It took travelling to 17 countries before having Press Editor on my visa became a problem; it took the same number before I lost a bag. Funny, then that both snafus should occur on entry to the world's 184th smallest country, the tiny island kingdom of Bahrain.
Still, the hotel I'm staying at is quite nice, and after a brief stop to drop off my computer, I'm out on tour with a fabulously camp rep from the Bahrain tourist board. To my total surprise, our driver is a Bahraini too – in fact the majority of people I meet are. Here there's none of the weird standoffishness that goes on in the UAE, nor the ugly class divide between rich and poor. Instead there are local people doing local jobs, side by side with the expats who make up around 50% of the population.
Our first stop is the Bahrain Fort or Qal'at al-Bahrain, which even by European standards is a quite spectacular place. This was the site main port of the ancient Dilmun civilisation from around 2000 BC (not the fort itself – that came much later). Here the Mesopotamian empire did a lot of its trading in the Gulf, as a result the island was a tremendously popular place.
Next to the big UNESCO site, there is a museum, containing all kinds of interesting artefacts, but none quite so cool as the snake pots. In each of these a small snake was trapped and sacrificed, along with a small bead or pearl, before being buried in the foundations of a new building. It was seen as some kind of blessing to help with the new start. The real reason for this can only be guessed at, but it's not unreasonable to assume that it had something to do with the legend of Gilgamesh.
The Sumerian hero was said to have travelled here over 4700 years ago in his quest for immortality. He came to the island seeking Ziusudra, an immortal who told Gilgamesh that in order to achieve eternal life, he must find a flower at the bottom of the sea and eat it. Being a generous bastard, Ziusudra taught him the necessary diving techniques.
After much practice, Gilgamesh was successful and brought the flower (a pearl) back to shore. While he was resting from his endeavour, a snake emerged and ate the pearl, before promptly shedding its skin.
Thus the serpent was granted immortality and Gilgamesh, well, fuck all really.
If it did actually happen anything like the legend, then this was one of Bahrain's first major flirtation with pearl-diving. It certainly wasn't the last. Though the trade had always gone on around these parts, it really wasn't until the 19th century that it exploded. At its peak it almost half of the population here worked in the industry, with 20,000 of them divers.
The place boomed for decades until the 1930s, when suddenly the Japanese learned how to cultivate pearls, rather than go through the laborious – and often hazardous – process of plucking them from the ocean bed without breathing apparatus. However, in what has to be one of the jammiest incidents in the island's history, just as the pearling industry died, so another one
began: oil was discovered in 1935 and this little place was the first country in the region to start producing it. As vitally important as it was to the survival of the nation, though, pearling is still celebrated and remembered fondly – so much so that the colours of the Bahrain flag are said to represent the brilliance of a pearl being presented on a red velvet cloth.
From the fort, we head to a meeting with the Minister of Culture and Information. My fabulous friend impresses on me just how unlikely this meeting is – they have apparently being trying to tie down the minister for months with no success. Though she has royal blood in her line, she is not actually a member of the royal family, although her family name and job title mean that she certainly doesn't lack in influence.
Chatting to her, it quickly becomes clear that she's an almost dangerously candid speaker, happy to admit that this or minister pissed her off. She’s actually in her third stint in the job, having walked away from it once and getting fired another time. If there were more politicians like her, the world would be a more interesting place – until it inevitably was consumed with an endless war.
Anyway, she's great, gives wonderful copy and teaches me a lot about the island and her vision of where it is heading. Like all of the Gulf States, Bahrain is trying to diversify its economy and cut down on its dependence on the black stuff. Because it has the most tangible, recorded history this side of Iran, Bahrain is throwing its lot in with culture and its ties to the past.
Good on it, I say. It's an amazing breath of fresh air compared to the cynical marketing exercise that is Dubai and the relentless importing of foreign ideas that's happening in Abu Dhabi. What makes Bahrain special isn't what it's imported, or invented, but what it's inherited.
Without trying to sound like too much of a fanboy, it's also great because it’s a lot more liberal. Here restaurants can have a booze license without having to hide away in a hotel and, if my wee pal is anything to go by, they're a lot more tolerant towards gays too.
After lunch I’m in another meeting, this time with the head of the Economic Development Board. Much of what he says isn’t that interesting, but after a couple of minutes, we have this bizarre exchange.
“So Bahrain just missed out on the World Cup… Is football that popular here?”
“OK, so where are you from in Ireland?”
“Actually, I’m from Scotland…”
“Scotland? Oh nae bother, nae bother, nae bother!”
“Are you Rangers or Celtic?”
“Well like the Rangers supporters are for their team, so we are in Bahrain.”
From there, we head to Muharraq, the cultural neighbourhood in the city centre. Here regular folks live among houses that have been renovated with different cultural themes. One houses the history of the press in the region; another screeds of information on pearling; one is an old sheikh’s house; there’s an auditorium too. It’s all quite classy, it really is.
An hour or so later, I’ve had a shower and am leaving for my third meeting/interview of the day, this time with an old doctor and the guy’s from the tourist board at Trader Vic’s. After a while, I confess to him my long-documented (on here, anyway) uncertainty about Britain’s meddling around the world. He shoos it away, like a spicy fart.
“Britain gave us the system: it gave us banks and laws and medicine and roads and knowledge, but most of all it gave us protection from Iran and Saudi Arabia, both of who wanted the island. No, my friend, as far as Bahrain is concerned, Britain did great things.”