Breaking in Bahrain - Millie Battershill
Bahrain is not on my list. You know, that list of places you just have to see, the list of places to go to before you die or the list of countries that you think harbour the great wonders of the world. As it turns out, I’ve never made a list like those ones, however I do have the less common places that kind of appeal to me and I wouldn’t mind visiting one-day list. But the point is this: Bahrain isn’t on it. In fact, it wasn’t even on my radar as a place that existed, but maybe that says more about my geography skills.
At some point in 2016, it’s mentioned to me that my sister and her husband are moving to Bahrain. Given my awareness of this country you’ll understand my response when I exclaimed, “where?” For those who aren’t quite in the know either it’s in the Middle East, near Saudi Arabia.
With the incentive of seeing family and being able to travel without having to fork out too much money, it seemed like a good opportunity to explore somewhere new, which I’m all for. However, being a young graduate who’s desperate to get my life going and not waste any time, it still took some convincing. Eventually, I gave in and the flight was booked. It only occurred to me as I clicked through the in-flight entertainment and stumbled upon the flight map that it’s in a part of the world I’ve never experienced properly before. The image my brain had conjured was one influenced heavily by television, film, photography and the holidays I’d spent in Spain and Turkey. The only detail I was correct on assuming was the sand; it’s pretty dusty in Bahrain.
During the journey to the apartment, I made the mistake of asking if Bahrain is a city. Obviously, I really could not understand that this small city-like place was a whole country. As we sped along a dual carriageway the first thought I had was regarding the abundance of buildings and skyscrapers. My brother-in-law said it’s as if they’re trying to out-do each other and he’s right, there really did seem to be a competition as to who could produce the most decorative or interestingly shaped skyscraper – my vote goes to the one that had it’s own colourful light display.
It seems logical to discuss culture, as it is, to be honest, the most important part of visiting somewhere new. With its very appropriate name, the Al Fateh Grand Mosque is situated in Manama and can accommodate thousands of worshippers at a time. Before entering, women must don a headscarf and everyone is to remove their shoes out of cleanliness. Our tour guide was very passionate about educating others on Islam and she did her job well; I left the mosque feeling much more enlightened. Some things I learnt were: equality is important within the religion therefore everyone stands in rows to pray – this includes the king, the bowing position associated with praying is not actually praying but there is no direct translation for it and also the call to prayer sounds like a song but that is simply the proper pronunciation of the words. Nothing quite makes you recognise a different way of life than standing in a dusty street surrounded by buildings covered in brightly coloured paint whilst listening to the call to prayer being played very loudly. This is something we experienced quite a few times; it’s almost eerie but fascinating and demonstrates how diverse cultures can be.
A popular place to visit is a souk, which is the equivalent of a market or high street. The shops are full of silly souvenirs, jewellery, perfume, clothing and food. When visiting a souk, my main tip is to be brave. For probably the majority of the shop owners that is their only way of earning money so they are quite encouraging when it comes to buying things and even just entering their shops. As someone who isn’t used to this sort of behaviour, it can almost have the opposite affect, but I suggest venturing into shops without the worry of seeming impolite if you do not buy anything. Other tips include: haggling, it’s not something that I’ve experienced greatly but it works, so do that if you feel it necessary. Don’t be worried if the price is still too high after you’ve used all your expert haggling skills. Shop around, you’re bound to find the same thing somewhere else; make it your mission and go in search of that tacky camel figure you just have to have. That’s exactly what I did.
I’ve never really seen a desert before so you’ll forgive me for picturing huge rolling dunes of golden-orange sand. The desert in Bahrain is actually flat, pale, dusty rather than sandy and mostly covered in various mechanisms used for extracting oil. The Tree of Life, apparently not far from being one of the wonders of the world, is situated in amongst all of this. It is just a tree however the idea that the source of its life is unknown makes it much more interesting than your average four hundred year old tree. Seeing something covered in green leaves in the middle of the desert that seems to be devoid of water sources is unusual therefore I can understand the amazement and the reason it is visited so often.
Of course, energy is definitely needed for seven days of exploring therefore it only seems right to talk about food. I’d like to give some credit to Bahrain for having, firstly, a huge variety of food, but also some amazing traditional food. If you’re like me, someone who doesn’t eat meat and is increasingly becoming more interested in a vegan diet, you’ll still have options in Bahrain. There are copious amounts of chickpeas and they’re found in different forms such as hummus or falafels. There’s also a lot of bread, but if the staples aren’t covering it there’s so many other types of food for example, American, Indian and Italian.
We went to Emmawash which is a traditional restaurant serving a typical breakfast. There were lentils, eggs with various additions such as cheese or tomato and baked beans with spices. Of course, there was bread, some of which came with Nutella in the centre. A discovery I made is bread that has a naan-like texture and is filled with various fillings such as cheese and vegetables or meat, but also sweet fillings such as honey. This was something I found myself craving a lot.
Another tradition is what’s called brunch, however it’s not as we know it. Brunch in Bahrain is a good excuse to eat large amounts of food and drink large amounts of alcohol. The all-you-can-eat buffets have the greatest variety of food I think I’ve ever seen so be ready to dress up, eat at least five overloaded plates of food and drink your weight in fizzy wine and cocktails.
Overall, visiting Bahrain wasn’t a bad idea after all. I know I had my reservations about it but I would have felt similar about most places at this current time in my life. I’ll admit I may have been wrong. Sure, I was worried that I was wasting time but really I think I used that time quite well. I’m not proposing anyone jets off to a remote island somewhere all of a sudden; I’m merely suggesting that perhaps even though a place doesn’t appeal to you, you should give it a go anyway. It might not be on your places I want to go to list, but you could add it to the places I’ve been to list instead.
Words and images shot on 35mm by Millie Battershill