Oud, Liwa and Al-Sout

Weaving through the narrow streets lined with gold shops, I said to my Bahraini friend, “I have never been here before.  Where are we?”

“This is the old Muharraq souq.  Remember when I showed you my grandfather’s house?  We are near there.  The Mohammed Bin Faris Hall is next door to my husband’s father’s house.”

“Next door” or “Near to” are typically included in the directions a Bahraini gives but they are not literal.  My experience is Bahrainis are so knowledgeable about the honeycombed streets, they find it difficult to give detailed directions an outsider needs.  If I wanted to ever find my way back, I would have take a daytime, reconnaissance trip.

Arriving before 7pm, we met some old school friends on the doorstep.  Hearing I was from California, one women became particularly interested.

“Where – in Los Angeles?” she asked.

“Yes, as a matter of fact.”

“GO TROJANS,” she yelled making her fingers into a horn.  “I went to USC.”

“So did my husband,” I told her and instantly we became friends.

My new friend insisted on showing us the recently opened Mohammed Bin Faris House Museum where the legendary Bahraini artist used to live.  Born in 1855, he recorded several Al Sout albums in Iraq and two albums in Bahrain before his death about 1946.  Looking around his one-room house, his albums did not go platinum during his lifetime.  Still seventy years later, his music continues to be played live.

At 7pm, ten Bahrainis wearing matching winter-grey thobes entered from the stage left and began setting out their instruments – a qanum, violin, oud, several drums and an electric keyboard.

“Who do you think will dance?” my friend asked me.

“It will likely be that guy,” I said pointing to the tall thin, young man who reminded me of Harold Perrineau from LOST.  “The others are too chubby to be dancers.”

Without any introduction, the singer began.  A slow song, “About love,” my friend whispered to me.  By the second song, the tempo sped up, the clapping began and then the dancing.  It was not the young Perrineau look-a-like; rather, the oldest man, a tall man of African descent with a missing front tooth began a slow, somber walk across the stage.  Soon the music inspired him.  He spun around, placed his hand on his ghuttra and jumped high off the ground then spun again.  The twinkle in his eye showed us how much fun he had before returning to his seat to help out with the percussion.

When the spirit moved him, he would get up.  As the songs continued, love song after love song, his shoulders started shimmering and his gestures grew more flirty.  He paused to pose for us, the photo-taking audience, or to smile at a friend.

“Is he doing this for show,” I asked my friend.  “Would your husband dance like him?”

“No, he is performing.  My husband would not dance like that.”

“His jumping reminds me of the African dancers we saw in Tanzania.  Is he Bahraini?” I wondered.

“Yes, but probably his ancestors were from Africa.”

I read later, liwa is a traditional African dance performed in the Gulf by people from Tanzania and Zanzibar.  Usually the al-sout was a male-only dance performed at night.

mohammen bin fares hall

The Mohammed Faris Hall is modern and formal but the audience was fluid and friendly.  Some arrived late then walked across the seats to kiss their friend hello.  Others shouted their Salams to the band when they entered.  An elderly man called out for his favorite songs.  And a woman announced in a loud voice before she led a pack of friends out, “We would love to stay with you all night, but we have another appointment.”

We did not have another appointment so continued to listen to song after song about love – “if you love me, how could you have done this to do me” and “I see your face in the water I drink”.  Finally, the topic moved from loving women to loving Bahrain.


7pm every Thursday night, the band will perform in the Mohammed Bin Faris hall.  Courtesy of the Ministry of Culture, their concerts are free.  There is little parking around the hall.  It might be easier to take a taxi.

The Hall opened in April 2013 and is part of the Muharraq revitalization project.  Across the street, a new Zaffron café has opened.  It is built over an old date juice building.  The acrylic floors make you feel like your floating.  Zaffron serves breakfast, coffee and tea.


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.


Tales by Chapter

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