Was it really less than three weeks ago that Joe and I sat in our kitchen in Spain, wondering what our new life in Bahrain held in store?
We’d agreed to exchange our idyllic, if sometimes crazy, life in a tiny Spanish mountain village – for a year teaching in Bahrain. We were replacing mountains with deserts. Crisp, clean air for city pollution and sandstorms. Exchanging the hourly chimes of our village church bells for mosques and Muslim calls to prayer. What would life be like in Bahrain? What were we letting ourselves in for?
Joe and I arrived in Bahrain at 2.00 am, tired and anxious. We’d almost been refused visas in Madrid, planes were delayed and connections missed. The heat hit us like a punch in the face. However, although exhausted, our eyes drank in the scenes flashing past as our taxi sped us to our apartment. We gaped at the modern skyscrapers of Manama, bright city lights, minarets and domed mosques, Arabs wearing headdresses and white robes. Andalucía already seemed a long way away.The next few days, before school started, were a whirl of tours. The International School, our employers, took us to see the Grand Mosque, the F1 racetrack, Bahrain at night and sumptuous shopping malls. We were promised a visit to the King’s camels but were told it was too hot. For the camels or us? We weren’t sure.
Of course we knew we had arrived in the middle of Ramadan, but were blissfully unaware how that would affect us. And affect us it did. Ramadan is the 9th month of the Muslim year, a period of strict fasting. Nobody eats, or even sips water, between dawn and sunset.
The school term started, but very few pupils turned up. Of the ones that did, most were called Mohammed and nearly all were fasting for Ramadan. Imagine teaching from 7.00 am to 1.30 pm without a lunch break, or even a drink of water. I brought a small bottle of water with me, but had to hide in a cupboard to drink it, for fear of offending my devout little pupils or the Muslim staff.
Then, on the 8th of September, there was an announcement. If enough of the waxing crescent moon was visible to the naked eye, and satisfied the official Muslim elder, Ramadan would be declared over. Joe and I eagerly watched the night sky.
Alas! Not enough of the moon was seen, and we, together with the devout Muslims, suffered another dry, hungry day. Of course the next day a perfectly acceptable crescent moon appeared. The exciting news was broadcast on TV, an ancient cannon was fired and an archive video of the King of Bahrain praying at Mecca was shown. The Eid Al-Fitr holiday, marking the end of Ramadan, began.
Yet more disruption. Banks and shops shut their doors and the school closed. Parties were thrown, new clothes worn, ‘Happy Eid’ cards sent, a thousand prayers chanted.
Joe and I watched it all in fascination. And we thought the annual fiesta in our little village in Spain was bizarre? We thought moving from England to Spain was a culture shock?
Having read the above, you’ll understand why, in just two weeks, I already have a notebook crammed with material for my third book, even though the second, the sequel to ‘Chickens’ isn’t finished. Life in Bahrain is often bewildering, but it’s never dull…
My recipe of the month – Muhammara
(Hot Pepper Dip)
From “Cooking the Middle Eastern Way” by Christine Osborne
Muhammara is eaten as a dip with bread. It can also be used as a spicy dip with kebabs, grilled meats and fish. The Lebanese also eat it as a spread on toast.
You will need:
3 medium onions, finely chopped
1/2 cup plus 1 tablespoon olive oil
3/4 cup crushed walnuts
3/4 cup breadcrumbs blended with cold water to a purée
2 tablespoons paprika (or 1 teaspoon chili powder for a very hot muhammara) or 1 small can hot pepper purée
a pinch of ground cumin
1 tablespoon pine nuts sautéed in a little oil
Using a deep skillet, sauté the onions gently in the oil until soft and golden. Add the walnuts, the breadcrumb purée, the pepper (chili or purée), the cumin and salt to taste. Continue to sauté gently on a low heat until the ingredients are well blended – about 12 minutes.
Remove from the heat, place in a bowl and garnish with pine nuts.
Serves about 6.
“a charming and funny expat tale” The Telegraph (UK)
“Weeks later you will be doing the dishes and recall some fleeting scene with chickens or mules or two old fools and laugh out loud all over again.” The Catalunya Chronicle