According to several sailors stationed at the U.S. Naval Base in Bahrain, the small country is the Las Vegas of the Middle East.
Alcohol is legal in Bahrain, and with its close proximity to Saudi Arabia, the kingdom is a hotspot for wealthy young men looking to spend the weekend away from their wives, their kids and––wait for it––Allah.
Apparently, one folklore-ish/pseudo belief of Islam in Saudi Arabia is that Allah “cannot see” beyond the bridge which connects the continent to its neighboring island.
What happens in Bahrain stays in Bahrain.
I am a 22-year-old LGBTQ+ American woman. I was not particularly comforted by the idea of drunk foreign men looking for a night of exotic entertainment.
And, to my credit as an English major, I had also thoroughly researched LGBTQ+ rights in Bahrain––or, that is, the lack thereof.
The Al-Menbar parliamentary bloc worked to address “the problem of same-sex sexual acts and how to best combat them” by banning effeminate men from entering Bahrain at airport checkpoints, Wikipedia said. (See the page for yourself, but there’s a substantial list of really problematic stuff related to Bahrain and its just-barely-emerging queer community.)
So, yes. The point is, I was afraid.
I was traveling as a Child and Youth Services Intern for Camp Adventure, a nonprofit, student-run organization at UT that trains college students as Camp Counselors, then sends us out all over the world to work on U.S. military bases and embassies.
We run Day Camp, Teen Camp, Aquatic and Child Development Care programs for the military’s Morale, Welfare and Recreation (MWR) services.
I had traveled with Camp to Japan, Germany and Hawaii, so I was experienced enough to trust (and totally lowkey love) the program. So when Camp offered me an internship in Bahrain during winter break, I was afraid of the Middle East, but I had to say yes.
We were a team of six counselors (two from Iowa, two from Florida, one from Oregon) and we arrived at the Manama airport at 11 p.m. the Sunday after finals week. The airport is more or less a thin gray hallway lined with two fast-food places, one large coffee shop and several u-shaped chair arrangements.
As we waited for the MWR transport to pick us up, I watched the women moving in their full black burqas. I watched the men in their white thobes. And I felt like a naked glow-worm.
I made eye contact with a woman as she grabbed the hand of her rambunctious toddler son. She nodded at me, and maybe she smiled. Her little, kind gesture was enough to stop my culture shock from crystallizing.
The little, kind gestures continued. In our four weeks of work, our coworkers and the service people in the military went out of their way to let us know that we were welcome.
All of our team had expected to spend Christmas Eve in our hotel rooms––odd, cold spac
es lit by vaguely alien-green lights. But, a staff member at our Youth Center invited us to a grand, Italian/seafood Christmas Eve feast. We ate a seven-course meal with his family.
While pearl-diving one weekend, we met a sailor who had spent the last four years on an aircraft carrier. He gushed to us. He told us stories about his time at sea, his hopes for future deployments and his (detailed) retirement plan.
Before we had returned to port, he’d found a space to lay at the boat’s stern. He’d fallen asleep.
I have a lot of ideological bones to pick with Bahrain, and I think that’s a fair thing to say. But I also have a lot of problems with our own country, and with myself, for that matter. And I think that little, kind gestures of welcoming are a universal language––and perhaps more important than everything else.
Camp Adventure sends students out to work with kids. Their hidden agenda, though, is leadership development. Diversity experience. Fear conquering. I was afraid of the Middle East before this winter break, but now I’m sitting in the airport, waiting to fly out of Manama and head back to Toledo.
Now, my primary concern is not the man, here beside me, fully dressed in white. I’m mainly afraid of all the essays and exams on the horizon.
This, I think, is how it should work: Find the fear, then jump hard on it.
Teresa Northcraft is a fourth-year English major.