BAHRAIN is a country with a rich history and a very progressive vision for the future. It is an intensely Islamic nation, which is also very proud of its ancient past that goes back thousands of years. It is an archipelago of 33 islands, but the state’s name comes from the main island of Bahrain, constituting 506 square kilometres of the total 707. The Greeks knew the island as Tylos, an area famous for its pearls. It is said that Bahrain, as a nation, converted to Islam on the invitation of the Holy Prophet himself.
Thousands of years ago, an ancient description of Bahrain was recorded by King Sargon of Akkad (the present-day Iraq): “The King of Dilmun whose abode lies like a fish … in the midst of the sea, heard of my might and sent greetings.” Dilmun is the Bahraini contemporary of our ancient Moenjodaro. Their pre-Islamic past is evident in the nearly 170,000 burial mounds dating from 2225BC to 1600BC, and a few dating back to 300BC.
Most of them were destroyed much before the advent of Islam, but recent archaeological efforts by the government indicate that the men in those days were 1.7 metres tall, while the women were slightly shorter. The average age was 50, which is very good for the period. Efforts have also been made to preserve the mounds for posterity.
The present ruling family, Al-Khalifa, has been in power since the 1770s, and efforts were made a hundred years back to modernize. Bahrain was well known for its pearls, but with the advent of cultured pearls in the 1930s, pearling was discontinued as it was getting too expensive.
The discovery of oil helped finance the drive for modernization, and the setting up of a refinery in 1934 increased employment opportunities. Th petro=dollars were never squandered, but put to good use. Natural gas was discovered in 1979. Incidentally, oil production meets only 20 per cent of the local needs, the balance coming from the neighbouring Saudi Arabia with which it is connected by a causeway.
Manama, the capital, is situated on the main island, while the international airport is at Muharrsq with which it is connected by a bridge and joined together through reclaimed land. Bahrain is modern with well-built skyscrapers in the commercial sector. Fine apartment blocks can be seen all over, and the road and highway system is excellent. Quality in any field is never compromised. It is a place where modernity and tradition have met without any friction.
Heritage is a strong point with the government, and ancient tombs and fine mosques are seen everywhere. The Grand Mosque is built in Egyptian style with a proposed garden encompassing it. It is a beautiful sight, especially by night when it is aesthetically lit up. Another important landmark is the Tree of Life, which is surviving in a desert surrounded by desolate barrenness.
The general atmosphere is liberal and girls in jeans are a common sight. Restaurants and cafes cater to various tastes and pockets. Nightclubs are there, and some Lebanese restaurants feature singing and belly-dancing. The liberal atmosphere ensures some four to six million visitors every year. They are mostly Saudis, thanks to the causeway.
A visitor to Bahrain should not miss the museums, especially the National Museum and the Bait-el-Quran, both extremely well built. The former has many objects de art of the pre- and post-Islamic period. The Bait-el-Quran contains rare manuscripts of the Holy Quran from the 7th century onwards.
Bahrain has three great shopping malls, Marina, El Aali and Seef. The latter also has a cinema complex. You come across shops, some of them well-known names, but things are generally more expensive than in London or even Pakistan. The Marina mall was once on the sea-front, but, with land reclamation, is now quite inland. The malls have fine restaurants and cafes where you could rest while shopping. Men come with their families and all seem to enjoy the outing.
Eidul Azha was truly enjoyable and a different experience from what we have in Pakistan. Eid prayers are offered immediately after the Fajr prayers, and after a visit to the graveyard, people go to the abattoir for sacrifice which is not considered mandatory.
People, as family units, visit particular relatives for what is called nashta, which entails relatives or friends dropping in, meeting and eating from the table — buffet style. It is repeated in the evening and the next day at other houses. In the evenings, after such visits families go to the sea-front cinema or the malls. You see cheerful faces all around in contrast to the general glumness in Pakistan.
Bahrain is truly the Pearl of the Gulf, and a visit is refreshing. You come back realizing what a small country could do with the right kind of leadership.