Zahra keeps fiddling with her hijab as she intersperses titbits about Bahrain with her own life stories. She’s a Muslim millennial born in a Gulf country. Naturally, she seems torn between the old and the new. Between modern feminism and timeless patriarchy. As if reading my mind, Zahra recounts the day she found a picture of her grandmother in her prime. “She was wearing a miniskirt in the 1960s!” Zahra exclaims in an exaggerated show of disbelief. “Today, she doesn’t even let me leave the house without an abaya or at least a hijab.”
Zahra al Muhammad is the 24-year-old guide who’s leading our tour through the kingdom of Bahrain. Outside our air-conditioned bus, the sun seems to be vaporizing everything in sight. Every time I step out, my camera lens is fogged by the humidity and my eyes melt into puddles. So when the waiter offers me a cool drink of saffron with chia seeds called zaffron at Ateeq Alsoof, an old restaurant in Manama–Bahrain’s capital and largest city–I gulp it down in a hurry only to realise that it is nauseatingly sweet. The locals here like their saffron, I’m told. ‘Ateeq Alsoof’ is part of a sentence that means, “We prefer the old over the new,” Zahra tells me. Over the next few days, I will come across this sentiment a lot while discussing the new generation of Bahraini youth, who are doing the exact opposite.
The kingdom of Bahrain is made up of 33 natural islands and 50 artificial ones. It is home to over 1.4 million people but half of them seem to be vacationing abroad since it’s summer here in July. In the National Museum, our first touristy stop, we get a taste of the kingdom’s history. Relics from the Stone Age and Dilmun civilisation tell intriguing stories from the pre-Islam eras.
Dilmun was an important trading port between Mesopotamia and the Indus Valley. A Dilmun legend, discovered on Mesopotamian clay tablets, goes that King Gilgamesh of Uruk came here to acquire the secret of eternal life from Ziusudra the immortal. Gilgamesh learnt to dive to the seabed and pluck the flower that restores youth (believed to be a pearl), but a snake consumed it. It then shed its skin and regained its youth. Going by the belief, people of the Dilmun civilisation buried their dead in mounds above the earth and a snake was buried alongside. It was believed that when the snake would shed its skin, the person would regain life. Archaeological digs at these burial sites, Barbar and Saar being the most notable, have also revealed pearls, clay pots and other artefacts inside the mounds. Some of these burial mound fields can still be seen in plain view while cruising on the modern tarmacs of Bahrain.
The first floor of the museum depicts scenes from everyday Bahraini life of a bygone era–pearl divers plunging into the water while tethered to their boats, their wives waiting for them at the harbour, men hanging out at coffee houses, etc. Pearl diving used to be the primary source of livelihood for locals here until the 1930s. Bahraini pearls were what made the country rich. Up until about five years ago, diving was even open to tourists who could find their own pearls while snorkelling in 1-2m deep water and keep them as mementoes. But due to overexploitation of the seabed, regulations came into place and a license is now mandatory for locals to practise pearl diving while tourists aren’t allowed to do so at all, says Abdulnabi Alhabeeb, who hails from a family of divers.
I make do with seeing the jewels through a glass case in the museum. There are all sizes, shapes and shades of white and pink; the most precious one has a perfectly round shape and distinctive shine, and is called Dana. Abdulnabi tells me that it was one of these big pearls that got his great-grandfather, a visually disabled diving expedition leader, killed by mutineers in his crew.
The pearl industry took a backseat when oil was discovered in Bahrain. A 60m deep well at the foothill of Jabal Al Dukhan (Mountain of Smoke) first blew heads of oil on the morning of June 2, 1932 and kick-started the revolution. Oil Well No. 1 is still functional and finds itself surrounded by relatively newer finds. Also nearby is the Tree of Life (Shajarat Al Hayat). Said to be around 400 years old, the mature mesquite tree stands alone in an arid desertscape, its water source still a mystery. For a tree this old, it has to have legends attached. And so, locals believe that anyone who touches the tree is bound to come back to Bahrain. I give it a good caress before rushing back to the AC bus.
There is perhaps no other site in Bahrain that depicts its clash of histories like the Bahrain Fort (Qal’at Al Bahrain) on the northern coast. A 16th-century Portuguese structure, the fort is perched on a tell and surrounded by excavated ruins of a Dilmun settlement. The stones used to build the fort walls were dug out of the settlement, I’m told. As the sun drowns in the sea and the fort, a World Heritage Site, is lit up in golden hues, the Dilmun ruins lie ravaged by the wayside, a sore sight for joggers and playground for feral cats.
While some sites have suffered at the hands of time, some others have been preserved and refurbished to perfection. Bab Al Bahrain, or the “Gateway to Bahrain”, was once a trading port by the sea. It still leads one to the Manama Suq (market) but is now surrounded by reclaimed land. Similarly, Ahmed Al Fateh Grand Mosque, which opened in 1988 and occupies 6,500 sqm in the heart of Juffair, is the perfect portrait of a shrinking world. The floors of the mosque are covered by Italian marble and a carpet manufactured in Ireland, the 40m high fibreglass dome has 12 Iranian stained glass windows inscribed with the name of Allah in Arabic, the glittering chandelier that hangs from the dome comes from Austria and the handblown glass lamps that light up the walls are made in France. Clerics are happy to give guided tours to non-Muslim tourists and Islam is discussed at length. I indulge a cleric in a debate on some misguided modern interpretations of the Quran and he surprises me with his liberal perspective.
After some traditional meals in old restaurants, we experience a scrumptious Asian feast at ART Rotana on Amwaj Islands. An assortment of sushi is washed down with Japanese sochu, served in traditional cups. As the world (most of it) moves away from oil, Bahrain is now looking at tourism seriously. Peter Cook, CEO of @Bahrain, tells me that majority of Bahrain’s tourists come from GCC countries. For couples from neighbouring Saudi Arabia, known for its strict laws and customs, Bahrain offers a relatively free land. Due to its centuries-old position on trade routes, Bahrain has remained liberal despite cultural influences from Riyadh. There are clubs and bars in the city, atheists aren’t unheard of, and shopping malls feature abayas, hijabs and short skirts in equal measure.
There is also a renewed focus on attracting more tourists from other countries around the world including India. In fact, the India office of @Bahrain, which is hosting us in the kingdom, is just seven months old. While Emirates like Dubai were early birds in the tourism sector and have a head start in terms of infrastructure and brand building, Bahrain has thousands of years of enchanting history to offer. This is not to say that it lacks modern infrastructure. Bahrain has been the venue for a spectacular Formula One event, the Bahrain Grand Prix, since 2004. The Bahrain International Circuit (BIC) in Sakhir, with its five track layouts and one drag strip, also hosts open track events, drag and drift nights, circuit tours, go-karting, etc around the year. There is also an off-road experience with 32 obstacles that is taken up in Land Rovers. The first corner of its iconic F1 track has been named after the legendary Michael Schumacher, who also won the inaugural Bahrain GP. I decide to honour my childhood racing icon by indulging in some competitive go-karting, and end up third on the leaderboard. Not bad for a rookie.
Just south of the BIC lies another modern tourism marvel, Gravity Indoor Skydiving. For someone plagued with acrophobia, diving from an airplane is out of the question. So this facility provides me the thrill of skydiving without the fear of plummeting to death. After a 15-minute safety briefing, I find myself in a 12m high wind tunnel made of tempered glass. The wind speed that keeps me afloat is adjusted by a controller and I’m joined by an instructor who ensures I “fly” at high speeds and remain in the correct position throughout. As I climb out of my safety gear after two exciting “flights”, a group of abaya-clad girls heads to the safety briefing room for their turn in the tunnel.
The Bahraini people may have discovered flight in glass tunnels but they haven’t forgotten their camels. A visit to a camel farm introduces me to white, dark and cream-coloured camels and a number of adorable calves. Once the ship of the desert, today the camel is used in pageants and milk production. While in my time-travelling Bedouin mode, I also pay a visit to the Al Jasra House. The birthplace of the late Emir Sheikh Isa bin Salman Al Khalifa, the Al Jasra House was built in 1907 with local materials and has been preserved to serve a slice of the old life to tourists. It includes a room where dates were piled in palm-woven baskets to extract their juice, a kitchen with old utensils, and a men’s majlis (lounge). Nearby, the Al Jasra Handicrafts Centre is home to numerous workshops where artisans practise their traditional crafts–basket weaving, pottery, miniature ship building–in front of tourists and sell their products.
Being an island nation, Bahrain isn’t short of beach options either. One of the most popular getaways is the Al Dar Island. A 10-minute drive from Manama to Sitra Fishing Port and a 10-minute sea taxi ride from there take me to Al Dar. On offer here are excursions including dolphin watching and fishing trips. But people generally come to this island to unwind in the pristine blue water. We rent a cabana and exchange life stories. Zahra waxes eloquent on feminism and the effect Jane Eyre had on her in university. “The boys in the literature class found the book hard to swallow,” she chuckles, as I watch bikinis and burkinis go hand in hand on the beach. Here in Bahrain, the old and the new don’t battle; they meet and greet each other like long-lost friends.
Bahrain International Airport is serviced by daily flights from New Delhi run by multiple international carriers including Gulf Air and Etihad Airways. A one-month Visit Evisa can be applied for at evisa.gov.bh for BHD29.
Where to Stay
On the edge of Manama Bay, Ritz-Carlton offers 245 guestrooms including 31 suites, 42 club-level rooms and 23 three-bedroom seafront villas (from BHD135; +973-17580000, ritzcarlton.com).
The 28-storey Four Seasons Hotel has plush mahogany wood interiors and their 273 hotel guestrooms (including 57 suites)–suspended from the 11th to the 28th floor–are very spacious (from BHD150; fourseasons.com).
What to See & Do
Go karting at the Bahrain International Circuit with your friends (from BHD10; +973-17451745) or take the Land Rover off-roading experience (BHD12-passenger, BHD65-driver; +973-17450000). In the neighbourhood, you can also drop by for gravity indoor skydiving (BHD19.5 for two 1-min flights; +973-13100000, gravitybah.com).
Visit Bab Al Bahrain, Manama Gold Suq, National Museum, National Theatre, Bahrain Fort and Ahmed Al Fateh Mosque in Manama for a taste of Bahraini history and culture.
Check out the Al Jasra Handicrafts Centre in northern Bahrain and pick up an artsy souvenir made by local artisans.
While in Muharraq, take a guided tour to some restored gems like the House of Coffee for a cuppa, Kurar House to watch the art of embroidery with golden thread, Zayed House for Bahraini Press Heritage and Arad Fort.
Take a stroll in Adliya 338, which is always abuzz with contemporary art in the streets and hip restaurants and cafes. Check out the Al Riwaq art gallery (alriwaqartspace.com).
Where to Eat
Saffron in Muharraq is a must-visit for an authentic culinary experience. Try their vermicelli with omelette and saffron, and saffron cakes for dessert. Ateeq Alsoof in Manama is also a good option to savour some khubz (Arabic bread) with kashta (honey and cream), ghoozi with rice and chicken mandi or chicken bukhari. The traditional Arabic welcome involves Arabic coffee with sweet dates.