Never having been a Shi'ite (I'm not even a Baptist!), I had never hitherto enjoyed the experience of being tear-gassed - until last night, that is.
It seems there are certain social niceties one learns when traveling - the small local customs which make life go smoothly in distant parts. For instance when one travels to Hawaii, one might be greeted by having a lei placed around one's neck while being welcomed with a hearty "aloha". The proper response for the tourist is to smile much more brightly than any sane creature would do, raise one's voice that quarter octave so necessary when communicating with toddlers, the elderly, the terminally ill or any native anywhere whose skin is any shade of brown and to babble incoherent phrases amongst which the word 'aloha' should appear no less than three times, while asking the lei donor if he or she will pose for a group photo with said tourst. It is particularly kind not to force upon the native person any of the many witticisms invoking this being the being the best lei one has ever had which will have crowded one's mind.
In Nepal, I am told, one may be welcomed with a nice dish of yak tea, a beverage my cousin Warren informs me, although one wonders exactly how he researched this particular datum, which tastes exactly like licking a yak's ass. The proper response involves the same bright smile and the quarter octave vocal rise, but instead of witticisms about getting lei'd, the preferred thing to suppress is the overwhelming urge to vomit.
In Bahrain and various other areas in the Middle East, a Shi'ite native may greet one with a firm "Death to America" or ditto to the government or to Obama or, indeed, to any of the many persons or entities which have caught his or her attention during the previous few days. It is unnecessary to respond in this case at all, since normally the local government forces will make the obligatory response which is to douse the man or woman or the mob which has spoken thus in generous quantities of tear gas.
It is an unfortunate characteristic of tear gas that it tends not to remain in the locale in which it has been released, nor does it seem to be able to distinguish between local Shi'a and the odd foreigner who might be in the vicinity.
Khalid and I had enjoyed a leisurely meal last night at a restaurant called Nando's which is a member of a chain which I believe is based in Southern Africa and which features some mighty fine Portuguese-influenced methods of preparing chicken. Nando's is situated on a very westernized street in a very westernized area which is lined with western chain restaurants. Khalid tells me this is called Restaurant Street, although I personally incline to calling it "Where are we - a mall in Tampa? Street". I am influenced here by its very non-unique charm, reminscent of any place one has ever thrown up one's hands and said, "We might as well eat here." Khalid, being a Saudi, had eschewed any lit or legal parking spot near this restaurant in favor of parking illegally amongst a series of similar looking concrete buildings on a dimly lit side street that ran perpendicular to Restaurant (or Tampa) Street. As we were returning to the car, a stray breeze wafted a soupçon of something that seemed, when it hit the eyes to be some kind of smoke. It felt like that stinging sensation one get when one sits too close to the campfire and the wind shifts in one's direction. At least that is how it felt at first. With every step we took, it seemed to grow in force, and at the same time my throat and lungs began to feel suspiciously like someone had poured a tablespoon or so of sulfuric acid into them.
Apparently the local Shi'ite majority had been in the process of its weekly celebration of the coming of the Muslim version of a Sabbath, by gathering and informing the interested as to what this week's quiet reflection had led them to wish death upon. In response to this kerfuffle, the government lavished upon them tear gas in quantities greater than one could wish. It was into billows of this that Khalid and I were venturing. It is remarkable how difficult it is to find a car one has carelessly parked any old place amongst a clutch of similar-looking buildings on a dark back street when one's eyes are rapidly swelling shut and one has broken into the fastest run one can manage while semi-blind and somewhat touched in the wind. When we finally got ourselves inside the car, it was the work of but a second for Khalid to light up a Marlboro Red. This would not have been my first move, but who am I to cavil?
Upon our return to our hotel, we were merrily chaffed by the Syrian desk man and several others who were gathered there, all of whom found much to amuse them in our tear-streaked faces. This morning, the man on desk duty suggested I stay close to home for the day.
So I have crossed off another item on my bucket list. I don't think anyone who was out and about during the Sixties would want to leave this Vale of Tears without having experienced tear gas, although I can think of one such who is more than willing to forego experiencing it twice.
And now, on to that yak…