Bahrain...and the Byrds

by wandering freditor / Oct 31, 2010 / 0 comments

“To everything, there is a season, turn, turn, turn”

Spare me a thought as you head towards the Strand, fleet of foot, umbrella aloft to the grey London drizzle, or as you Madison down New York’s Seventh Avenue, quite haphazardly of course, blown into dance steps by the wind and rain which hurls itself from the East River. Or perhaps as you jump over roadside puddles while scooting down Collins Street, the ‘Paris end’ of course, on a wet and wintry day which Melbourne can turn on, like a Bjork scowl, at the height of summer. For here, in the desert in Bahrain, the lung-shaped island in the Persian Gulf, we can only dream of such inclement perversions. Here, every day is like the next, a well-washed sky that we see oft in a Turner painting, a perpetual rinse-cycle ceiling, pale and pastel, when at times it would be nice to see a Gauguin sky of hurtful, iridescent blue. Here indeed, Will Wordsworth would wander lonely, in the hope of sighting a cloud, and the song by Janis Ian that she has looked at such from both sides now, is rather scant of meaning. Those lovely porridge-swirl skies by Van Gogh, are simply without meaning! Yes here, the elements that we take for granted elsewhere, rain soft and gentle as an Irish lullaby, or as pounding as the Messiah’s Halleluiah chorus, is an absent friend, and we dwellers, and the landscape, are the lesser for it.  

Arid is awful. Oh fine in those coffee table picture books, the yellows, browns and duns with a touch of palm here and there, but not in the flesh unless through the windscreen of an air-conditioned car! Sand ridges like eyebrows raised in query, limestone outcrops like acne, a long and hazy featureless horizon that shimmers and shimmies so that you can see the heat-waves ever ascending, almost fibril and foreboding. “You’re going to broil out there baby”, they say, “despite your hat and Ray-Bans.” Everything that moves, and there is little that does, moves slowly. Labourers are like rag dolls, features covered, an eye-slit shading their hooded eyes, The Stig in cloth, moving as if anesthetized. And everything hot to the touch, searing heat that sizzles flesh and cracks throats. Pipes with oil and gas that spider cross the desert, frazzled brown. It is forty-six degrees centigrade out there!

It is therefore perhaps fitting that Bahrain’s ‘foremost natural attraction’, is the Tree of Life, a four hundred year old Mesquite tree, looking like a ravaged squat, yet spreading oak, which stands atop a sand hill in the middle of the desert, with no apparent water source nearby. Not that the locals show it much respect, graffiti-ed as it is, and singed by flames, and not well sign-posted so that many drive right past. Together with my son, I saw it once, with a mass of camels in the background, gliding past as though hover-born, and if Lawrence, yes, he of Arabia, had tapped me on the shoulder, I would not have been in the least surprised. The Tree, unlike all that was around it, is a survivor, and only in the last months, excavations at its foot show the mud-brick and stone remnants of an ancient fort that the Tree once kept shaded. Chinese pottery shards show that at one time, trade flourished here. Alone, it is mute to tales of then.


Man and the Tree of Life, and camels in the desert

Man and the “Tree of Life” , and camels in the desert

Heat, and dust like gauze, they go together in this land, which in ancient times was once seen as ‘The Garden of Eden’. It is hard to believe, and easier to see it as the burial island it became, full of hillocks of the dead, the carbuncles of history, too dry to rot. We live opposite some burial mounds with chambers and vaults, and one as yet unearthed which provides a fine rally course for mountain bikers. So much of Bahrain is in its history, ancient and modern, yet only belatedly is it making an effort to preserve what is left of it. An old fort, built by Arabs, strengthened then abandoned by the Portuguese, besieged by the Turks, is now a World Heritage Site, but elsewhere, fossickers and latter day explorers still find it hard work, as there is virtually no signage or interpretation, and rubbish is strewn amid the rubble. Forever you wander in a sweaty sheen, armpits soaking, shoes coated in talcum-like dust, rivulets of perspiration in runnels down your face. The all-conquering sun making you feel faint, as it has done to the intrepid and foolhardy for millennia. The Indiana Jones spirit dies quickly here in the unforgiving atmosphere, the washed blueness of the sea a cruel fillip for the eyes, for even when you find it, it is warm, murky and salty. Best then, to find a shady palm grove, sit with your back against a tree trunk, slake your thirst, and rest up. Or like most Bahrainis, you can simply go to a mall!

It is in the malls that Bahrain shows it takes “climate change’ seriously!  While everywhere the tax-free prices are hot at Saks and designer boutiques like Roberto Cavalli, Carolina Herrerra, and Jimmy Choo’s for shoes, the whole mall and shebang, is as cool as a mint julep! They are places where the forlorn, fun-filled, and families, go to get out of the sun, which they do in their car-loads, to buy, consume, amble and look. Just like in ‘wet places’, where people seek shelter from the rain and let the kids have a good run! But in Bahrain, the only shelter from the storm comes if there is a dust storm outside! And while in the store windows, there are coats and jumpers are on display, it is thobes and burkas, tee shirts, jeans and sandals throughout the mall. There are the finest foods, although no products of the pig, naturally. There are enough chocolate places to make a Belgian blush, coffee for the Carioca, and authentic baguettes and brioche, to have you thinking “Left Bank”. There are theatres full of the latest movies, a water-slide park, and restaurants and eateries where you can have a good whine, although not find it for drinking!

Yet, step into the car parks, before you flow down the freeways, and only then, for the briefest of moments, do you feel the heat, (and sometimes feel for those working outdoors). You seamlessly move from A to C – as in those wonderful letters in combination, because in the middle, you don’t want to B! Life is rather like the profile of the Loch Ness monster, humping the heat, but then dipping again into the cool!  While once there might have been fans, and I daresay that in the houses of the Shaikhs, ‘faners’ (Punka Ali’s if you prefer), I am sure that the Middle East of today could not function without A/C. Indeed, up to sixty percent of Bahrain’s electricity usage is to drive air conditioning, whether the ‘old rattler box’ sticking out of the souk shop like a mis-aligned Lego brick, or the giant plant beside or atop Bahrain’s modern and futuristic architecture. I am sure that if you donned a celestial stethoscope, and listen from above, all you would hear would be the steady thrum of engines running A/C plants! And as you look ‘up there’, the sky is ever the same, ever featureless, a red ball in the East, a red ball in the West. Only the inkiness of night brings change, though seldom relief. Some nights it stays in the mid-thirties, and only the windows, like fogged goggles, show you that things are cool inside.

It is you who live with seasons, whom I envy! With transport and storage networks, fruits are no longer seasonal in the shops. With lamps and potions, people can look tanned all year round. Here, if you want tulips or daffodils when it is mid-forties outside, “it can be arranged”. Or lobster and prawns from Brittany, when the local season is over, that can be arranged too. Foods and smells are universal now, and cultural exclusivity is also fading fast. In Las Vegas you can find Venice or the Caribbean, in Dubai you can find enough canals to gladden a Dutchman’s heart, or an alpine snow-covered slope, to amuse an Austrian. Why in summer, on the banks of the Seine, you could almost be at Bondi! Who needs to go around the world in eighty days when there is probably an entrepreneur willing to bring it to you! Why working triple time, he can probably move a Matterhorn, create a Copenhagen, or build a Bangkok, all in 80 days as well, authentic, and to scale! Our ingenuity knows no bounds, but happily, we are bounded by scale. While we may be able to create micro-climates as we do with air-conditioning or for example, create a tropical rain-forest in the middle of temperate Adelaide, the seasons are simply too big to tamper with, and it gladdens my heart that it is so.

How I miss the patter of rain on my face, the wind at my back, the wrestling with an umbrella, the exhaling of little clouds of crispness on a cold day. Oh the great joy of entering a warm and cozy room made welcome by a glowing hearth. How I miss rugging up for winter with a hat and gloves, the sound of warming cocoa being poured into a glass, the tingle in the cheeks. Of sitting and reading, and feeling contented, with a glass of Shiraz or Port or a cuppa tea. Or the joy of driving to a vantage point in New England, or even Old England, and seeing below a forest of russets and gold, yellow and red. Or fields of all shades of green, full of pin-pricks of colour, snow-drops and jonquils, bluebells and daisies, purple heather or sallow, windswept grasses under wintry skies with scudding clouds. Oh how chilling, that first swim of summer, immersing, in my case, white and corpulent, with a sharp exhalation, and a little shiver, and how sad that last swim of summer, of wanting to stay immersed, or chasing a last wave!  And in-between, the joy of lying on a towel, stroked by vespers, adjusting hat and sunnies, and reading a paperback on the beach. Eating outdoors, drinking a flint Semillon, delicately dicing the Dover sole, I miss it!



Oh for a corner of Cumbria, green and bountiful!

Oh for a corner of Cumbria, green and bountiful!

Blessed are you who enjoy seasons, although you may curse them at times, and wish to swap me for my heat. And true, like incessant heat or cold, rain and wind are best served as a fling, and if they are enduring, then best at night while you are snug in bed and thinking, “I glad that I am not out in that!” And I know too, that millions of millions don’t have a choice as we have, to follow the dollar or the dinar, or just go a-visiting to places new, daily coping (or not coping) with conditions that you and I in our brevity, might find curiously quaint. But it is because we travel, that we compare and contrast, to like it better here, or there, or there, than here. And when we stay away from that which we have known for so long so as to entrench familiarity, then there are times when we look back at what we have chosen to leave, and we miss it, in the manner that I miss friends and seasons.

Yes, in Bahrain, we really want for nothing. We have made our life here rich. Those abiding aspects of the outside world are here in abundance, and for our succor, fine friends, food, festivities and familiarity. But because I can look back, I long for a painted sky, clouds heavy with burden, which make me hasten home, grass on which I can run the dog, the smell of a barbeque in the bush, the rustle of a brook through a gully, the tang of sea salt rising in mist on a beach of curling dumpers. And the chance, yea, even in the autumn of my years, to see again the surge of spring in the faces of my grand-children, and to enjoy the remaining seasons in the sun, whatever the time of year. It is, I suppose, the expat’s lament!     


Winfred Peppinck is the Tales of the Traveling Editor for Wandering Educators.