The Bab – Then and Now

Welcome to the Bab Eva the Dragon April 2013

Bab means gate in Arabic.

The Bab Al Bahrain was the entrance gate into old Manama’s market place.  Thirty years ago, outside the gate, there was not land for an asphalt lot with one hundred, parking spaces and pigeons.  The turquoise sea lapped around the fisherman’s harbor.  Like the rest of the world, man’s technology has literally changed Bahrain’s landscape.  Dredgers reclaimed the Arabian Gulf, extending the island nearly a half a kilometer beyond its original edge.

Clock tower downtown Manama Eva the Dragon 2013

Today, Bahrain is no longer a harbor for fishermen or pearl divers.  Pushed by the first discovery of Gulf oil in 1932, Bahrain became the Gulf’s original, industrialized country.  Oil brought Europeans who brought air-conditioning.  Air-conditioning, Bahrain’s cultural openness and the Saudi-Bahrain causeway created the right environment for foreign banks, insurance companies and the first Gulf tourism.

In 1999, we visited Bahrain and stayed at the downtown Sheraton.  Carrying my six-month old baby, I did not want to walk the few blocks to the gold souq.  I hailed a taxi cab and explained I wanted to go gold shopping.

The taxi driver said, “Madame, I know where to take you.” And he drove away from Manama.

I wondered whether or not I was being kidnapped as I felt like he was taking me out into the hinterlands.  In the distance, the Meridian Hotel sat on the ocean shore.  He turned in its direction and dropped me off at the Marks and Spencer entrance at the new Seef Mall.

“Here is where you want to go,” he informed me.  “You will find the gold shops inside.”  He was correct that the gold shops were there.  But I was looking for the souq experience and haggling with the shopkeepers.

Bab street in the old Days photo from souq

Inside the air conditioned souq today Eva the Dragon 2013

Bahrain’s several malls have threatened the old souq with extinction.  To save the souq, the government recently invested in a roof and air-conditioned the Bab’s main street.  Old-time shopkeepers were given the opportunity to be part of the new souq, but many could not afford the increased rent.

Map of Bab Al Bahrain and surrounding area

Despite the ongoing, souq arguments published in the local paper, it is fun to go down to Bab Al Bahrain.  I drove over last week while everyone else was at the Formula One.  The weather was not stifling.  The streets have been cleaned.  The parking lot car washers and taxi drivers were friendly.  Throughout April and May, the Ministry of Culture is promoting small, local businesses by sponsoring art and musical events in the “BAB”.

musician playing oud in the bab al bahrain Eva the Dragon 2013

Entering the Bab in the old days photo in souq

Don’t let the soldiers carrying machine guns intimidate you.  The Bab guards have been carrying guns for awhile.  Unfortunately, all over the world, the guns, like the landscape, have changed.

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Camel Caravan on Block 338

فأكل الجمل وعلى كل ما قامت.

He ate the camel and all that carried.

 To eat someone out of house and home.

– From the delightful Apricots Tomorrow by Primrose Arnander and Ashkhain Skipwith

To compete with the donkeys and elephants in Washington DC and the Arabian horses of Dubai, Bahrain has created a caravan of camels to enliven Block 338 and the Seef Mall Entrance.

In a bid to encourage the local artists’ paints to beautify the community, the government sponsored a camel painting contest.  Personally I liked number 23.

If you have always wanted a camel but were put off by having to feed it, then these are the camels for you.  They are up for auction.

Although real Bedouins will wonder what is the use of such a camel, for the city dweller, they are a perfect reminder of their ancestral past.

A Day in the Life of Unexpected Coincidences

Sketch of Old Manama in 1977 taken from the alley we turned left down. La Fontaine is white building on the left in the distance. It has a round balcony. All the other buildings have been torn down now.

Bahrain is filled with the unexpected.  I never know what might happen or who I might meet.

Yesterday after yoga, I picked up Susan and drove across the island to the smaller, Amwaj Island for the market.  When I asked the guard for directions, he told me,

“Two roundabouts drive straight.  Left at three roundabout.”

After two roundabouts I came to a real intersection and saw umbrellas to my left.  The guard must have meant for me to turn at the third intersection.

We parked at The Lagoon where umbrellas were set up along the water’s edge.  As the DJ played Chammak Challo, Susan and I danced around the mostly Bahraini vendors selling mini-cupcakes, personalized towels embroidered with Fatima and Ahmed, Manchester United shirts, bedazzled abayas, plants, Lebanese costume jewelry and paraphernalia featuring the Bahraini flag and the Prime Minister.  We never found the photographer Mairi Thomas’ table and I wondered if something happened to her.

Susan and I only had 30 minutes to shop because we were supposed to meet Sensai Amr and Debbie for a Bahrain Karate Association photo shoot with local magazine, Woman This Month.  I understood the magazine was going to take photos of our karate class.

It was only after we exited the elevator at the Intercontinental Hotel’s rooftop health club that I realized our class was doing an exhibition for a women’s health expo.  Dressed in my Gi, I passed my friend Shandra who was there for socializing.  She kissed me and for some reason wished me luck.  I slid in the door just in time to bow to Sensai Amr.

Sensai Amr split us into two groups – the white robed BKA members and the Others, a rag-tag army of leotard wearing initiates.  As the TV camera focused on the anticipated action, my opponent, who was much bigger than my regular classmates, attacked me like she was on Survivor.  Despite defending myself against her flailing arms, I got voted off BKA’s debut production.

When our hour was over, Susan and I zoomed home so I could get ready for an event where I knew I would shine – the Bahrain Writer’s Circle dinner.

A holiday party should be easy, but I worried about the journey to my favorite Bahraini venue – La Fontaine Centre for Contemporary Art.   Located in the heart of old Manama, it is one of the most difficult places to get to even in normal circumstances.

My friend said “trust me, I know an easier way,” and navigated me between the new concrete barriers behind the British Embassy.  I wove through a series of dark, narrow alleys where there was only room for one car to shimmy between the parked cars on both sides.  In front of a cold store, a man waiting for his wife halted our progress.   Bumper to bumper, I tapped – beep, beep – and like a typical Bahraini, he kindly backed up.  After an unexpected left turn, we ended up right at the front door where a parking spot was waiting for us.  Amazing!

Our good fortune continued.

Visiting Poet Christopher Merrill

Visiting American Christopher Merrill stepped off his plane and arrived on time to read from two books of his poetry and his 2011 non-fiction work The Tree of the Doves: Ceremony, Expedition, War.  Mr. Merrill is the Director of the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa.  A very generous man, he spoke with nearly every writer at the meeting.

Gulf Daily News - Visiting poet Christoper Merrill and Oud player Hasan Hujairi

Like Mr. Merrill, my family was from Iowa.

Hasan Hujairi at La Fontaine Centre for Contemporary Art

Next, experimental musician Hasan Hujairi played the oud for us.  He described Cherry Blossoms as a fusion between a traditional Japanese song and a well-loved Iraqi tune.  He got the idea while studying in Japan and playing with Japanese guitarists.

That was interesting.  My sister lives in Japan.  And her Japanese husband played guitar with a girls’ band who sang traditional Japanese songs.

Afterwards I chatted with this talented – and charming – Bahraini musician.  Not only did he speak perfect English and Arabic, but he also spoke Japanese.  And he studied in Iowa!

December Moon over La Fontaine Centre, Manama Bahrain

I don’t know whether the eclipse last night played a part in this mysterious night of coincidences but under the December moon in Bahrain,  we proved there were less than six degrees of separation between people.  Thanks to my friend, the writer/bouncer Robin Barrett, it was a night of unexpected pleasures.

Later I read an email from Mairi Thomas.  She wrote two markets were held in Amwaj on the same day demonstrating once again I never know what to expect in Bahrain.

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