The Souq Beyond the Souq
Shockwave of sun wakes a world of dazzle and sheen. Through the morning souq I walk, past shopkeepers unlocking doors and assembling wares, through riverine air thick with the smell of cinnamon and saffron and sun-dried limes stacked in black ziggurats in front of spice shops. This tangled city at the edge of Bahrain is Manama. The city tilts over a vast underground sea, the sea of Enki – the old Dilmun lord of creation and magic and semen – the sea from which Gilgamesh sought his plant of immortality.
This is the Manama of the Kassites and the Safavids and the Persians, the Manama of Arabic and English and Gujarati and Bengali and Tagalog and Urdu, the Manama of teak and gold and mahogany scudding to shore on dhows from lands across the sea, the Manama of Dilmun – the paradisical island that floats through Sumerian legend, where men never age and where lions lie down with lambs. This is Manama, a city built on the pearls carried up from the depths of the two seas – the salt and the fresh, a city built on the oil discovered at Jebel Dukkhan, the mountain of smoke, a city where there is the souq of the mundane and – though most do not know it – the souq beyond the souq.
The Manama souq is a sophisticated metaphysical proposition, an entanglement of quantum proportions: the litter of jasmine in the gutter is also – simultaneously – a constellation of fallen stars. Understand this and you will understand the souq. Every corner of these streets, every one of its rapturous faces, each stray cat loping through its alleys on soft angel paws, is radiantly lit by the uncreated light of another world.
I move with all the furor of my spinning electrons through the chasm of the street’s holy time. It is fundamental for a created being to make of daily life a pilgrimage; we either know it or we don’t. If we know it, our drifting is furnished with a semblance of hope. If we don’t, we spiral all the same but we are untethered and sorrowful with the lack. It is here, in the unfurling of the mourning dove as she lifts to the sky, in the penultimate shriek of the red-faced baby in the pram, in the dolorous sweep of the pushcart man as he ambles his day into being. Into my book I collect these particles of time, these moments of resonant truth, listing them in blue ink against white paper, like sky slapped on cloud, like paltry feints toward a theory of everything.
Through the sun-spangled morning I walk. Chanting the melody I share with the street I am striding and sliding through time. When I was very young, I believed the streets of the souq were riptides caught and held fast in asphalt. Surely the waves had heaved themselves into these spangled arrangements, this alley jutting that way, that alley twisting this way, what else could be the cause besides the staggering depth of the tides and the chaos of their churn? When I walked the riptide streets I contorted my body into the species of movement I believed appropriate – there are ways to be a body that are multivalent, paths of awareness through which to slip – and I discovered the old stories were true.
The old stories, muttered by the al ajdad sipping their karak on blue benches faded in the sun and the al jadaat in their shadowy kitchens curtains drawn, whispered by the children heeling their henna-red donkeys at the shore, the old stories were true: there are passages leading to the souq beyond the souq and there was a time when all the world hung in the balance.
Follow me, follow me.