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Empty Quarter

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The Middle East is always a challenge to my values, my sensibility. Yet it also intrigues me with its concealment of the transactions, the human intercourse that propagates life. It’s a mystery how the electrifying romantic messages that wet the juices are transmitted. The women are, at least superficially, cloistered, veiled and, self-effacing. The men avert their eyes from any direct examination of a woman’s appearance and everywhere seem totally uninterested in the delights of the female form. Nonetheless the women take extraordinary care with the artifice of creating an illusion of beauty, the eyes carefully lined, the lips plumped and painted, the skin plastered and smoothed, that is except for those in full purdah.

The overall effect is that in the few, rare instances when the mating dance is conducted, performed in public, it is embarrassing even shameful. The girl smiles widely and it seems wild. Her eyes gleam and this takes the form of dazzling sunlight at midday. She moves with the unconscious sensuality of I’m receptive to your interest, your daring, but this gesture is magnified and distorted into I desire you and I’m insatiable. There’s no middle course, the absence of eroticism distorts the merely banal into a volcano about to erupt.

All this subdued passion is transformed into gluttony. Hence the oversized abdomens, the sluggish waddle, the indolence that is manifestly amphibian in its stealth and geologic ponderousness. Think glacial time. Corpulence takes the place of copulation!

There’s an even greater ailment. Boredom. Where in Delhi or Lagos you find a frenetic, unrelieved tension and energy. Here it is a sluggish snail pace passivity that receives and then infests the spirit. When everything has been taken care of, what meaning can hard work attract? Servants, underlings, subordinates oil the wheels of the every cart that even sleeping, strange as it might sound, can be done by proxy. How to define death then?

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You can see that I am back in the ‘Empty Quarter’. The plane landed after defending through a cloud of dust. The dust was like spray, straining the evening light. Surprisingly once on the ground there was no hint of sand in the air. Unusually my visa was waiting and the woman immigration assistant found it quickly and my passage through immigration to the arrival lounge was swift. I picked up my luggage and went out to the arrival hall. Mohammed was waiting. He greeted me, welcomed me back.

The drive into town was in the early evening. The moon was resplendent and globoid in the sky. Perhaps there was the rarest sliver of one rim missing, a fingernail. Otherwise there it was, miraculous, as it hung there and far too brightly. I took no notice of the city as it raced past, it was a blur of lights, of a skyline that was dark and cut into the night sky. My driver, a man of perhaps my age, sped with the confidence of a professional driver, avoiding the slow queues and joining the fast moving lanes effortlessly. This was a far cry from the usual Russian roulette- answering phone calls, texting, undoing and re-doing a turban, singing loudly and jerking in time to some music, all whilst driving as if we were on the set of ‘Fast and Furious’. I was always convinced that there was reward on my head and that the driver was determined to kill me. Not this time, though. The drive was a pleasure.

My hotel was on the Marina.

One evening I set off to the Souk Mubarakiya. It was a confusing place to visit if you don’t know it well. I was dropped off in a different corner than I was familiar with. Hence it was difficult finding the carpet quarter. Eventually I found it and it was, as ever, a gem, literally, a gem. I went into Mohammed’s shop, entirely by chance but I couldn’t have chosen better. He was knowledgeable. He gave me a seminar on carpets- kilims from Afghanistan, from Iran and Iran. then more and more varieties of carpets from Iran and Afghanistan, Beluch, Bakhtiari, etc. I was tempted to part with some money but common sense kicked in, how to transport a carpet to Birmingham in a small hand luggage.

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At last I left. Dinner was back at the hotel. Tonight it was in the basement where breakfast was usually served. I was on a small table for three. But there were corporate dinners hosted by drug companies, Eli Lilly, MSD, and others. But the outstanding event was the gaggle of spruced up beautiful women and who, surprisingly were on their own. We guessed they were agents of cosmetic firms out on the night to celebrate their annual sales convention. But in here in the Empty Quarter! I thought they might be friends on a night out. They laughed, smoked cigarettes and Hookahs. A few in mini skirts, an even larger number without scarves and with hair that had been put through a hairdresser’s imagination- glossy, piled up, elegant and like peacock feathers, extravagant and provocative. Definitely not the Empty Quarter! I suggested they must be Lebanese or Syrian and when we asked the waiter he said yes, they were friends who lived in the Empty Quarter but were from Lebanon and Syria, the Levant. Touché.

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It was almost unspeakable to see such unconcealed beauty paraded for all to see. Because of the rules of dress, what would have been modest in London, here, was blatant like being naked to bare skin. These were elegant women, in stylish trousers, in flowing gowns, in blouses that hugged the bosom, in scarves that arched and puckered on the head like lips flaunted for a kiss. It was exhilarating and sensuous. It was orchestrated to claim space, to advance freedom, to dare the conservatives, simply to speak as women everywhere do, without the moral censors. I loved it. It was a kind of chromatography of the hidden composition of the soul.

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It reminded me of my very first trip to the Empty Quarter. I had come almost directly from Peshawar where the Taliban was in charge. The separation of the sexes was so severe that to look at a woman was an offence to the spirit, if not in law. And here, in the Empty Quarter, I was expecting the same rigour, the same strict division but to my surprise, a young woman came to sit next to me. I was filled with terror, I thought “please stay away from me, can’t you see I’m a man, keep your tempting female form away from me! I can’t even look at you, that’s how dangerous you are!” Even today, I still marvel at how quickly I had become acculturated to the absurd, that my whole being screamed in rebellion and terror as I was approached by a young woman.

Yesterday evening along the corniche, at dusk the sun flared as it dropped, and then there was an afterglow, like a blush rising on a young woman’s face when others discover she loves a particular man, a teacher, say. Later the sea out to the horizon and up to the canvas of the sky looked like blotting paper with the ink spreading, another version of a blush but in blue, mauve, grey and darker grey this time.

On my last night I went to dinner in a genteel part of town with individually designed houses, architectural features that spoke of power, influence, and status. These were not mere houses, not homes but palaces in every sense. My host met me on the doorstep. Just outside were two straggly frangipani plants, a banana tree, a pair of mango trees, climbing vines that were dusty and clinging to the pergola. Indoors, in the immediate reception hall, carpets and rugs from Iran, from Afghanistan, perhaps even Iraq. These were everywhere, on the floor and as wall hangings.

Further in, the sofas were in Indian style, carved dark wood, probably copying European baroque furniture with intricate whorls, swirls and flourishes like saris billowing out in the wind as a young woman throws rice seeds with a wide opening gesture of her arms. The sofas lined the walls as if the master would hold court any moment now. What it lacked in intimacy it made for in grandeur and formality.

Guests arrived and there was the usual kissing on both cheeks, hugs, laughter and geniality. Ouzi was served, a lamb suckling laid on a bed of rice. Minced lamb in vine leaves, chicken salad Arab style, wonderful small packets of condiments in fried parcels, then the inevitable sweets, rich and far too sweet. And, suddenly the night was over.

On my final morning the sun rose low in the sky, it was unsurpassable in its brilliance. It shone, bouncing and glancing off the Arabian gulf whilst the sea itself turned molten silver. I looked at it and thought of Ibn Batuta’s words

I set out alone, finding no companion to cheer the way with friendly intercourse, and no party of travellers with whom to associate myself. Swayed by an over-mastering impulse within me, and a long cherished desire to visit those glorious sanctuaries, I resolved to quit all my friends and tear myself away from my home.

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Maybe next year Bukhara, Samarkand, Tashkent, Isfahan.

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