Sunday, January 4, 2009
Most travelers wake up around noon after an International flight, but my roommate Andy and I woke in time to join the others for a self guided tour. The Al-Sharif family arranged for us to have a driver named Skandaar. This ever-smiling 5’6” man happens to also be a waiter at Senor Paco’s, one of the many operations owned by the family. As we six Americans pile into a Senor Paco’s Mexican restaurant delivery van with no seats, we head toward the center of the city. After taking several pictures of the outside of the National Library (Islamic Center) and the Grand Mosque we venture inside. Due to the hour and the call to prayer, we are sent away and asked to return within a certain time frame. In order to kill a few hours, we head to the City Center, one of the many malls in the area. We very western six walked around, popping in and out of several stores, laughing with Skandaar about our awkwardness.
When we return to the Grand Mosque we are greeted by a receptionist that is fully covered, including her hands. We are lead into a small waiting room designed for non-Muslims, and instructed to sit. She helps the women into their robe and head coverings while the men are fine in their street clothes. The dress itself it not form fitting, but our receptionist was insistent about finding the appropriate length for the three females. When the scarf was tied around my head it was clearly a process she had completed several times: Up and over, around one side and down the other, tucking a corner into the right side of my cheek. As it is winter in Bahrain and a balmy 70 degrees, all the girls on the trip became overheated and light headed under their restricting robes. With this said, watching a call to prayer and the full service was quite powerful and emotional. Afterward we were greeted with a guide to answer any questions. His motto for us to understand was that “Difference does not mean Division.” In talking about the basics of Islam and what we witnessed it seemed that he was almost defending his religion rather than praising it. We surmised that this justification might be related to the preconceived negative notions that most westerners have about the very peaceful religion. After all questions were answered in a lengthy manner, we were helped out of our wrappings, given several pieces of literature on Islam, and wished a safe travel throughout our stay.
By this time (4:00pm) we rush back to the hotel to grab nap before the evening begins. We are picked up by Skandaar at 6:00, all clad in black and gold sparkle, and head toward the infamous Senor Paco’s. We are greeted at the door with a welcome drink, similar to a Spanish sangria, made with citrus and mango and then asked what type of margarita we will be starting with. Less brave than the others I stick to a traditional lime flavor while pitchers of banana-peach and strawberry-mango surround me. The key fact that I was not presented with before my trip was that this is an island culture clearly ready to party. The shortest version of the night that I can report is that through the four course meal, endless flavored margaritas, and American classics like “Summer of 69”, “You’ve lost that lovin’ feeling’” and “I will survive” we found great cause to ring in the new year and then some. As no night should ever be complete without Karaoke, we all took turns singing with the band and dancing up a storm. As 3:00am rolls around I wonder if the night will be ending soon as my jet-lag begins to catch up with me, little did I know that the night was merely beginning and that I had another four hours of action packed adventure ahead of me; culminating with the twins ordering us pizza to accompany the Moet champagne that was raffled off as the night progressed. As Americans and Bahrainis poured into the Senor Paco’s van once more, clinging to food and fun, it seems that our Grand Mosque tour guide was right; differences clearly do not mean divisions.