Ever since the 2011 Arab Spring, the Kingdom of Bahrain has fascinated me and piqued my curiosity. I’ll admit, I didn’t know much about it other then how it is considered by some as the 'Las Vegas of the Gulf region' because of its vibrant nightlife, cheap hotels and tolerant attitude towards alcohol.
The tiny island nation is five times smaller than the entire city of Karachi and has a historical legacy that spans over five millennia. Located in the Arabian Gulf, Bahrain has always been at the centre of a major historical trade route.
This is why it has been conquered, ruled and colonised by many different empires from the Persians, Greeks, Islamic dynasties, to the Portuguese and British conquests – finally ending with their independence from the British in 1971.
When my friend moved to Bahrain, I decided to go there and explore the country. For starters, the trip didn’t require much planning – reasonably priced flights head out to Bahrain almost daily from Karachi and the visa policy for Pakistani nationals is pretty relaxed. You can easily acquire a seven-day tourist visa through an efficient online visa system. With my ticket in hand, my 48-hour Bahraini adventure had begun.
When I landed, the first thing I noticed was the airport didn’t look like a gaudy, over the top sci-fi movie set, which was a refreshing change from the other Gulf States I had been to. Everyone at the airport from the sweeper to the immigration officer who stamped me into the country were very friendly.
This came as a much welcomed change in a region where airport staff is notorious for being lazy, unhelpful and sometimes even arrogant. I hadn’t even stepped out of the airport and had already fallen for the charms of this country’s people.
By the time I had come out of the airport, it was already midday. Since it was Friday, my friend and I decided to head straight for prayers in Manama, the capital of Bahrain. We went to at the Al Fateh Grand Mosque – the largest house of worship in the country.
At full capacity, the mosque can accommodate around 7,000 people. Built in 1987 by the then Emir of Bahrain, the mosque is named after the founder of the country, Ahmed Al Fateh.
Compared to other mosques I had visited in the Gulf region, there was nothing architecturally spectacular about this one. It was like any other large mosque I had prayed at back home in Karachi. But what made it unique was the beautiful setting along the coastline of Manama against the backdrop of the city’s skyline.
On the way to my friends place, we passed by a large chunk of the Bahraini capital. Being one of the smallest, yet most densely populated nations in the world, the entire country felt like it was a fully inhabited city.
On the surface, it looked like any other stable, wealthy Gulf city with the usual trickle of oddly shaped skyscrapers. But once you start driving through the inner streets, you start noticing the underbelly of the capital.
For starters, you get a feeling that all is not well in the island kingdom because of the noticeable police presence everywhere. According to my friend, the situation in Manama was under control, but it wasn’t unheard of to hear about violent clashes breaking out in the villages outside the capital. If you look closely, you can even spot some anti-establishment graffiti here and there on the walls of the streets– a visible legacy of the recent uprisings.
The majority of Bahrain’s indigenous population (around 75-80%) adheres to Shia Islam, while the ruling political Al Khalifa family adheres to Sunni Islam. For many years, the majority of the population in the country has felt disenfranchised by the minority ruling elite. In 2011, peaceful protests that soon turned violent led to being controversially suppressed by the state’s military apparatus.
With the Arab Spring still in my mind, I asked my friend to show me the infamous Pearl Roundabout – the Tahrir Square of Bahrain and the site where the 2011 demonstrations started. With a sarcastic grin on his face, he told me that the roundabout didn’t exist anymore. Apparently, its demolition was also a part of the state-sponsored crackdown on the protests.
In depth: Graffiti: Street art and the Arab Spring
After grabbing a quick bite to eat at the Manama Souq, we went to explore the nearby marketplace. Unlike the other souqs in the region I had visited, there wasn’t anything particularly Arab about this one – it felt more like Tariq Road or Liberty Market rather than somewhere in the Middle East.
The smell of incense wood was particularly strong in and around the souq area. To my surprise, everything was on sale in the mobile shops, women’s clothing and kitsch souvenir stores. The majority of the salesman working at the souq were from India, which gave the environment a South Asian vibe.
The deeper we walked into the souq, the more multicultural it seemed. I even saw a Hindu temple and an imambargah, both located a stone’s throw away from one another. Unfortunately, I couldn't go into the Sri Krishna temple since prayers were being conducted at the time.
But I did go to the imambargah, locally known as matams or hussainias. I went to the Matam Mada, which was similar to the ones I had been to in Pakistan. The only difference I noticed was the Persian influence in its architecture. The interior and exterior of the building were embellished with beautiful blue tiles.
We were told by locals that there was also a synagogue in the vicinity, but unfortunately we couldn’t find it. Bahrain is the only Gulf State with a remaining indigenous Jewish population of approximately 37 people, including a Jewish representative in the national assembly, Nancy Khedouri.
After spending a few hours at the souq, we made a quick stop at the national museum. Truth be told, I am not a museum person but I would highly recommend a visit to the Bahrain National Museum to understand the history of this small nation.
It was interesting to learn that Bahrain was at the centre of the global pearl trade industry from the mid 1800s to the 1930s. Before the discovery of oil in the early 1900s, Bahrain made the most of its wealth through pearl diving.
However, only a few pearl divers remain in the country today. Outside the museum, I saw a few interesting monuments showcasing the pearl diving history of the country.
In the evening, we drove south towards the town of Sakhir to check out the Bahrain International Circuit – the site of the Bahrain Grand Prix. I was amazed to learn that Bahrain was the first country in the Middle East to host the Formula One (F1) races.
Every Bahraini that I spoke to throughout my trip, even during the plane ride, were very friendly and helpful in terms of recommending places to visit.
I had the chance to meet many locals and realised that Bahrainis stand out from the rest of their neighbours, since they were approachable and easy going. They were also much more culturally aware and to my surprise, many of them spoke conversational level Urdu.
Everyone was suggesting to go to the F1 circuit; it was obvious that they were really proud to have the opportunity of hosting this grand event in their country. It didn’t come as a surprise when I noticed the iconic F1 circuit on the local currency. Within a short span of time, the races had become a part of the nation’s identity.
When we drove back to Manama, we spent the later half of our evening walking around the bohemian neighbourhood of Adliya, which is filled with hip cafes and restaurants.
It was really interesting to see funky street art in the area. In the middle of the block, there was a small public space where people had gathered for live music and performances.
The next morning, we went on a short drive to the neighbouring town of Muharraq to check out the “Bahrain Pearling trail”, a UNESCO world heritage site. The trail is a 3.5 kilometre long pedestrian pathway that passes through the alleyways of Muharraq, which links together several heritage sites.
Although Muharraq is a short drive across the bridge from Manama, it can easily be mistaken for being in a completely different country. Compared to Manama, the vibe in this part of the country is very Arab.
While walking through the Muharraq souq, you start to notice the small differences; the smell of incense wood is replaced by the overpowering aroma from the Arabian Oud store, more men seem to be dressed in local garb rather than western clothing and the stores playing popular Bollywood songs were replaced by subdued Arabic songs. Even before I had fully began to explore the souq, I was already in love with it.
While aimlessly roaming around the souq, we randomly came on to the pearling trail by accidentally stumbling across one of the heritage sites.
The entire pathway consists of around 17 restored buildings, three oyster beds located out at sea, a part of the coast and a fort that was located in the southern tip of Muharraq.
With my time in Bahrain almost coming to an end, we headed back towards Manama to check out the final site on my travel list - the Qalat al Bahrain (the Bahrain Fort).
Located on a hill overlooking the sea, the fort comprises of seven stratified layers. Each layer is occupied by a different occupant – that includes the Kassites, Persians and finally the Portuguese in the 16th century AD.
Seeing the fort lit up at night in all its glory, I couldn’t help but think how it is a microcosmic representation of the Bahraini identity – open minded, multicultural and a link between the east and west.
Before coming to Bahrain, I was only interested in ticking off another place on my bucket list. But once I began to explore, I realised it is a country that has a raw soul – from the bohemian artistic quarter of Adilya, the Arabian vibes of Muharraq to the subcontinental charms of the Bab Al Bahrain souq.
In a region that is competing for world records, Bahrain doesn’t even need to try. There is nothing pretentious about Bahrain – from its people, souqs, rustic dhows (traditional boats) and coastline – it is genuine. I think that is what makes Bahrain unique and beautiful from every other country in the Gulf.
All photos by the author.
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M Bilal Hassan is a doctor by profession who loves to travel off the beaten track.
You can follow him on Instagram here. And reach him by e-mail at email@example.com.