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Bahrain Spring of Culture – The Bright Side of a Difficult Season

March 25, 2013

I turn into a bit of a pedantic old grump whenever I see the word culture associated with centrally organised series of events and activities. Cities of Culture, Springs of Culture and so on make me want to ask nobody in particular “are you implying that culture hibernates when you’re not promoting? Whose culture are you talking about? And what do you mean by culture anyway?”

I’m being churlish. Here in Bahrain, the “Spring of Culture 2013” is in full swing. And happily for me, it has coincided with a rare visit from one of my daughters, and a less rare visit from my wife. One of the problems of living in Bahrain in these troubled times is that for a visitor, options are limited by the fact that there are many parts of the island that are simply unsafe to visit. And sadly they are the kind of places I would like to take people to in addition to the shiny showpieces. Places where a kind of culture thrives that is very different to the highbrow stuff that takes place in venues like the swanky new National Theatre and the not-so-new Arad Fort. The culture of getting by, of religion, of weddings, births and funerals, of family life, of people working in banks by day and on fishing boats by night, of  recreation that doesn’t cost a fortune, like chatting with a friend over coffee.

Nicola, my daughter, had her first experience of a more basic culture when we were driving back from a mall. On the right hand side of the highway what seemed like a fireworks display lit up the sky. Wrong. It was teargas canisters arcing towards a group of protesters on some waste land. A moment later we had to swerve to avoid a lump of burning debris lying in our path.

After a salutary reminder that even the main highways are not immune to the fire, she understood why caution prevails when choosing the timing and location of trips around Bahrain. Yet we did manage one or two memorable outings during her stay.

As an up-and-coming film music composer, she immediately picked up on the recital by Zade Dirani, the Jordanian composer who normally performs with big orchestras and has a huge following in his native country. Dirani’s performance was at the Sheikh Ebrahim bin Mohammed Al Khalifa Centre for Cultural Research. The venue is a converted house attached to an auditorium in an old quarter of Muharraq – the heartland of the ruling Khalifa family’s original domain. As a predominantly Sunni area, it has been relatively untouched by the recent sectarian conflict.

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The block where the centre is located has had a face lift in recent years – there are several other houses that have been turned into centres for music, poetry or just elegant coffee shops. Narrow streets, whitewashed walls, old mosques – the kind of place where you would like to take tourists to show them the charm of the old, and where well-heeled locals like to visit to remind themselves of what used to be.

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Zade Dirani performed to a packed house – mainly an Arab audience. We were advised to get there early. It was a free concert, so first come first served. And many came, to the extent that the place was packed to the rafters, with people in places that would cause raised eyebrows in Western auditoria. Dirani’s eclectic mix of Western and Arabian influences was delivered with panache and went down a storm, especially among the women in the audience. Not surprising – he’s a charming guy with an infectious grin who bounces around the piano like a cat playing with thread.

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Next up was a visit to another landmark that seems to have escaped the troubles – Qal’at Al-Bahrain (Bahrain Fort). It’s an impressive structure that started life as the capital of the pre-Islamic Dilmun civilisation, but owes much of its surviving architecture to the brief Portuguese colonial era and subsequently to embellishments during periods of Persian rule. Thirty years ago you could have wandered around the site picking up shards of pottery, and you would have been left to your own devices. These days, though the fort was empty when we visited – apart from a group who seemed to have escaped from a cruise ship for the day and a lone rider on an Arab stallion practicing dressage nearby – the structure has the well-organised look of a “heritage site”, which indeed it is, having received the UNESCO accolade in 2005.

Bahrain Fort

By the entrance to the fort, there is a small museum that has many artefacts from the site, and a coffee shop where you can sit outside and enjoy the view of the sea and the cluster of surviving date plantations. It’s a pity, though, that someone coyly referred to in the local media as a “VIP” has chosen to build a large residence jutting out to sea smack in the middle of what would otherwise be an idyllic vista. Though I’ve taken visitors to the museum more than once, for some reason this was my first walk through the fort itself. It’s well worth a visit, especially at this time of year when it’s not too hot to wander far.

Back in the Spring of Culture, a few days later we took a trip down Bab Bahrain, the gateway to the Manama souk, where there were a number of special exhibits and stalls set up in connection with the event. Giant scrabble boards, percussion arrays built from household objects, Bahraini games packs build by a local school, incense burners, musicians and a blood-spattered zombie being led around on a chain. A nice touch, the latter, except when he started roaring at the visitors, upon which an official came up and began a conversation that began with “Look guys….” We didn’t hang around to hear the rest of the conversation, but I imagine that it could have continued thus: “at this difficult time it doesn’t really send a positive message to all these tourists to have some guy in a blood-stained thobe wandering around, does it?” or something to that effect.

Zombie 1

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Whether or not the zombie returned to his grave, it was good to see the souk thronging with people again. On recent visits it’s been a very sad place. Shop holders have suffered grievously over the past two years. Some have closed down. Others are barely hanging on. The survivors include my favourite, Roshan’s. There are many shops selling the usual tourist trinkets: coffee pots, wooden camels and ersatz bedouin jewellery. Though it also has some of this stuff, Roshan stands out because of its interesting collection of Afghan artefacts – bracelets, necklaces, seals and message cylinders. Not only that, but a small selection of Umayyad, Abbasid and Fatimid coins, and ancient Greek drachmae from Bactria, the furthest outpost of Alexander the Great’s empire.

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Nicola emerged with a camel whip and a couple of boxes – one made from camel bone and the other from rosewood. The transaction was nicely rounded off by cups of sweet masala tea and a couple of freebie pashminas.

The Bahrain Spring of Culture runs through April. Though many of events are targeted at Arabic-speaking audiences, there are one or two goodies for English speakers – not least a masterclass  from my favourite travel writer, Tim Mackintosh-Smith, the renowned Arabist and chronicler of the celebrated medieval traveller, Ibn Battutah.

Whatever my reservations about organised seasons of culture, I congratulate the Ministry of Culture for putting a varied and eclectic programme together, especially as it doesn’t pander mainly to Western tastes. There are performers, artists and speakers from across the Arab world, which is entirely as it should be. And people on the island need to remind themselves that there is another side to Bahrain beyond the seemingly endless grind of unrest.

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If you happen to be in the area, it’s worth checking out what’s on during your stay. Next month the legions of Formula I will be arriving for the Bahrain Grand Prix. If you’re a petrolhead with some of your hearing left, a bit of high culture might be a nice counterpoint to squabbling drivers, dodgy tyre compounds and shattered carbon fibre.

By then, Nicola and her Mum will be back in the frozen wastes of England, and I won’t be far behind. Nothing like a break from the Middle Eastern sun…..

PS: Thanks to Nicola Royston for all the pics.

2 Comments
  1. Rachel Bowen permalink

    Steve and Nicola, what a super ‘travel article’.
    I agree with you about this or that of Culture. Marseille has been nominated as a ‘capital de culture’ for this year, which seems a bit off when you hear of the things that go on there. A prisoner was released from prison and while standing outside the prison was shot – it is thought asa ‘reglement de compte’ There are always shootingfs and other wild things going on.
    I do have a friend who lives there, and he never has problems, but to publicise the criminal at the same time as calling the city a ‘capital of culture’ does seem odd.

    • Thanks Rachel. Life goes on does it not? If Glasgow can be a capital of culture, why not Marseille?

      S

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