I’m writing my third post in the run-up to publication of Electric Souk with a sub-atomic throat infection. I haven’t been able to speak for five days. Funnily enough, the only other time I have had such a sore throat was when I first went to the desert. It hits all expats within the first couple of weeks and is fondly referred to as ‘desert throat’, which sounds much more exotic than it is. And no, Turkish Delight will not overcome the wild fire in your larynx, brought about by the unholy combination of acidic concrete dust thick in the air and artic air con.
In fact nothing much will touch it, other than one thing I was assured by the local girls in my office. They would bring me some of this wondrous potion the next day and I would be cured. I was doubtful as every morning one of the small joys of working in the health service in the desert was the email with the file of press clippings of what we would now call ‘fake news’ about treatments for illnesses, which we would bring to the attention of the public health department to rebut. My favourites generally involved advice on the ‘tummy jumbles.’
The recommendations of quack doctors on common conditions were mostly alarming as they relied entirely on superstition and filthy lucre. On a regular basis I had to counsel one or another of the girls that they did not have some serious affliction that required an extravagant and illegal injection of goodness knows what at a private clinic. And if they were worried they needed to see a properly qualified and certified GP at the health clinic. However, evidence based medicine never seemed to have quite the same glamour as the advertorials for ‘professors’ with curling moustaches, degrees and medals from all sorts of wondrous academic institutions and their gorgeous, blonde model patients. Colgate teeth.
So at breakfast each morning the girls would haul out of their Prada handbags tubs of pills they had been prescribed by the latest quack, and fistfuls would be exchanged along with the baklava and dates. In the desert the working day starts early, at six or seven am, and by mid morning plates of tidbits from the local patisserie would arrive for breakfast. And all the girls were convinced they were suffering from some terrible, untreatable malady. Where at home we would talk about the weather as the favourite topic of small talk with a stranger, in the desert it was sickness. A strange sickness of cloud-like nebulous and ever changing minor aches and pains, shivers and shakes. Each day, each girl in the office would tell me, with serious and woeful eyes, about how today it was the left knee that ached, or now there were black dots in her vision,’Yanni, I am dying inside.’ Symptoms would be chewed over at breakfast until there was no marrow left to them and five or six smartie coloured pills had been swallowed. The only real remedy seemed to be talk of a trip to the gold souk.
So when the small, green bottle was brought out the next day I was hesitant, fearing an untested drug from the Indian sub-continent. The girls assured me this was no chemical drink, but was all natural. Standing in a silver shard of a building, pumped with fake air and fake water distilled from the sea, in a city defying the sand and heat, this was hard to believe. But the girls were always so kind, they had taken me a single, white woman into their circle of friendship, not usually extended to expats. They wanted me to know the desert, their lives, their secrets, their traditions and wisdom. Here it was – in a bottle. Their grandmothers swore by it. I unscrewed the top, the pungency of something deeply troubled and fetid hit me, hit the room. I retched, we all did. The girls laughed, ‘Drink, drink.’ This would cure my throat, it had indeed cured centuries of infection and infamy, but suddenly the smartie pills held a new attraction. I couldn’t even pour it, mucus grey, globby.
‘It is life, drink it!’
If this was life, it was rancid. My throat raged, and it would have to continue to do so. I screwed the cap back on the bottle and graciously declined. Nothing other than a dose of the ‘tummy jumbles’ was coming out of that bottle of camel’s milk.