torteas when I described them to my mother at some point....and a glass of warm milk. Warm? ugh! Who drank warm milk? For the next week she would bring me that same breakfast...and I would eat the eggs and kobuz...but would pour the milk down the sink. I would note later that not another person in that house drank warm milk...not to mention, I told my husband to tell her I didn't like warm milk...so don't bother to give it to me...so I have no idea to this day why she kept bringing me warm milk. Did she think Americans liked warm milk? I have no idea.
A few hours later the youngest niece, around 11, came and timidly knocked on the door. She knew just a few words of English..."good morning, Layla"...yet again. Why were they calling me Layla? I told her my name was Lee Ann but she just smiled at me and told me to "come"...then went downstairs and looked to see if I was following. Swallowing a huge lump in my throat I went down.
She led me into the majlis...I stepped inside and was immediately shouted at...I had no idea why..not understanding Arabic...but I know when I'm being shouted at. Turns out I had my shoes on still...and was making his mother upset that I hadn't removed them. I stepped back and slipped them off...then came inside...burning with humiliation. The niece indicated I should sit down on the only piece of "furniture" in the room...other than the bed and cupboard. It's called a doshag...and is little more than a long thin cushion...with pillows leaning against the wall. There are more elaborate ones...with thicker cushioning etc...but ordinary ones are pretty basic. In America we generally are not comfortable sitting on floors. Yes, kids will sprawl on the floor during slumber parties...and home work sessions...but for adults to sit on the floor during a time of socializing...doesn't happen too often...so getting used to sitting on the floor was a habit I never really acquired...just hurt my bottom and back too much. Not to mention when I was pregnant, made standing up nearly impossible....but I sat.
The mother and 4 nieces were there...the sister was in the kitchen preparing lunch. Nobody said a word. I was busy trying to not notice the smell and dirty look of the place...wondering silently what my mother would think to know I now lived in such a place. Ironic considering the number of times my father had pulled me from sleep to clean yet again an already pristine bathroom or kitchen. His house had to be military clean...so now I was wondering what my FATHER would think of this much less my mother. Irony seemed to be my constant companion now.
The nieces ranged in age from the oldest, around 16..to the youngest...11. I noticed one of the nieces sat in the corner...her hair a wild mess...her toenails and fingernails were inches long...her eyes rather crossed. She stared at me, and would continue to stare at me whenever I was around...for years and years. I learned she was mentally disabled...but would also learn that they treated her as if she were completely incapable of even the smallest task...and she wasn't.On a scale of 1 to 10...10 being completely dependent on others...I would say she was a 5 or 6. She could learn...if anyone took the time to teach her things. Through the years I would take that time...taking a risk in the process. For she would also be the cause of several of my "dramas" in the house...she didn't like me then (though her dislike would often disappear at times)...or ever.
We sat in complete silence for about 10 min until the sister brought the lunch. A plate of sandwiches...as well as the usual Arab food...rice with some form of meat or chicken etc. After it was all set out on the floor (another thing I had to get used to...its not really easy for me to sit on the floor and eat from plates on the floor...again..especially while pregnant)...I reached out and took a sandwich..again his mother seemed hostile about something. The youngest niece quickly took the sandwich from my LEFT hand and placed it in my right. I looked at her puzzled...and she just smiled at me. His mother continued to complain (so it seemed)..and I found I wasn't quite able to continue eating with them after that. It all seemed so tense and unsettling. I knew I had made a mistake of some kind..but no idea what. I did little more than nibble on my food before I excused myself and fled back to my room.
continued in next post
© Lee Ann Fleetwood, 2010