I originally was going to title this post something along the lines of what makes Bahrain a wonderful place to travel – though despite the recent unrest it seemed rather contradictory. Whenever I go to a new place, I often leave with a few key impressions that color my thoughts and writing. With Bahrain, the overwhelming sense that it’s a little known country was one such impression; then, a few days after I left it was all over the news.
That collective blank slate was filled with images of protests and stories of murdered bystanders, demonstrating the complexity and at the same time hiding the diversity within Bahrain.
Walking Around A Walled Yet Open Society
Bahrain, like many of its Gulf state neighbors, has the regional blend of creative skyscrapers looming in the horizon, signaling a power and wealth that few places demonstrate so effectively. When you get down into the smaller streets and neighborhoods however, you see the backbone of the nation – its countless hard working immigrants upon which Bahrain is built. Walking down the streets of these communities is almost like strolling through a live world map – slowly passing by India, Nepal, Thailand and others with each block.
The number and variety of immigrants, primarily from southeast Asia also makes Bahrain a fantastic place to eat. The variety of affordable small stands and hole-in-the-wall type restaurants lets you enjoy the best foods of the working classes. Not the fluffy designer stuff you’ll find in the high end restaurants; it’s the kind of food that makes you feel like the cook is your friend for the meal.
Then there are the intimidating walls and practically guarded Shiite communities scattered throughout many blocks and streets heading in and out of Manama. Take one of the local buses to Manama’s Bar Bar Temple and you’ll see one rather large one with a cemetery by the main road. The large black flags are both intimidating and inviting for the curious traveler; under normal circumstances most of the neighborhoods are quite accessible.
A Conserved Liberalism
An open-closed society, Bahrain is a cultural crossroads between some powerful players in its life – Iran to the east, the Saudis to the west, and the US Navy’s 5th fleet floating in its harbors. Bahrain is a good example of a society that simply can’t be closed; anytime you have that many different people in one place, ideas are bound to flow. They might not be a smooth or soft (take the current protests) as in other countries, but you get a sense the direction is forward.
Being a foreign traveler is, by and large, in Bahrain a very comfortable state. Plop yourself off just about anywhere and you probably won’t feel out of place; not to mention the masses speak English with an exceptional fluency.
Can’t Discount The Beaches And Cheap Gas
Being an island (technically there are 33), Bahrain is full of coastline, most of which is free and relatively absent of other people. The beaches in Bahrain aren’t quite tropical and the sand compacted and firm, but whether you’re looking for (or hiding from) humanity you’ll find a perfect spot on one of them. Access to the coasts is best done by car – gas is only 29 cents per liter – and you’ll have endless choice.
Not to mention bumping into the Tree of Life, mysteriously growing in the middle of Bahrain’s interior oil fields, the world’s third biggest mosque, or the simple bliss of seeing fishing boats bob into the sunset.
Very interesting…glad to learn more about the place as all I’ve ever really heard is that it’s where westerners working in Saudi go to relax.
It does have a resort-ish type reputation which catches many people off guard once they arrive. I know it did for me 🙂
It’s cool to read about a country I normally wouldn’t have considered visiting. The protests would scare me but it sounds like an interesting place.
Right now isn’t a good time to go, but I’m hopeful it will be soon.
Your timing couldn’t have been any better, Anil!… You got to see the Pearl Square monument for example 🙂
I know! I was shocked to read it had been destroyed…I would have never imagined it as I strolled by on those lazy days just before.
I find it interesting to learn about places where little is really known or they are really misunderstood. It is great to get a personal perspective of Bahrain!
The general impressions or media stereotypes of any place I’m finding are only the tiniest side. It’s incredible how much diversity and history there is everywhere and in everyone.
What an enlightening post. I think this really shows that actual travel to a country helps show its true diversity and vibrancy, and counters the one-dimensional portrayals that so often appear in the media.
I couldn’t agree more – funny, I just wrote a very similar comment! Great minds think alike 😉
Interesting Anil. I waver between being intrigued by the Middle East and having absolutely no interest in it. I suspect that it would, however, be one of those places that I would really like once I visited. And your post has me leaning more and more that way.
I find the Middle East to be very diverse, so many layers of history here that goes beyond Islam. I too suspect you would enjoy the complexities and connections throughout the region. I’ll keep doing my best to lure you here eventually!
“An interestng post” I was thinking as I was reading, and it appears to be the samethough many readers have had when going through it. I had actually been wondering what your thoughts were about recent events as I knew you had just been there. Learning that the Pearl Square monument is not there any more when you just visited must have put things into perspective. A very well written post Anil.
Thank you Federico – yes, when I heard that the monument was destroyed I was saddened on a different level. Having been there so recently, the closest feeling I can describe is like having your favorite restaurant be shut down. There’s an intimacy you form with places when you see them up close; and a unique disappointment when they’re no longer there.
I definitely identify with several of the comments you made here.
Dubai gave me the same feeling of being a cross-section of the world, with people and food from all over. It also makes me want to spend more time in the Middle East, to get a better idea of what the area’s really about.
And then, on your feelings towards the monument. I keep seeing reports on disasters in places I’ve been traveling recently, and it hits a lot harder and more personally than on countries that don’t really have any concrete experiences tied to them for me. Like, I’m really interested in Libya/Egypt from an academic and political perspective; but I met real people in Japan and Myanmar, you know?
Anyways, I enjoyed this post.
Thanks Stephen, and I do agree with the feelings that stick with you after personally experiencing a place and peoples. It’s almost a shame that it’s the case, at least I feel slightly guilty about that, but too (hope) and think that the more one travels, the more they can relate that sensation to others.
ohhh – I had been waiting for this post. I wanted to see what you thought of it and get your thoughts on what happened after you left. I didn’t know there were so many immigrants from SE Asia; they bring great food everywhere!
We both definitely picked an interesting time to come to the Middle East, seems we’re on the heels; or just right ahead of some drastic social changes.
I can identify firsthand with your experience, Anil. I was in Zagreb, Croatia three days before the war there, and it’s a scary feeling to know how close I was to being in the thick of it. Thank you so much for your insightful post. -David
I wonder if you felt the same – that you could see where the tensions were on the surface – but how calm things were when you were there? Then (seemingly suddenly) things just flip in a moment – at least seemingly for a traveler.
I feel like I can relate to this as well, Anil. I was in Syria in May/June 2011. Although it was several months AFTER the protests had started there, things did feel very calm. However, it was definitely obvious something was boiling just under the surface, and I felt a distinct tension in the air. The fear was there that something could just snap at any moment, and my sense of calm would have been just an illusion. I guess you always take that risk when you’re traveling, especially to the Middle East these days!
Interesting to hear and compare, now more than 1 year after the Arab Spring, how these different conflicts are progressing. I’m afraid Bahrain still has troubles despite the government’s efforts to hide that fact and unfortunately Syria has descended into civil war. Strangely enough, I didn’t get that same feeling of tension in Egypt months after the revolution there – really a diverse set of changes going on. I think you and I were lucky to have caught a small view firsthand; I feel it ties you to a place longer after you physically leave it.
I agree, we are definitely lucky! Every time I see stories about Syria flash across the news now I get the weirdest feeling and mix of emotions. It’s interesting to get to see things from a perspective that not many other people have!