Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Fade to Black

Mohammed is 51. He was born along the sea on the West Coast of Bahrain in 1959. His father was a mason, and when he was young he lived in an old house with no electricity, no running water nor proper plumbing. At night in the summer his entire family would sleep in the central courtyard of their mud brick and wood home on an elevated platform to keep them from the land-crawling bugs. He tells me this in the pre-dawn hours driving his car through the neon, fluorescent and incandescent glow of ever lit Manama. He would play in the sea as a child, immersed in the waters and traditions of his culture and country.

45 or so years later he glides his vehicle into secure area of the Manama Airport and guides us through emigration. I ask him if that kind of transformation has been hard -- say on his father. He says it was unimportant to his father, and that what mattered was his ability to provide. He's still living.

On the way from lunch on Tuesday after an extraordinary conversation, one of our hosts was musing on the challenges of keeping her children on track and focused. They're 11 and 13 -- Aidan and Nathan's ages. She notes that they're very bright children and that they should be getting top grades. When her daughter comes in with a "C" she takes away her mobile. When it happens again, she maintains the prohibition. "Kids just want to be texting and on their phones all the time." Denial of technology is ubiquitous as a punishment now. I hear the same penalties in Washington, in Amman, in Santiago. Its all driven by oil.

In 15 years time Bahrain will have no more oil. "My husband and I teach our children to respect work and live modestly. So many children now here change their mobiles every month." She pauses when we talk about the oil running out, about the possibility that all this affluence, the building, the wealth, the mad consumption and the Rolls Royce barrage coming to an abrupt end. "No on knows what will happen. We have to prepare our children." She sounds like someone aware that the future is no more clear for her than it was for Mohammed's father, who could not, from the steps of his home, the sounds of the sea and the splashes of his Son echoing in his ears, predict that in one lifetime everything would change. We are in a jet-stream of change, a whirlwind of it. The world here is upended from a generation ago. It may be again a generation from now.

The sun is somewhere waking as the flight from Manama leaves the earth for the sky. The sky lightens as the land recedes. Bahrain slipping into the distance.

Fade to black.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Nature Boy and the snake

Along the main drag in Manama, opposite the Culture Hall and the National Museum.

These are all over Manama, posted along the strips that divide the traffic. Running across them was something of the "run for your life" experience a bit akin to jaywalking on the beltway. But how could we pass it up....

For the Photoshop freaks out there, note that Jason is suddenly wearing a shirt in these with a cowl. It's actually Jerome's copied over from the figure to Jason's left. We didn't even notice it until we were standing right under it.

I'm guessing that the designers were concerned about having a dozen bare-chested Jason's all over Manama and that it would create a situation that didn't need to be there.

Personally I think its fine and worth the ribbing we can give Jason about wearing a tunic.....

And then there's Alice, twenty feet high in the air and 60 feet across. Not a bad perk for having to wear that costume, you know?

Monday, March 29, 2010

Sandstorms (Part 2)

“Stay in the car,” I said to the passengers in the back seat.

Pulling up to the Book Fair in Manama in our dusty white Crown Victoria I had the first “alarm bell” moment of my combined six weeks in the Middle East in the last 48, and that included time in South Lebanon. In the back seat were Daniel dressed in full as a Jungle Books monkey and Kaitlin in a skin-tight and distractingly sexy snake-skin unitard as Kaa. Out my window was a sea of white and black. Of all the places we had traveled, whether through CityDance or through the Iraqi Voices Amplification Project, from Ramallah to Damascus, Jerusalem to Amman, this was by far the most conservatively dressed I had ever seen a gathering. Women in full black abaya and niqab, faces covered at least to the eyes and often completely veiled and hands gloved. Men in dress white. Most children – and there were an endless stream of them – were clothed as formally as I had seen them as well.

I had images of a culture clash of a manner I really didn’t want to step out of the car and into.

We had been invited to come to the Bahrain Book Fair by one of our hosts to celebrate our performances of Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Books, the why of our coming to Bahrain. In the theater the night before a crowd of 700 had fallen in love with all our characters, and the 400 turned away testified to the popularity of the concert and the characters. But here we were, on the equivalent of Sunday, walking into a Book Fair not simply dressed as cartoon characters (American cartoon characters for that matter) but I had made a decision to bring the one figure in all the show who was an absolute, straight ahead sex symbol of a snake. The night before this made a ton of sense to me because she’s invariably the most popular figure in the show after Mowgli, filled with mystery and menace and able to knock out an entire pack of monkeys with a glance. But in the bright light of day and the considerable separation between theater and street that decision seemed in the moment to rank right up there with the dumbest I had ever made.

Add to this the fact that we were really, really late. I went looking for someone who would be there to meet us, because I wasn’t about to get out of the car in my 19th century, borrowed from the Opera costume and glued on maxi-mustache and lead my band aimlessly into street and the Hall, asking “anyone know where we’re supposed to be?”

That person was not five feet from the car and as reassuring as possible – which did nothing to take my blood pressure down.

My reaction had created a similar spike in Kaitlin and Daniel’s own blood pressure, and as we walked the probably 100 yards from the car to the entrance of the Hall I kept thinking to myself “this is a hell of a way to start an international incident.” Normally you want every eye in range to be looking straight at you – it’s the point behind performance. But in this moment I really wanted to just cover Kaitlin in a tarp. She, of course, was the picture of elegance. She stood up taller, walked in perfect snake-character and owned the character--- this as the center of an unending series of glances (again, that was the point).

I glued our guide to her side, thinking that at least if someone walked up to us and asked, flat out, who the Hell we thought we were to be walking around that way he’d be able to say we were invited.

At the front of my thinking were the endless admonitions, and requests for cultural sensitivity, we had been given before coming over. Modern dance, with all its contact and, often, sexuality, is about as close as you can get to whacking the sensitivities of conservative cultures, who place a premium on female modesty, upside the head. A few years back a company from Lebanon had created an enormous scandal with their dance program – one that led to trouble for the entire Spring of Culture Festival. When we had first started discussing coming to Bahrain much of the conversation had been about appropriate programming, and how a modern repertory program was definitely not going to fly. Jungle Books, because of its story line, seemed safe and right – and the interest in the program was bearing that out. It didn’t matter that they were wearing skin-tight costumes, they were doing so in service of beloved characters from a timeless story well known it seems in every corner of the world.

And here I was walking down the sidewalk with a skin-tight snake……

To be continued

East meets West

Monday, March 29, 2010.
Muharraq, Bahrain. About 1:30.


Manama, like so many cities in the Gulf, and around the world, is exploding outward. Not so much reinventing, but INventing itself building by building, island-by-island, terraforming what had been an endless natural landscape into one imagined utterly by man. Its jarring in the extreme. The traditional city -- the old city -- is tiny, set on a small island at the very North East of the country (which, at less size than Hong Kong isn't really giving you that much to go on). Muharraq, the name for that city/that area, is also so very small. Yet it is infused with magic that only time gives breath to -- time to settle in, time to age, time to inhale and not be afraid of the space between the breath you draw in and the one you draw out.

On Monday the company as a whole (15 of us) boarded our bus and made the 15 minute journey over the causeway to take it in for that fleeting tourist eye view. Even in a moment the contrasts between old and new were stunning. En route from the hotel you flash forward, caught in the vortex of a development boom that leaves everything half built and chaotic - a "senses-sore."

Yet you also know that seeing anything half-done leaves you disoriented. Then you zoom past something wondrous architecturally, a vision of 21st century genius.

A moment later you are lost in the winds of time, blown to quiet, grace, beauty and a remembrance you never had in a place you never imagined, of a slower age and a more graceful era.

In that moment you are captivated, shocked, delighted, left wondrous and yet saddened, because lurking is the question that we all confront -- why would we choose to lose our elegance and breath in the interest of replicating the madness any building boom casts down on us, of the accelerated pace we are hopped up on at home even as we claim to want something more human. In the old streets of Muharraq that humanity is at play as though there were 20 generations holding back the tide in the straights of steel and cement, tar and technology.

Sandstorms (Part 1)

The sun gets up early here, streaming through the hotel window only a bit after five am. Not so long after the last drumbeats rumbling through the concrete and rebar superstructure of the hotel fade from the nightclub four floors down. There is something about the way sound travels in this part of the world. It reminds me, paradoxically, of the thumpers used to call Shai Hulud, the fabled sandworms of Frank Herbert’s “Dune” series. Things rumble, the deep rumble of the IRT approaching the station at 14th. Shaking the souls of the feet before coming to the eye.

The sky revealed itself in the varnished cerulean blue (think Maxfield Parish skies and you’re close) we’ve come to know along the lip of the Persian Gulf. Out the window, looking along the main drag, there was still traffic, but diminished as you would anticipate for the last day of the weekend at the earliest of hours, which here is on Saturday, not Sunday. As at home the paradox is that when there is less there is more – more speed. Cars fly by and the ubiquitous insect-buzz of an amped up motorcycle penetrates the glass, the walls and the skull no matter how deeply asleep you may like to think you are.

Young men like to spin out their cars in exactly the same fashion as they do at home, and with the same sly grin visible behind the safety glass of the windshield; the power of the lead foot and the dexterous arm. The March air is light, ephemeral, offering less resistance to the quick steps of a dancer.

Yet come mid-morning it all changes. There is a bit of rain; large slow

-falling droplets coming seemingly from the open sky. It’s startling. Rain? Here? It’s just a stereotype. At least I think it is. Then it’s gone, big splatters on the sand-stained windshield like the child’s bucket on the beach in a South Jersey Summer.

{In the evening before the dawn there was a fire.

In the hotel.

In the washing machine/dryer unit in Christopher/Jason/Maleek/Daniel’s apartment.

The real deal. Big flames shooting out of the machine and scorching the cabinetry. Fire-extinguisher type fire. That’s one way to keep people from doing laundry. The water in the drum kept the clothes from the flame, but offered little help to the half-washed wear. }

By 10:30 the blue above is gone, replaced by a thick haze of sand that mimics the densest smog of LA, blotting buildings from view, foreshortening the sky, setting off the rich textures of the Gulf in an obliterated horizon that lends itself to fable and mystery. You imagine a dhow, a native ship now seemingly almost of legend, appearing through that veil laden with – what? Where does your imagination take you? To trade? To warfare and raiding parties? To a Bahrain in the first millennium or back in the recesses of civilization? To life in another age? Your frame of reference is smog and urban pollution, but it’s an obscuring of another kind — from nature, a sandstorm filling the sky from some storm west, in Saudi Arabia. Michael Ondantjee can’t be far away with a name for the filling of the air. His descriptions of the great storms of North Africa, the named winds, comes to mind. “The Aajej, against which the Fellahin defend themselves with knives. The gibli.” The throat and the eyes detect the sand before the mind does, a slight scratch that comes almost subliminally into being. This isn’t a great storm, it’s a change of density with no discernable cause. But the world disappears nonetheless, hiding the landscape as the black veils hide the women. Sandstorms.

9:25am. Time to get into gear. There is an enormous Book Fair taking place in conjunction with the Spring of Culture Festival in Manama. The art for the Fair, of pages taking flight from the binding, morphing from page to bird, is stunning; an elegant glance into the meaning of words and a reminder of the profound respect for calligraphy here in the Arab world.

As the featured guest at a particular part of the Book Fair, set inside a vast conference center, three of us are heading into make-up and garb suited to the Kipling characters we play – Rudyard himself (me), the Bandar Log (Daniel) and Kaa (Kaitlin). In the interest of giving a different flight to imagination we’re going all-in – full make-up applied before half our gang is even awake. On the front steps, at 9:45, we sit like an exhibition, a bit of the zoo animals and their purported keeper, waiting.

It’s funny and way, way awkward at the same time. Either you go with it or you go home, because there’s no middle ground. The change in mental space from being entirely comfortable on stage to entirely uncomfortable on the street is strange and, for me, unexpected – and I don’t look all that different. I’m not sitting on a Manama sidewalk in a skin-tight snake-skin unitard. The only thing Kaitlin gets as a mask are her sunglasses. But she goes with it – far more than I do.

The pearl white Crown Victoria limo that takes us to the Book Fair adds to the oddity. The chauffeur-driven, Driving Miss Daisy incongruity of three cartoon characters from America in the only American car to be found anywhere outside the diplomatic compound, with a Bahraini driver on the soon to be sand-swept streets of Manama…

Saturday, March 27, 2010

At the Ambassador's residence

Following Saturday night's performance of Jungle Books at the Culture Hall we had the pleasure of being invited for drinks at the home of Ambassador and Mrs. Adam Ereli. An extraordinary residence and a great time to visit and enjoy the day. The US Embassy, and particularly their Public Affairs Officer Rachel Graaf, went to an extraordinary amount of effort to bring us to Bahrain, and the Ambassador himself came to two of our three programs so far. He was a very gracious host, and his remarks at the end of the evening made everyone feel very much appreciated. It was a wonderful gesture.

The picture below also shows our five Bahraini colleagues, who came to work with us for this production of Jungle Books. We re-wrote parts of the script, added sections to fold them into the concert, and all five were able to participate in the two-day run of JB. They are all young artists with varying levels of expertise, but each did a great job with his part, and gave a special feel to the entire performance. We were delighted that they came to join us and spend a few hours visiting at the invitation of Ambassador Ereli.

They are all in the front of the image (Ambassador Ereli and Rachel Graaf are in the back row at the top of the stairs. Mrs. Ereli is in the third row on the left. Our actors names are Mohammed Adel Al Saeed, Sayed Hameed Al Najar, Khalid Naser Al Saleh, Mohammed Matooq Abbas and Mohammed Abdul Majeed. Wonderful and talented young men.

On the way to work

Saturday, March 27th, 2010. Manama, Bahrain. 9:45am.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

A few other shots from Wednesday

As happens so often when we do Jungle Bookson the road there was a huge interest in photos with the cast, and for autographs. The US Embassy here in Manama printed 500 copies of one of the signature photos of JB and gave them to all the kids at the program. We did many photos, and they signed many, many autographs. Superstars in greasepaint....My favorites, though, still have to be Jason, Alice and Maleek in full costume giving very serious and thoughtful interviews to a television journalist, on camera, in full make-up...

The 8 ball of Justice

It was, by any standard, the match of the Century. Tuesday night. March 23rd, 2010. The Amusement Center. Manama, Kingdom of Bahrain. The Al Safir Hotel. Rarely has the sports world seen an assemblage of talent to compare with that which filled three tables at the Pool Hall in the early evening hours Tuesday. Grace and presence matched only by an uncanny inability to hit any ball into any pocket on anything approaching a regular basis. “Lucky Liz” Gahl and me against the reunited sharks of Shepherdstown, WV fame (summer of 2009, Goose Route Dance Festival), CD2’s own Daniel H (for hustler) Zook and “Killer Kate” McDonald. In a series of games that could, but for the Grace of God, have been going on even now, we scored and we scratched our way into legend. In a cliffhanger of game two, with Liz’s undefeated record (5-0) at risk, I did the only reasonable thing any self-respecting Director would do under the circumstances.

I cheated.

With the energy at the table focused sometimes on the game, sometimes on the spectacle of the two other CDE games going on, I took advantage of the trust I have earned from these people over the years and pulled ball after ball from the well, and put each back on the felt. The only thing that slowed me down was that there were no more striped balls to place. Under different conditions I would have walked over to another table and gotten more, but fair was fair. And besides, in that sad moment when Daniel looked at the landscape of the table and said "wow. We have six and they have only two," it was time to show mercy, if only to avoid somehow getting a cue ball to the temple when the truth was revealed (which it was).

Of course, in the Karmic justice of the world, with victory by ill-gotten hands within my grasp, truth, justice and the America way stepped in. I hit the 8 ball in the wrong pocket. On a shot that defied description. All on my own. The stuff of legend.

There is justice in the world; at least for a moment in Manama on a cool spring night.

Sorry Liz.

I tried.

Jungle Books Outreach Show - Manama, Day 2

This morning at 10 we had the chance to do our first program here in Bahrain, a hybrid version of Jungle Books that lay somewhere in between our concert program and our outreach show. The audience was some 270 children from around the country with varying types and levels of disabilities. They were a great, great audience and for us a wonderful way to get our legs under us as we get into five days of consecutive performances.

Here are a few shots from the day -- from getting ready to leave for the theater to the post-show press conference that you really had to see to believe.....

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Outbound (3.21.10)

There is a way parents walk with toddlers, those two-arm, stiff-legged little walks with arms held high and a father’s legs parallel to his child’s, locked in place like a single four legged creature from some fantasy film that only happens in the home that turns a cabin in the air into a cabin in the woods. Watching it from the center aisle as it goes by, and where you can see only the top half of the Dad yet know instantly the full scene as though you’d suddenly been granted X-Ray vision, you feel at ease, surrounded by family.

That’s what it is now to travel with these people who have become, in these years, family. For most of us it’s the start of week six on the road, and the fact that the last time we were overseas together was nine months ago is rendered irrelevant by the bond within. We’re happy to be together, happy for the adventure and for the chance to be in each other’s company again in a way that you cannot find a parallel for in the studios at home. We know the experience, we know each other, and when you see us, even though you see only part of us, its as though you had suddenly been granted the same X-Ray vision of seeing father and child in the long corridor of coach on Qatar 57. It’s a family thing.

Kathryn, my most constant traveling companion in this past year, the person with whom I spent two weeks in the Middle East in October under such different circumstances, is at my right, lost in “Up in the Air,” which I watched about 8 hours ago on my own little 10 inch person viewing screen. The last time we were up in the air together we were flying from Amman to Damascus, heading to the last leg of a time meeting and talking with people in the displaced communities of Iraq, trying somehow to take in and to recount the experiences of people’s whose circumstances were in many ways beyond what we could bear. They are people who still sit near my shoulder, voices that do not go away, lives I have felt completely inadequate to support even with a 35 minute dance called “Wishes of the Sailor,” which was derived from those two weeks. Ghosts, really, and that fact makes it all the harder to bear. There is a worry, nagging like those ghosts, that all that pain we took in has led only to the catharsis of artistic creation for us, and done nothing for them. That’s hard to live with.

We’re over Turkey now, and the nifty 3D screen shows us heading directly towards Beirut, where the first part of the journey to meet the refugee community began in the early days of October 2009. As always, watching the miles go by and seeing the cities we are breezing over, with names like Tarsus and Aleppo, I am lost in the history of them, and at how cavalierly we bound over them, a journey of 13 hours that a century ago could have taken 13 weeks and been filled with endless challenges is now simply about comfort and convenience, as impersonal as an evening on the couch. I spend much of my “chatting time” marveling at Qatar Airlines and railing at Delta, and feeling somehow unpatriotic in the process. As a traveler the startling difference in quality between these two airlines is a travelogue unto itself. It’s the first time I’ve ever said “thank God” for a strike – in this case the British Airways strike that changed our travel plans from BA to QA.

In 1910 there were perhaps 50 countries in the world. Now we’re just shy of 200. At some point an hour or so from now we’ll fly over or hard-by Israel for about a second-and-a-half before crossing above Jordan and into the airspace over the incredible vastness of Saudi Arabia. I am reminded of how tiny Israel is, of how the pre-‘67 borders left it at one place only 8 miles across. At 537 miles an hour it takes less than a minute to over-fly it. What must it be like to live with that precariousness? How do you find balance and rationality in a world when your entire country can be bisected in 50 seconds by a commercial airliner?

Our view screen flashes the location of Mecca every few minutes in between its in-flight geography display before zooming out to a Moon’s-Eye view of the earth and our path. We are returning to a world at once familiar and eternally unknowable, the woman behind the veil (never turn the souls of your shoes upward enough for someone in the Arab world to see them. It’s an insult. At home, growing up I used to strain to emulate my Dad, who would sit with one leg cocked at the ankle or shin atop the other, confident, strong. Here that same hubris would have exactly the opposite impact).

The most direct route to Qatar would have taken us over Africa, but that’s a route never traveled. It’s probably many hours longer to fly over Europe than to fly over Africa, crossing the expanse of the Sahara, over Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya and Egypt, but our trip to the desert Island of Bahrain takes us over the Alps. Is the choice of route practical, or is there something subliminal at work here?


The word, in Arabic, means “Two Seas.” The first is the salt sea surrounding it; the second the pure, sweet, fresh water of legend that gave it its magic. That water is almost exhausted now, pulled out of the ground and into my showerhead in hotel after hotel, into the tap, into the gardening hose that creates lawns where sand belongs. The endless prices of “modernization” at work again. Desalinization anyone?

Bahrain lies deep in the legends of Gilgamesh, the very definition of ancient in human societies. It was the Garden of Eden itself, as archeologists are determining even today. Yet as is so common in this part of the world, its history is a poker game of changing hands. Its sovereignty was granted only in 1971 from the UK. There’s always a bit of a disconnect in the dichotomy of civilizations which founded civilization (there’s something about a civilization going into “decline” two thousands years before Christ that’s a bit jarring to the American ear) having to struggle in the late twentieth century for their independence. And for Bahrain, which grew influential and stunningly wealthy with the first oil strike in 1935 – the first in the Middle East – the future poses so many questions. 10 – 15 years from now the oil that feeds their economy will, according to many projections, run out. A country of 730,000, smaller in size than 189 other countries or territories – smaller than Hong Kong, only 3.5 times the size of DC, with 38% of its population non-Bahraini, will end a 100 year-run as a different type of Garden of Eden, a garden not of fruit but of fossil fuel, the nutrition of the industrial age. What then? Will the smallest independent state in the Gulf, the first and to date only nation in the Arab World to hold a free-trade agreement with the US, slip into irrelevance? It’s hard to picture, and ironic to consider when you also take in that it’s a remarkably pro-active nation. Open, forward-thinking on many, many levels. More than once in my conversations with Washington diplomats or people “in the know” the mention of the word “Bahrain” has brought a smile --- an acknowledgement that “they’re doing it right.”

Filling up the gas tank just before hitting the Dulles Access Road Sunday afternoon there was that momentary flash thinking about the fact that the fuel in the car that got Julie and me to the airport might well have originated in a well in the place we were heading to – a 7,000 mile journey for the refined remains of plants which died millions upon millions of years ago when this entire part of the world was thousands of miles removed from where it is today and lush. Tens of millions of years sucked out of the ground and consumed in 100. Makes you wonder, again and again, what will be in all the places so familiar to us now a century hence. Alicia’s baby was born last Thursday. What will her world be when her first child is born, or when she becomes a grandmother for the first time?

Someone up to the left in the cabin a baby is wailing at the change in air pressure, compressing its tiny eardrums and disorienting its infant sensibilities. I know just how it feels.

We’re over Damascus now.