Manama, Bahrain, 29 September 2009

It’s 6:30 pm and I’m in Moda Mall at the World Trade Centre, wondering where all the people are.

Moda is a huge shopping centre with high-end boutiques. Just from where I now sit, I see Louis Vuitton, Dior, Emporio Armani, Versace and Fendi. And where I sit is in a purple velvet chair; one of many comfortable, yet elegant chairs and sofas in a large hall. From the high ceiling posters encourage me to “shop to win weekly vouchers up to BD 45,000”. In the middle of the hall are displayed two smart Boxster sports cars, one blue and one white, all tied up in red ribbons.

Occasionally, a group of two or three veiled black-clad women walk by. Bahraini women can be very striking. Slender, with high heels and hair piled high under their head gear, they look mysterious and beautiful, gliding across the shining marble floors.

Shopkeepers hang about their doorways, happy to see me. They invite me in, smiling but not pushy. How do they survive in these large, dazzling, empty halls? Earlier today, I was in Harbour Mall for a while to get out of the sultry heat of Manama. Free wifi and being waited on hand and foot was nice – but it was a bit boring being the only one about. The only one! Too early, I was told. Everyone goes to the malls at six. Well, it’s past six now. I ask a guard – the one who just told me I couldn’t take pictures inside the mall – if Tuesday is a slow day.

“No,” he replies. “It’s always like this. Not many people.” And yet Cartier is just about to open a shop here. As is South African diamond giant De Beers. They must see potential that I don’t.

Another group walks by, comprising a well-fed man in white garb and Yassir Arafat head gear – and four women. Well inside, one of the women rips off her head scarf, revealing a face that is 12 at most. They all enter Versace.

Next to my plush velvet chairs is a red and black Bedouin tent, with a Persian carpet, pretty lanterns, large cushions and sofas. A man dressed in a white dishdasha has taken off his shoes and is having a lie-down on one of the sofas. For a few minutes, he and I are the only ones in sight. He snores lightly, disturbing the melancholic French song playing on the surround system.

I’m eager to snap a few pictures of the snoring man in the tent, but the guard must have read my mind. He keeps looking at me, smiling knowingly. Not that there is much else for him to look at. Nothing that breathes anyway.

Another family walks by. A man, four women in black with faces uncovered and two young children. They look like brothers and sisters, all chatting and laughing. The women look pretty and gay, but in this group, the man is the striking one: tall, slim, with a strong nose, a beard, warm brown eyes and extraordinarily beautiful features. Shamelessly, I try to sneak a photo, but who looks around the corner just then but the omnipresent guard, tut-tutting and shaking his head. I consider following them into Burberry instead, then stop myself before I become a stalker.

Les feuilles mortes is now playing. The large empty hall creates a slightly surreal echoing effect. It’s a hauntingly beautiful song: my father’s favourite, I’ve been told – last popular in the 60s, right before he died. For a long time, I’m lost in thought; in another world.

A woman in black comes up to the man in the tent – his wife presumably – and shakes him gently. He wakes, stretches and farts, bringing me back to earth.

Time to go out into the hot Bahraini night.