MANAMA, Bahrain — For the people working at Bahrain’s malls, the person covered head to toe in a black veil, gloves and glasses appeared to be a rich, doting Saudi mother, leaping from one aisle to the next to select children’s shoes, clothes and toys.
But why would a woman wear a man’s shoes? Why the bodyguards? And why did the person’s fluid movements seem so familiar?
“It was the way he moved that made me sure it was Michael Jackson,” said Radio Shack salesman Sharfudeen Kadeer Meera. “He shops the way he dances, going from one place to the other at dizzying speed.”
Since his June acquittal on child molestation charges in California, Jackson has been living on the island nation of Bahrain, the guest of Sheik Abdullah bin Hamad Al Khalifa, the son of Bahrain’s king.
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Jackson’s brother, Jermaine, has long been friends with the prince and reportedly converted to Islam after a visit here in 1989.
Beyond Bahrain’s main city of palm tree-lined boulevards, luxury office buildings and malls, the 300-square-mile country has the feel of a sleepy village — the perfect relaxing hideout.
Jackson’s fans are thrilled to have him in Bahrain. Maasoumah Ibrahim was so excited about glimpsing him in January in his black “abaya” — the traditional Arabic all-covering veil and gown — that she repeated the story to every one of her 13 siblings.
“I follow his news,” said the 31-year-old fan, who was a cashier at the mall food court at the time. “The trial didn’t have any effect on me. One cannot believe everything.”
Other Bahrainis do not share her enthusiasm.
Not everyone is a fan
“I’m not against him being in Bahrain — but against him using Bahrain to run away from his problems,” said Hani Bucheery, a 37-year-old operations manager at a security company.
The media here have treated Jackson gently, limiting their reports to news and rumors of his sightings. Even fiery lawmaker Adel al-Maawda, one of the country’s most conservative clerics, says Jackson is welcome to stay as long as he behaves.
But he and other conservative clerics also have concerns.
“He should keep his concerts and his effeminate manners away from us,” said al-Maawda. “We don’t want him turning Bahrain into Las Vegas.”
On Wednesday, a Bahraini official close to Jackson’s entourage denied reports the singer had left the country for good. The official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly, said Jackson had gone on vacation to Europe with his family, was in touch daily with Sheik Abdullah and was coming back in a few days.
Since moving to the region, Jackson’s mall forays have usually included a female assistant, a few bodyguards and — on some occasions — three children, believed to be his.
At some stores he has been able to shop mostly in peace.
“As soon as we guessed it was Michael Jackson, we started playing his songs,” said Bijesh Kumar, a supervisor at Euphoria music store. “But he was so scared, he told his bodyguards to stop the music.” Jackson did sign autographs for the staff, Kumar said.
At other malls, however, he has had to flee.
On the morning of Jan. 25, Jackson, the three children and assistants headed into a Mothercare store at Marina Mall. Jackson spent an hour sprinting around, buying $200 worth of clothes and toys, said cashier Laila al-Aradi.
But while he was waiting for an assistant to pay, al-Aradi said she noticed that the person in the woman’s abaya was wearing men’s shoes.
“I looked up at him and mouthed, ‘Michael Jackson,”’ she said. “But he wagged his finger to caution me against saying that aloud.”
Then Jackson made his way to a shoe store. Salesman Lateef Mulla Muttath thought he was assisting a wealthy Saudi woman, then heard a group of Bahraini women saying Jackson was in the mall.
“I looked at the person’s shoes and found they were men’s shoes. That’s when I guessed it was Michael Jackson,” he said.
By then the crowd was growing, so Mulla Muttath and his manager, Abd Nazir, had to help Jackson escape.
Jackson wanted to leave through an emergency exit, but since there was no emergency, Nazir could not use that door. The main entrance was packed with fans and photographers. A crowd also was gathered at a staff exit.
At that point, the woman with Jackson asked the driver to get scarves for the children, which she wrapped around their faces before Nazir led them through a back door.
“Michael Jackson said ‘Thank you’ and shook my hand,” said Nazir. “My family told me I’m a lucky man.”
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