Sunday, December 18, 2011

Travel Advisory

Last week held probably the last day we will see above 50 degrees for quite a while, but then who knows these days?  We are likely to be having a green Christmas hereabouts, which will be very disappointing to my niece Graciela (George's daughter) and her 4-year-old, the latter of whom is hoping to experience snow for the very first time this year; they are flying up from Houston.  Going from Houston to anywhere else on Earth, including Darfur or Helmand province, is a step up.  In fact, young Miranda's father Hector does work in Afghanistan and, if he doesn't exactly love the place, he sure does love the enormous loads of cash deposited in his account monthly.  

Speaking of parts foreign, a funny thing happened to me in Bahrain when George and I were staying there, waiting for Papa's vacation to begin so that we could all fly together to India.  On my last day (of five) in Manama, the capital of Bahrain, I was sitting at an outside table with George at a Starbucks.  I tended to go to this particular place for coffee each day, because I had really hit it off with the guys who work there: Omar and Amal from Bangladesh, Zoros from Nepal, Othman from India and Marco from the Philippines.  I would drop in each day at times they didn't seem to be busy and joke around with them.  The Starbucks in Manama - the only one I know of, anyway -is on a very westernized street in Bahrain (although most of the streets are pretty westernized) - lined with all the usual suspects: DQ, Seattle's Best, Chili's, McDonald's, Burger King and slew of others.  There are also some chains from other places such as Nando's from South Africa.  Sitting in any of the outdoors areas, one sees as many Americans passing as Arabs, because the U.S. Navy has a large base nearby and this street is one of the popular venues during their off hours.   Of the Arabs one does see, both men and women are doing their best to look American, men riding motorcycles and women in tight jeans and so forth.

Normally, I avoid areas frequented by Americans and Europeans in Third World countries, because these areas are so westernized I might as well stay home and go to a mall.  In addition, in countries with a Muslim population or a population hostile to the U.S. government, places like this street and these restaurants are the most likely to attract the attention of suicide bombers.  No one appreciates excitement on a vacation more than I do, but one must draw the line somewhere.  I actually felt a tiny bit of discomfort when I would sit at Starbucks for any length of time, wondering if I would attract just such attention.  Bahrain is one of the countries experiencing the current Arab spring-cleaning and there had been a bit of a dust-up the week before George and I arrived.  The insurrection in Bahrain failed largely because King Hamid called in his Saudi allies, who rumbled across the causeway that joins the two countries in full force.  The area where the action centered, the historic Pearl Square, was demolished and that area, when I was there, was blocked at all points of entry by the Saudi - not Bahraini - military, and was fully occupied by Saudi forces.  

Like many of the Middle Eastern countries - pre-war iraq or Syria,  for instance - Bahrain has a large majority of one Muslim sect (in this case Shi'a), but is ruled by a government entirely composed of people from a different, small minority sect (Sunni).  I am not sure why this occurs so often in the Middle East - whether the disadvantaged are drawn to different religious practices from the advantaged and thus become different from the rulers, or whether a minority somehow imposes its government on the existing majority.  In any case, the Bahraini majority, besides being Shi'a, looks to Iran as it natural ally, which is a fact of even more import to the Sunni majority in Saudi Arabia, than the heretical beliefs are.  

So to continue, I was relaxing at an outdoor table with Ted at Starbucks, when a youngish Arab man and I struck up a conversation.  He spoke fair English, but was impressed by my Arabic - and it is odd, but as soon as my feet hit the ground in Bahrain, a great deal of Arabic which I thought I had forgotten came flooding back - and soon he joined us at our table.  He was a Saudi and very much a Bedouin by nature; he lacked some of the modern overlay that one often finds among younger Saudis.  He brushed his leg against mine a few times, but Arabs, like most Asians, are far less jumpy about touching between men so I thought little of it.  But when we went inside for refills, he suddenly threw his arms around me and said a couple of things, addressing me as 'habibi'.  Habibi means literally, 'my love', but Saudi friends sometimes use it in a kind of ironic way - something like an American man calling his friend 'buddy'.  But the hug was too tight and too long to be entirely innocent.  Here was sad, saggy old me being hit on by a 34-year-old!  I can tell you that bucked up the sadly eroded ego something fierce.  

I have often said that "if a gay man can't get laid in Saudi, he can't get laid anywhere".  Because Saudi had, in the days when i was there at least, virtually no way for men to date women, and in addition the cost for a young man to marry was so high, a huge number of Saudis are single and desperately horny.  The result is much like the result of a similar deprivation in American jails, men turn to men for relief.  Since there is an enormous population of foreign workers (I have heard that one out of two people in the Kingdom is foreign) and since word of this state of affairs has gotten around, as such things will do, causing foreigners who prefer men to take jobs there, it is common for amorous Saudis to turn to willing foreigners - less risk to the Saudi of shame or legal trouble, and something to do for fun for the foreigner. (This is an answer, of sorts, to Laoch's query about what there is to do for fun in Saudi).  The odd thing (to my mind) is that these men seem to find anyone from eight to eighty worth their attention, unlike the more enlightened westerners who rarely want to date anyone over 25.  However, as is the case with American prisoners, most Saudi men prefer women and once the opportunity arises, they will return to the straight and narrow, or straight and female, at least.  So my assumption is that when in Bahrain, a relatively open country where one can find female companionship safely and fairly openly, a Saudi man would be looking for girls, if he was looking at all, and if he were truly interested in men, he'd be looking for the young good-looking ones.  

George left us soon after this hug (which he did not witness, having remained outside at our table) to grab a nap before our flight later that day and Khalid, for such was his name, invited me to see his room, which was "in walking distance".  In fact, he actually had to rent a room after we arrived at the hotel, but I do not strain at gnats, as the saying is.  We spent a lovely day together, and by the time I actually returned to the Desert Pearl, Papa had arrived and he and George were entirely panicked, thinking I had been abducted and would not make the flight for which we were due to leave at that very instant.   Khalid insisted on driving me to the airport, and he was eager to help all of us with our luggage and so forth.  Any time he and I were alone, he vowed his undying love, and his hope to be together at some future point.  I took this all with a grain of salt, but he has been in constant contact with me ever since by Facebook, Skype and telephone.  In fact, his messages in the public ares of Facebook have been so indiscreet as to pretty much blow open any remnants of my comfortable closet.  The thing is, his Facebook page (which is under a pseudonym) has entries, including pictures of men, from prior to our meeting which indicate that his preferences are for men who exactly match me.  

Naturally, I condered that he could be some young guy hoping for worldly gain from a besotted old man or a would-be immigrant looking for help in coming to the U.S.  But he has actually offered to pay for me to fly back to Bahrain soon, and he cannot come to the U.S. at least for two years, because his elder brother took his passport and told him that he will not get it back until he finishes school.  Khalid had been out of the Kingdom a number of times to New Zealand before this happened, and has even been married, so the school he is to finish is actually high school.  He is taking physics and chemistry (among other things) so it seems he is really buckling down; even more indicative of some degree of seriousness is that he has told me that he can't call on certain nights because he is studying.  Since he is open about other amorous adventures since my return, I don't think it is an excuse to cover a boy's night out.  He also holds a job, though nothing lofty, so he does seem to have some sense that the future really will happen, an understanding I often found lacking in young Saudi men.  

Khalid and I are not soul mates; above and beyond the language and cultural differences, we have different interests.  i have met people who hardly spoke a word of my language or me theirs with whom I had a certain mental connection, people of whom I could say we got  each other.  This is not fully true of Khalid, but I like him and he likes me.  Better, he likes the way I look, and the way I look pretty much has ME eyeing the arsenic in the morning.  I cannot tell you how much this has bucked me up.  I'll see how it goes, but I wouldn't be the least bit surprised to find a vacation in Bahrain (the ticket for which I will pay) in my not-too-distant future.  Khalid has all the virtues and faults of the Bedouin - he is generous, impulsive, bigoted, demanding, fails to see obstacles and is quick to judge.  I am mostly the same (omitting 'generous' and hopefully less blatantly bigoted - honestly I think I am way less bigoted).  By bigoted, I don't refer to racial bias so much as culturally, nationality-based and religiously biased.  It is bias, in itself, to assume that other people's biases are based on the same factors (i. e. skin-color) as our own.  I am making no big plans, but I must say that life is just a tad more full of possibility than I thought a couple of months ago.  You can't ask more of a vacation than that.  Travel is, indeed, broadening.  


  1. My, my! You certainly had a most interesting vacation, you cheeky monkey! LOL! Well, I wish you luck and hope things go as well as you want them to go. ;)

    I do hope you get some snow for the Texans. I want a white Christmas myself. Can't believe we have had nothing but three dustings that have immediately melted. Doesn't seem like Christmas when it's brown out there. :(

    I really hope you have a great Christmas!! Best wishes! :)

  2. Thank you for sharing another adventure in a place on the far side of the world I most likely will never see.

    I suppose one of the things which I find at once ironic and bittersweet in your essay, David, is how love can be subject to so many influences which have little or nothing to do with love itself. I'm continually dismayed by political, parochial, and societal agendas which presume to dictate how and with whom human beings should form relationships.

    As a straight person, I've found love to be complicated and not always satisfying, mostly because it was usually I who admired from a distance, and I who was ultimately left behind once I took the plunge. It was a wretched way to navigate the murky waters of love, but I soldiered on and eventually connected with the good man with whom I share my life today. I realise happy outcomes don't happen for everyone.

    For my gay friends and associates, I can only imagine all the other variables which complicate what should be a natural desire to share the company of another human being. In my universe, all that matters is that people care about, respect, and nuture one another for however long both people find their relationship beneficial and satisfying. It's unfortunate that there are so many maladjusted individuals with such warped perceptions of human interactions that all they can do is point fingers, judge, and condemn any emotional affiliations which don't fit their cookie-cutter mold. Worse still, too many of them are in positions of political power and are either clueless--or apathetic--about how much damage they inflict through their influence.

    In my life experience, I've had--and still have--gay friends who indicated they knew they were different at a very young age, that choice had nothing to do with it. Many have had good experiences in their lives, but just as many have suffered judgment and indignities, primarily at the hands of people who should know better.

    All I know is that when the human heart is bruised--for whatever reason--the pain sends ripples throughout the collective human consciousness. Some sense that ripple and in their self-righteousness declare: "That's good!" Others, like-minded souls whose company I prefer, observe, "This is not acceptible, has never been, and never will be."

    I live for the day when our perceptions of others and our interactions with them is based solely upon the content of their character (intentional nod to the wisdom of MLK, jr.). Hopefully, it will happen when you and I will see it; sadly, I doubt that it will.

    In the meantime, it's a fine and wonderful dream to believe in and work toward, and my hope is that the dream will come true for you in your lifetime.

    I send my my respects and affection, dear friend, and my hope that you travel in safety and your heart is unbruised.

  3. @Rita - I feel bad, I just noticed I never replied to your kind words. We had a green Xmas, but then we got about 3 inches of snow in a really lovely storm while the Texans were still with us. The younger of the two visitors was enchanted! Since then it is back to a mostly green winter - snow hereabouts has been as rare as Texan visitors. As to the Bahraini connection, I continue to see him at least every other day via Skype and i shall be visiting him in Bahrain (and perhaps also, Dubai) for a couple of weeks in mid-March. If that doesn't let me know one way or the other how I feel, I am hopeless!

  4. @Marge, love - Thank you for the kind and thoughtful words. I am so glad your murky navigation ended at a happy port - really, I wonder, is there anyone who does not endure humiliation and heartache during the sailing of those seas? I can mark the time I first felt erotic stirrings for men because I recall a specific moment on my 4th birthday. Even then I had the instinct that I must never act on those feelings - I don't think I knew at first that it was the object of the feeling that was 'wrong' as it was the feeling itself - I think I thought erotic feelings were to be hidden whomever they fixed upon, male female or otherwise. I doubt the day will ever come when all love is OK, only that who is the 'wrong' person will change. Humans do not get better as a race, they just change targets over time. When I was very young I thought that everyday humanity improved - then Kennedy was shot and I begin to become a little wiser. Different isn't better, it is just - different.

    There are two different basic experiences for gay people, that of folks who are perceived at a young age to be gay by others, and those who slip by unidentified. I am fairly certain I would have been one of the teenage suicides had I been recognized as gay even if my family had been accepting, because I myself had such a harsh view of the wrongness of my feelings; I was VERY strongly Catholic as a boy - kind of a queer little Rick Santorum. I was much more religious than any in my family - though my Father had episodes in his bipolar swings of extreme religiosity (how we dreaded it!). It was a very long road to self acceptance, and even now, oddly, though it doesn't bother me that I like men, it is extremely embarrassing at times that I am completely unattracted (physically) to women. I now think that in many ways this was sort of a disguised gift; because I had to learn to appear straight without a single mistake, I became a careful student of behavior that had no true spontaneous instinct in me. I had to study how to move, talk, react, dress, show like or dislike in ways that were never at all how I was feeling. I learned to see patterns in behavior, to 'read' others, and I had an instinctive emotional attachment to people who were outside the norm. The thing was, I did not then or now want to be like the only people I knew who were identified as gay - the flamers and flamboyant guys (I don't hate them, I just don't want to be that) I have always navigated more easily outside my own race, ethnicity, sex, religious training - I am something of a chameleon. I no longer know what is my real feeling and what is careful cover, even though now all who know me well know I am gay. I am so much more comfortable among foreigners who do not expect me to behave as they do and who do not judge me without making allowance for my amateur status among them. I was thinking the other night about which were the compliments that I have cherished forever and which truly resonated. There were about half a dozen; among them was when Papa reported that a Bangladeshi I used to like and talk to a lot had told him after I left Saudi, "He wasn't like the rest of them" (i.e. Westerners); and when a high school friend told me years after graduation, that "you were always a friend to everyone no matter how much of an outcast they were". Little did either speaker know! My nephew whom I refer to as Sebastian was one of those gay guys who was identified as such at an early age and, oh my god, was he tortured, including by adults who should have known better! He is immensely strong now (although i think there is more than a little self-loathing still) but he went thru real hell. Even his dearest friend (a straight kid who really did like him) was eventually forbidden to continue their friendship by his mother because of how it would look. These kids - so young, so friendless, so weak - what heroes they are to go back to their schools day after day!

  5. David, I'm not blogging much on this venue anymore, but would like very much to maintain ties with you. I'm on Facebook: you'll find me there by my true name, Marge Griswold-Scheiding. Please, would you consider sending me a friend request there?

    If you'd rather not, it's okay. I'll still pester--I mean, visit--you here from time to time.

    I hope life is treating you kindly.

    Godspeed, my friend.

  6. I will see if I can figure out how to find you on FB. I go there rarely; although I do go if I get an e-mail saying I have a msg. Lemme look into it - Of course my name isn't David - or Shag - or anything like it so I risk being spurned (again!)

  7. I've had to relearn the names of friends several times, David; I keep forgetting that some blog under nom-de-plumes. I never have.

    I have an email address I use as a gateway for trusted friends to reach me at my personal email addy.

    Feel free to write to me at

    From there I will send you the address by which I maintain ties with family and friends I trust.

    Godspeed, my friend.