There’s one aspect of Bahrain that deserves special mention. I became aware of it on my first trip, but only as a background feeling I couldn’t have articulated clearly at the time. Only through exploring other areas of Manama and doing some research did I come to understand what I’d felt the first time I visited. That other aspect is water.
The name Bahrain means “two seas,” and two seas are in the picture because one of them is underground. The Bahrain Authority for Culture and Antiquities has an excellent piece on the phenomenon and its historical importance here. “Eternal Springs,” so goes the title. The history in legend goes very far back — all the way, some say, to the Garden of Eden. The archeological record takes us back as far as the Dilmun civilization (an informative albeit mildly annoying article on which is here, and and an excellent BBC article is here). That puts us a long way back, indeed, into the chronological range of Sumer and the Indus Valley civilization. The Dilmun civilization had active trade relations with both those areas. I knew nothing about Dilmun or Bahrain’s ancient history at the time of my first visit. My physical being, however, sensed the presence of water straightaway, although the surface of Bahrain looks hardly different from that of eastern Saudi Arabia. It took a good while for my conscious awareness to catch up to my physical awareness and articulate the reasons for that state to my mind.
I’ve said in another post that each area of the Planet has its own feeling tone that acts on the individual in the manner of music, which is to say in a completely non-verbal and non-rational way. I registered that tone, for lack of a better word, on Bahrain as soon as I went onto the island for the first time. The feeling Bahrain induced in me has everything to do with the presence of water in a landscape that appears the last place on Earth where one could reasonably expect to find it. There are artesian springs on Bahrain — they’re still there, although not as luxuriant they were in ancient times. In the era of the Dilmun civilization they were extensive enough to earn Bahrain a place in the Mesopotamian mythology of Paradise, as an article by Paul Lewis from 1984 in The New York Times (here) explains very well.
In a manner typical of urban dwellers everywhere in the modern world, my trips to Bahrain with other expats meant doing city things — like going to cafes and restaurants or going to the movies at the Seef Mall. The reason going to a movie at the mall was a big deal for expats living in Saudi is because there are no movie theaters in KSA, they’re forbidden because they contribute to moral degradation, which point may have previously escaped your attention. If you think I’m talking balderdash just ask the Saudi Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice (هيئة الأمر بالمعروف والنهي عن المنكر), they’ll sort you out in no time. So trips with friends to Bahrain were about the city and its urban offerings for entertainment, shopping, imbibing (of course) and such like. After several such forays it became clear to me that if I wanted to pursue the other Bahrain, the one with the ancient history and the eternal springs, I’d have to do it by myself. So that’s exactly what I did.
I drove over to Bahrain one weekend by myself with no other purpose than to find the old Bahrain, the one that occasioned this poem 4,000 years ago in the Sumerian city of Nippur (and is given in the article by Paul Lewis mentioned above):
The land of Dilmun is holy, the land of Dilmun is pure. In Dilmun no cry the raven utters, nor does the bird of ill-omen foretell calamity. The lion kills not, nor does the ravening wolf snatch away the defenseless lamb. Unknown is the wild dog who tears the kid. The dove does not conceal its head. No one here says, ”My eyes are sick,” no one here says, ”My head is sick,” no one here says, ”I am an old woman,” no one here says, ”I am an old man.” The maiden walks here in innocence. No lustrations need be poured. The somber death priest walks not here, by Dilmun’s walls he has no cause for lamentations.
Wow. Beats the cocktail bar at the Intercontinental Regency all to hell, that’s a no-brainer. So off I went to see what I could find in the expanse of modern Manama that communicated something of the old Bahrain I could still feel in the air. Contrary to what you might expect, I didn’t head for the archaeological sites open to the public. I did, however, decide to explore the areas in which they occur, found on the map today under the names Budaiya and Saar. The archeological sites are fine for scientists, but for the likes of me they’re no more than a few architectural remnants spread out over a hot piece of sand. I was after a different Old Bahrain and I knew the archeological sites wouldn’t help me find it. So I decided simply to drive around the areas where the sites occur and notice what I found there. Before too long I hit paydirt.
I came across a mango orchard. Yes, Bridget, MANGOES, growing in Bahrain right there in front of God and everybody. I hit the brakes, flipped on the turn signal and turned off into a sidestreet that went along one edge of the orchard. Let us remember our botany, kids: the mango is native to India’s tropical and subtropical regions. I repeat: tropical and subtropical. A desert will kill mango trees in no time flat. Yet here, on the desert island of Bahrain, stood a mango orchard. I’m sure there was an irrigation system in place that didn’t appear to the naked eye, but all the same, mango trees in Bahrain OMG AYS??
Several things happened to me in rapid succession as I stood there near the trees. First and foremost was a joining of physical awareness with cognitive comprehension. You can’t fool Mother Nature, and neither can you fool your own body. It’s part of the Planet and it knows what’s what, there’s no pulling the wool over its eyes no matter what claptrap your mind might give out through its ratiocinations. A feeling of deep relaxation came over me and into my mind came the awareness: the Planet’s native terms make life possible here. Why? Because I was standing on top of Bahrain’s second sea, the underground water that made the place famous in the ancient world. I could feel the water in the very air, just as I had done on my first visit, but now I understood the connection through lived experience. Water is life, and here under the surface of sandy, sunny Bahrain was water which bubbled up in some places nearby as artesian wells. The relaxation I felt was my body registering the presence of that native water, that giver of life, and it went slack with relief like a tow rope when the pull stops.
This experience occurred after I’d lived in Saudi Arabia for over a year. After having that experience in Bahrain, I understood fully the tension I felt underneath the course of my daily life in KSA, a tension always on the edge of my conscious awareness but never enough in the cognitive sphere to bring to articulation. Now I could articulate it very clearly. The environment I lived in in KSA, the shrubs and grass and petunias (and only petunias, living out a miserable existence until they croaked and were replaced by fresh sacrificial victims) were all a huge fake. They were kept alive by irrigation that came from recycled grey water, which itself came from water supplied by a massive desalinization plant in Al Khobar. The native terms of the environment I lived in would kill the plants in the short span of a few days. My own demise would not be far behind. I never felt at ease in Saudi Arabia as I did in Bahrain until I visited the Hejaz mountains and experienced a native biome with enough water to sustain a full plant community — including fruit trees like pears and peaches, which I’ve mentioned in another post on a trip to western KSA. In Eastern Province where I lived, I knew that if the Planet had its way without human intervention we’d all be toast in a heartbeat.
On the spot where I stood beside the mango trees, however, a civilization had flourished that 4,000 years ago had been celebrated in Sumerian poetry as a paradise. Until oil was discovered in the deserts of Eastern Province there was nothing but roaming Bedouin tribespeople. No civilization was possible there, it could find no sustenance. Dilmun on the island of Bahrain, however, had flourished for centuries. The sensation my body felt told me why that had happened. Water. I could feel it as if I myself had become a dowsing rod.
As I relive that experience in the writing of this, there comes forcefully to mind a passage in Rebecca West’s Black Lamb and Grey Falcon about her visit to Sveti Naum, near Ochrid in Macedonia, with the pivotal word “eupeptic” at its center. Here is the passage:
” … When one first comes to Sveti Naum one simply thinks, ‘Why, there is water everywhere.’ But the situation is more unusual than that, for in many parts of the world dry land is only a figure of speech. Here one finds oneself saying, ‘But the trees and the flowers and the grass in this place have never been thirsty, and the air has never been dusty,’ and there is a eupeptic air about the scene, as if the earth had here attained a physiological balance in this matter of moisture rarely to be found elsewhere. And this is no illusion. Beyond the range of black rock on the left the Lake of Prespa, which covers about a hundred and twenty square miles, lies five hundred feet higher than Lake Ochrid, and has no visible outlet. Its waters percolate through the base of this range and arrive at these flatlands in a spread network that forms a perfect natural irrigation system, so that it emits refreshment to the eye, the nostril, the skin.”
Refreshment, registered by the body. Exactly that eupeptic sense came to me beside the mango trees, despite the fact that the water lay well beneath my feet. My body knew it was there, so it relaxed. Whenever I went to Bahrain, the feeling always returned, because the water is there, beneath the surface, and the body cannot be told that death by sun and sand will be its rapid fate when there’s a sea of fresh water beneath one’s feet.
Matters on the surface, however, were anything but eupeptic. Here I relate one experience that serves as a case in point for similar occurrences across the Manama area outside those districts rigidly controlled for tourist traffic. In the course of one visit to Budaiya I met a local man who lived in Saar, the village immediately south of Budaiya, and as is my wont even without the aid of Jack Daniels grand cru I held forth enthusiastically about the history of Dilmun and Bahrain’s second sea. The man was astonished to find a white expat so knowledgeable about the history of his native land, so he invited me to visit his home in Saar village to take tea and meet his family. So kind an offer was more than I could refuse, although I knew by that point, three years into my sojourn in the area, that going into a Shia village on Bahrain was not the best idea. I had a guide and host, however, so I agreed and off we went.
As we drove toward his house through Saar I found a scene as different as can be imagined from the high-end Seef area where the tourists hang out. The neighborhood screamed poverty. Shortly before we arrived at my host’s house, we came across a pile of burning tires blocking half the road. We skirted around them, watched by an ancient woman who looked as if she’d been left out in the desert to die and was then brought back by someone who thought better of it, only shortly before that purpose was accomplished. You don’t see old people like that in the tourist area. You hardly see old people there, period. Along the street as we turned into my host’s driveway I saw kids playing, looking like urchins from Dehli rather than citizens of one of the wealthy Gulf states. One toddler playing with his pal on the side of the road had only a top on but was bare from the waist down. You don’t see that in Seef Mall either, Bridget, trust me on that one.
As is the case with Arabs throughout the Gulf, the hospitality offered was lavish and graciously delivered. The conversation served more to satisfy my host’s curiousity about my home overseas than to answer the many questions I had about his, but as a guest I wanted to please my host in return for his hospitality, so the talk followed whatever direction he set for it.
The last time I went to Bahrain in 2015, once again by myself, I went back to Budaiya because I wanted to be near the place where I had first experienced the second sea. My time in the Gulf was soon to come to an end. As I drove along the road going from the main freeway to Budaiya I saw the walls of the buildings covered in political graffiti, scrawled in garish colors with cans of spray paint. At a small mall in Budaiya where I used to get my lunch I sat on the terrace of the Starbuck’s while I drank my Americano. Some mintues passed, then I suddenly noticed an odd sensation in my nostrils: a slight stinging, as if I’d put my nose over a bottle of ammonia. It took only a moment to dawn on me: tear gas. Some disturbance was taking place in Saar, the Shia village I’d visited, which lay just behind the mall, and the authorities were handling the matter with tear gas. I left my coffee on the table and dashed to my car. The second sea was still beneath my feet, but above the ground paradise had clearly become a commodity in very short supply.
The economic consequences of the uprising and its aftermath have been harrowing in the extreme. Eight years after the 2011 uprising the troubles continue with no end in sight. What will become of Bahrain as time marches on, I know not. I know from my own experience what a paradise it could be. My hope for the island and its people is that somehow they will find their way to a renewal of what existed there 4,000 years ago, when they inspired the poets of Nippur to sing their praises.