Thursday, December 1, 1983

The Nile by Bicycle

Published by Travel & Leisure in late 1983. I wrote this "on spec" (without a contract) en route back to Manhattan from Bahrain in the spring. I went on to do more articles for the magazine than any other writer in the next five years.

Dawn was pink and yellow across green Egyptian fields. The train’s gentle rocking and the silken light awakened me gradually, so I had no doubts of where I was; and from the upper bunk I could see easily out the window merely by turning my head on the pillow.

My train was following the Nile south. The verdant countryside glistened with irrigation, and stretched off toward odd clumps of palm trees and misted, low tan mountains. Beyond them would be desert. Human figures in slack grey robes had been pencil-sketched into the foreground, at work already with water buffalo and donkeys, but no one turned to look at the train. Occasionally the fields were interrupted by a crumbling stone hovel or a roofless partitioned mud village, with doves perching on its crude walls—seemingly at peace with poverty, like everything else I saw.

I was on my way to Luxor, to its temple and that of Karnak. Ancient in ancient epochs, they were part of Thebes, the capital that linked Upper and Lower Egypt as one kingdom after about 2000 B.C. I wanted to avoid the tourist route as much as possible—puffing along the Nile in an overweight passenger steamer with the incongruous insignia of an international hotel emblazoned on the funnel. I intended to arrive in Luxor alone, to make my way through the Valleys of the Kings and Queens on my own terms, unhindered by a tour or a guide. The wonders of the ancient world deserve to be experienced as privately as possible.

So I’d chosen the train, and dubbed it "The Nile Sleeper." Like much of Egypt since Napoleon’s day, it was full of French tourists. We’d left Cairo’s tightly-packed freneticism the evening before, at dusk, when the city was at its most oppressive and fatiguing. There seemed nowhere to walk where I wasn’t in danger of being run over or trampled; buses careened past so crowded that people clung to the outsides like mountaineers. The heat was overwhelming, so the refrigerated train seemed like heaven. Thirty-five dollars bought me a modern, first-class compartment, dinner, and breakfast. The train was punctual: it seemed the only event in Egypt that was.

We pulled into Luxor at about six-thirty. The train station, ramshackle but larger than I expected for so small a town, bespoke a century of tourism—from the late Victorian era until recently, Luxor was a rather classy resort. As it was, a Spanish couple and an American student with blond hair and gold-rimmed glasses, carrying a knapsack, were the only other non-Egyptians getting off the train.

The American student—he had the usual fearless candor—came over. "Do you know how we get around here?" He was wearing blue denim shorts, a white T-shirt, and sandals, and he was pallid; he hadn’t been in Egypt long, then.

I said I was going to walk.

"Walk, huh?" He adjusted his knapsack.

A fat Egyptian in a red floral shirt and creased brown trousers was hurrying purposefully across the platform toward us, grinning eagerly like a cartoon cat eyeing dinner. The Spanish couple were in tow behind him.

"No, sir!" He stuck out his large right hand. "No need to walk. You want to see temples of Luxor and Karnak? Queen Hatshepsut’s temple? You want to see King Tut’s tomb? Let Sayed Hasseney be your guide."

The student was shaking hands with him, about to be educated. I left them and headed through the station to the street. Luxor was barely awake, and beginning to stir. The streets were dusty dirt lanes, narrow with swollen stone houses with rickety balconies and decrepit wooden doors. I heard the raised voices of children inside. It seemed a sleepy little town, that had once shown a more elegant face to its prosperous tourists. Men in galabias glanced at me incuriously and went back to opening small tourist stalls selling postcards, maps, and literally tons of imitation Nefertitis and Sphinxes and Tuts and scarabs. A horse-drawn carriage drew alongside me, and when I refused the offer ("I take you to Luxor temple, come on, ten pounds!") the driver shrugged without remorse. It was already hot, and flies were about.

Through luck alone I soon came upon an open bicycle shop. A wizened old lady answered my pointed inquiry about a red three-speed with a single upraised finger: one Egyptian pound (a dollar twenty) for a day’s rental. I gave her the pound, mounted the bicycle, and asked, "Nile?" She pointed down a wider lane, lined with tourist stalls and trees.

I cycled down it and after a long block reached a spacious boulevard running beside the river. I’d seen the Nile in Cairo, where it seemed like nearly any river coursing through any city, and struck me as peculiarly characterless. But here was the river of a boy’s imagination, bringer of all life, brimming with history. Just visible up the boulevard to my left, past a few turn-of-the-century hotels with wide sleepy terraces, stood the commanding walls and obelisk at the entrance to Luxor. Out of sight a couple of miles down the boulevard to my right, past a few modern hotels and hidden private homes along the Nile’s bank and a long colonnade of trees, stood the huge temple of Karnak, the largest temple in the world.

The way those hotels, those homes, those two temples faced the peaceful river made it seem great, a god given its due attention; it was the color of mid-ocean, and looked much deeper than it was. Here, during the Nile’s flooding every year in early September, the festival of the god Amun ("The hidden") was held. An image of the god, slightly smaller than a man, was clothed in finery and removed from its shrine at the Karnak temple, placed in a sacred barge with a retinue of priests, and taken upstream to Luxor, where it remained for a month of celebration. Then it was returned similarly to Karnak. In the heat of the day whose onslaught was just beginning, it was easy to see the Nile—all that miraculous water!—as a blessing, and to imagine, as the Egyptians had, a similar celestial river awaiting in the afterlife.

Just down the bank from me a felucca filled with boulders was moored easily, faded sails furled; its owner was fishing from the scant shadow of a tiny tree. The Nile was a rich blue, about a quarter mile across. The far shore was lined with trees. The harsh mountains in the middle distance—beyond them were the Valleys of the Kings and Queenslooked freshly cut, and had the profile of a mighty range, though in height they were only hills. Near me, a man with no legs or arms was being placed by his son on a small blanket spread on the sidewalk, beneath a welcoming tree which cast plenty of shade. The boy smiled at me and waved; his father grinned. The boy had a stand on the grass of the riverbank, before it sloped, selling an iced blackcurrant elixir on that must be the world’s most refreshing drink. I gave him the first business of his day and moved on.

Along the boulevard was a large felucca that acted as ferry, with a scattered handful of tourists already on board, including the Spanish couple and the American student, who nodded at me. Twenty-five piastersthirty centstook us across. I was the only person with a bicycle. The farther shore was like the countryside I’d glimpsed from the train at dawn: green fields of wheat and sugarcane, dirt paths leading off through those fields toward shimmering brown mountains, squat palm trees as punctuation. And, everywhere, people working, bent low in the fields so it seemed almost a deserted landscape; and many of those workers were children of only five.

The road was proper asphalt, though, and on the bicycle I made enough breeze to stay comfortable. I was riding the same path by which the stones of the tombs and temples were brought to the Valley of the Kings, having been transported upriver from across the desert. Because the Egyptians viewed the afterlife as a continuation of the earthly pleasures without the responsibilities, the pharaohs and queens invariably began preparing their tombs as soon as they took power, to be sure everything would be ready when death came. (The Great Pyramid at Gizeh, the largest stone structure on the planet, built without the use of the wheel a thousand years before the temples of Luxor and Karnak, is of course the extreme example of this preparation.) And because the Egyptian believed that the soul could return at will to its body—theirs was no heaven of ghosts, but another, actual world—the bodies were mummified. The soul still needed an earthly home.

I’d been wondering idly as I rode where all those hotel guests were, and I nearly got killed finding out. A giant tourist bus was upon me, blasting its horn, before I was aware that I and the farmer with his donkey ahead of me had anything to fear. Curious, air-conditioned faces turned to look back at me as if wondering what a white man in long pants, shirtless, was doing riding a bicycle here. This bus was followed by another, and a third, each crammed with sightseers. Neither the donkey nor the farmer took any notice, as if the buses were only a detail of the landscape, not worth glancing at. When the farmer offered me a stalk of sugarcane as I rode by, I stopped for it and thanked him.

The road began to curve toward the hills, and rose; the sun, too, had climbed in the sky, and looked swollen and fierce. I’d been bicycling for almost an hour when I came to a village set in slopes of the hillside. A few little boys ran after me, demanding baksheesh. It was a village such as this one that years ago resisted government attempts to dislodge it for the sake of a through road, because the village sat precisely on a cache of genuine scarabs and statuettes that was supplying the villagers with infinite amounts of tourist merchandise. Nasser had built them a beautiful modern village, but he was taking away their livelihood. As I rode through I was offered all sorts of sculptures; perhaps they were real. They weren’t what I wanted to remember—the sharp arrogance of the light, driven off the steep cliffs, was.

Then the tan landscape seemed to split and open into a hard plain of sand with shoulders of cliff on either side. Before me, in a long array of columns flanked by twin faceless colossi, was the temple of Queen Hatshepsut. The columns weren’t circular, but square, and from a distance the temple, on three receding levels transfixed by a central ramp, looked almost Greek. The cliffs rose steeply above, and gave the shrine an effect of width rather than height—unusual for an Egyptian temple.

As I came closer, and locked my bicycle at the temple entrance, I saw that the Spanish couple were already here, listening attentively to a young Egyptian guide while a horde of fellahin tried to sell them fly-whisks and sword-canes. One comes to Egypt in search of ancient gods; the gods elude; one comes back with souvenirs. It is a wearying round, and I waited for the sellers to descend on me. They didn’t; I must’ve looked too bedraggled.

But the American student did find me, as I peered among the columns. I was looking up at one of those faceless colossi—probably defaced by Hatshepsut’s stepson Thutmose III, whose power she managed to usurp for twenty years—when I heard a voice behind me say, "I’ve been cheated."

He was looking sorry for himself. Apparently this Sayed Hasseney, the outgoing man at the station, had demanded and received sixty pounds from him for tickets to Luxor, Karnak, and the Valley of the Kings, as well as a ride in the car with the Spanish couple and a guide. He’d been cheated out of at least forty pounds. "I can’t believe it," he finished. "I’m just going to have to shake it out of him, man."

I didn’t think Sayed Hasseney looked susceptible to shaking. "Talk to the Tourist Police," I suggested. "They’re ferocious with swindlers."

The student’s car honked: he gave a little wave and was gone. I walked through the colonnades of the temple columns, which formed small shrines. There was something wearying about all the hieroglyphs and figures representing the achievements of Hatshepsut. Probably the most extraordinary woman Egypt ever produced, she was married to Thutmose II, her half-brother. When he died, and his son by a lesser wife was made pharaoh, Hatshepsut took over (around 1500 B.C.). She ceased much of Egypt’s military activity, reopened trade routes that had been closed for years; she wore masculine attire and often a false beard. Most important, she was the first ruler to wear the Double Crown, which indicated rulership of Upper and Lower Egypt (south and north respectively, due to the Nile’s northward flow.). And with her "kingship" she assumed, also, the godship: she was the first pharaoh to do so.

When I came out of the cool shadows of the temple, a young Egyptian approached me, grinning. He said, "You have bicycle?"

"I rented it." He seemed genuine friendly, and wasn’t trying to sell me anything. One lesson of travel is that your instincts about people are usually correct, regardless of culture or language: I trusted him.

He pointed up the cliffs alongside the temple. "Past there is Valley of Kings." He pointed to my bicycle. "You ride—" He pointed back the way I’d come. "It take you one hour, maybe more. Very tired. You climb, it take ten minute." He shrugged. "Maybe more. But more easy. I watch your bicycle."

It was a big risk—I couldn’t walk back to Luxor—but I took it. Not having been intelligent enough to bring a hat, I wrapped my shirt around my head to absorb sweat and made my way across a tumble of rocks. A path gleamed whitely, making its way up the tan face of the cliffs, and I followed it At times it was wide enough for only one foot, and climbed too steeply to seem safe. There was no shade, no overhangs, no handholds, and my body was soon slick with sweat. I estimated it as barely noon: the day would get even hotter.

When I reached the summit of the cliffs, I looked back. I couldn’t find the queen’s temple, directly below meno, there it was, the size of a matchbox. My mind felt weakened from the heat and the enormous view. I saw other temples; the land grew green, and the horizon was rimmed by the Nile. I saw the toiling grey road I’d followed here, and it seemed incredible that all those cut rocks could’ve been dragged so far to be fitted into position. How? Oxen or slaves?

And yet on the other side of the cliffs I couldn’t find the Valley of the Kings. I saw no entrances to tombs, just a dead rock landscape of more cliffs to the west. Hawks circled in the sky at my level. No wonder the ancient Egyptians had buried their dead in these hills; I felt I was the only living thing, and it crossed my mind that if I twisted an ankle clambering across more cliffs and lay exposed to the heat, I wouldn’t be fit for much, either. Perhaps it wasn’t a realistic fear, but extreme heat makes one think of death, and I’d had nothing to drink for two hours. Feeling like a cowardbut a wise, safe oneI gingerly made my way back down.

The bicycle was still there, and my friend proved correct. The ride to the Valley of the Kings (on the best road of all, because of those heavy-breathing tour buses) took me more than an hour. Much of it was uphill, and by this time the sunlight was blinding, a white dazzle off the rocks and sand. Such heat dazes one’s enthusiasm, and seeing this concentration of temples and tombs becomes a matter of stamina rather than appreciation. Various European travelers have written smugly over the last two centuries of Egyptians scurrying from rock to rock, shadow to shadow, like some low form of desert life, but in fact it is we who do most of the scurrying in search of shade, clutching our straw hats and bobbing cameras.

It struck me, on finally reaching the Valley of the Kings, that no place has ever been more accurately but misleadingly named. Most of the entrances to the dozen-odd tombs open to the public are within about thirty feet of each other: all the vastness lies underground. You descend to each tomb along wood-ramped corridors, hundreds of feet long, cut steeply into the stone, past richly-colored paintings of various gods and servants and always the dead king in his processions through the Land of the Dead. After the heat aboveground, these subterranean rooms are marvelously cool and private. Most were looted of their treasures long ago; and when you see Tutankhamen’s tomb, of such minute proportions considering how much was buried with him, it is staggering to think of the riches that once were carried here, the furniture of a royal eternity that we modern robbers interrupted.

In one tomb, beneath a stone ceiling covered with serene blue night and yellow stars, I heard a Frenchwoman say to her friend, "But all the pictures look the same." They were gazing at a series of hieroglyphs instructing the dead king on conduct in the Land of the Dead—leaving his tomb at sunset to accompany the sun on its journey through the underworld, carried by boat. This was all depicted, as were various exploits of the king, his wives, musicians, and gods with the heads of animals. At the time I thought the woman’s remark was ignorant.

Yet later, as I sat in the weak air-conditioning of the modern cafeteria beside all those tombs, slowly drinking a gallon of distilled water that must’ve originated in the Nile, I reflected that this woman had hit on an essential truth of the Egyptian culture. The pictures were all much the same, until very late (after the Greek and Roman influence), when the tone softened: this was the point. It was a society dedicated to changelessness. There was a pharaoh, there would be other pharaohs; but the pyramidal structure, with the ruler at the summit, at times held to be a god, didn’t change. In all Egyptian art there was no Greek sense of democracy. Though there might be exceptions, one’s role was pretty much set for life.

Nor was there a sense of tragedy, a lone man standing up to the gods. One simply obeyed. Most of all, the idea of change, of motion, was a Greek invention, still to come; included within it is the idea of choice. All this is foreign to ancient Egyptian art, and its absence, to our eyes, gives an unshakeable sense of sameness to the art. Its craft is subtle and delicate; its effect, of making one feel at the mercy of the gods, is not subtle nor delicate at all. Its grace lies in a sense of things as they are: the river, the land, boats, trees, birds, animals, the seasons.

It was mid-afternoon by the time I reached the Nile again. A horde of fellahin were screaming and haggling and tugging and remonstrating with one-fifth their number of tourists. A Danish blonde was swatting away curious hands whose owners were undaunted by the size of her boyfriend, who towered above all the Egyptians. A bust of Nefertiti was being waved in his face while he ran down a list of currencies, some imaginary, that he knew wouldn’t be accepted here. "Do you take Chinese yen?" he asked innocently.

In the dense sunlight the Nile was a calm mirror for the untextured cloudless blue sky.

The temple of Luxor was only a few hundred yards from where the felucca dropped me, back on the town’s shore, and the town looked as if it had parted to make way for the temple then resumed its growth. This was hardly surprising: El Uqsor, (the Arabic term meaning "the castles") was too military and got destroyed by the Romans, and Luxor itself is a colonial-era town. When David Roberts, whose lithographs of the Middle East are unsurpassed, visited in 1838, the temples stood naked on the landscape.

I walked down a colonnade of sphinxes and rams and passed between the twin pylons of the entrance. Huge faceless colossi were everywhere, striding toward me or standing resolute between immense muscular columns bowed at the bottom. It was as if massive forearms rose out of the sand and supported, in ranks, horizontal beams of stone. Every stone was decorated; there were graffiti in ancient Greek, more than two millennia old. And the sharp obelisks, with their flat sides, punctuated the rows of columns that six men, joining hands, cannot encircle.

I was almost alone here, except for a group of Japanese going about their tourism like professionals, organizing photographs and pointing and sharing facts. I felt a bit hemmed in by the columns. They seemed disproportionate to the spaces of open ground, where the shadows from the slant light were beautiful and have not changed for 3,500 years. I learned later that this disproportion was intentional—to make one feel small before the gods—and that in fact all the proportions were based on this idea, even the doorways . It was not that the pillars were especially high: they weren’t. It was just that (according to several architects) they were organized around a deliberately inhuman measure, like the meter as opposed to the yard, and they depreciated their maker, man.

And there was the American student again, tall among the Japanese. Once, in ancient times, this temple had been filled with students, for around every temple were subsidiary buildings that contributed to the worship of the god. There were storehouses, schools, living quarters for priests and servants, workshops, festival halls. Now the only occupants after nightfall are those watchful colossi, of whom one poet of the18th Dynasty wrote: "Their stature shines more than the heavens, their rays are in the faces of men like the sun." It was difficult to not compare them to the fat crook who’d gone after the student, fleecing him soon after sunrise, and to not wonder at the laziness of a nation with so much achievement early in its history, content to rest on that history like these colossi, only keeping watch—not moving—until the end of time.

The light was starting to wane, and I found myself suddenly alone in the temple. I hurried out of it, returned the bike to its shop, and clambered into a carriage that took me two miles along the river, now golden and black, to Karnak.

The temple covers about 200,000 square yards, and its beginnings were modest, as far back as the12th Dynasty—about 2000 B.C. But it was added to for almost a millennium, and as the importance of its god Amun grew, and the power of Thebes increased with a series of foreign victories, so the temple grew, with each pharaoh adding his own touch. As a result Karnak seems incoherent and endless, pylon after pylon, hall after hall. Its size is ungraspable in a day; what can the mind do with stone walls fifty feet thick, obelisk after obelisk, colonnade after colonnade, with a hall into which one could fit Nôtre-Dame? On one column, a puny Frenchman named Delamain (appropriately, "by hand") had the patience to carve his name in 1835. The act seemed impertinent: what were one hundred fifty years to this place?

Time itself was Egypt’s timeless obsession. Every wall was covered with reliefs showing chariots, sacrifices, wars, history. At the end of one stretch of columns lay a toppled carved head the size of a small truck. Beyond it strode another set of colossi. A man in white robes had draped himself across the feet and pedestal of one colossus. When I took his picture he yelled, "Baksheesh!", and I fled through a low doorway, past a staircase leading upward to those stone beams impossibly balanced overhead. And, incredibly, before me was a huge sacred pool, reflecting the last light. I did not go close enough to see my own reflection, but on the pool’s placid surface hieroglyphs on walls shimmered, an obelisk pointed toward me, colossi moved. Once the moon rose, it would hang on their shoulders.

Outside Karnak the sun was setting over the Valley of the Kings, a silhouette of mountains to the west. Having emerged from the deep past into the present, I was haggard with the day’s exertions, and my train didn’t leave for Cairo for hours. A sweet wind was blowing across the Nile; people were coming home from the fields, or from the tombs, and it was as if a truce were declared between tourist and trapper at sunset. Women in black—in Egypt, the color of poverty—passed me grinning, carrying babies; birds were singing with the new coolness. At one of the modern hotels, I stood in line with a lawyer from Cleveland and a carriage driver from Luxor, the three of us waiting to use the international—or national—phone line. We talked about how bad service was as night fell across those temples, and all those tombs, and the constant, generous Nile.

Saturday, April 23, 1983

Where Allah Smiles

Written for Geo magazine, 1983

The swimming pool of our hotel on the island of Bahrain was not very large, but like the Arabian Gulf, it was probably the most cosmopolitan pool of its size in the world. It was ringed with tall sunflowers nodding from the heat under a dazed blue sky. A Kuwaiti in white robes, here for real estate negotiations, was playing backgammon with a German electronics salesman in swim trunks; the Kuwaiti was winning. A Swiss banker had fallen asleep on a navy chaise. Looking rather lonely, a pair of lanky Kenyans in business suits stared bleakly southward. Three pale wives of engineers at the massive oil refinery gossiped in thrilled British tones. In the shadows, by a panel of seven clocks, two Japanese investors clacketed away furiously at table tennis: they had invested well that morning.

In the pool, three Sri Lankan stewardesses in bikinis were swimming interminable laps, scrutinized by several robed Saudis in Bahrain for the Muslim weekend, Thursday afternoon and Friday. The Saudis looked as if a great weight had been lifted from their shoulders merely by being here. Their relief was not surprising: for thousands of years Bahrain has been the entrepôt of the Arabian—known elsewhere as the Persian—Gulf. Bahrain is the one country everyone trusts in this arena of shifting disloyalties and even war. For centuries its magnetic pull has reached beyond the boundaries of the Arab world, and this tradition has made it the freest state in the Gulf, the most cosmopolitan, the most permissive. So the Saudis were here to relax, to drink, and they were looking to the Far East for more beautiful entertainment.

Then, abruptly, a loud, nasal chant began, echoing from seemingly everywhere; and the Kuwaiti and Saudis, as one, simply turned and departed. The chant, in Arabic, held undertones of joy and urgent warning. It was the noon muezzin, the Islamic call to prayer, issuing from loudspeakers on minarets all around the city—indeed, all around the Gulf. We too followed its intoned command through the hotel.

In the wide street the sunlight was dazzling, and the sidewalks so hot they curdled the air. The mosque summoned us from across the disorganized vista of international-hotel-and-bank row—Government Road—all that most of Bahrain’s 2 million yearly visitors see. With its turquoise dome and delicate minarets of pink stone topped with blue, the mosque looked out of place amid some of the ugliest buildings Western architecture could possibly have contributed.

Here in Bahrain the call of the devout was falling equally on the ears of the infidel. The street was filled with hurrying believers. The pure white of their robes had a dignified, everlasting confidence, giving everybody a graceful nobility. We waited until the chant ceased and prayers began before approaching. Through the mosque’s lattice, a stone veil, we saw hundreds of sandals in the dusty courtyard awaiting the men and boys standing within the protective shadows, their heads bowed. When they finally emerged, charged with energy, they seemed like handfuls of white butterflies released from a cavern to scatter in vast sunlight.

Back at the hotel, those seven clocks set to seven centers of the modern Arab world—New York, London, Cairo, Riyadh, Bahrain, Hong Kong, and Tokyo—were jerking forward, second by second, into the future. We’d come to Bahrain (an island the size of Martha’s Vineyard) to glimpse this future, and see what remained of the past.

Manama, the city itself, is a modern steel-and-glass metropolis built atop a chock-a-block concrete Semitic city. These intruders have settled amid the elegant remains of a Persian town built more than a century ago in a labyrinth of mud houses built atop a desert sprouting gardens of palms. All exist simultaneously, but with the exception of the tiny Persian quarter, every building more than five years old seems to have wearied and surrendered to the humid heat; pre-stressed concrete and steelwork are not meant for this climate. Many of these new apartment and office buildings are on behalf of the proliferating "offshore" banks—offshore from their home country—that have made Bahrain the third largest international banking center in the world. It’s said that after Tokyo, Manama is the planet’s most expensive city for the transient businessman. It seemed to be growing as we watched: thousands of construction workers from the Far East—Korea, Thailand, Pakistan, the Philippines—were being supervised by British and American engineers. The developers were invariably from around the Gulf.

We spoke to a sturdy Scotsman named Walker who’d lived in Bahrain for nine years. He still had an almost impenetrable brogue, perhaps kept pure by being encircled by Arabic for so long. In Glasgow he’d been a carpenter; in Manama he was "a contractin’ manager in charge o’ three hundred men." Like most Westerners, Walker was happy here.

"There’s noo income tax, lad. The money’s good, noo crime because o’ Allah—they’re all on the ground in front o’ him—and we can get anythin’ we want on the videocassette one week after you Yanks see it on the screen. Pirated editions, y’see—noo copyright. Rita had E.T. on our telly long before her aunt saw it back home, an’ for the price o’ popcorn."

Since Walker was in the construction industry, he seemed the right person to ask why half Manama looked as if it were either being impetuously destroyed or hastily built. "When will Manama be finished, y’ask? Never! Not if we can help it."

These new buildings, each one an Olympus, rise from land recently reclaimed from the Gulf—more is reclaimed every day—and shelter the businessmen on hotel-and-bank row from the past: the secret, enclosed world of narrow alleys, stone shadows, teak doors, and dusty light. The souk, the inner marketplace, with its animals and fruit and clatter, is minutes away on foot from the hotel but centuries distant in the mind, and that passage from one world to another is sudden and incoherent. Once lost in the past, it is difficult to find your way out again; you may be asked, as we were, to join a boys’ volleyball game in the broken ruin of a mud house. The taxi drivers, esconced in their furry pleasure-domes-on-wheels (some were carpeted on the outside as well, for protection from the heat), constantly lost their way in the endless old warrens. Out toward the desert—where the rich have erected modern, refrigerated homes in a well-protected, Greco-Roman revival-by-mail ranch style—directions seem clearer.

One evening we were talking to Mohammed, a Bahraini factory owner, over drinks by the pool. His eyes were an intense black, his manner benign; he was forty-one, successful, but he was complaining.

"Tcha! Look at me." He slapped our knees. "Have trouble, much trouble with mother of wife. She is snake, big snake." He looked genuinely sorry for himself. "She comes in, she hears television is on, she covers her eyes so she does not see, she asks why I am polluting her daughter. Do I need this trouble? No!" The program in question was Dallas.

Over the next round of drinks we asked how he, as a Muslim, could justify alcohol, forbidden elsewhere around the Arabian Gulf. Though the Koran does not forbid drinking, it does forbid prayer while under the influence—and a Muslim must pray five times a day.

He scratched his head through his ghatra. "I am bastard, that is how I justify. Am educated man, you see. Speak English, French. Study Catholicism, why not. I drink, yes. Sometimes fool with women, though am married. But I tell you, my dear friends—" He wagged a finger. "One day I will stop these wrong things I do, and hate all who practice them. Then I will make my pilgrimage to Mecca."

"You’ve never been to Mecca?"

He shook his head. "No, no. Have been twice. But on business."

A Bahraini architect, who’d worked widely around the Gulf, told us, "You must understand that because in every man there is a certain amount of hypocrisy, under Islam that hypocrisy is felt more acutely than in the West. A man feels the split, let us say, between his professional life with the non-Islamic world and his more traditional life with his family; between his responsibility to Allah and the personal pleasures; between the life his parents lived and the life, in a larger world, that he foresees for his children; between his allegiance to the ruling autocracy and his own sense of reason and justice. The split between what he has been taught from birth, and what he has learned himself. Bahrain, because of its history, for this man is a more understanding, forgiving place."

He was dressed in a charcoal suit and careful grey tie, and the women in his office wore Western fashions.

"You can’t imagine what it’s like, as an Arab, to come here from elsewhere in the Arab world. These countries are as different from each other as, say, Italy is from Germany, or France from England. ‘Arab’ means no more than ‘European’—the language is barely a link. But in Bahrain, you feel all your tensions lift when you arrive. You’re not battered by customs men with questions about contraband. You’re not harassed by the taxi drivers. You don’t remember for the duration of your stay the staring eyes of the security men. It’s not Sin City, as you put it, even to us. It’s a paradox. A Kuwaiti can get a traditional meal here that reminds him of home thirty years ago, before the wealth flooded in—or he can go enjoy himself at a discotheque. If a rich Saudi wants gambling or real vice, he’ll fly to Monte Carlo or Bangkok for two weeks. But he’ll stop by Bahrain, on the way."

At the British Club one afternoon, over bitters served to us by a correct Indian bartender in the Brit Arms Pub (Dickens prints, stag’s head, pewter tankards), we watched a darts match. One player was a hefty Welshman with a rakishly-tilted cigarette and the face of an unmarred boxer. His opponent, Hassan, was a Bahraini in thobe with a broad grin of pure guile. Hassan was the best deep-sea diver on the island, he had an English wife, and he’d mastered her Newcastle accent. He would strike a ballerina’s attitude, let fly with his darts sip-sip-sip, then waddle up to the board to collect three bullseyes. Then he would turn back to wink at us. "When you’re playin’ with amateurs, mate, you have to go easy."

A young Bahraini gentleman with a swank mustache and an indigo silk shirt, chatting easily, watched with us; he turned out to be a brother of the Crown Prince. We were told later of another Bahraini member who had so embraced Scots tradition that he’d begun calling himself Sheik Achmed Mac Toomie.

On our way out, a carrot-haired.woman from Liverpool hiccoughed and said, "Darlings, let’s hope I last long enough to make it home. Inshallah."

Among the white stone walls of the Persian quarter a donkey cart rattled by, driven by an old man swinging his legs, his hands gripping the reins like a falcon’s claws. It was bearably hot. A cockerel was crowing atop one tan wall, not watching us. The faces of these few houses left in the serene Persian style of a century ago looked innocently blank. A ghost of a breeze briefly studied the dust about our feet, then moved on.

We were welcomed, like so many travelers before us, at the light-blue wooden door to Ralph Izzard’s house. An indestructible British journalist who has spent a half-century "rummaging around in the oddest corners of the world," he has lived in Bahrain for eighteen years. He settled here in semi-retirement, as a stringer for several news agencies; poised between Europe and the Far East, it is an ideal location.

And in this odd corner of the world, among writers, Izzard is Mecca. A veteran of expeditions in search of the abominable snowman, into northern Assam—"I came back from that one a skeleton"—across the central Iranian desert, to the Valley of the Assassins, last year (aged seventy-one) he again trekked the Himalayas. At six-feet-four, Izzard—with a beaked, around-Cape-Horn-in-a-high-wind face—has an athlete’s big gait and the smile of a surprised boy. In 1953, working for the Daily Mail, he scooped the rest of the world press by following the first expedition up Mt. Everest on his own—without any equipment. Three pairs of sneakers took him past 20,000 feet. "As luck would have it, I was used to a lack of oxygen, having done all my training in nightclubs."

When the blue door creaked back and Izzard stooped to greet us, a strange voice behind him, in Arabic, called for us to come in. We saw no one, and Ralph led us into a sunlit courtyard, flagstoned and quite small and half-covered by the old roof, of imported African mangrove and Indian bamboo. A writing table basked in shade. Blue-embroidered white doors in the white stone peered in on a long room of books and Persian and Indian cloth-paintings. Fan-lights of stained glass shone over each door, and in the courtyard were bougainvillea and a date palm tree and two worn Persian rugs. From a wood beam between two walls of the courtyard a grey parrot, his tail tufted with red, examined us minutely.

"That’s Charlie," said Izzard. His voice was gentle, as if he didn’t want to wake anyone. "He asked you in, but he doesn’t trust you yet. The instant you leave he’ll start to imitate you."

Ralph had laid out luncheon on a circular copper table like a gong, and we asked him to fill us in on the island’s history. "What’s behind Bahrain, in the dim-and-distant, is that it was the traditional entrepôt between the Sumerian culture of the Gulf and the Sind Valley culture to the east. To the ancient mariners Bahrain could offer a sheltered harbor, fresh water, and freedom from surprise attack because it was an island. But they could cross over to the desert and trade. So everybody came here, as the sailors say, ‘to make and mend.’ And then people began to exchange goods here with the river systems to the north, which are now Iran and Iraq. During the sixteenth century the Portuguese held it, like much of the Gulf. They were expelled, and various tribes—Persians, mainly—fought over Bahrain until near the end of the eighteenth century, when the present ruling family, the Al-Khalifas, came over from Qatar. The island was a center for all merchants of the Gulf, actually. For much of this time you had the bonus of some of the best pearling banks in the world just off the coast, until they were put out of business by Japanese competition after the war. Those pearl banks became a source of great envy and cupidity. This Persian quarter was lived in by some of the wealthiest pearl merchants, the Ali Reza family. It’s the only architecture of its kind in the Gulf."

The afternoon was edging on. The parrot had been busily alternating the ping! of a beer can being opened with the glug-glug-glug of pouring into a glass. "Are you sure I can’t offer you chaps another drink?" We decided to leave Ralph and recede several centuries. Deep in the souk, shops were just reopening for the afternoon. The din was tremendous. In the confusing labyrinth of close streets ever branching off into mysterious ways ending in unexpected outdoor coffee-houses where men gathered for discussion, there seemed to be thousands of people, mainly Indians and Arabs, passing along or squatting in the dust or lying asleep atop a stalled cart or simply standing and watching, wondering what might happen next.

In the street of spices, each shop leaked full sacks of black, orange, crimson, and brown riches. The fabrics streets were canopied, tentlike, by floating silks which also hung in bolts and on great spindles outside each honeycomb-cell in splashes of purple and gold and green, like hundreds of watching peacock eyes. In the gold streets the Muslim women, swathed head to foot in their black abas but most with faces daringly unveiled, flew into the shops like huge dark moths. When their hands pulled open the shop doors, their abas slipped back to reveal forearms covered in gold bracelets. In these shops gold jewelry was sold by weight, not craftsmanship.

We passed barber shops, a goat-and-sheep market, a street of tinsmiths, electronic equipment stores, fruit stands. Indian music lulled the streets, and a swooning woman crooned in Arabic from loudspeakers. The covered wreck of a forge, with no walls or roof, only timbers, coughed out wretched gulps of grey smoke. Inside was a hell of small fires, black and dusty, with a few sooty men hammering away at bits of metal and sending sprays of glowing sparks up into the darkness, like fallen angels dutifully seeking some obscure redemption.

There were poor old men in rags shuffling alone, their heads wrapped in red-and-white cloths; they bowed to us in a kind of blessing. Streets that once might’ve been straight squeezed against each other, and resplendent Indian women in saris walked along swiftly, their long arms swinging. Oranges spilled from a cart; a group of seven men shook hands and disbanded. Within a tiny mosque fans whirled dreamily overhead, and men sprawled half-asleep or spoke in whispers, awaiting prayers. One shop sold odd pieces of wood; the proprietor squinted at a plank held an inch from his face, searching for defects. In another shop, battered brass lamps swung from the ceiling and lined the walls. A nearby stall was piled with stalks of a pungent tobacco that looked like giant weary lettuce.

From a street of black-market watchsmiths we turned into a street where women were being fitted for black abas and men for white thobes. We found a bird market, with glittering cages and much bickering over prices—Izzard’s Charlie had been purchased here. Dust rose from the street as a black Mercedes meandered through, horn bleating; a white donkey and three goats reluctantly got out of the way. A Westerner in a grey suit jabbed at a calculator as he walked. Bells jangled on bicycles. The mingled scents, of spices and silks, of bodies and fruits, of rich coffees and dense tobaccos, filled the overworked air to bursting. It was easy to see why a man might gather his robes beneath him, squat, and gaze—he had only to stay in one place, and all manner of human existence would pass before him.

One morning we went to the docks to watch a dhow (called boom in Bahrain) leave for Saudi Arabia, fifteen miles away. These booms are powered nowadays by mighty modern engines; no more the sharkfin lateen sail one still sees along the impoverished Nile. People on the dock were crying; many of the passengers had been here visiting relatives, and Arabs do not have our reservations about showing affection. Because of constantly overbooked flights, the rich and the poor mingled on board, both cool under a canopy. The men enthroned themselves toward the bow on spread carpets. The women huddled near the stern, with the children. Some were traveling without their husbands, and the younger women eyed us directly, darkly flirtatious, and did not look away.

Anwar, the boom’s owner, was becoming anxious. "Twenty passengers is not enough, my friends. But I cannot wait forever, either. You know, once a month I transport cars to Saudi. Five cars, sideways."

A horde of veiled old ladies struggled down the gangway, red passports in hand. Anwar was a fountain of smiles. "Now I have enough to leave."

The passengers were drinking coffee from thermoses and smoking from hookahs, the women included. As the boom edged away there were farewells from the senders-off and merry answers from on board. Then something different happened: a beautiful young woman, whose blue silk Dior dress was visible beneath her aba, who had stared at us so frankly that we were certain she’d been at home in Paris and New York, smiled one last time and lifted her veil gently into place. It had been lifted aside in Bahrain: but Bahrain was unique. She watched us, as if guessing our thoughts, until the boom was so far away we could no longer distinguish her from the others.

That afternoon we drove out the desert road to the "Amir’s Beach". Zailaq is for the exclusive use of Westerners, and for the Amir and his brothers. The beach is narrow and not very long, but it is the prettiest beach on the island. At the gate you’re stopped by three guards in green military uniforms waving graciously with small machine guns. If your skin is pale enough you may enter, and the Amir, Sheikh Isa bin Sulman Al-Khalifa, will provide you with free soda pop. No photographs are permitted—"Your camera, pliz"—and about a dozen cameras dangled from nails on a tree beside his guards, like offerings to some God of Security.

It was difficult to imagine what could provoke such caution; perhaps only the fear that photographs of stewardesses in tiny bikinis treading the same sand as the Amir might not go over well in Saudi. Like most of the Gulf states, Saudi contributes heavily to Bahrain. They are already linked by an oil pipeline, shuttling crude to Bahrain’s huge refinery; in a year’s time a causeway will be completed. It is crucial for all the Gulf states that Bahrain and its two hundred banks continue to flourish. The Amir has plans to set up, in the near future, an international stock exchange with all the advantages of those offshore banks. Like them, because of the time zones, it will be able to trade with the Far East in the morning and the West in the afternoon.

"Is the Amir here?" we asked one of the guards.

He shrugged. His machine gun shrugged. "No Engliz," he said.

Odd for a guard at the Westerners’ beach; most Bahrainis speak English, the island having been a British protectorate for most of the century. We walked on.

Near the beach we came upon a small man in thobe, back to us, watching the sailboats. He looked about forty-five; his beard was greying. It was very hot, we weren’t thinking clearly, and we didn’t notice that his aqal, the circular crown of black cord perched on his headdress, was threaded with gold.

"Excuse me," I said to his back.

He turned. His dark eyes glittered with amusement. "Yes, can I help you?" His English was calm and perfect.

"Do you know if the Amir’s here?"

"I am the Amir."

"You’re the Amir?" For two weeks we’d seen his photograph everywhere, but in those cheerful pictures he looked enormous.

"Yes, I am the Amir." He put out his hand, all smiles, from the folds of his thobe. "And what are you doing in Bahrain? Working?"

We introduced ourselves. A photographer. A writer. Irish. American.

"And are you being well-treated at the Ministry? And at your hotel?"

We answered yes to the second question; the Ministry of Information had been stonewalling us for two weeks about arranging a formal, non-beach audience with the Amir.

"I am so glad to hear it. Welcome to Bahrain! I hope you both have a very nice stay."

Our audience was at an end. As the Amir swept away we heard a teenage girl on the beach murmur to her friend, "He’s so cute."

He was also very friendly; and in this he was the same as every private Bahraini we met. It made absolute sense that Bahrain had maintained its status as crossroads of the Gulf for so long. The people were savvy, unsuspicious, and not tense or greedy. Such a combination is attractive. The guns and the constant scrutiny seemed almost like play, but both were meant for action. Outside of the expatriate community, life is contested, but in hidden ways. Names like Jelal, Kanoo, Almoayed, Zayani, Yateem recur and recur; many businesses are held by a ring of a few families. The ruling family hovers far above. Power is absolute but there are cracks in the wall. The Amir’s family is of the Sun’i sect of Islam, but a bare majority of the population is Shi’ite, religiously allied with Iran, which has long claimed Bahrain. It is a pressure to go eastward, across the Gulf. We heard many accusations that the Sun’is were favored, that Persian influence was kept down, and certainly there seemed much resentment by an ambitious middle class for the wealthy Sun’i upper class, nearer the throne. It is difficult to assess the private tensions brought on, paradoxically, by the ease of Bahrain: women can drive, and hold management positions traditionally held by men. And though Shi’ites may resent the ruling family, it is clear that a Khomeini-like strictness would be death to Bahrain’s success.

Further, as always in Bahrain, the majority of laborers—those crews of silent humanity we saw riding everywhere in the backs of trucks—are strangers. Centuries ago they came from East Africa or Oman; now they come from the Far East. They are cheap, they have no ambition other than to make money and stay for perhaps two years: they are not allowed to bring their wives. And the tensions that result from, say, two hundred Indian males squatting in a crumbling house built for a single Persian family, are potentially explosive, dangerous mainly to the Western community on whom so much depends.

That dusk we drove through one of the old Shi’ite villages on the edge of the desert. Distance and time are warped in Bahrain: the desert goes to the horizon, suggesting vastness. The village, of mud houses and dirt roads and piles of stones, suggested an almost-deserted past, eyeing the present with distrust. These villages once had their trade, too, when their sons were sailors and pearl divers; no more. It was in these sands that oil was first discovered in the Gulf, in 1931. Then the search crossed over to the vaster Arabian desert, and more recently, to the Emirates. Now Bahrain, dependent on Saudi for oil, has almost run out.

We were outsiders here, truly; the village was a desolate world one giant step removed from the souk. These people, perhaps, bought only what was brought out to them. There was a small market of twenty old men leaning about. A wind stirred across the desert; people covered their faces and turned away from us. We made gestures of obeisance with our hands and murmured salaam, but we might have been ghosts uttering that word of peace.We were invisible to them.

That evening, threading our way to Ralph Izzard’s house, past the ill-lit stalls where people gathered and dogs were barking, Manama seemed a different city. A new, moist anticipation was in the air: there would be rain that night. Voices hailed each other through the darkness, and brought back the opening of Doughty’s Arabia Deserta: "Tell me, since thou art here again in the peace and assurance of Allah, and whilst we walk, as in the former years, toward the new blossoming orchards, full of the sweet spring as the garden of God, what moved thee, or how couldst thou take such journeys into the fanatic Arabia?" Fanatic Arabia seemed very far away.

Ralph’s neighbor, a mustachioed British lawyer named William Ballantyne who specializes in advising on Arabic law, had invited us all for dinner. Ballantyne has spent part of each year in Bahrain for thirty-five years; he speaks and reads Arabic fluently. His house, in the style of Ralph’s but far larger, opened to us like a dream of old Persia. The courtyard was vast, blue-tiled, of several levels. Stone sofas with cushions extended from the walls. Water tinkled in a small reflecting pool, and pitchers and vases cast growing shadows. A huge date palm rose beside a cork tree, and several honorably worn Persian rugs were scattered about. Inscribed stone tablets leaned against the walls. Rising off the roof was a windtower, one of the few left in Bahrain, and it ventilated the house.

In a long room looking out on the courtyard, in the arms of a cool breeze, we sat down to dinner. Our host looked dashing. He was about sixty, and had embraced this society, though his tones were impeccably British; yet with equal smoothness he addressed Ginger, his Baluchi cook, in Arabic. We asked Ballantyne how much of each year he spent here.

"Three months, perhaps. In the summer it’s so damned hot when you walk out of your house that your glasses start steaming, you take them off and you still can’t see, you think you’ve finally gone blind and start screaming for a white stick." He poured us more wine. "Bloody awful." He wasn’t complaining, though.

We spoke of the present re-assertion of Islam spreading through the Gulf, a result of increased contact with the West. It is a confusing time: youth no longer wants liberty alone, but tradition too. "But ultimately," said Ballantyne, "they’ve always got this to fall back on, that Allah’s will will be done on earth. Of that they have no doubts at all. Thus Islam can survive anything, even the modern city." He laughed. "I certainly don’t have any doubts, have you? It won’t be man’s will that’s done. That’s an easy one."

We asked how living here had affected his spiritual views, since he was a Christian. "Reading the Koran certainly has affected me. I suppose I know it much better than the Bible. But I don’t find it differs tremendously from the Christian teachings. There’s the same emphasis on the goods of the world not being what’s important. But this is a mystic place, and that’s part of the business of Bahrain. And it’s a good place to enter that mystic, extraordinarily beautiful book. There aren’t very many places like this left, full of highly civilized, basically good people. They make sense, which is refreshing here in the Gulf. It’s a very well-mannered, correct place, where someone can go see the ruler one morning a week and complain about anything he likes. The majlis is a tradition in all these countries, but most of the others have let it slide. You see, Bahrain is an island, but it’s not insular. This accommodating nature is the national character. The people are different here, they’re open, in part because wealth has seeped in gradually over the centuries, it didn’t happen suddenly and gigantically. And this place has been an international center, doing what it does now, for thousands of years."

It was midnight, and from the balcony we could see across the city. There were virtually no lights except those of the jealous hotels; and the courtyard, glorious below us, made them seem not worthy of our antagonism. It could have been a vast old city, of shadows and circuitous ways; at night it still was. We stayed up talking, looking out over the silhouetted roofs of the city where the children of Allah and other gods, great and small, lay peacefully asleep.