A familiar screech from above draws my eye upwards. There, flitting overhead, are the familiar scythe like shapes of the swift, black against the pale blue cloudless sky. They chase flying insects at their ease high up in the warm rising air. They are low enough to hear as they dance between the tops of the nearby glass and steel edifices. I suspect the insects don’t know what hits them. One moment, you are sniffing out flowers to gather nectar, or you may have spotted a particularly interesting dog carcass dumped in skip behind a back street restaurant, then without warning you are engulfed in a micro second and engage with oblivion. The snap of the swifts’ beak removes your consciousness from your corporal form, assuming insects have any consciousness. I have seen more swifts this afternoon than I did in the whole of the summer in Cornwall.
An unfamiliar call disturbs my ear, a bird I have never heard. Several of them are foraging on the ground for food. They are not pigeons but are behaving in the same manner. Strutting and pecking at the ground at invisible, to my eye, specks of nourishment. They turn out to be pretty doves but not the collared dove of the UK. I’m tempted to brush the bread crumbs from my plate to assist their day and perpetual hunt for food. They fly to and from the ground to the pool side palm trees with utter confidence in what must be a perceived lack of predators. There are no cats that I’ve seen and the birds of prey are off gliding in the far distance.
A solitary white gull drifts with the hot breeze across the King Faisal Highway that slices its way through Bahrain. It separates the hotel from the sea which is only a few hundred metres away. Although mostly hidden by the skyscrapers of the financial district on the opposite side of the highway, I can still see a patch of ocean from my window. This multi lane highway is busy all day and all night. It just never stops. The gull chooses a car, one with an open top, and deposits the detritus from its lunch of dead crab upon the head of hapless car occupants below. I’d like to think it sees the pumped up silicon enhanced artificial cleavage of a vanity obsessed social media influencer, and with a careful aim and a fair wind, shits in her tits.
Why I hope for that is between me and my psychotherapist.
The city is rising from the desert at a pace that is almost visible. The modernity that surrounds me belies its ancient location in the Persian Gulf. The Portuguese came here a few hundred years ago and built a huge castle fortress out of the sand coloured rock. It still stands. Now globalised modernity has taken over and engulfed it. There are more towers than I can count. As dusk falls, the pink light in the dimming blue sky provides a backdrop to a display of flashing lights of the soon to be silhouetted buildings. The effect is akin to a display of modest strings of fairy lights across the skyline. It is hypnotic. It is atmospheric. Solid red lights high up on masts, blinking white lights, 4 green traffic lights a kilometre away, are in an instant, joined by the orange of the Highway lights snaking around the edge of the bay. Its a scene you have seen in every film and TV programme you have ever watched, except for Coronation Street and East Enders. The only atmosphere there is the chill in the air at the Queen Vic or Rover’s when a lead character is caught shagging (again) by their long suffering partner.
The old medieval souk is but a stone’s throw from the hotel. It is a small quarter, interestingly in a grid pattern given its age. They seem to have dispensed with giving the streets names, instead one wanders down ‘Lane 390’, although I really do suspect there are not another 389 lanes in this district. I could be wrong. The buildings are a car width apart only. When they were built, the only traffic would have been a few donkeys, a small camel and lines of slaves chained at hand and foot slowly being led to the waiting ships for sale in Phoenecia, Rome or Carthage. The souk divides itself into small sectors of distinct groups of shops. There is a district for Gold, one for fashion, one for mobile phones and one for hardware. There is a spice district. There is an easy way to find it. You will know when you are near because the perfumed scents of cinnamon, cardamom and cumin drift in nose assaulting whiffs. Rose wood, bergamot, chakra lotus and cloves infuse the air. Sacks of a whole variety of spices and incense are stacked outside each shop window. Garlands of chillies, red and green, vie with garlic as decor. It makes you want to scoop up handfuls and rush back to a kitchen to embark on a few hours prepping some exotic food, while sipping a G and T. No need to stock your own spices when they are this handy, fresh and plentiful. Grab onions, peppers, tomatoes, butternut squash – add nuts or raisins or both, pick fruit of your choice, fresh apples will do. Heaven.
Is it any wonder the Elizabethans decided to go on a world plundering mission? In 1600 the Englishman’s diet was turnip, dock leaves and bits of pig that had fallen off the animal just before it died. Potatoes and tobacco had to be imported and the pig was only available at Easter in the towns. Peasants had to make do with a few grains of barley or oats and suck on straw for taste. Their only solace was the beer and cider. Then, some swashbuckling Captain would arrive home from this part of the world with sacks of brightly coloured spices which would lighten up their grey green worlds. Party time! And the only colour around for miles, and it would have been fireworks on your plate. Peasants only otherwise experienced colour in rainbows not in their food, clothes or houses. They only words for colours they had were ‘Black, Not quite so Black, Not Black at all and ‘The Other One’.
Imagine tasting cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves for the first time after a lifetime chewing four day old, festering, dung encrusted, dried salted ear of pig?
Even the birds like spices here. The gulls adore a bit of variety and will gobble up left over food no matter if red tikka coloured or not. The evidence can be found in the little turmeric coloured splodge of guano nestling as if it is a third nipple, upon the cleavage of the unfortunate sports car passenger on the King Faisal Highway.