Now that I am awake during the day (as opposed to my long period standing watch and generally living at night), I have the opportunity to do daytime things, like play tourist. So I found a brief tour on a day off, put down my $5 (!) and got in a van to visit the Tree of Life.
Several years ago I did see the movie “The Tree of Life,” the very Malick-y Terrence Malick film from 2011. It is a beautiful movie, though I couldn’t tell you what it’s actually about. However the attraction in Bahrain is a little different – Brad Pitt was nowhere to be found, and, for that matter, I couldn’t locate any dinosaurs, either (if you haven’t seen the movie, that sentence will make no sense).
Bahrain’s Tree of Life is an actual tree. It is in the neighborhood of 400 years old and all by itself in the southern desert, a generally tree-free region. But somewhere way down deep it tapped into an as-yet-unidentified water source and it has flourished over the centuries. Surrounding the tree are decaying stone-and-mortar foundations that are about the same age as the tree. Archeologists have recovered various signs of human habitation, from jugs to coins to ammunition. It would make sense for someone to have located a fort there and kept a stash of cannonballs. The site is on top of a small hill, from which you can see pretty far in all directions. People don’t tend to think too much about topography, but in a flat country a few feet can make a big difference.
But it was only in 2013 that the site was enclosed to prevent cars from driving over the ruins, so it’s not in the best shape. The five of us tourists were walking all over the area, which I’m sure would have been blocked off if we’d been in the Arizona desert.
Beyond actually seeing the Tree of Life, the trip was notable for being almost as far as you can go on the island of Bahrain. There is territory to the south of the tree, but not terribly much. So I can now say I’ve seen nearly the entire east coast, bopping along to the tunes of Smashmouth/No Doubt/Pearl Jam/Adele/Taylor Swift and other pop of the last 20 years on the radio station apparently solely sponsored by Saudi Aramco (a story in itself) for all the expats in the Gulf. It was basically like when driving through Fredericksburg, where I lose the DC stations and put on a local pop one, except that instead of I-95 in lush tidewater Virginia it was a really well-maintained freeway in dusty desert. (Did the desert dust get on you? Shake It Off.)
The drive from Juffair, my neighborhood, to the Tree is actually instructive in that it gets your eyeballs on all the major industries. As you exit the city of Manama you can see the giant skyscrapers – hubs of banking and finance scattered amongst grand hotels serving tourists and business travelers alike. Along the waterfront the ship berths, repair facilities and naval base are visible. Further south as the residential and commercial suburbs give way to heavy industry, an oil refinery and storage tanks become visible (so not only can Bahrain export crude, they can process oil into usable products, which is nice). And a bit before the city streets turn to freeway, there’s a giant aluminum smelting plant which, from the street, looks very clean and modern – aluminum is Bahrain’s second-biggest export after oil, after all. And then right down the road from the Tree of Life itself, you’ll find Isa Air Base, hub of Bahrain’s air defenses. We actually followed a convoy of security forces on the way out from the Tree. So there’s definitely a lot of military activities in the south.
There is, of course, more to say – Bahrain is a small country but it is an entire country, and that’s kind of a big deal. But that’s plenty for one post. As always, there’s more to follow.