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Grain and Purple Mountains and
into the Middle East
[Type the document subtitle]
dave magee © 2012 6/22/2012
Bahrain! What a difference a causeway makes. The King Fahd Causeway, which spans
approximately fifteen miles across the Persian Gulf waters between the Kingdom of
Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, is a pathway to an oasis. Maybe it is unfair to declare Bahrain
an oasis to Saudi Arabia, but there is so much diversity in culture that even the Saudi
people come here to enjoy life experiences not available to them in their own country.
Freedoms, liberties, career opportunities, even bars, night clubs and arguably a more
appealing lifestyle exists just fifteen miles east along a causeway built by an ultra-
conservative Saudi king.
The Sheraton Hotel is a beautiful building in the heart of the diplomatic region just west
of downtown Manama, Bahrain. All the governmental buildings are located within
walking distance and undoubtedly, outside these doors, and within a stone throw
distance of the hotel entrance was the location of unparalleled upheaval which the
world witnessed 2011 more commonly referred to as the Arab Spring. The following
occurred nearly two years before all the upheaval.
It was evening in Bahrain, and I was talking to a colleague back in the States. I was
highlighting for her the day’s events and what I learned was the agenda for tomorrow’s
meetings. I found the stairs just off of the hotel lobby, which would take me to the bar
located on the sublevel. The staircase was wide, but for some reason, I chose the middle
of the stairwell for my decent. Upon doing so, I quickly crossed the path of a Muslim
man clinging to the hand rail and ascending along the left side. This man was not
intimidating in size or character. He was maybe in his sixties in terms of age and he wore
the traditional white linen down to his ankles along with the red and white speckled
shmagh upon his head. He stopped and looked at me. His gaze had the same affect on
my descent and with only one step to go before the landing. I essentially stopped and
stood there on a single stair. I felt a cold gaze and for a moment the Muslim man and I
briefly looked into each other's eyes. He then proceeded to raise his left arm above his
shoulder as if to request a "high five" while he continued to make eye contact with me.
He mumbled something in Arabic, and I was dumbfounded with confusion, not
understanding a word.
I didn't see any aggression in his face, and judging by his size and age, I really wasn't
startled by his presence. I was struck with curiosity at his gesture and continued to
pause for a moment longer. Then I moved along the stairs taking the final step onto the
landing when I noticed he had turned, seemingly to follow me and his hand was still
raised. His mumbling of Arabic phrases persisted. So, I reacted the way many people
might. Considering the circumstance and with what may be described as pure
impromptu, I gave him a "high five".
But when my hand touched his palm he reacted with extreme quickness. I had not
anticipated the speed of his action and was quite alarmed considering the part of the
world for which I found myself. He held on to my hand firmly, but he was not hostile.
Slowly and gently, he loosened his grip, never letting go of my hand but lowering them
to hip level. He mumbled more Arabic words and then, the biggest surprise of all. He
gently raised our hands still embraced and he kindly and respectfully kissed my knuckle.
I nodded my head out of respect to the man, who continued to mumble Arabic phrases,
and then he carefully released my hand as if to set me free. At this time as my freedom
was given back to me, I remembered my colleague was still on the phone and then the
cell coverage faded to zero.
I went into the bar and ordered a gin and tonic. I needed something to calm my nerves. I
kept asking myself, “What the hell just happened?” There was no one to appeal to for
inquiry or direction on what just took place. There were a few Americans in the bar, but
none of them saw what I had just experienced.
Awhile later, I gathered myself and figured I would call it a night. I ascended the stairs
but as fate would have it, my American colleagues were calling me on the mobile phone
once again, forgetting that I was half way around the world. I took the call and selfishly
forgot that they were the ones calling me with a question. Instead I capitalized on the
opportunity to talk about the encounter that took place in the stairwell just twenty
The Arabic man had since disappeared, but his whereabouts became quickly apparent
while I stood in the hotel lobby still talking on the phone with my colleagues. I froze
once again. This time new Arabic acquaintance came directly at me with both arms open
and I remember my co-workers talking loudly into the phone “What is going on? Are
you there? Hello?”
Realizing that I had gone absent from the moment, I suddenly spoke to my colleague
offering a “play by play” of what was now unfolding. I tried frantically to tie the previous
encounter in the stairwell weaved into this man’s obvious attempt to embrace me in the
lobby. He approached: three steps, two steps, . . . now face to face, the Arabic man
ignored the fact that I was on the phone. He gently placed his two hands on my left and
right temples, leaned forward and kissed my forehead. I remember still talking on the
phone and said in a soft voice, “what the hell is going on?”
The man gently raised my head and the soft spoken Arabic phrases continued to roll off
his lips. He was clearly no threat, but what the hell was going on? By this time, my friend
on the phone was laughing hysterically because she could not imagine what I was
describing, and based on the tone of my voice and complete disarray in forming a
constructive thought, he knew I wasn’t making this stuff up.
I had enough of the “social scene” in the hotel lobby at this point, and headed to my
room. I sarcastically thought and hoped I would be alone there.
The next day started out like any other morning; downstairs to the restaurant for
hopefully a peaceful breakfast. I passed the concierge and it occurred to me that he had
witnessed the events from the night before. Knowing he spoke both Arabic and English,
and maybe more importantly, he understood the culture of Bahrain, I asked him if he
remembered seeing me in the lobby that evening.
The concierge offered a more enlightening explanation which nullified any conceivable
explanation that I could dream up on my own in spite of the research I did on the web
after retiring to my room that evening.
I sheepishly approached the concierge not really knowing how to begin the
conversation, but I asked nonetheless. I had to make sense of the previous day’s events.
The concierge smiled and said with sincerity, assurance and respectfully, “He is Kuwait.
He was saying thank you.”
With every turn and moment that I have accumulated in my life, I am so happy to be
inspired and proud of these United States. I most certainly didn't deserve the gesture
but I sure felt proud to accept on behalf of all those who sacrificed so much for all of our
freedoms. There are a lot of things we as nation have done wrong, but there definitely
are a lot of things that as a country, as a people, as individuals we can all be proud of
here in the United States. There are times like this that so few of us experience which
represent moments of pure, unadulterated goodness and thanksgiving, which is why I
wanted to share it.
I will never fully appreciate what that Arabic man had been through in his life; the
challenges, the sadness's and the joys, but clearly, the United States as a country did
something right to make him appreciate a complete stranger that happened across his
path by pure chance. It was ironic that I was leaving for Kuwait the following day. I
didn’t have any expectations of repeating this experience while there.
If you ever wondered about the influence that the United States has, imagine what this
man's life must have been like. Imagine what Europe would have been like if Pearl
Harbor didn't push us full force into WWII. We don't always get it right, but when we do,
it means something to someone somewhere far away from the amber waves of grain,
beyond the purple mountains and above the fruited plains.
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