Where ancient meets the future
Bahrain: Arabia’s culture capital 2012
BAHRAIN (eTN) - When I traveled to Bahrain last month to attend the Bahrain International Air Show 2012, a bi-annual event which brings the world of aviation to the kingdom, there was, thankfully, time to spare on the day prior to the official opening, and true to my nature, not a minute was left to go to waste in exploring Bahrain’s capital of Manama and surrounding areas.
A pamphlet I had picked at the airport – where incidentally the processing was swift, friendly, and without the queues otherwise seen even in the premium-class, fast-track channels elsewhere in the Gulf – told me that Bahrain had been named as Arabia’s Culture Capital for 2012. That spurred my interest, and I set out to learn more about the year’s program from added information available at the Gulf Hotel where I stayed. January was the kick-off month of the year-long celebrations of Arabian and Bahraini culture and heritage, setting the stage with art exhibitions and a planned sculpture symposium. And art I found in plenty, showcasing scenes of Bahraini day-to-day life, something I later on witnessed to be still true and found in the streets in the center of the old city.
Art galleries across Manama, in particular in the main Souk, had such pictures on display, bringing the Arabian urban life “to life,” through the eyes of many artists and to be appreciated by aficionados of art, culture, and heritage from all over the world, who are expected to come to Bahrain this year to see it up close and personal.
A range of events and activities are lined up for such visitors throughout the year, showcasing both modern and classic Arabian poetry, music, and performing arts, establishing a regional cultural arts center and a national theatre, besides restoring yet more of the large number of traditional buildings, ancient mosques, and forts. Nature and environmental conservation also feature in the calendar of events, putting the spotlight on the Hawar islands, a biodiversity hotspot holding its own against many of the more fancied global sites.
The official opening ceremony took place in early February, conducted by H.R.H. Crown Prince Salman Bin Hamad Al Khalifa in the presence of dignitaries from across the Arabian Peninsula, and included a special performance, “The Path of the Pearls,” for which Bahrain had already become so famous for in ancient days and remains so well-known into the 21st century.
But back to my personal experience, which was greatly enhanced by having Ms. Azza Matar of Gulf Air’s Corporate Communications Department, of course, a Bahraini citizen and clearly very passionate about her country, as my personal guide. She took me around the “modern” city by car, then on foot through the main souk, on to the ancient Fort Bahrain at the oceanfront, and then finally showed me parts of the old city that “regular” visitors will otherwise rarely have the chance to come face to face with.
As we walked the narrow streets, a few times in circles, and as we stood in awe in front of buildings, which must have been built a hundred and more years ago, with all the ornamental decorations, arcs, carved doors, and intricate stone works, I began to understand what makes Bahrain different, what makes the people passionate about both their past and their future. I was clearly given a very personal tour, a tour back in time, reflecting my guide’s own likes and preferences of what to show and how to explain it, and I was better off for being at the receiving end of this very charming gesture.
Rooted in a proud heritage, treasuring the old without preventing the new from establishing itself “next door,” the Bahraini people I met, first and foremost, represented by Miss Azza, made an immediate impact on me. The proverbial hospitality was truly taken to another dimension, not only by my very special “guide,” who in fact became a friend along the hours of walking the old town, but by every other Bahraini I had the opportunity to interact with over the coming days and who went out of their way to explain landmarks and their significance and meaning to the people of Bahrain.
None of them minded my questions about the events of a year ago, all of them sad and all united in believing that the troubles were externally sponsored and supported. Every one of them was happy to see a visitor interested in exploring the less-trodden paths across the city, keen to see the true face of Bahrain and before long already scheming a return trip to see more, to the great delight of my hosts who were somewhat anxiously awaiting my “judgment.”
Little has changed in the way of life in Bahrain, where the men continue to enjoy their tea, coffee, and board games in one of the narrow alleys off the main bazaar area, read newspapers and magazines, or simply chat with each other, without as much as a sign of the much heralded “troubles” doomsayers in the international media, pursuing their own agenda, had predicted, aimed to keep visitors away from the kingdom. It did not deter me and, in fact, it only steeled my resolve to return to Bahrain at the next opportunity to explore more of the country and see more than this flying 4-day visit allowed me to see.
The old town convinced me, by the presence of the people who actually live there and according to Ms. Azza in many cases already for generations upon generations, residences passed down from father to sons, or daughters in a spirit of what I would call “Arabic Liberalism and Enlightenment” otherwise hardly found in this part of the world. Rarely is there a gap between the houses, although repair and maintenance work was seen underway on many buildings, restoring as if for an open air museum, and yet full of life and bustling with activity wherever we walked. Exquisite woodwork and distinct stone carvings were present everywhere, while in other parts of the city, ancient buildings, still being used, are now preserved as monuments of historical importance and kept in immaculate shape.
The original gate to the city, now under national protection as a heritage monument, exists side by side with the modern part of Manama, which has sprung up partly on land reclaimed from the sea to make space for expansion of the business district and to provide much needed space for housing developments, too.
But most impressive proved the visit to the ancient Fort Bahrain, one of the UNESCO World Heritage Sites in the kingdom, where careful excavation of the old fort’s structures has literally unearthed a historical treasure, now lovingly restored and open to the public, on the day of my visit, with large numbers of visitors from a berthed cruise liner being led across the sprawling site by their local guides.
It is here where the ancient Bahrain again meets with the modern Bahrain. Standing on the parapet of the walls, the views expand right across the historic ruins to the “new” Bahrain, which has grown in leaps and bounds and makes for a spectacular background.
What I liked about Bahrain is the balance, the mix between old and new, much of which has in other parts of the Gulf been sacrificed on the altar of so called “progress and development.” While the glitz and glamour of Dubai and Abu Dhabi, or the rapid catch-up in Muscat, hold their own attraction for visitors, Bahrain clearly is undervalued and underrated and yet worth a visit or two, at least, if not more. The kingdom may not be as vigorously promoted with shopping festivals, megalomaniac malls, and buildings fitting the attributes like “biggest, largest, tallest,” but has in its own right, architectural marvels, both historical, as well as of the 21st century.
Bahrain has the traditional souks frequented by the locals as much as the tourists, where bargaining is a must – and not doing so almost an insult – and where one haggles over a freely-offered glass of sweet tea. Bahrain has museums, art galleries, a horse-racing course, and, of course, a Formula 1 Circuit, where this year in April, the engines will be turned on again for a long weekend of testing, qualifying, and racing for points after the event had to be first postponed and then cancelled last year. Marinas, golf courses, and world class spas, including the brand new “Thalassa Sea and Spa,” are, needless to say, open for visitors wishing to play their favorite sport or seeking rest and recreation. Restaurants are offering just about every ethnic choice and are ranging from the fanciest and most expensive to the affordable where one can smell the scent of spices and cooking from a distance away, letting one’s nose lead the way to the location.
In my hotel, The Gulf Hotel, I was overwhelmed by the choice of 16 restaurants, and as I could see, all of them busy as can be, with acclaimed chefs heading each and every one of them and presenting their works of art, a delight for the eyes, as well as surely the palate, too.
Bahrain, in my opinion, has still retained the somewhat laid-back styles of yesteryear, where people on the streets are seen to stop, greet, and talk to each other, unlike in the metropolitan areas of the UAE, which appear intent to even outpace the likes of London and New York with their “speed of life.” And yet, Bahrain does not appear backwards or behind modern times but simply offers a well-balanced mixture of the ancient and the modern, is unpretentious and in a sense “more real” than many of the other metropolises I have in the past visited across the Gulf.
One of the Royal Palaces was, once upon a time, a temporary residence for the late Michael Jackson when he took “refuge” from the global media circus. The same view again at the onset of night with the lights on, with the aviation hazard lights flashing from the tops of the distant high-rise buildings of the financial district, demonstrates how the scenery both changes and remains the same.
Travel to Bahrain from East Africa is possible nonstop with Gulf Air, operating daily from Nairobi to Bahrain, and visa applications for East Africans, undergo the same process as do visa applications for the UAE, while a number of other nationalities are visa exempt and can obtain a visitor’s pass on arrival at Bahrain’s international airport. Visit www.gulfair.com for fares and direct bookings or else get a ticket or the entire package, hotel included, from your favorite travel agent. Stopover “deals” are available from the airline for those passengers wishing to take a mini-break either enroute, to, or from their final destination, and while it is NOT Dubai, some may, in fact, say thank goodness for that.
Bahrain has a wide range of options in terms of hotel accommodation, from 5-star luxury hotels, to simple, clean, and functional 1-star hotel establishments, and all types of properties in between. The global hospitality giants are all present in Bahrain, ensuring that those with a tendency to 5-star travel and red carpet VIP treatment do indeed get what they are paying for, while those on a budget also have the option to experience the kingdom on much less and still have as good a time as anywhere else.
“Best time to visit,” at least weather wise, would be the European winter months between say mid-October to late April, when temperatures are agreeably lower and humidity is kept in check, while during the European summer months, temperatures tend to soar well into the 40s Celsius range, as does humidity, making outdoor activities, like the long walks I so enjoyed across the old city, rather more of a test of will than should be necessary.
And in closing, would I go back to Bahrain, absolutely YES, and am I worried about the sporadic attempts to create a bit of havoc on the streets by foreign funded extremists? NO in capital letters, as, after all, we went through the same a year ago in Kampala, when the foreign media vultures made the world believe that Kampala was on fire. I guess I trust my own instincts first and foremost and do not allow myself to be misled by one-sided and opinionated pieces written by people, as was the case in Kampala a year ago, who were tucked away in the safety of a Sheraton relying on the very people for “reports and updates” who were trying to fuel the trouble for the foreign paymasters. I guess it is not any different here than in the kingdom of Bahrain.