Ali Bahar (1960-2011) was a Bahraini musician who rose to fame in the 90's with his band Al Ekhwa (The Brothers), arguably the most famous Bahrain has produced. He was called the Bob Marley of the Gulf and also the ambassador of Bahraini music. He died at a tragically young age, but his music lives on here. Listen to one of his pieces while you read -
Arrival. Adjustments. Attraction.
When we look back on anything - any relationship, the current state of it feels perpetual, but that's often incorrect, we are experts at cherry picking stuff to suit us. At least I am, shouldn't really be speaking for anyone else. Looking back at 20 years in the MENA, I can't seem to remember a time I was not interested in Arab culture. But of course that's rubbish. It takes time to fall under a spell, whether a person, a land or a culture, barring a few rare cases of love at first sight...
The first couple of years in Bahrain were spent being somewhat clingy – rereading old books and working out how to keep cultural headspaces intact in this avalanche of new experiences. Of a totally different language being added to my environment. Adjusting to traffic on the right, to a sky that hardly ever rained, to being a trailing spouse - which was the biggest lifestyle change of all. My childhood shot at being a trailing daughter stood me in good stead. No panic attacks, lots of cable TV, coffee, piles of books and long letters home - telephone calls were way too expensive if I converted the currency.
Bahrain those days was a little different, more laid back – no flashy malls, no hypermarkets, no Virgin
Mega (Mini) store, a couple of bookshops of limited range. Very few
high rises - the tallest building was less than 30 stories. No flyovers, no
honking, the road courtesy gobsmacking. I never got used to the traffic coming
to a complete stop and the drivers politely waiting while I figured out they
were waiting for me to cross, and hurried across. Unimaginable in Kolkata, where roads are
basically a warfront between pedestrians and drivers. Perfect strangers would
say salaam here on the staircase, on the streets, in the lifts. No-one seemed
to be in a hurry to get anywhere. Totally unimaginable too in any Indian city.
I’d arrived in November just ahead of the winter, and the cold felt colder. And
the heat was a slap across the face once the short and sharp winter was over.
A couple years and a home computer and the internet happened to me. The difference between netless and netful leisure was a paradigm shift. Armchair travelling got one huge fillip. I spent hours reading the most abstruse stuff about places and topics I hadn’t known existed. And over time two Arab authors came my way – the first was Naguib Mahfouz, the second Amin Maalouf. I read Mahfouz’s the Cairo Trilogy – the monumental saga of the Al-Jawad family set in the early 1900’s, the pace typically unhurried as all Arab events and institutions are, the story arc a massive sweep of history and fiction and social observation combined, the language formal, sometimes even ponderous, but all of it utterly captivating. And though Amina’s fictional existence was as far removed from mine in every detail as was possible, I could relate to her and to the other characters with a surprising abandon. I read the three books back to back, and I fell for Mahfouz head over heels!
Opening it, she entered the closed cage formed by the wooden latticework and stood there, turning her face right and left while she peeked out through the tiny, round openings of the latticework panels that protected her from being seen from the street.
The balcony overlooked the ancient building housing a cistern downstairs and a school upstairs which was situated in the middle of Palace Walk, or Bayn al-Qasrayn. Two roads met there: al-Nahhasin or Coppersmiths’ Street, going south, and Palace Walk, which went north. To her left, the street appeared narrow and twisting. It was enveloped in a gloom that was thicker overhead where the windows of the sleeping houses looked down, and less noticeable at street level, because of the light coming from the handcarts and from the vapor lamps of the coffeehouses and the shops that stayed open until dawn. To her right, the street was engulfed in darkness. There were no coffeehouses in that direction, only large stores, which closed early. There was nothing to attract the eye except the minarets of the ancient seminaries of Qala’un and Barquq…
'ancient building housing a cistern
downstairs and school upstairs' - the
exact one Amina is supposed to have
looked out upon...
Those latticework panels are the oriel mashrabiya windows by the way, and I checked out the views from one myself after we went to live in Egypt. My fascination, visits and walks in that quarter of Cairo were entirely seeded by Mahfouz’s mastery of description.
While Mahfouz was firmly anchored into his own cultural milieu and most of his books showcase Egypt and particularly Cairo’s middle class life, Amin Maalouf is of Lebanese origin who lives in France and writes in French about subjects and settings that are scattered across the world. He has classified himself as a ‘stranger everywhere,’ and his being a Christian whose mother tongue is Arabic, the liturgical language of Islam, has made him, in his own words - 'somewhat of a paradox.’
I picked up Maalouf’s Samarkand somewhere. A novel of extraordinary complexity and delicacy, it bowled me over as hard as Mahfouz’s Trilogy had, but that’s not what I set out to write today. Samarkand was a foretaste - after it I tracked down and systematically gobbled up whatever others by Maalouf I could get my hands on. The last book I’ve read of his was chronologically his first, and it upended my idea of Arabs. It’s called The Crusades through Arab Eyes.
Maalouf presents the narrative of the famous conflicts through eye-witness accounts compiled by contemporary Arab chroniclers, the reporting from the ‘other camp.’ Reading it was an eye opener - it brought things about the ‘Franj,’ the Frankish invaders, to my notice for the first time, and about battles that created a schism between the Arabs and the West which persists even a millennium later according to the writer.
The Cairo Trilogy and Samarkand. Mahfouz and Maalouf. These two authors together laid the foundations of my exploration of Arab literature. By the time I’d completed my first decade in Arabia, I had lived in two Arab countries. And read these two award winning writers, from two other Arabic speaking nations, one of them a Nobel laureate. All of which ended up seeding a fascination for other things Arab.