The Beer Drinkers

a Mahboob Chaudri story

Mahboob Ahmed Chaudri was bored.


I'm a policeman, not a wetnurse, he thought morosely, and my place is out on the streets, in the suq, where the action is — not stuck here playing nanny to a pack of silly children.


It was well that Chaudri kept such thoughts to himself. Were he to give them voice, to speak the frustration that was in his heart, it would mean the end of his right to wear the proud uniform of a mahsool, the end of his career, the end of his four-year stay in Bahrain.


For these four boys were no ordinary children. They were the eldest sons of four of the most powerful and influential men in the Arabian Gulf — or "Persian" Gulf, as the Western infidels and the damned Iranians insisted on calling it — and one did not call such boys a pack of silly children unless one was eager to give up the respected position that Chaudri had worked so hard to win and to return in disgrace to the bitter life of a day-laborer in Karachi.


It was the third and final day of the second annual meeting of the Gulf Cooperation Council, and the heads of state of the six member nations — the emirs of Bahrain, Kuwait, and Qatar, the sultan of Oman, the king of Saudi Arabia, and the president of the United Arab Emirates — were cloistered away with their prime ministers, defense ministers, and aides in a magnificently appointed conference room in Manama’s shiniest, most elegant new hotel. They had come together to discuss the coordination of security forces in the region, the establishment of "common market" agreements between their several nations, the Palestinian question, the ramifications of the Iran-Iraq war, the advisability of a joint demand for the withdrawal of Israeli troops from Lebanon, the adoption of uniform passports, and other issues of mutual importance.


Four of the senior ministers had brought their first-born sons to Bahrain with them, and it had fallen to Mahboob Chaudri to take care of the boys while Their Highnesses conferred, to tour them around the island’s points of interest, and to keep them away from trouble. And, most important, to keep trouble away from them.


It was an important assignment — a vital one, a mark of his superiors’ total confidence in his abilities. It was also, thought Chaudri, an incredible bore.


Day One of the conference had been filled with arrivals and receptions and parties and dinners. The ministers’ children had been included in all these functions, and Chaudri had been but one small cog in the complex machinery of the security arrangements. By Allah’s grace, all had gone well. There had been no incidents of any kind — not at the airport, not during the motorcade into the city center, not at the hotel or the various embassies where the welcoming activities had taken place.


On Day Two, the official meetings had begun. That morning, Chaudri had chaperoned the four youngsters on a tramp around the Portuguese Fort and the ruins of the Bronze Age and Stone Age cities, accompanied by a reporter and a photographer from the Gulf Daily News and the president of the Historical and Archaeological Society. After a luncheon at the home of the Saudi ambassador, hosted by that dignitary’s charming and beautiful wife, they had driven south into the desert for a busride through the newly opened Al-Areen Wildlife Preserve. The children had enjoyed themselves immensely, but Chaudri, of course, had been on duty all day and had not had a chance to eat lunch. By the time they reached Al-Areen, he was hot and hungry and tired, and the chatter of the boys and the penetrating stink of the Arabian oryx had given him a headache.


This afternoon, insh’Allah, would be the end of it. Another hour or so here at the National Museum and he could herd his charges back across the causeway from Muharraq to the mainland, deliver them safely into their fathers’ arms, thank one and all for the honor of having been permitted to serve them, and with a bit of luck catch a ride back to the police barracks in time to take a hot bath before dinner.


Children!


And, to be fair about it, it wasn’t only the children. There was also that irritatingly bouncy British reporter with her constant barrage of foolish questions and her obsequious little Indian photographer constantly shooting off his flashbulbs in Chaudri’s eyes. And, this morning, the well-meaning but terribly long-winded assistant curator of the museum, Sheikh Ibrahim al-Samahiji, whose lecture on Bahrain’s history had been underway for what felt like the last 10 hours and seemed certain to go on for at least the next 15.


"… one of the earliest hymns known to mankind, written over four thousand years ago, when the pyramids of Egypt were new, by a Sumerian in what is today the south of Iraq. It sings the glories of the ancient land of Dilmun, site of the biblical Garden of Eden, whose capital — as the excavations carried out since 1953 have conclusively proven — was here on the island of Bahrain. ‘The land of Dilmun is holy,’ the hymn begins, ‘the land of Dilmun is pure. In Dilmun, the raven does not croak, the lion does not kill. No one says, my eyes are sick, my head is sick. No one says, I am an old man, I am an old woman ....’"


The voice droned on and on. Megan McConnell, the reporter, scribbled furiously in her notebook. The Indian photographer snapped exposure after exposure of the assistant curator, the honored guests, the colorful displays of artifacts on the walls. The children themselves, trained since infancy in the art of diplomacy, seemed to be listening attentively, though who knew what thoughts they were thinking as they stood there in their flowing thobes and crisp white ghutras.


Behind the intent and solemn mask of Mahboob Chaudri’s olive face, he was thinking that at least the ethnography room had been worth looking at, with its spears and swords and khunjars, its models of stilt houses made all of palm fronds and pearl-divers’ boats rigged out with canvas sails, its mannequins in native dress — especially the bride, in her magnificent gold-embroidered thobe nashel with its billowing sleeves that folded upwards to cover her head, the elaborate gold ornaments around her neck, the intricately hennaed hands — the camel saddles and tools and pottery and glassware and porcelain, the orchestra of Arabic instruments, the full-size reproduction of the kitchen of a villager’s thatched hut and the carpets,
mirrored walls, silken pillows, and curtained four-poster bed of the room in which a well-to-do couple would spend their wedding night.


Shazia, his own dear wife, would enjoy that section of the museum, if no other.


Shazia....


It had been almost two years since his last home leave, since he had last heard her speak his name, last touched a hand to her delicate cheek and kissed her lips and felt the soft caress of her sweet and golden arms.


"‘Let the sun in heaven bring her sweet water from the earth,’" Ibrahim al-Samahiji’s monotone pushed the image of his wife to the far edge of Chaudri’s consciousness. "‘Let Dilmun drink the water of abundance. Let her springs become springs of sweet water. Let her fields yield their grain. Let her city become the port of all the world.’"


The hymn was over at last, and the assistant curator smiled determinedly and led them off to a small room at the back of the building, a room with a single waist-high display case taking up most of its floor space and old-fashioned black-and-white maps of the Middle East covering its walls.


"About 40 years ago," Sheikh Ibrahim told them, "a small number of a previously unknown type of round stamp seal began to be found both in Mesopotamia and in cities of the Indus River valley. Dating to about 2000 BC, they were clearly ‘foreign’ among the cylinder seals of Mesopotamia and the square seals of the Indus. No one knew where they came from. But the recent discovery of some 50 seals of this type in the Barbar temples and in Cities I and 11 at Qala’at al-Bahrain, together with debris of seal-cutting workshops, shows us that this seal type is in fact native to Bahrain. These so-called ‘Dilmun seals’ are the main evidence for Bahrain’s trade connections four thousand years ago with the whole of the Middle East, and they are this country’s greatest, most valuable archaeological treasure."


Chaudri leaned forward to see into the case. It was filled with row upon row of small stone buttons, carved with a confusion of geometric shapes, crude human figures, images of goats and gazelles and flowering trees. Beneath each stone was a square of grey clay bearing the impression of the seal that lay above it. A magnifying panel was set into grooves along the top and bottom edges of the case’s surface so that the seals could be examined more closely.


But that arrangement was not good enough for the four young boys.


"There’s so much glare from the overhead lighting," complained Jamil, the 14-year-old son of a prime minister, "I can hardly see them."


"And the inside of the case is dim," Mohammed added. He was 16, and his father was a minister of defense.


Talal, also 16 and also a prime minister’s child, was the one who came up with the idea. "Open the case and take them out," he proposed, though to Mahboob Chaudri’s ears it sounded more like a command than a suggestion.


"Yes! Yes!" came Rashid’s high-pitched agreement. At 13, though he was the youngest of the boys, he was the most powerful; his father was a crown prince and the heir to his country’s throne. "I want to hold them, to feel the texture of them in my hand. If these are Bahrain’s proudest treasures, I want to learn to know them."


Sheikh Ibrahim looked staggered. Delicately, he began to explain: "That would be very, ah, irregular. You see, the air in this display case is temperature-controlled and dehumidified. If I open the case, the sudden change in temperature and humidity could damage the seals. And if you were to touch them, the oils on your fingertips and palms could — "


"Well, of course," one of the boys interrupted softly, "if you don’t want to give us the pleasure…."


He allowed his voice to trail off and turned away from Sheikh Ibrahim.


The assistant curator swallowed nervously. The small room had gone deathly silent, and the atmosphere was thick and stuffy with tension. Even the photographer had stopped his incessant picture-taking. The dismayed look on Megan McConnell’s face was clear: what a story this was, and what a shame that she would never be allowed to publish it. For the first time that day, Mahboob Chaudri found himself truly interested in the events going on around him.


Sheikh Ibrahim took a deep breath and smiled. "The oils on your fingertips and palms might counteract the effect of the changes in temperature and humidity," he went on smoothly, "and I would be grateful for the opportunity to investigate that possibility." He pulled a ring of keys from the pocket of his ankle-length thobe, selected one of them, and unlocked the back of the display case.


The tightness in the room evaporated, and Chaudri relaxed. He felt that he had at last begun to understand the intricate complexities of statecraft, and the ease with which a simple disagreement between individuals could quickly escalate into an international incident. Instead of feeling sorry for Ibrahim al-Samahiji, for the way the distinguished assistant curator had been put in his place by a child, he found himself admiring the Sheikh’s tactfulness and diplomacy instead.


He remembered an Arabic saying he had heard shortly after his arrival in Bahrain. Both lion and gazelle rnay be sleeping in one thicket, a grizzled greybeard in a teashop on the fringes of the suq had told him, puffing wisely at the thin stem of his bubbing narghile, the crude clay waterpipe no longer smoked by anyone other than old men, but only the lion is having a restful sleep. He had not understood the proverb at first, but he thought he knew now what it was like to be a gazelle amongst the lions.


Sheikh Ibrahim had removed several trays of seals from the glass case in the center of the room and was carefully lifting the stones from their velvet niches and passing them out to the eager boys Once again the air rang with teenaged chatter and the photographer’s flashbulbs popped almost continuously.


"What's this one?" asked Mohammed, balancing a seal on his upturned palm. "It looks so funny."


Chaudri was standing close enough to make out the design on the stone: two male figures carved in simple outline, seated on identical chairs or stools, the sun shining above them and, strangely, a star at their feet. He had seen this image before, reproduced on countless T-shirts and wooden plaques and gold medallions. It was the only one of the seals with which he was familiar. What made it funny was that the noses of the two seated men were ludicrously long and joined in a V at the top of a large oval shape which hung between them. Each figure held one arm behind him, fingers weirdly misshapen and splayed, and supported his trunklike nose with his other arm.

 

"They are called ‘The Beer Drinkers,’" Sheikh Ibrahim informed the boys proudly, "and that is the best known and most beloved of all the Dilmun seals. The two men are sharing a skin of mead, drinking it through long spouts or straws — which most people see instead, comically, as enormous noses. Although," he admitted, "there are also those who call this stone ‘The Musicians’ and claim that the two figures are playing a primitive sort of bagpipes and not drinking beer at all. In any case, I think I can safely say that that small stone which you hold in your hand is the greatest and most important of Bahrain’s ancient treasures."


The children were suitably impressed and handled the seal with reverence. Megan McConnell made a swift sketch of it in her notebook, and the photographer finished off a roll of film shooting it from all imaginable angles.


"What were these seals used for?" the reporter wanted to know, her drawing complete. "Were they purely decorative, or were they functional as well?" Her associate was busy changing film, and Chaudri glanced surreptitiously at his watch. Another 20 minutes and it would be time to go.


"Oh, absolutely functional, Miss McConnell." Sheikh Ibrahim rubbed his hands with delight at the chance to launch into another lecture. "Each of the seals is unique. Four millennia ago, they were used as we use our signatures today. A craftsman marked each sample of his handiwork with his own distinctive seal, to show that he had produced it and no one else. A scribe used his seal to sign documents, a nobleman to make his decrees official, a merchant to verify transactions. The poor, of course, had no need for such seals, but anyone with valuable property or possessions would identify them as his own by — "


The bolts of photographic lightning resumed, and the soliloquy went on.


And then, at last, Sheikh Ibrahim began to fit the Dilmun seals back into their velvet trays, matching each with the clay impression just below its waiting position. Megan McConnell snapped her notebook shut and tucked it away in her shoulder bag. The Indian photographer clicked off a few final shots of the group. The four boys milled about impatiently, ready to be under way. Mahboob Chaudri’s stomach growled, and he prayed that the rumble had been audible to none but himself.


Then Ibrahim al-Samahiji gasped hoarsely, and, when Chaudri looked, there was stark horror etched into the lines of the assistant curator’s weathered face. He was pointing a trembling finger at an empty hole in the last velvet tray.


"The Beer Drinkers!" he cried brokenly. "It’s gone!"

 

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