Smells and Middle East memories

I was back in the Middle East recently. Waiting for the taxi to bring me home, I was sat on a huge tyre outside the gym, part of an industrial unit backing on to the railway. The boiling temperature and the smells from the scorching sun beating down on tarmac, cars, rubber and metal, transported me back to the 80s and 90s, to the aromas of Jeddah. 

Some trips were for teaching anatomy to would-be surgeons. I was there for two weeks at a time, with usually a physiologist and a pathologist. Other trips were for examining surgical aspirants – these lasted about a week or so, and were more social in that there were three examiners, two exam administrators, and often spouses.

Some visits took on a political dimension. The college was keen to recruit students and gain hospital management contracts, both of which brought with them substantial government income. I remember several receptions at which we sat round the edges of vast and ornately decorated rooms in palaces waiting for local dignitaries to arrive late, then joining in stilted conversation sipping Arabic coffee and nibbling sweetmeats as the man (never the woman) in the biggest chair continued his conversations with college bosses and advisers. On one occasion in Baghdad, just after the first Gulf War, the important man was a relative of Saddam. I did not consider it wise to be provocative – indeed I might well have said nothing, which was not difficult since smalltalk does not come easily to me unless it involves railways (not trains), organs or churchy stuff. I shut down in the midst of such internal distress, aching to get out. 

Of the places I visited, Amman was without doubt the most wonderful. Lovely people, fascinating places, Roman remains, Biblical sites. I even saw Petra before it was commercialised. By far the worst was Buraydah in central Saudi. I go so far as to declare it the cosmic cloaca. 

Like any remote settlement anywhere, it is conservative. But Saudi takes conservatism to a whole new level. Buraydah is the home of the training college for religious police – the mutawa. These puritans patrol the streets with sticks ensuring that shops close for prayers. They stamp out any hint of public joy. They are on the lookout for bare female flesh that they can whack. Foreigners are not exempt. An Irish female, head to ankle covered in black, had inadvertently allowed a smidgeon of bare foot to be visible. It did not escape the swipe. The mutawa bring to life R S Thomas’s definition of Protestantism: “the adroit castrator of art, the bitter negation of song and dance and the heart’s innocent joy”.

There was thus little incentive to leave the hospital compound. 

In Buraydah we were housed in three-bedroom villas – one each – for the medical staff. They were set around a central scrubby “lawn”. You can see the compound here, with the villas at the bottom of the screen: https://www.google.com/maps/@26.3482938,43.9699666,659m/data=!3m1!1e3

Other than three hours teaching a day there was nothing – and I repeat nothing – to do. It was just like lockdown, only worse. 

Routine activities like cutting one’s nails or scratching one’s backside were scheduled and done very slowly to fill the time. One of the biggest events of the day was cleaning my teeth of a morning. It was ritualized, It became a liturgical event. Running 100 times round the square was eagerly anticipated. Together with a physician teaching physiology, I competed with myself and him. I was never fitter than in those days: Susan said when I returned to Dublin after that fortnight that I looked like a rat. A fit one.

Food was interesting. Each morning we’d fill in a menu putting ticks against our chosen items for lunch and supper. Twice a day except Friday, the meals arrived: always scraggy chicken and rice, no matter where the ticks had been. A good game. There was a supermarket on the compound, fortunately.

I don’t want to give the impression that I sailed through these ten or so middle east trips. I did not. Life at the time was fraught. I found it incredibly difficult to be working and living in Ireland with the two boys at school in England (until 1992). In addition, to be away from Susan and Victoria on these occasions helped to propel me to despair from which it took years to recover – if I have. I was delighted to be able before long to pass these duties to junior staff, and they were happy to oblige.

Baghdad was my first middle east trip. I went twice, the first to examine as part of a team from the London surgical college, and the second, I think (memory is hazy), to discuss the establishment of a new medical school. I liked Baghdad and the Iraqis. Like Jordanians they were down to earth and pleasant. I met a croupier at one of the big Baghdad hotels and wondered why I didn’t have a glamorous and lucrative job like his.

Tragic middle east politics – another cock up of partition overseen by the Brits.

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