British Club Tattoos

Nasser Alzayani
→ MFA GL 2019


My first encounter with tattoos was at the British Club in Adliya. I used to go there on weekends with my uncle Khalil and my cousins Abdulla and Jawaher. My uncle would head to the gym while my cousins and I hung around and played billiards in the bar by the pool. I find it funny now that kids were left in a bar, alone, in the late morning. There was always the occasional expat who had come in early for a pint. It’s 5 o’clock somewhere.

I recently watched a stand-up routine on abbreviations. The comedian was explaining how every U.S. state ended up getting a two-letter abbreviation, and that the people tasked with the job thought it would be simple. It was—until they came to Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, and Missouri. Daunted by all those states beginning with MI, they sent for a professional. Here was a guy who had some experience, who brought us classics such as “o’clock.”

Back at the bar, it was still 10 o’clock (formerly known as “of the clock”). My cousins and I would rack up the balls and attempt to sink them into one of the six holes on the table. Sometimes men at the bar would watch us, laughing at our lack of skill, and offer advice. They always smelled of beer and chlorine, a mixture of scents found almost exclusively in hotels with a pool bar. That was where I first met Shirley Temple. The drink, not the actress. We weren’t allowed alcohol, but I am pretty sure I would not have preferred its taste over a delicious glass of Sprite and grenadine anyway. I did not, and still do not, like maraschino cherries.

Later, I would visit the British Club with my mother and my sisters to swim. The weekends were busy, the club full of British expats lazing by the pool. I remember huge men with tattoos on their shoulders, chests, and arms. Shields and crests with the cross of St. George mingled among dragons and tigers and the occasional indecipherable Chinese character. I asked my mother what they were, and she told me that they were something you get when you join the military. For the longest time, I thought tattoos were a sort of initiation ritual, something you had to earn. I always wondered if and how you chose the images, or whether it was predetermined.

I thought about these things as we played games in the kiddie pool. My mom would throw 100 fils coins into the water while we each covered our eyes with our palms. The winner was the diver who came up with the most gold and silver coins. There was always a brief moment of calm before the frenzy. We dove in as soon as we caught a glint refracting through the surface of the water, creating little tsunamis that wreaked havoc on the nearby sunbathers. Sometimes it would be a failed dive, spurred on by a misleading, glistening tile embedded in the pool floor. Like a diver clutching an elusive pearl, I would emerge triumphant to the surface with my coin in hand, further soaking what remained of our annoyed audience. I find it amusing now, how culturally appropriate that game was.

My great, great (great?) grandfather was a pearl merchant. That is what I’m told. An ongoing dispute involves two families, a French jeweler, and a famous photograph. Taken in the early 20th century, it captures Jacques Cartier, son of the founder and heir to the Cartier empire, seated with a group of local merchants. Cartier had traveled to Bahrain in search of the perfect pearl.

I’ve heard this story and seen this photograph so many times, yet I’m not even sure if the man in question is to the right or left of Monsieur Cartier. One of these notable merchants is either an Alzayani or a Mattar. The Alzayanis and the Mattars are related, and each family claims this man as their ancestor—the man who introduced Jacques to the perfect pearl. The man who, allegedly, rejected the idea of the Frenchman courting his sister, or daughter, or niece, or whoever. My aunts would say, when retelling this story, that we could have owned a palace in Paris! Sorry, I meant to say a “palais.”

When you’ve had your passport stamped and proceed to customs at Bahrain International Airport, you will pass by a big red banner listing prohibited and restricted goods. Underneath “All kinds of harmful drugs,” which depicts a rolled joint, is an illustration of pearls labelled “cultured pearls.” We take this seriously. But how seriously?

The Hague was cold. I had been regretting my decision to not pack my heaviest jacket ever since my arrival in the Netherlands a week ago. We stopped at Starbucks at the train station to get coffee and WiFi. The barista had an Arabic name, and she asked me how I got mine.

Salma and I split from the group to make our way to the Mauritshuis museum. A small portion of one street had coins embedded in the asphalt. I joked that a parking meter must have exploded on the day the road was being redone.

The museum had a deceptive entrance. You walked up to a historical façade before being directed to the left down a flight of stairs that circled a glass elevator. In the warmth of the basement we bought our tickets and stuffed our coats in a locker that was too small. The Mauritshuis, I think, is a great museum. Not too many things and not too few. You know exactly what you are there for, but you will still be surprised by the other things you find. It’s not too crowded and you can get up close to the paintings, close enough to see the cracks.

The wall text to the right of Girl with a Pearl Earring reads:

Girl with a Pearl Earring is Vermeer’s most famous painting. It is not a portrait, but a “tronie”—a painting of an imaginary figure. Tronies depict a certain type of character, in this case a girl in exotic dress, wearing an oriental turban and an improbably large pearl in her ear. Johannes Vermeer was the master of light. This is shown here in the softness of the girl’s face and the glimmers of light on her moist lips. And of course, the shining pearl.

This is when I call Salma over and read out the sentence before last, emphasizing the word “moist” by making an elaborate kissing sound at the beginning of the word. “Mmmmoist.” It’s such a slimy word.

I forgot to moisten my lips.

Nasser Alzayani is trying to remember details from his childhood and failing tremendously. Pseudo-fictional