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November 20, 2010

I’ve been pretty busy during the last week working on a book. The Haj holidays have provided a welcome respite from day-to-day concerns.

Here are a few miscellaneous stories of note that I’ve picked up on since my last post, plus a theatre review:

Haj: I wrote recently on the annual Muslim pilgrimage, the Haj. One of the things I mentioned was that the great desire of many Muslims is to pass away during the Haj, because they would be dying in a blessed state. Given that each year up to 4 million people perform the Haj, it’s inevitable that a number of people would get their wish. The Arab News, Saudi Arabia’s English language daily, ran an interesting article on this subject today. I lived in Jeddah before the new (now old) airport opened. In those days the city was flooded with Hajjis (these days, those arriving by air are bussed straight to Mecca from the airport Haj Terminal) and a popular urban myth was that after the Haj, relatives of elderly Hajjis would occasionally push them into the path of oncoming traffic, so that they would die in their blessed state. I don’t believe this, but I suppose it would be logical for relatives to push them rather than for them to jump. In this way the deceased would not be called to account for the sin of suicide, which – many westerners who are used to hearing about suicide bombers would be surprised to know – is strictly haram, or forbidden.

Another facet of the modern Haj is that huge sums of money have been spent on upgrading the facilities for pilgrims. Looking at photos and TV footage of the event, I was left with the impression that many of the holy places have been so overrun by walkways that they resemble concrete bus stations. Saudi efforts to enhance safety features for the multitude are necessary and commendable, but I wonder if people who remember Mecca as it was before the improvements would look back with nostalgia to the wild terrain that now seems to have  been tamed. I’m not including the magnificent vista of the Grand Mosque, of course. But the only pictures I saw that radiated the atmosphere of an ancient rite were those of the pilgrims climbing the craggy slopes of Arafat. Anyway, congratulations to all who completed the Haj, and I look forward to receiving first-hand accounts from friends who made the journey of a lifetime.

Russia: Sky News ran an interesting story about continued bullying of conscripts in the Russian Armed Forces. According to Sky, over three thousand conscripts a year die of causes unrelated to fighting. Interviews tell a tale of institutional brutality, often alcohol-fuelled, that would never be tolerated in the Western military. The deaths of three recruits at the Deepcut Barracks a few years ago in the UK were enough to cause a major furore. In Russia, though, the emphasis seems to be on re-arming the military rather than on caring for military personnel. A tradition that has survived from the days of Stalin, who was quite happy to sacrifice millions of poorly-armed soldiers against the Wehrmacht in World War II, and the High Command in the first World War, who were equally happy to send their troops to the slaughter against better-armed German forces, thus triggering the Russian Revolution. Poor bloody infantry.

Speaking of infantry, I spent an interesting evening the other day with three Chelsea Pensioners who had been invited to Bahrain for the Remembrance ceremonies and various fund-raising events. The image of the Chelsea Pensioners is of benign old soldiers in red uniforms who show up at various events throughout the UK and radiate bonhomie. Old soldiers they are, and the ones I met are feisty into the bargain – just because you’re old, you don’t stop being a soldier. These days World War II veterans are too old to travel on trips like this one. But these guys, whose service encompassed the Korean War and the Malayan insurgency, had interesting stories to tell. One of them described a moment in the Malayan jungle when a ragged man came into view. They were about to shoot him when he dropped his weapon and raised his arms. The man turned out to be a Japanese soldier who had spent several years hiding out in the jungle – unaware that the war had ended – waiting for instructions for the Emperor. Apparently he was in a terrible physical state, but like many others who went to ground after the war, he finally made it home.

Here in Bahrain, the plight of housemaids from countries such as Sri Lanka and Indonesia continues to make the news. A piece in today’s Gulf Daily News reports that more than three hundred house maids from Sri Lanka have left Bahrain in the last six months complaining of physical abuse, sexual harassment and no-payment of wages. Being a fan of Bahrain and Bahrainis, I’m very disappointed to hear this. In Saudi the latest in a seemingly endless stream of abuse cases concerns an Indonesian maid who was allegedly murdered by her employer in Abha. Meanwhile, another maid who was convicted of murdering a child in her care is due to be executed shortly. I’m not a supporter of the death penalty, but I hope that the couple in Abha, if convicted, are treated with similar rigour, though hopefully not execution. Treatment of maids by many otherwise law-abiding people in the Middle East is a scandal. Period.

Last but not least, this week the British Club hosted “Shakespeare for Dummies” – a one-man show by Daniel Foley. A good show it was too, perfectly pitched for us Bahraini Brits. I’d never heard of Foley before, but since found out that he runs a small theatre company called Performance Exchange. The company, according to the website, specialises in “touring thought-provoking theatre to some of the more remote destinations around the world.” I’m not sure that Bahrain qualifies as remote – perhaps he was stopping off en route to Ulan Bator.

Anyway, the man is a walking Shakespeare encyclopedia, and spent the evening firing questions at the audience about the bard, most of which we shamefully failed to answer correctly. There was a substantial dose of audience participation (including one of my dining companions in the role of Hamlet’s father’s ghost, who closely resembled an animated Easter Island statue covered by a dust sheet), and hilarious impressions of Burgage, Irving and even Brando playing Hamlet. The maestro talked about how the Japanese perform Shakespeare, the origins of the Scottish Play hoodoo, how Elizabethans actually spoke, and performing the Scottish Play in Japanese, Chinese and English (all in one performance). We also learned the basics of stage fighting – using fists, sabres and broadswords, plus a simulated kick to the groin of a rather nervous member of the audience.

Daniel Foley showed us that there are fine actors who don’t spend most of their careers in the National Theatre or the West End, or earning a mint in CSI, the Wire or Spooks. As far as I’m concerned, it’s the likes of Foley who deserve the gongs for talking theatre beyond the realm of the obvious. The only thing missing for me was the promised impression of Olivier. Better still, I would have loved to see him playing Winston Churchill playing Laurence Olivier playing Richard III. Now that would have been a treat. “Now. Ish the wintah of our dishconTENT made glorioush SHUMMAH. By thish shon of Yawk” and so on….

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