National Geographic : 1946 Feb
Bahrein: Port of Pearls and Petroleum By MAYNARD OWEN WILLIAMS WJilh Illustrations from Photographs by the Author SOUTH from Abadan, Iran, we flew over the Persian Gulf, where navigation may have been born, for the history of "the Gulf" is older than that of the Mediterranean.* From our bucket seats we peered through sand-scratched windows at brackish waters diluted by rivers which flowed through Eden. Stretched at full length on the aluminum floor, our flight sergeant snoozed. Opposite me, a husky corporal was deep in a world history prepared for Army use. This modern soldier, far from home, was reading that Alexander's GI's, returning from India 2,270 years ago, here made maritime history. Then a slight tilt, a hardly perceptible change in wind rush, and everyone came to life. We were coasting in. Below were two of the Bahrein Islands, outpost for American air communications and oil. Manama, capital of the State of Bahrein, lies at the north tip of Bahrein Island and looks across a narrow channel toward resi dential Muharraq, chief town on the three mile island of the same name. Umm Na'san, to the west, is largely desert. Palm-covered Sitra helps tote the pipe line to a new wharf in the outer Gulf. Lesser islets, almost invisible at high tide, complete the archipelago inside the protect ing thumb of the oil-rich Qatar peninsula. The blue of the sea had many tones, for around Bahrein Island one must go out for 60 miles to reach water a hundred feet deep. Under our wing, two glistening white towns were joined by a two-mile motor causeway, like two weights on a bar bell (page 194). Slightly behind us lay Manama. Below our right windows a British flying boat floated in the channel of Khor al Qali'a, like a table orna ment on a blue-glass mirror (map, p. 199). Slightly ahead, and growing as we glided in, lay the close-packed city of Muharraq. A Coral Landing Field Our objective was a vast expanse of sand, smooth as a floor, which almost cuts the island of Muharraq in two. Long before man learned to fly, coral polyps had prepared this ready made landing field on a much-traveled route between industrial Europe and the East (p. 197) . Sometimes rain, wind, and tide close this natural airport for days at a time. In De cember, 1944, it was open only 13 days out of 31. One day I watched our soldiers set up a metal pole for an electrical transmission line. Almost at once they struck water. At the Terminal Building a sign reads "Elevation 1 foot." Around the terminal were the barracks, hangars, hospital, chapel, PX, mess halls, and motor pool of two military posts, one British, one American. In the open-air theater, winter spectators sat wrapped in the blankets of two great nations. In the summer, dark sweat drenched khaki betrayed little difference be tween our GI and his RAF seat-mate. From the airfield we motored along Muhar raq's new sea-front boulevard whose straight course runs between the Gulf and tidal pools. At high tide, light-toned homes are reflected in walled-in flats. Gaily colored rowboats seem plastered to topsy-turvy palace facades. At low tide this flattering mirror looks more like a city dump. Then I crossed the causeway to Bahrein. Even before petroleum outranked piracy and pearls as a source of riches, Bahrein was credited with the highest per-capita wealth on earth. The archipelago contains only 120,000 inhabitants, and the receipts from pearls alone have been as high as $9,000,000 in a single year. Now that oil royalties are pouring in, Bah rein's income is much greater. Mrs. George Talia, who modeled the Bah reini mask for me, showed how a respectable woman hides the sequined ends of her veil before venturing forth (Plate V). "Our women wear their fine feathers and war paint indoors," explained Mr. Talia. Fresh Water from the Salt Sea Sitting in the office where this interpreter of world events writes his broadcasts, I drank fresh water, drawn from the salt sea. " 'Bahrein' supposedly means 'Two Seas,' " he explained. "But fountains in the floor of the Gulf cause some to spell it 'Bahrain'-'Sea of (sweet water) Springs.' You'll find au thority for both. "The water gushes up with considerable force, so that by diving into the sea with a collapsed goatskin, a water seller can collect drinking water at the bottom of a salt sea. * See "Mediterranean Checkerboard," by Frederick Simpich, in the NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGAZINE for April, 1942.