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Glittering skyscraper spires tower over the city of Manama, Bahrain’s capital – and only – city. Each lit up at night with a thousand twinkling lights, they are monuments to technology and to money, each one the home some giant financial mega-corporation.
But yet in the streets below, a very different city lives. A city of densely packed buildings, looming over the streets that get narrower and narrower as you venture onward. Every building is a shop, most more than one, and flanked by market stalls. Jewellery, clothing, carpets and all manner of things are waved at you as you pass, in the hope of making a customer of you.
Above head-height, some buildings are intact enough to be homes, their air conditioning units dripping warm water down into the streets. But others are abandoned, even ruined. Nothing gets fixed here; people just work around its broken-ness.
In each shop window are plastered layers of ‘room to rent’ signs, each one marked ‘Kerala only’, ‘Filipino only’ or one of a dozen other permutations, pasted up by apartment-owners desperate to find a tenant with whom they have something in common against the city’s multicultural morass of people.
And most of all there’s the smells, and the contrast between them. Good and bad, they assault you at every turn. There are places here for every culture on the planet, from the Italian restaurants and Irish bars of the tourist areas to grimy Chinese takeaways and run-down Pakistani restaurants that cater only to their ethnicity of choice. And as soon as three restaurant-smells in a row lull you into a false sense of security, an open dumpster full of rotting vegetables is always waiting.
Between its glittering mega-corp spires in which the lucky few work, and the ant’s nest of twisting streets and cheap phone unlocking shops for the rest, Manama is twenty years of dubious technological progress away from becoming the epitome of near-future Cyberpunk dystopia.
And for that, I adore it.