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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Touring Oman: Second Stop Nizwa Souq

We drove to Nizwa about 140 kilometers from Muscat.  Nizwa was the capital of Oman during the sixth and seventh centuries.  It also served as the cultural capital being known as the town of poets, writers, intellectuals, and religious leaders.

We did not stop at any libraries but instead parked in the souq parking lot.  It was Thursday the day before the big Friday cow and goat sale.  Goldi, a staunch vegetarian, had vetoed the Friday market visit as she did not want her dreams plagued with visions of what happened to the purchased goats.

The animal, fish and vegetable souq is part of a typical tour.  However, it was very quiet when we walked through the wooden gate.

Inside the smell of slaughtered animals and blood in the street moved us quickly into air conditioned building with its brightly lit vegetable stalls.  People were not bustling about.  A few vendors sat patiently waiting for buses of tourists to come through, taste their halwa and hopefully purchase a kilo or two to carry home.

Halwa is the Omani sweet.  It is like thick paste made of dates with cardamom and decorated with pistachios.  Both Goldi and I tried a piece.  It was not overly sweet but my palate did not appreciate the jelly texture.  Neither of us wanted another bite and declined the offer to buy any.

At the next stall the man wearing the lavender thobe tempted me with his halwa.  It had a re-useable tin bowl and cover.  I nearly bought it for the container but decided carrying 5 riyals of heavy halwa in my suitcase, knowing no one in my family would eat it, was a waste of good luggage space.

We succumbed to the elderly man selling cashews.  Even after my purchase, he declined a photo.

Outside the vegetable market was the entrance to a Nizwa street store just outside the Fort/Castle’s front door.  The shelves were filled with ceramic replicas of the fort.  At first it looked enticing and we eagerly entered hoping to find the perfect souvenir.

Silver daggers lined the walls. The jewelry cases were filled with traditional style necklaces made of semi-precious stones and silver beads.  At first it looked fun but upon further examination the silver jewelry all began to look like very unwanted silver jewelry that had gathered dust there for years.  The men sat bored, watching at us paw through the piles of trinkets.  We found nothing.  The jewelry was not modern enough to wear, nor special enough to hang up as decoration.  My guess was it all came from India.  We wandered outside.

The crude clay pots were handmade and fired in wood burning ovens.  They become hard but would not last forever.  Nothing appealed to us.

We walked towards the fort entrance and found another street filled with tourist treasure shops.

Goldi led me into one that interested her.

As I entered and took pictures of the camels, the shop keeper asked where I was from.

“America.”  I said smiling as I perused the shelves packed with every type of momento you could imagine.

“Hi Golden Gate Bridge!” he shouted.  His voice reminded me of Maz Jabroni, the Persian comedian on Axis of Evil.  “I love the Golden Gate Bridge.”

“In San Francisco.  I lived there.” I told him.  “But I live in Bahrain now.”

“Ah Bahrain.  My family lived there for many years until the 1970s.  We came back to Oman when Sultan Qaboos came into power.  He made many changes and brought the Omanis back to Oman.”

His Majesty Sultan Qaboos bin Said has led Oman since 1970 when he took power from his father.  Oman’s absolute monarchy had been passed down through the male line of the Al Busaidi Dynasty for the past five generations after Sayyid Turki bin Said Bin Sultan overthrew the Ottoman Turks in 1744.

“You like Sultan Qaboos?” I asked curious whether the Sultan was as popular as he seemed.

“Yes, we LOVE Sultan Qaboos.  He has made many changes to Oman.  Where are you from?” he directed his question towards my flaxen haired friend.

“California,” she nodded.

“California.  Arnold Schwarzenegger!” he shouted.  “He is no longer your governor – no?”

“Actually, I don’t know.” Goldi answered.  “I just moved to California.”

“I don’t think he is governor anymore.  No more Terminator for California,” he said.

“Can I take your picture?” I asked.  I wanted to remember this man.

“Yes you can,” he said.  “First, please wait.”

He reached into his shelves and pulled out a silver khanjar.  It too looked new, probably recently made in India.  He held it next to his cheek and posed for me.

“Thank you.” I said.

No money exchanged hands but we had a good time.

Next Stop: Nizwa Fort

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