The biggest threat to the Bahrain Grand Prix wasn't terrorism; it was British Formula One journalists. "They'll never run it," said one in Melbourne, "it's just too dangerous."
"Yeah, I agree," continued another, "what the hell were they thinking when they put a race in the Middle East? It's asking for trouble; they might as well have painted a large target and erected a sign saying 'aim here'."
"Your boss isn't coming, is she?" another asked me. "Having an Israeli there will make us all targets."
This sort of talk continued into Malaysia, and it was clear that they wished the race didn't exist because they just didn't want to go to the Kingdom, that they thought if they said it often enough it would become truth through repetition.
There's a certain irony to the fact that the biggest doomsayers are now raving about the country in their columns, telling the world how glad they are that their support helped the event come to fruition.
I was always looking forward to Bahrain because I'd never been there, and because I collect countries like other people collect stamps. The reason why I moved to London all those years ago was to see how other people live their lives, how they pass their time. But if emigrating is moving in with your lover then traveling to a new country is flirting with a potential girlfriend, it's that first dazzling spark when you circle round and round each other smiling and wait for the first pieces of the jigsaw to connect.
Remarkably I'd never been to an Arabic nation before. I say remarkable because my best friend of the last 25 years is an Arab, and it seemed an odd oversight. The closest I got was when he and I were in Paris on a cycling trip around Europe when we were both substantially younger and filled with vigour, and we noticed a cheap flight to Baghdad.
The only reason we didn't go was that he is born of Iraqi parents, and was more than slightly concerned at the very real possibility of being drafted into the war then being waged against Iran. I reluctantly took his point, although I'm surprised it took me 16 years to make it to the region, and then only because the Bahrainis had spent almost $200 million to give me a reason to.
There was a lot made of a story that ran not long before the race about some local firebrands destroying a French restaurant because it had the temerity to serve alcohol. Some young religious types, so the story went, rampaged through this restaurant, attacking people for drinking, causing mayhem and damage and torching at least one car. This story was pointed to by a lot of journalists as proof that Bahrain was at the very least an inappropriate host for a race.
Truth is sometimes stranger than fiction, but mostly it's more banal.
Being attached to the mainland and known to be a relatively moderate nation, Bahrain often attracts a lot of Saudis for a big weekend or drinking and carousing. Presumably these actions are not irreligious if you do it away from home. It's not unlike under-aged drinkers near the borders in the US heading over to Mexico or Canada for a little fun away from their parents.
The French restaurant in question was one of the main draws for the Saudi crowd, although the owner was known for being less than an ideal host. It turns out that the 'firebrands' were actually disgruntled patrons, the only person injured in the scuffle was the owner (and even then only slightly), and the car that was torched was his. Strangely I never saw a follow up story reporting this version, despite the facts being widely known in Bahrain.
Will and I had flown in together overnight from London, tired and grouchy from trying to find a position that made sleep possible for more than ten minutes at a time. The customs check was slowed only by the guard trying to find a free space for the stamp in my passport, and minutes later we were in a coffee store in the foyer trying to break a large dinar note to buy a drink to wake us up.
"Are you coming for the race?" asked the man behind us in the line, wearing a racing jacket from a Middle Eastern team I'd never heard of.
"Yes, we're here to cover the race actually," Will advised him, stifling a yawn.
"Oh, that's great!" he smiled warmly. "Please allow me to buy your coffee, as they do not have enough change for you. I hope that you enjoy your stay with us." Nothing like that had certainly ever happened to me in a Starbucks before.
The cab drivers in Bahrain have a great reluctance to use the meter, which put them at odds with Will, who always wants to know when he is being ripped off in any deal he strikes. After stopping briefly at the hotel to drop our bags off and get changed we went downstairs to get a cab to the track. "My friends," a large beaming man said as he walked towards us, his arms outstretched, "I am the owner. Can I help you at all?"
I showed him the fax I had which showed that I had to pick up my pass from the Bahrain University, and he negotiated with the cab driver outside before advising us that the fare would be four dinar (approximately US$10). Unfortunately the owner assumed we wanted to go to the Bahraini Television studios. We sat in the cab for a while in front of the complex trying to explain that we were in the wrong place until a couple of large, heavily armed soldiers walked over to the car.
"Why have you stopped here?" one of them asked us.
"We're in the wrong place, and we can't explain to the driver where we need to go."
He reached in and surveyed the piece of paper in my hand before telling the driver how to get to the university in Arabic, stating "it should be okay now" and then walking back to his post. He was right; the driver took us all the way to the university next to the track, didn't ask for any more money despite the fare being far short of what he should have asked for, and wished us a good stay in his country as he drove off.
The track itself is amazing. It looks like someone built a Grand Prix circuit on the moon, and then turned the heat up. For as far as you can see, there is nothing but sand and sun and bleached blue sky. It looks desolate, dry, beautiful.
And, somehow, it actually looks like it belongs there. The spectator stands were built to reflect the tents that are the postcard image of the region, and like tents they provide shade while being open enough to the elements to allow any cool breeze to waft through like a magic spell. The main pit complex, and the office buildings behind it, looks like the old style forts that are still dotted around the region, albeit with a paint job that was still being completed as we arrived on Thursday. The only building that doesn't seem to belong there is the media centre, which looks for all the world like a large nuclear bunker.
The only problem was that the track was so far away from the capital city Manama, and we didn't have any way to get back there because we'd been told before coming that we wouldn't need a car. Which goes to show that you should never trust a journalist. Eventually Will had arranged for us to get a lift back with Agnes, the FIA's press delegate. I noticed she checked that everyone had their seatbelts on before taking off; I guess that their traffic safety project is being taken to heart by everyone in the organisation.
She dropped us off at her hotel, not far from the Natural Museum where a party was being held by the race organisers to welcome everyone attached to the race to Bahrain. Most of the races hold a small party before everything starts up in haste, but walking around the building to the harbour front we saw at least five hundred guests sitting around a number of large tables with fireworks, a number of bands playing and row after row of buffets piled high with local food.
Being the buffet master, Will was in heaven and almost ran towards them with his eyes on stalks. I've always loved Arabic food, and they had lamb with okra, humus and tabouleh, fish and fowl, shish kebabs and mezze, and dozens of waitresses bringing champagne, wine and beer to the tables to wash it all down with. It was astonishing in its surprise value; no one expected anything on such a grand scale, and it was a perfect reflection of how much the locals wanted to impress the circus with their abilities.
We ended the night drunkenly swapping loud stories with an Italian journalist. No one so much as scowled at us, and when we got to the carpark his car was unmolested.
Bahrain was probably hotter than Malaysia, but without the humidity it seemed like a relief, like a beach holiday from your youth is always hotter and happier than one in the present. Unlike Malaysia all of the team personnel spent a lot of time outside rather than in their refrigerated boxes, as the heat was less draining and easily avoided by sitting in the shade on either side of the promenade-wide paddock or under one of the dry palms along its centre.
"Go see the gold souk," we were told by approximately everyone in the paddock, "it's just amazing." Will and I caught a cab over that night after work to see what everyone was raving about. The market area is a lot of fun; you walk through a white fort styled building into a collection of narrow streets with wall to wall shops, all selling an ever increasing collection of goods that I had no particular interest in. The less useful the product was, the more intense the sales pitch; as soon as they saw the white boys walking down the street the cry went up; "mister, mister; yes?"
By the time we fought through the crowd and eventually found the gold souk (the signs were somewhat contradictory; I felt it was unlikely to be at both ends of the market, as two signs on one post suggested) it was closed, so we didn't get in. "What is it like inside?" we asked of one trader who was just leaving as we arrived.
"You want to buy jewelry? I have special price," he noted, his face lighting up at the prospect of an unexpected sale.
"Not really; we just wondered what it looked like," replied Will.
"You don't want gold?"
"So why you come here then?" he asked, not unreasonably. In the absence of any worthwhile reply we sheepishly wandered off.
We eventually found a little restaurant off the beaten track, and the owner rushed outside to tempt us in. "Hello my friends," he boomed, spreading his arms wide as though he was about to hug a long absent relative. "Please come in; our food is the best you will find here." Taking him at his word we ambled in, slightly embarrassed at the fuss being made of the token foreigners.
He was right, of course; the food was plentiful and good, as though prepared for an honoured guest in someone's home rather than in a cheap and cheerful restaurant near a busy market. There was in fact far too much food to eat between us, and we both waddled out later, sated and as happy as we could be, which pleased our beaming host.
We flagged down the next cab we saw and asked him to take us back to our hotel, and the driver haggled us up from 2 to 3 dinar before asking where it actually was, as he had never heard of the hotel.
"So why you don't dancy dancy, drinky drinky?" he asked over his shoulder, which kind of stumped us as that would be our usual motif.
"We preferred to see your city" I replied; expressing an interest in all things local that always goes down well.
"Very good" he smiled, showing both of his teeth. "It is a good race?"
"Yes, we're enjoying it very much."
"Okay. Ah." We had arrived back to our hotel. "You are staying here? It is a brothel." I had previously considered it as not entirely the neatest place I'd ever been to, but I thought he was being unnecessarily harsh.
The large Arabic gentleman deeply engaged in a seemingly very personal conversation with a heavily made up eastern European woman in the foyer made me think that the driver may have had a point.
The music blasting out from the restaurant in the back of the hotel was mind-numbingly loud, and being a veteran of any number of gigs in my time I'd like to think that I know loud when I'm pummeled to the ground by it. I followed the noise into the back room and saw a woman on stage singing to a gaggle of rich locals sitting at tables covered with glasses, but Arabic music at Metallica volume isn't really my thing so we adjourned across the street to the local cafe.
The cafe was one of many, just a hole in the wall with a television showing Moonraker in Arabic and plastic chairs scattered around some ratty old tables outside, with crowds of men leaning into them and slapping dominos loudly onto the tables, all laughing and waving their arms around while talking a million miles an hour or bubbling away on their hookahs.
Our arrival wasn't subtle; being the only white faces in a non-tourist area marked us out immediately; and almost everyone watched us walk in. "Salaam alecum," I greeted the young boy who was working there, with one of the few pieces of Arabic I knew. "Salaam alecum," he smiled, touching his chest and then shaking hands with us both and continuing in English, "would you like to take a pipe?" Will and I looked at each other and rejoined in the affirmative as everyone else turned back to their games.
The boy scooted off before returning with a large hookah, a domino set and two cups of coffee. We sat there passing the hose back and forth, commenting on the sharp taste (it was apple flavoured tobacco, from a long list of flavours on offer) and pretending we had half a clue about how to play dominos.
We sat there, the only pale faces in a crowd of Arabs, in a country where I'd been told we could never be safe. The thought was absurd; these people no more wanted to harm us than they wanted to smash plates over their heads. They greeted each other, and us, by saying 'peace be with you', and I felt safer roaming the streets there than I had in New York. Sitting back to back with these men and watching the plumes of smoke rise and mix together I felt complete tranquility, and the joy of being a stranger in a strange land.
We arrived early at the track on race day, and for the first time we could see something other than sand and endless sky. On the horizon, a squalling storm headed as though guided by GPS towards us. We made the restaurant tent just as the first drops fell, and the whole structure vibrated to the buffeting of a mass of loose sand from the other side of the island. The locals walked around with a grace lost to their guests, who all rushed around to file a story or cover some equipment.
It was strange how calm the majority of the weekend was; at most races there is an endless blur of speed and activity, as though everyone is hastening the end of another long weekend of work and thinking ahead to the next one. But in Bahrain it was as though we were all on a group holiday, with a race thrown in at the end of it for our own amusement. People stopped to talk to each other constantly, smiling behind the omnipresent sunglasses and soaking up the sun.
After the race I had the usual workload to deal with, but I cleared it away fairly easily before heading back outside to watch the sunset. Usually only the photographers watch sunset on a race weekend, and then only to get a mood shot to go along with their images of cars, but this time there were a number of others out to watch the sun fold itself away for the night. Describing a sunset is like explaining colour to a blind person, so all I'll say is that seeing the sunset in the desert is something that leaves you substantially richer in spirit than it found you.
All the dread and fear that was thrown at me before the race - of terrorism threats and a clash of Western civilization with the Islamic tradition - was shown to be a lie; I'd walked into the lion's den, put my head in its mouth, and it licked me on the nose.
The only moment that broke through this calm for me was just before the race, when the race sponsor Gulf Air flew one of their planes so low over the paddock that I felt its shadow. On its approach the pilot wobbled the plane's wings up and down a few times before banking steeply and gliding past the huge race tower looming over turn one. I stood bolted to the floor, completely unable to move as the hairs on my arms stood on end, having flashbacks to the moment a few years ago when I'd seen a plane fly into a tall building from my office window.
But this was nothing but a bad dream; a flashback to a life lived long ago and now kept in an empty photo box on a shelf an ocean away. Every conversation I had with a Bahraini revolved around their desire to do the right thing, to be as good as the rest, to be a part of the gang.
Arabic cloth makers have a tradition of weaving a single gold thread through their fabric to indicate the quality of their fabric; it's not something that will be clear or obvious to everyone, but in its existence is the proof of itself. If the tireless work of the Bahrainis - bringing their dream to fruition, ahead of schedule, and setting new standards for a Grand Prix track - is that gold thread, then the fabric of their society is sound.
We're constantly told that if we change our lifestyles because of the will of terror then the terrorists have won. Part of the process of not giving in to terror is acknowledging that not everyone is an enemy. Bahrain, a tiny group of islands in the middle of a tumultuous region, reached out in friendship when it opened its doors to the world and invited everyone in.
And the only way to have a friend is to be one.