"Lost in Eden: In Search of The Tree of Life"

Travel Essay, Between Song and Story

by Derek Green

 

Mohammed called to tell me a friend of his knew someone who knew how to get to the Tree of Life. I’d arrived in Bahrain, the tiny island state in the Persian Gulf, earlier that week, and since, I’d been asking around about the Tree. The closest thing to a helpful answer I’d gotten so far was from the Filipino bartender in the Diplomat Hotel’s Skylight Lounge. “It not too dangerous to find, but somehow very difficult,” he told me. “I think you rather visit a nightclub.”

 

Now my luck appeared to be on the mend. Mohammed’s friend, a native Bahraini raised in the capital city of Manama, was getting directions to the Tree even as we spoke, and admitted that he himself wouldn’t mind “having a look at the thing.”

 

“How is it,” I asked, “that this friend of yours hasn’t seen the Tree of Life if he grew up here?”

 

“Haven’t you ever heard,” Mohammed replied, “of those people who live in New York and have never seen the Statue of Liberty?”

 

I supposed I had.

 

“We’ll meet you in the lobby in ten minutes,” he said.

 

I had first heard of the Tree of Life a few years earlier. In the middle of the desert, the story went, stood an old, old tree surrounded by nothing but vast stretches of sand. Various writers had made controversial claims pinpointing the historical location of the Garden of Eden in Bahrain; the theories differed widely, but almost all of them made mention of the lonely old tree. Even my trusty Lonely Planet Travel Survival Kit: Arab Gulf States was in on the act, calling the Tree of Life the “centerpiece of the ‘Bahrain-was-the-Garden-of-Eden’ theory.”

 

At home in Michigan, during the weeks leading up to the trip, I’d become something of a leisure authority on all this Garden of Eden speculation. (Okay, I’d gone on-line a few times to read articles about ancient Sumer and visit some university archaeological websites.) This was my opportunity to see for myself whether  these theories—far-fetched as they seemed—actually made sense. And anyway, I figured, when you’re from Detroit and you get a chance to see Eden first hand, you go.

 

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When I arrived in the hotel lobby, Mohammed was watching the coffeeman work. A small, ancient man in traditional Sunni clothing, he sat brewing coffee that smelled vaguely of cardamom and earth over glowing coals near the entrance to the lobby’s Lebanese restaurant.

 

Mohammed was a trim young man, born in Yemen, educated in Great Britain, and now living in Dubai. He was my principal contact in the Gulf, and over the last few years we had become friends.

 

He walked with me to the modern revolving doors. “So this Tree of Life you’re so eager to see,” he said, “I guess it turns out to be, like, superhard to find.”

 

“That,” I said, “is what everyone keeps telling me.”

 

Outside waited a Jeep Cherokee. “This is Saeed,” Mohammed said. The Jeep’s owner wore khaki slacks, a shirt and tie, and a wide smile. I shook his hand Western-style from the back seat as Mohammed climbed in front. “You do not mind, I hope,” Saeed said—he’d obviously been practicing the sentence for my benefit—“that I am having some errands to do in the city before we go to discover the Tree of Life.”

 

I thanked him profusely and assured him I’d be happy to accompany him. At worst, I figured, we’d be seeing a pretty cool tree, and at best—who knew?

 

We turned away from the coast on Sheikh Hamad Causeway and headed past the diplomatic sector, with its glass business towers and modern traffic signs.  Saeed pointed out the building where he worked as an IT computer specialist for a bank.  He and Mohammed bantered back and forth in Arabic.

 

In the Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh, Bahrain is called Dilmun. Gilgamesh journeys to Dilmun in search of—get this—the Tree of Life.  When he arrives, he meets a suspiciously Noah-like character who tells the story of a great flood. Though I had read Gilgamesh in college, till now my own experience of Dilmun had been limited to meetings at the Diplomat. As we passed through the Bab Al Bahrain—the entryway into the city built by the British in 1945—that changed. The streets grew narrower, the buildings shorter, with odd-shaped alleys and irregular street corners that served as informal gathering places. The old streets teemed with men and women in traditional garb. It wasn’t hard to imagine the place as it must have looked 5,000 years ago, when Dilmun was the burning center of the universe and Eden not such a distant memory.

 

In the souk—the traditional market-place—the old and new blended in strange ways. A man in traditional clothing, seated on a stool over a pile of smoking incense, was selling Persian kilims from a canvas tent; across the street a brightly lit KFC restaurant did brisk late-afternoon business. The roads were hardly the width of a car, and we crept along looking for a spot to squeeze through. We stopped to buy a snack of shawarma and again to get some CDs at a record shop. Our last errand was to pick up Saeed’s son from soccer practice.

 

The boy climbed into the car in his soccer jersey, a little taken aback by all the strangers. “Say hello in English,” his father said with gruff affection. “This man has come from America.” The boy turned bashfully to watch the scenery through the window. After dropping the boy off at his mother’s apartment, Saeed grinned at me in the rearview mirror. “And so now we go to see your old tree that stands alone in paradise.”

 

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We left the city and drove south into the desert. The scant vegetation we had seen in town—kept alive by expensive irrigation or plain hard work—gave way now to stretches of gravelly, salt-flat wasteland. I asked the name of the road we were on, thinking of recording once and for all the directions to the elusive Tree of Life, but got only a laugh from Saeed. “Forget names,” he said. “A few years ago there were not even roads here.”

 

The farther from the city, the farther back in time we went. On either side of us grew rocky mounds of earth that looked like giant sand moguls or the humped backs of dinosaurs. I watched the shapes roll by for a while before it occurred to me that I was seeing Bahrain’s famous burial mounds, dating to the second century B.C.

 

The mounds caught the slanting sunlight, making odd geometric patterns of light and shadow. It would have been a pleasantly mythic touch, I thought, if the Tree of Life had obliged by presenting itself at the end of this protective city of the dead. Instead, we came upon a ranch where a few lazy camels and their herders lounged beside a chain-link fence, and then, of all things, a sandy golf resort. Late-afternoon golfers under tall parasols like beach umbrellas dotted the course. 

 

The road looped through several turns, following a series of massive pipes that sprawled like tentacles from Bahrain’s central refinery. At the edge of a stony outcropping—the highest point in Bahrain, Saeed told us—we stopped to gaze over the barren land.

 

White refiner’s fire lit the pile of steel and massive pipe works that made up the central petroleum processing plant, giving it the look of a small burning city. Behind it in the distance shimmered the capital, Manama. There was still no sign of the Tree, not to mention Eden, and I was beginning to wonder whether my day trip to the Tree of Life might be turning into its own Gilgamesh-like epic.

 

“It’s an amazing sight,” Mohammed said. He turned to his friend. “Of course, you’re lost, aren’t you?”

 

“Well. . . .” Saeed said. He frowned and rubbed his neck. “I am not lost. I am just not sure where I am.”

 

Even on this high spot, pipes had been laid to bear up the underground river of oil. “Imagine,” I said, “laying down these pipelines in the sun.”

 

Mohammed gazed out silently and shook his head.

 

“They’ve been here as long as I can remember,” Saeed said. In this part of the world, mention oil and soon enough you’re talking about politics. As the road veered away from the pipe fields, Mohammed turned in his seat to look at me. “And what do you think of your new president in the United States—Mr. Bush?” he asked.

 

I told him the verdict, as they say, was still out. “We’re still barely sure he was actually elected,” I said. “It was a strange fall.”

 

I turned the heat onto Mohammed by asking what people in this region of the world thought. Saeed answered. “There is a lot of concern,” he said. “No one knows, for instance, how the new administration will look on the problem of Palestine and Israel. And then there is the old feud between the Bush family and the Iraqi rulers.”

 

It was not hard, here in the desert—separated from southern Iraq by a stretch of sea not much more than the distance from Detroit to Chicago—to imagine these disagreements as feuds between ruling families in separate lands. “In a way,” Mohammed said, “the details don’t matter. What is worrisome is that Bush and his family come from the American oil industry. There are many who believe that any hostility in the region benefits the administration and its friends. They can say, ‘See, there go the Arabs, fighting each other again. So now we have to drill for oil in Alaska.’ For them, whatever happens in our world, it seems they win.”

 

A silence threatened to engulf the cab of the jeep. But then Saeed lit up with a smile. “Do you see?” he asked. “There, on the side of the road?” He pointed. A solitary green American-style road sign announced simply, in two languages, Tree of Life. A white arrow pointed ahead.“ You see,” Saeed said. “I told you I knew where I was going.”

 

There were two more signs before a final one directed us off the paved road and onto a hard gravel track. We passed a scrap yard and a goatherd with his flock. Then, at end of the road, we made out the shape, sure enough, of a tree.

 

The tree itself wasn’t so remarkable—it looked like a tall acacia or maybe a mesquite tree, with a thick, gnarly trunk and a flat, tiered canopy of dusty leaves. As the guidebook had said, the remarkable fact was the thing’s existence here in the middle of the otherwise barren landscape. No desert weed or hardy spinifex, no American-style theme park with a Tree of Life Lounge and bathrooms marked “Adams” and “Eves”—just this tree. We stopped and looked from the Jeep.

 

“Is this it?” I asked.

 

“It must be,” Mohammed said.  “It’s the only tree I see.”

 

“It looks quite old,” Saeed observed.

 

We piled out and stood beside the Tree. Maybe it was just anticipation, or the way the sun fell aslant on the dusty leaves, but there was something a touch unsettling about this place and the tree, which managed somehow to struggle on, alive, in the middle of so much nothingness.  A pair of black desert birds glided on updrafts far overhead.

 

Was this the Garden of Eden? Could there once have been a paradise here of which only this tree remained, a lone artifact for the ages? If the Tree of Life held such secrets, it wasn’t bothering to reveal them to us that day.

 

We got back into the Jeep, Saeed took another turn around for one last look, and we headed back down the stony trail. A cloud of dust rose and obscured the tree behind us. We passed the goats, who watched us with studied indifference, and then turned back onto the road beyond the dusty junk yard. 

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