Lots of Firsts in Bahrain

Brent Tells His First Impressions, Delivers a Talk, and Meets His First Student

Brent Elder

My First Impressions

I am staying with Dr. Lori Bradshaw and her husband Doug. Lori and I took a walking tour of downtown Jurdab. Jurdab is a Shiite neighborhood close to Manama, the capital of Bahrain, and directly next to Isa Town.

The nightlife is reminiscent of Tijuana, but nonetheless is very friendly and not nearly as intimidating. The shopkeepers waved as we walked by and the people we passed in the street would smile and nod their heads. The streets were lined with men’s barber shops, hookah lounges, smoothie joints, and fresh bakeries. I even saw a pet store with two monkeys outside! Drivers are the most precarious aspect of Jurdab – most of the men wear headdresses and I assume their peripheral vision can be quite compromised.

My First School

On the morning of June 24, I took a tour of a special education school in Riffa, Bahrain. Although I was disappointed that the students were out on summer break, I did have the opportunity to meet with faculty and administrators. Unfortunately, schools are segregated in Bahrain, meaning that students with special needs attend different schools than students without special needs. I believe it would be beneficial if students of all abilities were educated together.

My First Public Speaking Event

My first speaking engagement was to the Bahraini Rotary Club in the Gulf Hotel in Manama. I was seated at the head table along with the foremost members of the club. Everyone spoke English and I felt embraced by their graciousness.

I was also impressed at their willingness to listen to my speech about inclusive practices, an idea that is quite new to Bahrain. The Rotary Club presented me with a certificate acknowledging my commitment to community service, as well as an International Rotary Club keychain.

After lunch, I was introduced and promptly given the floor. I greeted the crowd in Arabic (“as-salaam ahlaykum”), and to my surprise, I was not laughed at. I was instructed to address the audience of 35 people for no more than 10 minutes. The presentation I gave was an introduction to inclusive practices in families, communities, work, and school in Bahrain.

Reporters from the Gulf Daily News) and the Bahrain Tribune attended the luncheon. Both newspapers are in English, and are free online. While being interviewed, the reporters expressed a desire to check in on the progress I have made and keep running stories on what we are trying to accomplish in Bahrain. Additionally, I prepared a press release to fax to various newspapers that were not present at the meeting so as to spread the word about what I hope to accomplish while in Bahrain.

My First Meeting with a Bahraini Family

On the evening of June 24, following my public talk, Dr. Bradshaw and I were invited into the home of an 18-year-old woman with Down syndrome. We will call her “Ella” (name changed for privacy).

When we arrived at Ella’s home, we were greeted by her two older brothers, older sister, brother-in-law, mother, and aunt. There’s been no mention of a father since the beginning of our collaboration. English was used with ease as most of Ella’s family had spent some time Canada. Albeit overwhelming at first, nerves settled after we began chatting. One of my initial observations was how much this family loves Ella. As she walked into the room, everyone’s face lit up! It was clear to me that Ella’s family found it important she be included in our meeting.

Shortly thereafter, we began to discuss the manner in which we hope to get Ella a job. When asked what type of job she wanted, Ella revealed her desire to be a mother and work on a computer in a travel agency. Ella is an engaging young woman who enjoys bantering back and forth with her family members. Akin to the other women in her family, Ella was dressed in the traditional abaya. An abaya is an over garment worn by some Muslim women.

As I was explaining how our collaborative process would work, the family asked great questions (e.g., “Where do we start?”, “Where can she work”, “What experience do you have doing this in the States?”). My ideas were met with some resistance from Ella’s aunt. Her apprehension was due to a fear that I might persuade Ella to take a job that was “not culturally acceptable” and “beneath Ella’s status.” In an attempt to reassure her, I explained to Ella’s aunt that her insight into Bahraini culture is of fundamental importance as I do not pretend to be an expert. I encouraged her to voice her ideas at our planning meeting last Friday, June 29.

Although challenging, her questions have provided me with ample elements to consider. I look forward with great enthusiasm to our meeting on Friday as Ella’s support structure is crucial to accomplishing our goals.

Topping off our visit, we feasted on egg salad sandwiches (crusts off), fried cheese rolls, hummus filled pita, pistachio candy, and bite-sized cake treats. I walked away from Ella’s house with a huge smile on my face! I am so fortunate to have the opportunity to work within a culture that is so dedicated to family, and I am anxious to see the fruits of our labor.

Brent Elder is a teacher at Kellogg School in Goleta, a graduate of UCSB’s Gevirtz School, and was named Goleta’s Teacher of the Year in April. He is in Bahrain this summer to help special needs students. For the introduction to his Brent Does Bahrain column, see here.

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