WORDS FABIOLA MONTEIRO
PHOTOGRAPHS HIMANSHU PANDYA
Hidden away in a corner of the Persian Gulf, precious history and contemporary culture sit side-by-side in the island nation of Bahrain
It appears that the Salaam Coffee Shop didn’t get the memo that we’re in 2017. It’s been an uncharacteristically rainy week in Bahrain, and, this morning, we’ve found brief refuge in this hole-in-the-wall shop, sipping on glasses of steaming red tea. Flags of the five countries that form the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) are suspended from the ceiling. The dirty blue-green walls are covered from edge to edge with pictures of one-time world leaders. There’s Gamal Abdel Nasser, one of Egypt’s former presidents, and Saddam Hussein, Iraq’s former president (who, our guide Maher tells me, had good relations with this country). Laminated prints of ships and local sportsmen from the 1960s are taped to another wall. It feels like a museum of sorts, both because of the walls and the patrons themselves. It’s 10am on a Tuesday, but these men show no sign of having to be elsewhere. In a corner, two are engrossed in a game of carrom. Others sit around, happily chattering away in Arabic, surrounded by an unending supply of tea. Photog Himanshu is having a field day shooting portraits.
A pea-sized dot in the Persian Gulf, the Kingdom of Bahrain, comprising about 30 islands, is tiny by every definition. It takes approximately one hour to drive from one end to the other. There are no sand dunes, no mountains – Bahrain is made up of flat, desert land, painted in hues of beige. It’s no wonder, then, that it’s often dwarfed by its neighbours in the Middle East. But don’t let that deceive you: Bahrain is precious and intimate. It’s off the radar. The tourists haven’t arrived yet.
This is most apparent when we’re navigating the bylanes of the city of Muharraq, where the coffee shop is. Once an important centre of Bahrain’s pearl trade and the country’s erstwhile capital, an old-world charm still permeates its neighbourhoods. The streets are deserted. We pass by beautiful homes, built by wealthy pearl merchants, and visit the home of one of Bahrain’s former kings. I find myself pausing repeatedly to take pictures of the colourful murals painted on the walls of restored homes.
While the island nation does have a storied past – think burial mounds from circa 3000 BCE and historic forts – there’s a contemporary side that’s just as engaging. I do some people-watching in Adliya’s buzzing Block 338 and bop to Uptown Funk in a jazz club in Juffair. The latter is something I’d never have imagined doing in this country – then again, I hadn’t ever imagined travelling to Bahrain in the first place.
And yet, it feels very familiar, like a comforting hug. Trade between India and Bahrain goes back centuries – so everything from the flavours to architectural elements have a déjà vu vibe. Besides, it’s most common to run into Indians, and have conversations in Hindi – you may even get better service because of it. Even the locals are friendly and hospitable. We’re offered numerous glasses of tea or gahwa (Arabic coffee) wherever we go. It’s also one of the most liberal nations in the Gulf – a fact that sees hundreds of Saudi Arabians cruising along the King Fahd Causeway into Bahrain over the weekend.
As a woman, Bahrain feels safe. While women aren’t expected to don abayas or scarves (except while entering mosques), it’s best to dress modestly, the way you would do while travelling in India as well.
I’d return in a heartbeat – the people are friendly, the breakfasts make my mouth water (even weeks after I’ve returned) and the sea sparkles a brilliant blue in the sunlight. For a quick look into life on the island nation, read more to know what two action-packed days would be like in Bahrain.