I’m sitting next to a wall covered in photos of Umm Kulthoum. From behind her omnipresent sunglasses, she looks down sternly on the crowded teashop, sharing wall space with dozens of other notable personalities from the Middle East. Along the ceiling hang WWI-era rifles, dusty phonographs, and lank flags discolored by years of cigarette smoke. My new friend Omar orders us another round of Karak Chai and resumes his animated explanation of why the pop star Shakira is such a great dancer — he insists it’s because she was born in Bahrain; I learn later she was born in Colombia. While Omar speaks, all sweeping gestures and croaking voice, I take a sip of scalding tea and compose my face, trying not to betray the fact that my heart is lurching wildly, like a drunk trying to skip rope. I take another sip and tell myself it’s just the highly-caffeinated, sugary tea, and not the heart attack my anxiety disorder insists is imminent.
I’m on the island of Muharraq in the Kingdom of Bahrain to explore Pearling, Testimony of an Island Economy, a site known colloquially as the Pearling Trail. Currently in the midst of construction, the serial heritage site will encompass a segment of the seafront, three offshore oyster beds, and 17 buildings connected by a three-and-a-half-kilometer pathway running through a historic neighborhood. The Trail is Bahrain’s second UNESCO World Heritage Site and will offer visitors a vision of the culmination of the 7,000-year Arabian Gulf pearling tradition. This summer, over and over again, I keep returning to walk this path with my notebook and water bottle in tow. “But it isn’t finished yet,” people tell me, worried I’ll be disappointed; but seeing it at this time, in the midst of its birth, when some parts are done and some parts are still old and crumbling, is exactly why I can’t stay away. After a year when my world was swallowed up by cataclysmic anxiety, this is supposed to be the summer that I change, too, and so I keep returning to be near something else that is being transformed. More… “Pearls of Wisdom & Fear”