Monday, March 29, 2010

Sandstorms (Part 1)

The sun gets up early here, streaming through the hotel window only a bit after five am. Not so long after the last drumbeats rumbling through the concrete and rebar superstructure of the hotel fade from the nightclub four floors down. There is something about the way sound travels in this part of the world. It reminds me, paradoxically, of the thumpers used to call Shai Hulud, the fabled sandworms of Frank Herbert’s “Dune” series. Things rumble, the deep rumble of the IRT approaching the station at 14th. Shaking the souls of the feet before coming to the eye.

The sky revealed itself in the varnished cerulean blue (think Maxfield Parish skies and you’re close) we’ve come to know along the lip of the Persian Gulf. Out the window, looking along the main drag, there was still traffic, but diminished as you would anticipate for the last day of the weekend at the earliest of hours, which here is on Saturday, not Sunday. As at home the paradox is that when there is less there is more – more speed. Cars fly by and the ubiquitous insect-buzz of an amped up motorcycle penetrates the glass, the walls and the skull no matter how deeply asleep you may like to think you are.

Young men like to spin out their cars in exactly the same fashion as they do at home, and with the same sly grin visible behind the safety glass of the windshield; the power of the lead foot and the dexterous arm. The March air is light, ephemeral, offering less resistance to the quick steps of a dancer.

Yet come mid-morning it all changes. There is a bit of rain; large slow

-falling droplets coming seemingly from the open sky. It’s startling. Rain? Here? It’s just a stereotype. At least I think it is. Then it’s gone, big splatters on the sand-stained windshield like the child’s bucket on the beach in a South Jersey Summer.

{In the evening before the dawn there was a fire.

In the hotel.

In the washing machine/dryer unit in Christopher/Jason/Maleek/Daniel’s apartment.

The real deal. Big flames shooting out of the machine and scorching the cabinetry. Fire-extinguisher type fire. That’s one way to keep people from doing laundry. The water in the drum kept the clothes from the flame, but offered little help to the half-washed wear. }

By 10:30 the blue above is gone, replaced by a thick haze of sand that mimics the densest smog of LA, blotting buildings from view, foreshortening the sky, setting off the rich textures of the Gulf in an obliterated horizon that lends itself to fable and mystery. You imagine a dhow, a native ship now seemingly almost of legend, appearing through that veil laden with – what? Where does your imagination take you? To trade? To warfare and raiding parties? To a Bahrain in the first millennium or back in the recesses of civilization? To life in another age? Your frame of reference is smog and urban pollution, but it’s an obscuring of another kind — from nature, a sandstorm filling the sky from some storm west, in Saudi Arabia. Michael Ondantjee can’t be far away with a name for the filling of the air. His descriptions of the great storms of North Africa, the named winds, comes to mind. “The Aajej, against which the Fellahin defend themselves with knives. The gibli.” The throat and the eyes detect the sand before the mind does, a slight scratch that comes almost subliminally into being. This isn’t a great storm, it’s a change of density with no discernable cause. But the world disappears nonetheless, hiding the landscape as the black veils hide the women. Sandstorms.

9:25am. Time to get into gear. There is an enormous Book Fair taking place in conjunction with the Spring of Culture Festival in Manama. The art for the Fair, of pages taking flight from the binding, morphing from page to bird, is stunning; an elegant glance into the meaning of words and a reminder of the profound respect for calligraphy here in the Arab world.

As the featured guest at a particular part of the Book Fair, set inside a vast conference center, three of us are heading into make-up and garb suited to the Kipling characters we play – Rudyard himself (me), the Bandar Log (Daniel) and Kaa (Kaitlin). In the interest of giving a different flight to imagination we’re going all-in – full make-up applied before half our gang is even awake. On the front steps, at 9:45, we sit like an exhibition, a bit of the zoo animals and their purported keeper, waiting.

It’s funny and way, way awkward at the same time. Either you go with it or you go home, because there’s no middle ground. The change in mental space from being entirely comfortable on stage to entirely uncomfortable on the street is strange and, for me, unexpected – and I don’t look all that different. I’m not sitting on a Manama sidewalk in a skin-tight snake-skin unitard. The only thing Kaitlin gets as a mask are her sunglasses. But she goes with it – far more than I do.

The pearl white Crown Victoria limo that takes us to the Book Fair adds to the oddity. The chauffeur-driven, Driving Miss Daisy incongruity of three cartoon characters from America in the only American car to be found anywhere outside the diplomatic compound, with a Bahraini driver on the soon to be sand-swept streets of Manama…

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