Sunday, September 05, 2004

The little differences 

This afternoon reminded me of that conversation between John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson in Pulp Fiction. The one about the little differences one notices in Europe.

Well, obviously the differences are a bit more pronounced here in the Middle East than they are in Europe. But at the surface, it's not so different. Or maybe I'm just an adaptable guy. I'm equally at ease in the Maine woods as I am in Paris, as comfortable in Bahrain as I am in San Diego. Comfortable in a cultural sense, not a meteorological one.

But the differences are there. They're often subtle, though, and if you're not paying attention you could miss them.

First, the similarities. My afternoon began by the hotel pool today, and it could just as easily have been a hotel pool at any American hotel. (I'm not sure every American hotel has a statuesque and tanned German blonde lounging poolside in a bikini, but I digress.) It was a mix of people, mostly white, which is a change from the usual. An Arab father and his two sons splashed and laughed nearby, and one of the boys attempted to fix his digital watch in what I always assumed was a purely American method. He banged it repeatedly against a table.

Other people soaked up rays and sipped cold beers and frou-frou umbrella drinks. They read their books or chatted together, every now and then taking a dip to cool off.

Like I said, a scene like this could just as easily have bet set back in America.

I left the pool on account of hunger, and my hunger took me to McDonald's for the first time on this visit. It was the cheapest meal I've had since I arrived, and if it weren't for the high caloric content, I would be tempted to go there more often.

Arabs, by the way, apparently DO know what the ____ a quarter pound is because right there on the menu was the Quarter Pounder with Cheese. No Royale with Cheese here. Other than the old-school styrofoam box for the burger, and the strange addition of "Mc" to the word "Fries," it was the same as any McDonald's anywhere in the world. Happy Meals, apple pies, kids' toys, the works. The one (in my opinion, lame) nod to the local culture is the McArabia, which is grilled chicken, lettuce, tomato, and some kind of sauce on flat bread. I've had it before and it's not bad, but trust me, if you are ever in the Arabic world and find yourself tempted to order a McArabia at McDonald's, do yourself a favor and walk back out the door and find the nearest shwarma stand. You'll be glad you did.

McDonald's was followed by the gas station. And while it's not a cultural difference per se, a whole tank of gas cost me about six bucks. Full service.

Back in my hotel room, I stumbled upon a difference. A subtle one, so subtle that I didn't notice it until today. The picture above shows what I found, way over in one corner of the room. It's a little circle with a red arrow, and I don't need to understand Arabic to know where the arrow is pointing.

That little red arrow got me thinking about all of the other differences that surround me every day here, but that I simply take for granted.

For all its similarities to a poolside scene back home, there were some differences to be seen by the pool today. Before leaving for McDonald's, I had perused the menu card on a table in the poolside bar/cafe. One of the things on the menu was a club sandwich, complete with veal bacon. Veal bacon? Then it clicked--I hadn't put it all together before, but there are no pork products on the menu here. This isn't true of the whole country, but at least at this hotel, you will find only veal bacon, chicken sausage, and the like.

A little while earlier, a family had arrived, and to my untrained eye they struck me as a very traditional one. The mother was wearing the usual black gown, complete with veil, which is somewhat unusual even here. What really stood out, though, were her young daughters, also wearing long black gowns. Every other kid I've seen here has worn basically western clothes, so that was one clue that this might be a more traditional family than most. The next clue was that they quickly surveyed the pool deck, turned around, and left. My hunch is that the German blonde in the bikini was a bit much for them.

Before I left Maine to come here, I called Bahrain a cosmopolitan and modern place. It certainly is that. Two-fifths of the people here hail from somewhere else. Besides the many workers from Asia and the subcontinent, there is a decent-sized American and European expat community here. For those with work, Bahrain is a thriving Kingdom, setting itself up as a financial and information technology hub in the Middle East. The island has several modern (and frankly, impressive) shopping malls, excellent dining, and, rare in this part of the world, a happening nightlife scene. A few months ago, Bahrain brought visitors from around the world to the island for the inaugural Formula One race at its brand-new speedway. The internet and mobile phones are everywhere--and unrestricted. Life in general is much less restricted than it is in some neighboring countries. Less traditional.

But those little differences I mentioned are signs that not everyone is ready to give themselves over to the modern world. Bahrainis have been doing things their way for centuries, and the last fifty years have brought tumultuous changes. They would seem to be positive changes to most of us, but perhaps not to everyone here. To some they are foreign--more specifically, American, changes. (Although the majority assuredly does welcome the changes, as far as I can tell.)

There was a poster in the window at McDonald's, and it said something like "Your world changes. Big Mac won't." I can't help but wonder what message the veiled woman by the pool might take away from that slogan.
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