24 hours in Manama
Bahrain’s capital proves that size doesn’t matter
Don’t let Bahrain’s size fool you. Unlike its terrain, its cultural offerings are vast. The smallest country in the Middle East, Bahrain – whose name translates to ‘two seas’ – is an aggregate of 33 islands that house everything from seventh century mosques to contemporary racetracks, Islamic-style castles and 18-hole golf courses.
Despite its name, which means ‘sleeping place’, Manama is anything but a slumbering locale. Bahrain’s largest city, it is seated on a small peninsula in the country’s northeast and has long been an important centre of trade in the Arabian Gulf. Nowadays, the traders have been joined by a legion of creatives: filmmakers and fashion designers, graffiti artists and creative collectives, street photographers and quirky jewellery makers. Over the years, a number of venues and initiatives have sprouted up around Manama, reflecting the social, creative, curious and proud spirit of many of its residents.
Al Adliya, the city’s bohemian, pedestrian neighbourhood, is very much its cultural and creative core – punctuated by art galleries, cafés and hip restaurants. Among its most notable venues is Al Riwaq Art Space. Since around 1998, this non-profit institution has played an invaluable role in cultivating emerging talent and introducing Manama to the work of provocative international artists. In addition to a meaty roster of annual art exhibitions, residencies and educational programmes, Al Riwaq has maintained a café on its premises since 2010, offering cultural practitioners and art enthusiasts a much-needed networking platform and public work station. A visit to similar communal gathering spaces like The Domain will also highlight a young, productive side of the city’s population that is switched on and ready to engage.
There is more to Manama’s cultural scene however, than contemporary art venues and fashionable eateries. While it plays host to many of the glitzy skyscrapers that have become a Gulf trademark, it has not abandoned its heritage, offering the historically-inclined refurbished souqs, old forts, repurposed heritage houses and more. Like any locale looking to draw visitors and tourists, the city also has its kitschier elements – but there’s no shame in wanting to don an ‘I love Manama’ t-shirt and snap photos of a royal camel farm.
8:00am – Saffron
Where better to sample a traditional Bahraini breakfast than in the country’s former capital – historic Muharraq, located a mere twenty minutes from its twin city Manama. In Bahrain, Muharraq is singled out for its vintage charm, with the city’s low-rise buildings, narrow streets, tight alleys and traditional Arab-Gulf architectural aesthetic serving as nostalgic reminders of a cherished bygone age.
Amidst the repurposed heritage houses and in the belly of Muharraq’s refurbished souq is Saffron, a contemporary café that is introducing the culinary sensibilities of old Bahrain to modern tastebuds. With a traditional Bahraini madbasa (date press) preserved beneath its floorboards, Saffron serves nothing but breakfast – morning and evening. ‘When we started in 2009, there was no proper Bahraini breakfast being served in the country. We offer traditional homemade food – you can’t get it anywhere else,’ explains Saffron’s manager Mohammed Rafeeq.
The meal begins with dates and yoghurt, followed by modest servings of foul (fava beans mixed with parsley and lemon). ‘Arabs love to have beans in the morning,’ Rafeeq claims. Other Arab breakfast staples accompany the foul, such as an egg and tomato mixture, spiced potatoes and white beans, but the menu also includes a number of dishes that are not typical of other parts of the region. Keema, for example, a type of minced meat with curry, peas and potatoes, is of South Asian origin, as is nakhi, or bread cooked in fish sauce – an indication of the long history of socio-economic exchanges Bahrain has had with countries to its east. Balaleet, a Gulf favourite composed of sweet vermicelli and egg, is also served. Kabab rolls and a conveyer belt of other Bahraini delights follow.
Despite its more antiquated décor and ambiance, with an interior modelled after Bahrain’s historical residences and staff dressed in traditional Khaleeji clothes, Saffron is firmly rooted in the present, working to satisfy a Gulf desire for local cuisine that is largely being overshadowed by international offerings. ‘We have five branches,’ Rafeeq explains. ‘People come from Dubai, Saudi Arabia and other countries to sample our breakfast.’
11:00am – Royal Camel Farm, Janabiya
After an introduction to Bahrain’s heritage in the old city of Muharraq, continue your exploration of the country’s past by visiting the animal that was once indispensable to Bahraini survival.
The privately-owned Royal Camel Farm in Janabiya, located on the outskirts of Manama, is far from a sensationalist tourist attraction. Home to hundreds of camels, the farm actually began as a royal hobby. His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Salman Al Khalifa, the Emir’s late uncle, set up the farm in an attempt to preserve and celebrate the country’s camels. Evidence of the camel’s significant presence in Bahraini life is still evident throughout the country, with many of the busiest highways equipped with special lights and crossing posts for camel herds to cross busy streets.
Atypically, the camels at Janabiya farm are not bred for racing and eating. They are simply allowed to exist as a kind of homage to the days when the camel was the primary mode of transportation. The farm lacks tour guides, a gift shop and even explanatory signage, so visitors must content themselves with what is essentially ‘camel gazing’, allowing this symbolic creature to evoke thoughts of customs and practices long past.
2:00pm – Budaiya Botanical Park
Manama’s Budaiya Botanical Park is a welcome floral respite from the country’s desert environment. Visitors can meander down long walkways, seeking solace from the white noise of urban life in the comforting bird chirps and the stimulating smells, colours and textures of mother nature. ‘It’s a beautiful place,’ comments Lebanese-Canadian artist and long-time resident of Bahrain Camille Zakharia. ‘It’s a kind of small haven in the northern part of the island. The area is pretty fertile, with surrounding farms. The best time to visit, like anywhere else in the Gulf, would be between October and May, when the weather is pleasant. Everyone loves to see lush greenery and this is a place where you can enjoy plants from different corners of the world.’
Everyone loves to see lush greenery and this is a place where you can enjoy plants from different corners of the world
Appropriately situated next to the Ministry of Agriculture, the garden began as an experimental farm in the 1940s that primarily imported seeds and plants from regions with similar climates. Vegetables, fruits, cacti and other desert plants, as well as herbs, bulbs and other species were grown on the farm. Date palms and ornamental trees brought in from Asia decorated a significant portion of its terrain as well. Several years back, a decision was made to transform the farm into a scientific botanical and recreational garden, and it’s now home to a total of 350 plant species, among them palm trees, aromatic and wild plants and flowers, many of which were imported from countries like India and Thailand.
5:00pm – La Fontaine Centre of Contemporary Art
Bahrainis, it seems, have a knack for repurposing their heritage for contemporary use. Not ones to sever ties with their rich past, they have refurbished many a historical home and monument, transforming them into venues for displaying modern art and staging cultural events. La Fontaine is one such space. More a multi-purpose compound than merely an arts centre, it is home to a number of art galleries, an amphitheatre, a restaurant, a spa and a Pilates and dance studio.
The country’s first private museum, La Fontaine is located in central Manama, close to the old souq, and is housed in a private home dating back to the 19th century. The house once belonged to the father of La Fontaine’s founder, Fatima Alireza, a pearl merchant who resided in it until his death in the 1960s. Collaborating with French artist Jean Marc Sinan, Fatima decided to renovate her father’s home, restoring the worn down local architecture, which had survived 200 years, back to its former glory.
Once the restoration was complete, Fatima decided to open the house to the public as a centre for contemporary art in 2002. La Fontaine, she explains, ‘fuses ancient Gulf architecture with contemporary design to spectacular visual effect.’ In her former home, Fatima now stages three to four exhibitions a year as well as a host of events ranging from recitals to dance performances and product launches, often held in a small enclosed courtyard within the space. ‘La Fontaine’s mission is to bring people together through cultural events,’ Alireza elaborates.
Not one to limit herself or her audience, Alireza has hosted everyone from Iranian and Pakistani Sufi musicians to English and Polish opera singers and traditional Indian dancers in her 150-year old space. In the past, La Fontaine has also exhibited the works of artists such as Pakistani-American Simeen Farhat, Turkish Belkis Balpinar and French-Tunisian Abdallah Akar, in addition to organising screenings of hard to come by films like Disney World’s 1971 production ‘Hamad and the Pirates’. Running through the month of November is the centre’s exhibition ‘Adam Ball: Resolution’, the first solo showing by the British artist in Bahrain.
8:00pm – Bahrain National Theatre
Docked on Manama’s waterfront along the Corniche is, what appears to be, a ship from the future. This vessel from another time is actually Bahrain’s National Theatre. Inspired by Bahrain’s position as the ‘land between two seas’, the architects behind the bold building created a glass structure with a golden centre firmly grounded in the earth and a canopy stretching outwards, floating above the water as a reflection of the balance that characterises island life.
Whether or not you plan on actually attending an event at the theatre, the structure itself is a sight to behold. The nautical theme continues in the main auditorium which, in homage to ‘One Thousand and One Nights,’ was designed to seat 1,001 people. Curved white walls and bold woodwork come together to create a cabin-like feel, setting the stage for an intimate theatrical experience.
Theatre is one of the more underdeveloped areas in the Middle Eastern arts and culture scene, but Manama is trying to change that. ‘Smaller-scale theatre is quite popular here in Bahrain,’ explains Nadia Khalaf, a Bahraini arts and culture enthusiast. ‘Plays are often shown in social clubs or on makeshift stages and they don’t involve much pomp and circumstance. I recently saw a great production by the established Al-Sawari theatre company in the beautiful courtyard of a still inhabited house in central Manama. The new theatre is designed to attract more glamorous international shows but it is a great venue for people in Bahrain to see world-class performances and for the nation’s younger generations to find inspiration.’
Smaller-scale theatre is quite popular here in Bahrain… I recently saw a great production by the established Al-Sawari theatre company in the beautiful courtyard of a still inhabited house in central Manama
The National Theatre has so far hosted many a high-profile act, such as Spanish tenor Plácido Domingo and Russia’s Bolshoi Ballet, but many Bahraini intellectuals and cultural practitioners hope to see a future focus on local talent. ‘A local theatre festival would be great,’ Khalaf says. ‘It would also be nice to see more varied musical performances – something outside the Western-classical or blockbuster “world music” scenes.’ Still in its infancy, the theatre has plenty of time to expand its agenda.
This article appears in the issue42Buy Now