Masmak Fort. Chop Chop Square. The old souq. After two and a half years this was just as it was. The flag still hung limp in the warm evening air. The children still tore across the executioner’s ground. Footballs still thudded into walls. Covered women still shopped in the covered market. People still gadded about. The Mosque outside the headquarters of the Organisation for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice still advertised the benefits of prayer.
Last time I walked along the Wadi Hanifa the winter air had left me shivering. The stone and concrete wadi, a long straight bare channel, was all there was to see. On one side there was a road with benches every few dozen yards. On the other side was nothing: a scree slope leading up to a fence and a building site. A visit to the Wadi was something to do, but it was hardly something worth doing.
Now, all this has changed. The dingy wind-swept corridor has gone. In its place are grassy banks, palm trees, lights and promenades. Across the now shallow and meandering wadi are a crop of brand new old mud huts, and a palace still under construction. There are little tourist shops and restaurants (including one or two it is possible to imagine entering).
In two years a complete transformation has been achieved. The place I knew is no more. In its place is something…nice.
I feel I should write something when I am in Riyadh. But what is there to write?
There is the growing spring warmth, a herald of the heat to come. There is the sound of the birds in the morning, and the sparrows flitting from one hallway to another in an office that will double as a coffin for them. There is the smell of the flowers, to remind one of the dodgy drains.
There are the cups of tea with colleagues. There is the home-cooked Chinese food with a Chinese colleague, and a Riyadh burger drowning in fat with an American colleague. There are in-jokes so well known that they do not need to be uttered. There are the faces of colleagues I know so well from within and without the office that my three years in the Kingdom doesn’t seem nearly long enough. There are the faces of colleagues I know far too poorly given our close and confined proximity.
It is weird. After all this time I feel there is nothing left to say.
How do we get better when unwell? Every culture has its own answer.
The Chinese have their traditional medicine. As I lay with a fever my colleague rubbed oil into various qi points. She burnt special wormwood and let the smoke and heat boost my circulation and bring out the fever.
But the English say that time is the best medicine, and as I lay in bed I had plenty of that.
Maybe the Koreans are right. Maybe the best approach to dealing with a little illness is a choreographed Overdose. Maybe it was lots of K-pop that proved the best cure.
Big and juicy, they were. The pile of oranges at the supermarket was too tempting. I bought lots.
Imagine my horror when they turned out dry inside. The promise of the orange was as unfulfilled as a politician’s pledge. Yet somehow worse. For there is nothing half so melancholy as a dry orange.
It isn’t the edge of the world. But stand at the edge of the cliff and you can look out at another world. You can look out at an old world. A world long gone, stripped of its colours and reduced to a geologist’s dream. Laid bare; dusty, flat, stretching out to forever.
It is the desert again. It is captivating. It draws you in. Perhaps that is its trap. The siren call of a lifeless beauty.
But in this February morning, the desert wasn’t lifeless. Among the dry dust and sandstone rocks, among the fossils and misshapen stones, is life. A long legged back beetle with a matt pitted shell: Adesmia cancellata. It ran over the hot desert floor, dodging human fingers reaching down to grasp it. An ant marched slowly with a giant piece of leaf. And there were flowers. Flashes of colour. Green, white, yellow: Eremobium lineare or, in Arabic, rua’bisha; Senecio desfontainii (zambuq).
It has been a long time since I was last in the desert proper. For many this cliff face, this escarpment, is their first taste of the desert. Why had I waited so long to come here, to stand at the edge and look out over the beyond? Why for me did this morning feel less like a welcome and more like a valedictory?
In the car on the way back to Riyadh I slept. But before I closed my eyes I watched a single camel stop from grazing and look towards me.
The sun shines and the birds sing and dance in the trees. There is little wind, and for once the sky is blue. The dust and sand that so often fill the sky and turn it brown are gone. They lie upon the land, and like the dreams of former years are trodden under foot. The air is cool. The thermometer reads eighteen degrees, but for a moment in the shadows I shiver. It is a cold eighteen degrees, and only in the sun can I feel warmth. Only when the light shines on my face or back can I feel the cool dispelled.
The birds enjoy this moment in the year. There is colour to be seen. The flowers are still bright and the leaves show a green that has yet to be burnt dark under the heavy sun of summer. In this short season, a window is opened onto another kind of Riyadh. I am no longer alone in my walk to work. In town, people seem to dally on the streets for just a little longer than they did in summer. The sun, for once, is something to linger beneath, not scurry away from.
Yet no observation, interpretation or reaction in Riyadh is a simple one. I do not believe it is possible to have a one-dimensional relationship with this land. Everything is complicated, and in every moment there is a conflict amongst thoughts. I relish in this season of life, but I know it is short. I enjoy the coolness of the air, but oddly miss the burning heat of August. I look to the peacefulness of my surroundings, the stillness of of the desert, and yet cannot shake from my thoughts the headlines from the Arab News. High politics, death and intrigue seem to whirl around me as if I exist, for now, in the eye of a storm. But storms move, and one cannot live within the eye for ever.
I am haunted by the words of Wilfred Thesiger. There is no need to repeat them here, for like so much in this city, context is everything. The passages themselves contain a harsh beauty, but when layered upon experience, they reach down to ones core and yank at ones roots.
But I am haunted by other words too. As I think about the shifting desert sands and the dreams they may have buried, what other richer dusts lie there concealed? As I think about time, I know that there will always be time yet, here, for a hundred indecisions, and for a hundred visions and revisions. The complexity of relationships with this country, the way life out here demands a nuanced view, bleeds certainty. Everything is ups and downs. In the vastness of the land and in the midst of this plague of uncertainty and bad news, where each additional news article is just another locust in the rampaging storm, one is left to feel very small.
In the late afternoon and early evening when I leave the office, the sun is already low in the sky. It is huge and orange, for once a welcoming, warming colour, quite unlike the scorching dazzling yellow-white of its summer cousin.
But it is a winter sun. It may be of a warming colour, but I do not feel it warm my spirit.
Shadows elongate along the dusty ground and merge into the penumbra of early dusk. The colours of the flowers, the freshness of the greens; all begin to leach away and fade as another day is done.
I think I understand now why horses are given blinkers. It does calm one down. Not being able to see things you don’t fully understand helps. But it doesn’t quite cure everything.
My anxiety had grown slowly but steadily. I had tripped over the tiniest piece of string when running. I landed square on my chin, crashing down onto wet, sand covered pavement. The pain stopped me from standing up straight away, but I got myself back to my rooms and stood under the shower, letting the warm water wash away the clumps of sand that somehow covered half my body. There was an astonishing amount of blood too, but that also washed away down the plughole, leaving just a smattering of cuts and grazes from where I had fallen. I patted myself dry, wincing as the towel brushed against the scrapes and from an astonishing ache in my wrist. Nonetheless, all seemed reasonably shipshape. I looked into the mirror and tried to clean up the graze on my chin. And I will confess that this was when my anxiety started to spike. As I tilted my head up the graze opened up. The first thought that popped into my head as I looked into the bloodied and tenderised flesh of my open chin, was that I had eaten steaks that looked less appetising.
So with a very kind friend leading the way, I toddled off to the A&E room and handed over my insurance card. In less than ten minutes I was sitting in a cubicle. For those familiar with a late night A&E room in London, this was the epitome of efficiency. It was what came afterwards that made my anxiety spike for the second time.
If ever there was a ‘second-hand car salesman’ look, it was the look of the two doctors who sashayed into my cubicle, their designer lab-coats dashingly open at the front. As the older one sank his fingers into my open wound to ask if it hurt, the younger man stood, hands on hips and smile on lips. I almost couldn’t breathe for anticipation of what model car he would try to sell. A Renault Clio, a Bentley Continental…?
Having decided that my jaw was neither broken nor dislocated they left. Five minutes later a nurse put a sort of nappy-changing table-cloth on my chest, tucking it up under my chin. And then the next duo arrived.
And so I lay there, with gauze swabs over my eyes to stop the light from dazzling me, as one doctor stood as overseer, a second doctor stitched my chin shut with shaking hands and blue thread, and the nurse shouted at the top of her lungs in conversation with a friend in the neighbouring cubicle. A calming experience this was not, as saw from the corner of my eye I saw flashes of metal needles and blue wire. Nor, despite the three injections of local anesthetic that my face received, was it pain free. Frankly, pain-wise, I would rather have fallen over a dozen times.