Waiting for the Iraq war: Bahrain detour

Dear Family, Friends and Colleagues,

It’s really quite a giggle.  I’ve got henna painted in floral design on my right hand extending from my inner wrist down to the tip of my middle finger.  It’s still drying and crusted on my skin like leprosy.  But underneath is the beautiful orange pattern, which delicate hands detailed onto mine with much precision.

Today, I spent the afternoon laughing with the young Muslim women at the Grand Mosque in Manama, Bahrain, as they painted my hand and each other’s with geometric and floral designs.  The geometric designs with intricate detail are considered Indian, and the floral designs are considered Arabic.

It was a real insight, this henna-coloring girl-bonding thing.  Suddenly I understood why women of Muslim faith welcome a separate existence from their male counterparts in half of their living.  It was entertaining and fun to be glammed up and watch others do the same and not have to worry an iota about someone of the opposite gender staring at me.  It seems that as a foreign woman I am often stared at.  It’s not that there aren’t other women who roam this rather modern and open society uncovered, but I inspire some curiosity, perhaps because of my mixed heritage.  There are many Filipinas here who work as guest workers and I have that in my appearance.  Then again, not quite.  My German-American roots on my father’s side are also mixed in me and I carry myself like an American woman who lives the unrestrained life of one who has choices and opportunity.  I know that for many here, I am a conundrum.

My story of the afternoon really began yesterday evening as I shopped for an “abbaya,” the long black dress and veil that many religious women here wear for “protection.”  As I shopped for a fashionable abbaya, not really knowing what fashionable is, I happened to enter a little shop in the old “souk” or market where a young woman and her mother were getting fitted for a new abbaya.  The shop had many lovely choices to pick from: black abbayas with black embroidered trim, black abbayas with black embroidered trim with little shiny sequins, black abbayas with red embroidered trim, black abbayas with black fringe on the cuffs, black abbayas with swirly embroidered trim, and so on ad infinitum.

But these women were being fitted specifically for what I don’t know.  So I took the opportunity to stare, since staring woman to woman seems acceptable in these parts of the world, and eventually decided to chance that they might speak English.  I was looking for an abbaya, how did I pick one, I wanted one that was closed in the front, how long did it take to hem the bottom, etc.  The young woman, whom I later came to know as Khadija of Bangladesh, gave me an informative speech about the meaning of the abbaya and the high points about how to find a fitting one.  She later explained that she worked at the Grand Mosque as a tour guide and if I wished to visit tomorrow, I could do so from 10 am to 5 pm -- for free.  I thanked her kindly as she left with her parents, doubting that I would ever see her gentle face again, but if I had time, I would certainly come by the mosque.

And as it so happened, I did have time on my hands, so I took her up on the offer.  As I approached the entry she appeared from behind two other guides, and with surprise in her eyes, she greeted me warmly.  I took her tour with two Germans, outfitted in my new abbaya, which many of the young women guides coohed over.  How much did I pay for it, where did I get it, how did I know Khadija, and so on.  At the end of the very informative tour, I was invited for refreshments since today was the day after Eid.  And then I was directed to a carpeted, pillow-laden area where women congregated and were apparently painting henna on the hands and feet of guests.  There I was introduced to Faiza, another Bangladeshi woman who revealed that she was “sort of” engaged to a young Bangladeshi man who was presently studying in America.  She said that the last time she saw him was a couple of months ago when he visited her over the holidays.

Her parents permitted them to see each other, she explained, because they were family friends and had known each other since childhood, therefore they could not forbid it.  Faiza was covered in an abbaya, a scarf, and another contraption that covered her entire face minus a slit for her eyes. Khadija explained that Muslim women could choose to wear the full-face cover if they were so beautiful that they needed extra “protection.”  I wanted to know who determined whether a woman needed extra “protection” and was it just a woman being vain thinking she was so beautiful that men could not possibly control themselves in her presence.  Faiza never revealed whether it was she or her parents who wanted her to wear the full face covering.

Faiza’s next customer was an Uzbek woman who worked also as a tour guide at the Grand Mosque.  She was the Russian-speaking guide.  Her name was Noora and she was supposed to be tending the cardamon coffee, tea and sweets table, but instead she was playing hooky and having her hands painted in henna.  Whereas I got a simple floral design from my wrist to the tip of my middle finger, she was getting her entire hand painted, then the next, and finally continuing up her arms as aging Australian women tourists with bad knees waited their turn for Noora to finish.

Every time Faiza the painter would get distracted or another guide would check on the progress of Noora’s hands, Noora would send them away to check on a renegade tourist accidentally wandering into the great hall without the proper covering or she would quickly admonish Faiza to keep her eyes on the task at hand.  I dubbed her “the manager.”  And she took my teasing in stride as I egged her on and she commandeered all the younger Muslim women to do her bidding.  Later she revealed that her husband, who was Bahraini, didn’t even like henna hand painting.  But this was really for her so she didn’t care what he thought.

I left the U.S. on January 29 and arrived in Kuwait three days later.  My layover was in London and, having never been to London, I decided to take the subway into the city to entertain myself during a 14-hour layover.  I did the whirlwind tour, and as the day progressed the weather deteriorated until I was eating my first plate of fish n’ chips watching the sleet blow sideways outside a pub window.  In the subway, each minute brought another announcement of a line that was closed, until it became my line that was closed and desperately I hopped from line to line to finally arrive at the airport among a throng of other late, bug-eyed passengers.  By the time I made it to my gate, my plane was cancelled and the ticketing line was several hundred deep.  Remembering a story related to me just that morning from a fellow passenger, I knew that the counter would close in two hours, not all customers would be assisted, and whoever dared to stay in line for the night would be the first ones helped the following morning.

So without much adieu I chattered happily with the passengers in line with me, and sat down on a cart with two poles supporting my rear.  The line diminished as each hour passed until finally I was 20th in line at 2 am.  By morning, a new line developed alongside ours and apparently several planes of people who had waited all night for take off were released from their planes, and they felt perfectly justified in cutting in front of us.  A nasty scene ensued as passengers began to curse at each other, push, shove and generally try to get ahead. The Indians, Pakistanis and the Bangladeshis were definitely winning this fight.  They had all the practice.  The rest of us were gasping for breath trying not to faint as the pressure became increasingly impossible to bear.  It was actually quite frightening.  A woman nearly fainted, I was weak and nauseous and others were crying.  It was a royal mess that even the policeman didn’t have the courage to straighten out.

After getting my ticket reissued, I waited all day and watched as 97% of the day’s flights were again cancelled.  Since I was on standby, I was sure my chances of getting on my flight to Kuwait were close to nil.  But after enduring a long wait in line, told that all standby positions were cancelled, having my luggage assigned to a different passenger, and finally told at the gate that the agent never reissued my ticket after all, they straightened it all out on the spot and I was on the flight to Kuwait.  That was a good thing because after three days of no sleep and very little sleep before departing Dallas, I didn’t believe that physically I could have made it to a hotel in London.  I was simply out of steam.

Seven hours later, I met up with Jim Landers, a writer from our Washington, D.C. bureau, who met me at the airport with a shuttle arranged from the desert oasis Marriott Hotel.  I checked in around 10 am, showered and slept until the following morning when Jim dared to wake me to tell me that the space shuttle Columbia had disintegrated over Dallas!  Not the kind of news I would want to wake up to on any given day, much less out of a moronic stupor.  At that moment, after everything I had just been through, it seemed like the world was coming to an end as I slept in a delicious featherbed on the other side of the globe.

We’ve been in Bahrain about a week, and haven’t done much but dine with rich Bahrainis who seem to have adopted us during this week of Eid.  Typically, this is family time like Easter is to Christians, but Bahrainis have taken Jim and I in and wined and dined us as they rabidly attack our country.  We had a particularly memorable dinner with Anwar, the editor-in-chief of one of the big daily newspapers that reports the news as the government would like to hear it.  He had an evil air about him as he whispered in my ear that America was bad, bad, bad, and that if he had a gun he would keeeell George Bush himself.  He spent an entire evening feeding us beautiful wine and lamb extolling the sins of our government and our country.

I hardly said a word, happy to let Jim debate with this man all evening, wondering if I would spend the night puking my guts out.  People in this part of the world see Americans so differently from how we see ourselves.  It simply amazes me that they can blame us so wholeheartedly for everything that is wrong in this part of the world.  I rarely hear people talking about their responsibility in the chaos that has long been a part of the history here.  Instead they will spend hours talking about the sins of America and never acknowledge that they have done nothing to make the Middle East a more peaceful place.

We are returning to Kuwait tomorrow morning under mixed circumstances.  I have proposed to my boss, Director of Photography Ken Geiger, that I should be dispatched to Baghdad to wait for the troops and report as they enter the city.  The Al Rashed Hotel in Baghdad is chock full of journos waiting for the war to arrive on their doorstep.  The port of entry seems to be Jordan and then a bus ride in to Baghdad. 

Jim and I got second passports issued here in Bahrain so as not to antagonize the Iraqi government with our Kuwaiti visas stamped all over.  The newspaper management hasn’t made a decision yet, and they are weighing heavily whether to have someone in Baghdad given the dangers.  It’s a difficult decision, and despite my proposal, I am nearly sick with fear, but I feel strongly that Baghdad is the place to be for me as a photographer. 

The military has announced that The Dallas Morning News will be granted several positions for embeds with the army and Marines, but I believe it will be a highly-controlled agenda and it will be difficult to make pictures of situations as they unfold.  In photography, there is no retelling the story, either you’ve got the photo or you don’t.

I have been struggling with an overwhelming sense of unease since my arrival in the Middle East and it is really pervading my whole being.  I have all of my body armor, my chemical protective gear and all the possible precautions including my stash of fine hot chocolate, yet I have moments where my stomach turns over in terror as I think about the possibilities of what may happen as we cover this story.  It’s so unnerving, this fear.  Oddly, as I live out of suitcases in the most glamorous hotels in the area, the possible conflict seems completely surreal and incongruous with my present reality.  It contributes to my angst and anxiety.

As I drift off to sleep, a Pepsi runs through my veins hampering my precious rest and my mind wanders to the swirls and floral patterns of my henna-painted hands.

Love from the desert,

Cheryl