Songs of Bahrain

Landing at the Bahrain International Airport at 2 am, amidst a sea of men in thawbs and keffiyehs, I quickly realized I was the only woman at the airport, alone at that time.  After stepping out of the arrival gate, I spotted a Starbucks, hurried over and ordered myself a drink just so I could sit down and survey my landscape before I decided what to do next. Admittedly I felt a little lost.

Working on a shoestring budget, I had spent many nights trawling through different accommodation options until I finally chanced on an online global homestay and social networking service that had hosts offering their homes even in far-flung Bahrain.  I was relieved as I found an Indian couple that was willing to open their home to me, but also nervous that I was going into a region so tumultuous (the Bahraini administration was then struggling with anti-government riots at that time).  I had little idea of what to expect—but recognized it was nonetheless a great chance to grow.

-

I sat, slowly drinking my hot chocolate, surveying the list of taxi booths across my tiny coffee table.  The airport had emptied out now—there was hardly anyone around, much less coming out of arrival.  I settled on a counter, closed my eyes as I paid for the taxi (USD$20 for a 15-minute ride), and surprise of all surprises, was escorted to a long black, brand new limo that took me into Manama, Bahrain’s capital.  At night, it was a pretty medley of glittering lights and skyscrapers, set against the deep purple backdrop of the desert.

By the time we rolled into my host’s neighbourhood, a sandstorm had just begun.  Suburban Manama was a stark contrast with earthen roads and stretches of dry desolate fields peppered with sombre looking buildings, austere from years of dust exposure. In a distance, a florescent light to a ground floor unit turned on.  A woman with thick curly hair, in t-shirt and tights, stood waiting at the top of a short flight of steps that led up to an elevated first-floor unit—a long apartment with three rooms.

“Hello, Sarah?  Sarah! Nice to meet you!  I’m your host, Anika!”

As we heaved my luggage bags into the house, to my surprise there was a bed neatly set out in the living room. “I’m sorry Sarah!” Anika half whispered as she tilted her head to one side and nudged her chin towards the makeshift sofa bed.  “We got our dates mixed up.  We’ve been hosting another couch surfer and he’s still here for one more day. He’s still occupying the guestroom—would it be ok if you slept in the hall just for today?”

It was late and the meditative call of Koel birds through the Bahrani dawn reminded me of my fatigue and creeping jet lag.  Sure, Anika! I’ll sleep wherever you ask me to.  I rolled into bed and fell fast asleep to my new world.

--

I woke up to the sound of utensils clinking gently in the kitchen as a shadow passed me in the hall.  Afternoon sunlight bounced off the plain walls, lending an ambient warmth to the hall with its high ceilings. Anika was in the kitchen preparing a meal of chapatti and dhal. It took a moment to orientate and remind myself that I had just flown halfway around the world to crash on a stranger’s couch, all in a bid to compete in a professional tennis tournament.  It all felt so disparate and strange.

“Hello! You must be Sarah!”  A lean Indian gentleman of average height, with a slight forward hunch, walked into the hall.  Meet my second host.  Rahul.  Anika’s husband.  A cardiologist.  “Would you like to freshen up and join us for some food?”

Rahul was in the kitchen chatting with Anika by the time I shyly stepped in.  I had just washed my face, brushed my teeth, and felt so much better after a sleep.  I leaned my hip against their kitchen sink, a warm cup of water in hand, soaking their world in as Anika prepared food.  

“We were very concerned about inviting you into our home!”  Rahul revealed—his eyes seemed to bulge slightly behind his slim rectangular spectacles every time he spoke.  It made his words seem like they had even more importance. That must be a useful trait to have as a doctor, I thought to myself.

“You see, we know that Singapore is a very clean place.  We were afraid you might not be used to our home, as it’s really not as clean as your country!”  

I couldn’t help chuckling at his declaration as I saw a small smile form around the corners of his lips.  Apart from a wispy goatee and a head full of scattered hair, Rahul’s posture and gait reminded me of Mr Burn’s from the Simpsons—except that he was far from conniving, but instead friendly and welcoming.  This felt like a good start.  I liked this guy’s humour.  I liked Anika’s smile.  Maybe I didn’t have so much to worry about, after all.

--

Anika and Rahul turned out, quite contrary, to be truly the most hospitable people I have ever met.  I spent most of my time with Anika, while Rahul clocked long shifts at the hospital.  She, determined that I didn’t feel out of place as a woman alone in Bahrain, connected me to their local driver who took me to the courts and back every day at a reasonable fee.  She pressed a local sim card into my hands, to make sure I was contactable at all times, waving her hand as I feebly tried to pay for it.  When my matches were done, she arranged a Moroccan bath at the local Thai spa down the dusty road from her house.  Again, she pressed money into my hands, “Don’t worry! Don’t worry! Just enjoy it!”  Being new to Touring alone, I was both embarrassed and extremely touched at the extent of her hospitality.  

Anika was far from your typical Indian woman—she didn’t wear a bindi, or comfortable salwar suits.  Instead, she chose t-shirts and pants.  She hardly went out, seemed content to stay home, and always made sure she prepared meals Rahul would either come home to, or take to the hospital with him.  But that was as traditional as Anika got.  Often when I came home from tennis, she would be in their sitting room, lounging against a cushion, smoking a cigarette over her seventh cup of chai.  She showed me the guitar chords she was learning while balancing her cigarette precariously between two fingers.  She laughed with life and love in her eyes.

During the day, in between practices, we would sit at the dining table, by the main door—kept open to allow light to stream into the house. The water guy would come over occasionally to top up the water gallon, and Anika would tease me.  “Did you see how he blushed when you smiled at him?”  Her gentle voice could never outlay her wide cheeky smile.  Over chappati and dahl, over low keyed whispers and secret chuckles, the house and its dank shadows folded into us as we talked about life, our families, how she and Rahul met.  They were so different from Indian couples I had met. All were heavily connected to their extended family units—held under some sort of distant persuasion from a mother-in-law or an overbearing father.

“His mother asked me once,” Anika whispered, the words drifted above another cup of chai, as I slowly reached out for my third chapatti.  “Why we haven’t had any kids yet.”  “You know, they’ve been waiting a long time for a grandkid, but we haven’t given them any.”  She started to giggle—“They know I’m okay.  So they’re starting to worry Rahul might be the problem!”  

But the truth of the matter was, there was no problem at all. Anika just didn’t want children.  And Rahul was okay with that.  It was blasphemy to Indian culture, as children are seen as the fruit of marriage.  But Anika resisted it, and Rahul, in his love for her, protected her independence, as much as she was dependent on him for that very love.  He protected her right to smoke.  Wear t-shirts and pants.  To not wear a bindi.  To learn the guitar.  And she loved him all more for it.  Here, Anika and Rahul, perhaps by sheer geographical distance, were a pure unit of their own.

--

Anika fed me.  Every day.  She taught me how to roll chapatti, how to dust it, how to pan and wait for it to fluff. Halfway through my stay, I convinced her to let me reciprocate their hospitality with a homecooked Chinese meal.

“Really!?!”  Her eyes widened.  “Gosh, I’d love to try!”

And so after my matches, we made a trip to the market. Anika seemed a little reticent, but in my excitement, I didn’t quite pick it up, until we got there.  

In Bahrain, it was the men, and not the women who did the marketing.  Major faux pas—I felt bad once I realized this, but it was already too late as I met Anika’s grim, stoic face throughout the marketing ride.  She soldiered on with tourist-me to get vegetables, seafood, meat, sauces, and spices.  Never complaining, but only assuming tough exterior as she jostled with market sellers who eyed us up and down.  

The market was a cacophony of sight and sound.  Vegetables were sold directly from warehouses that lay on the outskirts of a souk, close to unloading bays where forklifts moved nonstop, bringing in crates of the latest produce in a frenzy.  Where in Southeast Asia it is mostly women who do marketing, it was certainly strange to see so many men carrying plastic bags of vegetables and fruit home to their families.  Business was so brisk, vegetable leaves padded the floors and were hastily swept to the side. There was money to make, produce to be sold.

After we had gotten all that we needed, we stepped back into the souk to meander our way back out to the main road.  Ducking through the alleys, we passed a very quaint coffee shop that had a beautiful blue tarpaulin draped across a narrow street—offering shade and respite for its customers.  There were a few lounging outside, by rickety wooden chairs.  In the slant of the late afternoon sun, blue hues bounced off the tarpaulin and gave the coffee shop an almost angelic aura.  The beauty of this sudden discovery stopped me in my tracks, and I called out to Anika.  “Would you mind if we grabbed a drink here? It looks so cool!”  Anika still had her hardened game face on but it softened at my request.  “Okay,” she acquiesced, as she led me down the alley towards an empty bench by the side of the café.

A waiter with round long cheeks came out to take our orders.  It was so local, there was no menu and Anika made him spell out the available selection before I decided on a mint tea and she a chai, with some pita bread and beans to spare. While we waited for our order, men casually turned to look at us in the café.  Two women, one obviously visiting, the other playing host, both without burkas.  I realized after I had stupidly finished admiring the play of light, the quaintness of it all, that we were also, again, the only women in this establishment.  A man came and sat at the table opposite ours.  He looked at us a little bit more than I thought he should.

After we had finished, we gathered our bags to get up and had barely taken a few steps from the coffee shop when the same man stopped Anika in her tracks with a question. He spoke softly, and I could not hear what they were saying, so simply waited patiently as the exchange went on.  After they had parted ways, her face looked visibly battle-hardened than it did before we even got to the market.  

“Are you okay? What happened?”

“That man just asked me how much I charged to come to his room.”

Wait.  Say that again.  

“He... WHAT?!?”

Anika shook her head quickly, as if trying to shake the memory of it as I hurried to keep pace with her.  

“Anika!  I would have told him to f*** off!!”

Young, feisty, ignorant Sarah tries to retort, a pathetic effort to protect her friend.  
Anika only looked at me and half-smiled.  Gently.  Sadly.

“I told him off.  I am a married woman.”

And like that, with those words, we walked out of the Souk.  I felt terrible about what had just happened to her, it felt like she had just taken a hit for us.  For me.  Scuttling to keep up with her, I glanced left and sighted a group of armed policemen in riot gear, standing tightly together as they looked straight past us.  I turned my head to look right and saw a group of young men, running around, skittish, whispering to each other as they too looked straight past us, back at these constables.  

And then just like that. As though the rhythms of the universe held the heavens from rain just for us.  

As we stepped out of the souk, another anti-government riot erupted behind us.  

I don’t think Anika cared.  She just kept her eyes locked ahead the whole time.  She just kept marching forward.
Sisters of Sarah

Sisters of Sarah is a story series in collaboration with The Best of You movement, born from the lives of some truly incredible women Sarah Pang, a Singaporean professional tennis player, met while travelling the world playing Tour. This project is an overture to helping one another realise that there are deeper dimensions to people than just the jobs they do.