Monday, February 27, 2012

Around the World: Liberation Day

February 27, 1992

Awoke from yet another dream in French.  What the dream was about, I don't remember.  I was apparently talking in my sleep and found myself awake and in mid conversation with Sabina, who, unlike me, speaks French fluently.  It takes me a few minutes to figure out why I don't understand everything she is saying.

Yesterday was spent visiting nearby markets and searching for souvenirs.  The encounter with Mr. Touchy-Feelie seems to be an unfortunate and isolated incident.  For the most part, Egyptians are a decent, respectful people.

Today, begins the journey back to the realm of the familiar, as I make my way to London, England.  Sabina and I said our farewells at the hotel and she gave me her address in Switzerland, with an invitation to visit when I'm in the neighbourhood. 

I expected a direct flight, but this is not the case.  The flight will to backtrack to Bahrain, through Doha, Qatar on the way to London.  When the plane arrives in Doha, all the passengers are led down a portable staircase to collect our baggage, lined up at the bottom of the stairs.  We are then led to a tent where all baggage will be carefully inspected before boarding the plane to Bahrain.  I was not expecting this detour and dressed for optimum comfort on the plane by carefully selecting the only clean items of clothing in my possession.  A pair of shorts and a T-shirt.

Arriving at the front of the line, I am greeted by a stern looking customs official and two security guards carrying very large automatic weapons.  The official asks me to open my bag and step back behind a line about three feet from the table.  As he digs through the unlaundered contents of my knapsack with his gloved hand, I hope the odor emitting from my bag isn't a criminal offense.  Satisfied, the official motions me to step forward and close up my knapsack.  A request that is easier said than done.

He tells me to take a seat on a wooden bench, away from the other passengers who are invited to sit under the shelter of the tent on padded chairs.  The other passengers, mostly men, are dressed in standard regional attire, long, white, flowing robes.  Their heads are covered by a large, red and white checkered cloth secured with a black ring.  I try to remind myself that this is likely the standard attire for the region, although it strikes me as odd that everybody is wearing the same outfit.  I guess that makes choosing what to wear on any given day an easy task.  The checkered bandanas remind me of the tea towels my grandmother always had hung on the handle of her stove. I should call her when I get settled in London.

Qatari men
Photo by An Englishman Abroad

While I sit all by myself in my shorts and T-shirt in the sun, a very tidy man with a white head covering held on with a black ring, and decorated with gold jewelry, struts proudly past me.  He is followed by an entourage of ghost-like beings draped in different pastel colours of long, flowing sheets.  What have these people done that they are forbidden from being seen in public?  From behind a woven mesh screen, their eyes indicate that they are women.  They follow him obediently, almost with militaristic precision, careful to keep a specific distance between him and each other.

Is there anybody in there?  Just nod if you can hear me...

I cannot comprehend how anyone would feel justified treating another human being in this manner solely because of their gender.  I cannot understand how anyone could tolerate it.  And then I see the armed guards, and the size of their weapons.  I notice everyone is completely covered, which I could understand if we were all riding camels through the desert.  I also realize I'm the only one dressed in shorts and a T-shirt, exposing quite a bit of leg, knee, arm and face.  My unruly, curly, sun-bleached hair is blown about freely by the wind.  The armed guards and their very large guns make me very nervous.  The announcement to board the flight is a welcome relief.

When the plane lands in Bahrain, the passengers are led to the departure lounge until the flight to London is ready for boarding.  Bahrain's airport is a mixture of Middle East meets conservative West.  I realize I'm still dressed like a slob, but not the only one displaying a little bit of flesh. 

In London's Gatwick Airport, I am greeted by the immigration officer who conducts a very polite and matter-of-fact inquisition.  He wants to see my ticket, and know how much money I have with me, how long I plan to stay, where I plan to go, and exactly when I will be leaving.  It strikes me as a strange way to greet a guest.  "Hi, welcome to London.  When are you leaving?"  Um... dunno.  Can I come in first?

Welcome to London.  Were you planning on visiting? 

Once I was given the official welcome, howdy do stamp of approval in my passport, I phoned Pauline, who I met in Indonesia.  She was much friendlier than than customs official and glad to know I had arrived safely in London.  She gave me directions to her bed and breakfast in a little town called Bournemouth.  Two hours later, I am settled in a quaint little inn just steps from the beach and next door to a small, but fully functional pub.

Civilization.  How I've missed you so. 

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"Any power must be an enemy of mankind which enslaves the individual by power and by force.  All that is valuable in human society depends upon the opportunity for development accorded to the individual."
~Albert Einstein