|Publisher:||University of California Press|
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Paradoxes of Green
Landscapes of a City-State
By Gareth Doherty
UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESSCopyright © 2017 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
THE VERTICAL AND THE HORIZONTAL
The power of a country road when one is walking along it is different from the power it has when one is flying over it by airplane.
— Walter Benjamin
I arrived in Bahrain for my fieldwork on the eve of Eid al-Fitr, the festival of breaking the fast that marks the end of the fasting month of Ramadan. I had intended to be in Bahrain before then, in order to visit estate agents to find housing, but the taxi driver who drove me from the airport to the Oriental Hotel in the Manama suq announced gleefully that "Eid has just been declared!" The king, he told me, had declared Eid a day earlier than expected, following the first spotting of the moon marking the end of the Ramadan fast — Islam follows the lunar calendar. This meant five days of public holiday would follow, and significantly for me, real estate accommodation offices would be closed. I had decided early on not to live with expatriates or in an area that Western expatriates might normally choose, such as Juffair, Exhibition Road, or Budaiya. But it was impossible for me to find a place to live with a Bahraini family and to achieve the intimacy of living conditions that the ethnographer Bronislaw Malinowski would advocate. After much searching though the Gulf Daily News and in the Internet cafés of Manama during Eid, I gave up on the idea and sublet a modest one-bedroom apartment from a French hairdresser, Philippe, who in turn rented the villa from a pilot in the king's fleet. I found the apartment through an advertisement on Expatriates.com:
1 b/room Flat attached to a private house for rent n nice area Manama. Description: Little sweet-home Flat with caracter in Manama (15 mns walking to souk) nice green area for 1 person, attatched to a private villa, with it's private door. 1 b.room + separ.private shower & toilet & separate mini-kitchen with fridge/micro-wave/kettle/elec ring stove/crokery/cuttlery/new bed(130 cm)/T.V/internet(with an extra 20 bd/months on share)/little cute garden with pond. 200 bds/months (400 bhd every 2 months) all tax included (water and electricity and the 10 % municipality residential tax and the maintenance). [All sic; emphasis mine.]
I was intrigued and went to see it. The "nice green area" was the district of Gufool, just outside Manama and beside the Water Gardens, which had been "beautified" by Charles Belgrave some fifty years before. Belgrave was the British-born adviser to the ruler of Bahrain, and effectively prime minister, from 1926 to 1957. The location of the apartment allowed easy access by foot to Manama on one side and the greenbelt on the other; this centrality was important for my desire to walk everywhere I needed to go. Gufool itself is full of mid-twentieth-century villas and is laid out in a grid system. One can easily imagine the date palms that used to inhabit the site; clearly from its context, surrounded by date palm groves and former date palm groves, it was formerly a date palm plantation too, a bustan.
The apartment itself was directly above the hair salon serving female expatriates and sheikhat, female members of the ruling family. "You look youngerrrrr!" became my morning wake-up call, as Philippe complimented his clients. After I moved in in early October, it became a priority for me to paint the yellow walls of the apartment white. Steven Caton did this during his fieldwork, as he reports in Yemen Chronicle, as a way of establishing his ownership over his place of abode. It took some time for the landlord to agree, but once the walls were white I realized the power of color to transform perception of space. The color had energized me for the task I had set myself.
When I entered Rashid's office on my first day calling on the Ministry of Municipalities in Manama, on the desk on top of a pile of papers was afull-color printed version of a report widely available on the Internet. This report, made soon after Google Earth became available in Bahrain, compared areas of Bahrain with Bahraini royal properties and did not mince words. Comparing the densely populated capital city of Manama with the king's private island — of exactly the same size as the capital — the anonymous author asked: "How many people live in Manama? And how many property owners are there? Who is allowed to enter the city? And what's the density of its population?" It goes on to say, "Ask the same questions for this 'Bahrain' island over here!" The document, which was widely circulated by e-mail around the Gulf, contained screenshots made before Google Earth was banned in Bahrain (for a brief period, as it turned out). As one blogger put it, "Pamphleteering doesn't get much more visceral than this (even if I have no easy way of verifying if it is true). If Bahrain's government wants to prevent the spread of this kind of information, it will have to ban e-mail." This report's presence on a ministry desk indicated the seriousness with which online informal communication is taken.
I had planned on working with the Ministry of Municipalities and Agriculture Affairs. To access the archives of the ministry — or so I was told — I needed a formal job. My appointment to the Physical Planning Directorate was approved at the lower levels of the bureaucracy, went through the hierarchy, and I was told, sat in the minister's inbox for most of a year. I had actually left Bahrain when I received a message that the ministry was looking for me to start work in its offices in an office building in the center of Manama called "Gold City." The message was in the form of a voicemail inquiring as to my whereabouts as I had not shown up for work. By then I had met the then minister, who was Shi?i, one evening at the Ma?tam Bin Rajab, his family ma?tam, at a celebration he had organized. Cattle and sheep were slaughtered on the street outside as offerings for the poor. This follows one of the foundational practices of Islam, zakat, or almsgiving and distribution of one's wealth among the community. It was that evening, a couple of weeks before I finished my fieldwork, that I first met the minister in person and told him what I was doing. He told me to let him know if there was anything I ever needed or wanted. Soon after that, my appointment to the ministry was approved — through his generosity or merely slow coincidence I cannot say. I heard critique from several Sunnis in the ministry that the minister was only interested in helping the Baharna, an ethnic group I obviously am not a member of. During my year in Bahrain, officials at the ministry were most gracious and gave me desk space in the office, although without that formal job I could not have access to the official database. My time at the ministry allowed me to closely observe their ways of working and cultivate many conversations and indeed friendships. At first I would bring my notebooks so I could work at my desk and write up my fieldnotes but quickly found that I could not work when I went to the ministry; the days were taken up with people stopping by to chat and drink tea. Usually we would have lemon tea, made of black dried lemon and hot water with some honey.
I had expected that the affiliation with the ministry would allow me greater access to information and people. In general, this was not the case. While I made many good friends through the ministry, it took a few weeks for me to realize that being attached to the ministry included both obligation toward the ministry and a bias, perceived or actual. And then there was the issue that the ministry was not really that powerful.
In general I found that those in authority, while sympathetic to my presence — and this includes a friend from the royal family — did not seem used to being questioned about government policies. They either didn't know the answers to my questions or did not want to tell me the answers, although no one ever actually said no. A couple of people who were especially sympathetic to my work explained that their willingness to open up to me was hampered by the fact that they feared giving out too much information might jeopardize their positions.
"Do you want the official figure or the real figure?" was a regular question asked in the various ministries in response to my queries, and hardly anyone batted an eyelash at the irony of such a question being posed. Obtaining any sort of quantitative information could be taxing and frustrating. In one instance, at an unnamed institution, a senior figure explained to me that a huge discrepancy between the published figures and the reality originated from a desire to please the rulers. Once the rulers became aware of a figure, exaggerated by a civil servant to make himself and his team look better in the eyes of the authorities, the organization became trapped in a set of double figures. There were those figures that were presented to the rulers and those that were used within the organization to try to catch up with what they were declaring. Other sets of double figures persist more pervasively.
When I inquired at a ministry in Manama about the square meters of green space in Bahrain, I was told that the official figure was both freely available and unreliable; meanwhile the real figure could only be obtained on my behalf through the written request of the president of my university to the minister. Furthermore, I was told that even if the president of Harvard wrote to the minister, she would probably not receive an answer. The complexities of the cultural conditions in Bahrain add to the complexities of gathering information. In general, I found that the majority Shi'i population was receptive to my presence and much more open with me than were the Sunni-controlled ministries. As the literature on the urbanism of landscape was so thin for Bahrain, it became clear that the broad range of data I needed for this research project could be obtained only from a long-term period of ethnographic fieldwork. I would need extended engagement with the location and its people to gather the data, qualitative and quantitative, that I needed.
Having secured funding for a year of fieldwork in Bahrain and the Gulf, I developed a schedule for the first few months. I wanted to confirm my plan's usefulness and asked some eminent professors for guidance on my methodology. The professors told me, "Just do what you need to do." In other words, don't think too hard. It took me some time to realize and appreciate that this was not an evasion of the question but actually really good advice. I went to Bahrain and started doing. It was only when I was in the field, for instance, that I realized how important walking would be, as it increased the possibilities of serendipity that most anthropologists depend on and brought me into contact with many Bahrainis outside of my regular social orbit with whom I could engage.
Once in the field, I found that even the best-laid plans did not always work out as hoped. I constantly had to improvise, to abandon work I had been doing, to keep multiple lines of inquiry open, and hardest of all, to be patient. One of the biggest challenges I faced was that things took time, although being Irish I was already used to "creative" schedules for things such as buses. When I asked an Irish bus driver once why the bus was always late, he quipped, "If we left on time, everyone would miss it." The expression inshallah (a colloquial form of in sha' Allah, meaning "God willing") has many tonalities, each of which implies a different degree of commitment. Until I learned to appreciate and interpret the significance of these nuances, I found that the driver did not show up or promised meetings did not happen. The standard explanation for something not happening in the way that it was supposed to was that it couldn't have been God's will. God's intentions, it turned out, can be somewhat anticipated by noticing the different emphases between inshallah, inshaallah, and inshaaallah. The longer the a, the more likely something is to happen.
My expectations for my time in Bahrain were to live among Bahrainis, to meet locals as much as possible, and to speak Arabic on a daily basis — a plan that turned out to be incredibly difficult for many reasons, never mind the fact that there are so many local social groups and voices to be heard. Bahrain's polyvocality is evidenced by the plethora of accents in Bahrain; often they differ markedly even within families if children go to different schools or socialize with different social groups. I had a romantic notion similar to that of Bronislaw Malinowski, one of the founders of ethnographic fieldwork, who advocates for an immersive experience but describes an easy division of observer from observed, which is not always so easy in the field. Malinowski writes that the proper conditions for ethnographic fieldwork "consist mainly in cutting oneself off from the company of other white men, and remaining in as close contact with the natives as possible, which can only be achieved by camping right in their villages."
Camping in Bahrain's villages would be useful only if the villagers camped too. Most Bahrainis live behind high walls, and it is unusual for expatriates such as myself to be invited inside. The lack of interaction between Bahrainis and expatriates is often attributed to issues surrounding women and modesty, but clearly there is more to it than that. In any case, I was surprised at how isolated my life was from what I expected local life to be. It was not at all the experience I was expecting; indeed my day-to-day life was in general not that different from my existence in the United States. This was due both to the impenetrability of Bahraini society to expatriates and to the fact that the Bahraini lifestyle is in many respects quite westernized. So when I did get invited behind the high walls, I was sometimes surprised at how life within was not that different.
When I met my Bahraini friends for lunch or dinner, I usually wanted to eat traditional Bahraini street food such as the most delicious local tikka — finely chopped cubes of lamb marinated overnight in dried lemon, which gives them a black color, and grilled on a skewer. It is eaten with fresh khubz (bread) and raw green onion leaves. My friend Isa, the U.S.-educated civil servant with a deep love for Bahrain and Bahraini traditions, introduced me to "wahid dinar tikka" (wahid means "one"; one dinar is about US$2.65). Except for Isa, my Bahraini friends and informants steered me toward fancy restaurants such as Monsoon, which they would describe as "the best Thai restaurant in Bahrain." Indeed, on one occasion when I returned to Bahrain for a short trip, all I wanted was to go find tikka, whereas my friends wanted to go to a posh restaurant with "international cuisine," which also included pork and alcohol. They probably thought I would enjoy that. They preferred to showcase their cosmopolitan bona fides, but all I wanted was Bahraini food. One of the few restaurants near my home was Dairy Queen, the U.S. fast-food restaurant, and although I initially tried to avoid eating there, I wound up being a regular customer known to the mostly Filipino staff. It had a largely student clientele, due to the proximity of the campus of AMA International University. Ali, a younger brother of my friend Isa, said he often went to Dairy Queen in the early hours of the morning with his friends.
I did get invited into a few Bahraini homes during the course of the year, sometimes to a majlis and sometimes to the living area, depending on how traditional the family was. I was very fortunate in that Isa's family regularly had me over for meals, including Friday lunch. Following Friday prayers, this was the main family meal of the week. Soon after I arrived in Bahrain, Umm Isa invited me over for Friday lunch. Umm means "mother of." She told me to treat their home like my own. "This is your house," she told me. "Come over whenever you feel like it. It is your home." Umm Isa's hospitality, I later learned, was not the norm, and it provided me with a welcome degree of security and stability in a sometimes harsh environment. Perhaps because they were of Persian descent, Friday lunch almost always included rice, yellow from saffron, mixed with pomegranates and crusted from oil on the bottom of the pan, as well as local fish such as hamur (grouper), chan'ad (mackerel), or safy (rabbitfish). Isa's family home became a second home for me, and I spent many hours there, although the distance — on the other side of the island out of walking range from my lodgings — always made it a little bit hard to get to.
My work became a multilayered ethnography, an ethnography based on seemingly disparate interviews and casual encounters, walking, photography, formal analysis of built projects, and some archival research. I studied green on a daily basis in public spaces, gardens, observing religious practices, government ministries, politics, and so forth. I would meet my core group of friends and informants on a regular basis, but they lacked social engagement with one another, and this led to a narrow, affiliation-based contact with the people I intended to study. In other words, I did not have access to any one preestablished community or wider extended family or group of friends in Bahrain; instead, I constructed my own. I interacted with a diversity of people and sites dispersed across the city, connected by green as discussed and practiced on a daily basis. I came to call this interaction multilayered ethnography.
Excerpted from Paradoxes of Green by Gareth Doherty. Copyright © 2017 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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