By Anita Anas
As we drove over the King Fahd Causeway, the familiar Bahrain Tower gleamed in the distance through the yellow haze. At this point, I knew, officially, that my holiday—my precious freedom—was over. At least until the next half term break when we could get out of this barren land again.
Reluctantly, I stretched into the back for my black abaya and could hear George shuffling for the insurance papers.
‘What?’ My husband turned to me.
‘The wine. I think I accidentally packed the wine.’
‘The Kokkinelli. The one we used for the stifado last night.’
‘No you didn’t. You didn’t pack any wine.’
‘I did, Geo. I remember, clearly. When we were clearing out the apartment, last thing—I went into the kitchen, took the bottle from the cupboard, and packed it in the suitcase with the herbs.’
George adjusted the rear view mirror, turned up the air-con a couple more notches. ‘Don’t worry. Just act normal. They never check our suitcases anyway. When have they ever checked our suitcases?’
I slid my arms through the long silky abaya material and quickly fastened up the buttons at the front. This time I pulled the hoodie part over my head as well. Would not do well to draw unnecessary attention to my hair this time, I decided.
As we approached the first checkpoint, the six lanes across quickly narrowed into three, and from either side the noses of a Land Cruiser and a white Pajero forced their way in front of our Rav 4. Great. Must be prayer time; the three other cubicles were empty. What time was it?
‘Do you think I can jump in the back quickly and grab it in time?’
‘No. We’re nearly there.’
‘I’m gonna get it.’
‘Lena, we haven’t got time, and anyway, where would you put it if you did find it?’
‘Under my abaya. Janie from school does it all the time with Mick. Loads of people do when they go over to Bahrain for the weekend. Gin, whiskey, vodka—everything. No one ever checks under a lady’s abaya. They wouldn’t dare.’
‘We’ll I don’t want to risk it. Remember what happened to Danny?’
‘Ye—fifty lashes. That was funny.’
My husband flashed me that disapproving look.
‘I mean—you know . . . when he came back . . . and everybody was laughing at him in school for being such a drunk. His stupid fault—idiot. I mean who, with any sense in their brain, would – ’
‘He’s getting deported.’
‘I know. Imagine they caught us: Principal of the British International School of Riyadh—found illegally in his possession . . . I’ve always fancied going to one of those Saudi women’s prisons . . . ’
‘Well let me get it then.’
‘We’ll be fine. Just act cool. I’ve got our British passports anyway. They’ll just wave us through.’
The cars edged slowly forwards and our lane began to pick up pace. From the right side of the passenger’s seat where I was sitting, I could make out about five cars in front of us—maybe six. I was on the official’s box side and could see him in his cubicle, white keffiye cloth on head, black agal rope on top, stamping papers—vehemently.
To our right, two rows at the back of a gleaming black Toyota were lined with women in burqas. Two pairs of eyes stared at me intently through slits. In the front, a boy of about two and a half bounced on his father’s knee in the driver’s position and hung periodically out of the window.
Overhead, a huge screen flashing Mecca and millions of people bowing down in prayer flashed between ads of a smiling fair skinned mother, holding Nestle Nido baby milk powder, scarf tucked around her smiling face and large almond eyes. A flowing line of red Arabic script moved from right to left at the bottom. Fused with it I saw my sea—my Aphrodite Cyprus Sea—the sea I had just been wallowing in . . . drink in hand . . .
‘They’re quite fast today,’ George said suddenly, passing me the insurance papers. I sat upright and realised we were next. My breathing quickened as it always did when it was from my side we had to pass over the papers. Depending on who you got, it could be me, or my husband they’d only accept them from.
I wound down the window and a pillow of heat landed in the car. I stretched out my hand and the official, careful not to touch it, or make eye contact, took the papers. I listened to him punch our details into the computer.
‘Passport,’ he blurted.
‘He wants our passports.’
George leaned across and gave him our British ones. Open, close, flick. Back, front, fingers thumbing here, there. Feminine hands. Manicured. Light almond face—well sculptured goatee, tache, waxed eyebrows: watery eyes—but focused.
‘The multi-entry visa’s stuck in the back,’ called out George, leaning over me.
The official quickly located it, opened it out, and scanned it from top to bottom. He shot us a quick glance, then scrunched everything together and handed it back to my husband’s waiting hand. ‘Halas,’ he said with finality.
‘Told you,’ George smirked. ‘Shukran!’ he waved to the official, as the banner rose and let us through. ‘Now for the last bit. At this rate we’ll be back in time for a workout and . . . ’
‘A glass of Kokkinelli wine.’
‘Stop it, Lena!’
‘No—you shut up . . . ’
A guard in khaki uniform with a big belly and cap appeared from behind the official’s box. He gestured for us to park in the lane immediately to the right.
George got out, as was the usual custom—handed over the appropriate papers: a quick token check in the back seats, and we would be off.
I opened my make-up purse and put on some lip gloss. A nice cool shower when we got back. Through the mirror I could see my husband’s golden legs from our holiday, him leaning towards the guard—gesturing, mouthing, articulating. His jolly stance. He soon turned serious, as the guard raised his arm, and another one—one with a machete gun this time, joined them. They nodded towards our car and George came over to my side.
‘They want you to get out, Lena.’
‘They’re doing thorough checks. It’s not just us. Look—they’re checking everyone, apparently. ’
‘Did you show them our British passports?’
I glanced around. Groups of Indian men in blue jump suits were lifting carpets out of cars, shaking them vigorously and putting them back again. To the left a slight Arab man—eighteen?—in Western dress: black leather trousers, white unbuttoned shirt, stood back, hand on forehead, as two dogs—Alsatians—sniffed around his Mercedes convertible.
‘They don’t normally ask ladies to step out, Geo. You should have told them—’
‘Just stay calm,’ stressed George. ‘Say nothing.’
We made our way to the boot of the car, where Machete’s gun was poised on top. The air, stifling, reeked of oil, sour waste.
‘My garments,’ I blurted, ‘my underclothes—are in there.’
‘Err, yes,’ said George, ‘Lady’s case.’
The guard began mumbling in Arabic to Machete, who all the while had his eyes on one of my exposed ankles, wiping his mustache in agreement.
‘What inside?’ the guard returned.
‘The cases? Oh, you know . . .’ laughed George, ‘Ladies’ clothes . . . shoes, from our holiday . . . ’
My suitcase, a brand new burgundy Samsonite I’d bought for the overflow in transit from Crete—the one with the wine in it—lay above George’s.
George held my gaze for a heartbeat.
‘Open!’ the guard ordered.
‘Oh, just do it,’ I told George.
George stepped forward and pressed the boot button; it sprang open with ease. He leaned in, fumbled for a few seconds trying to locate the case’s zip. Finally, he came round with it and lifted the lid.
My knickers, bras, my thongs—an array of multi-neon shades, like a happy garden in springtime—decorated the case. And there—in the centre—the burgundy Kokkinelli wine bottle shone gloriously, deliciously on top. The herbs: the oregano, the sage, the mountain thyme, were scattered all over, like confetti, from where some of the packets had popped.
There was a cough. Some shifts to the left, right.
‘Bring,’ the guard pointed.
George picked up the bottle. He handed it over to the guard, then pushed his hands back into his pockets. I leaned against the boot and watched. The abaya was tickling at my chin.
‘You, you drink this wine bottle?’ the guard studied it carefully. Machete moved in to get a closer look.
‘Me? Oh no,’ said George ‘It’s for cooking. Just cooking.’
‘Mmhh,’ the guard unscrewed the bottle top. He sniffed inside. ‘You know here,’ he said, stabbing a finger down towards the sand, ‘this is not allowed. Forbidden. You understand?’
‘Of course,’ George swallowed, ‘Absolutely. Yes—I understand, totally. It was a mistake. My wife,’ he searched me. ‘She packed it by accident, didn’t you honey? She forgot.’
In the distance, about fifteen metres or so beyond the cars and on a bare stretch of rubble, I could make out the words on a sign: Women Only. And below that, another sign, with a thick black arrow pointing to an obscure building opposite, read, simply: Men –
‘Lena?’ My husband’s hair had curled into delicious little tendrils around his glistening face.
‘Well,’ I said, contemplating now a pair of orange panties in my hand, ‘You can drink it as well . . . if you want . . .’
George watched the guard as he screwed the lid back on the bottle. I continued to twirl the panties around my finger; they were made of silk. I let a hot pink one drop on the sand. ‘Ooops,’ I said, ‘Sorry . . .’ and as I bent down to pick them up, I could feel a sea breeze rippling in the horizon; it twirled its way around the nearby jebel, snaked across the road’s hot surface to my gold-sandaled feet, propelled me to pick up the panties, undo the stud buttons at the bottom of the abaya, then slowly rise . . . the black silken cloak flowing lovingly open, exposing my juicy thighs . . .
Machete giggled like a girl.
The guard, Kokkinelli bottle still in hand, turned to George.
‘How much you pay for this?’ he asked, ‘Expensive?’