Bahrain, Dilmun and the story of Gilgamesh…

GilgameshDilmun is regarded as one of the oldest ancient civilizations in the Persian Gulf. It was an important trading center from the late fourth millennium to 800 BC. At the height of its power, Dilmun controlled the Persian Gulf trading routes.

The Sumerians described Dilmun as a paradise garden in the Epic of Gilgamesh and the Sumerian tale of the garden paradise of Dilmun may have been an inspiration for the biblical Garden of Eden story.

The Epic of Gilgamesh tells the story of the King of Uruk (or ancient Iraq) about 2100 BC.

This king spent much of his time looking for the sacred island of Dilmun where, he was told, there is an underwater plant which gives eternal life to whoever gets hold of it. Nowadays we know that the fabled ‘plant’ actually was the oyster – and if you were lucky contained a pearl. The ancients believed that anyone who ate the flesh of the oyster and the crushed pearl within would live forever.

So much so that supposedly Cleopatra gave her beloved Marc Antony a potion of crushed Bahraini pearls so that he would never die.

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Yalla yalla, habibti, khalaas!

Without doubt, language and culture are inseparable and more so in this region as the  Arabic language is considered to be central to the Islamic faith. So no wonder that some of the words you might hear from Arab speakers have a reference to God. The most frequent ones are:

  • ‘Insha’llah’: means ‘hopefully’ and the literal English translation is “God has willed it”.
  • Ma’shallah’: is generally said upon hearing good news and translates literally as “God has willed it”.
  • ‘Al’hamdu’lil’lah’: translates into “all praise and thanks to God” and is often added after someone giving the answer to “How are you?”. It is similar to the Hebrew word Hallelujah.

You’ll also hear:

  • ‘As-salam’alaykum’: this is an Arabic greeting. It translates to “the peace be upon you” and is considered the equivalent to “hello” or “hi” as a greeting.
  • ‘Habibi’ or ‘habibti’: are words of endearment meaning “my friend” (m. and f.).
  • ‘Khalaas’: meaning ‘done’, ‘over’, ‘finish’ or ‘that’s it!’.
  • ‘La’: means “no”. When used repeatedly it simply means “no, no, no”.
  • ‘Mabrook’: this word means ‘(you are) blessed’. It is a commonly-used word said to someone who has received something good.
  • ‘Shwai-shwai’: translates to ‘slowly’ and is very often used in conjunction with an erratic hand gesture with your fingers pointed upwards.
  • ‘Yallah’: expresses a “c’mom” or “let’s go”.
  • ‘Yanny’: is literally, “it means”. It is used as a filler giving the person time to think about what he wants to say next. Similar to the English word ‘like’, when used without context in between phrases.

This leaves me with: ‘ma’asalaama’ or ‘Good Bye’!

Do you speak Arabic?

Well, the answer is no. Despite the fact that I have been taking Arabic lessons for about three years now. Arabic is by no means the first foreign language I have been trying to master but why is progress so slow?

First of all, there is the Arabic alphabet with its 28 letters to learn and the pronunciation of those to master. Interestingly, trying to read a word from right to left isn’t necessarily the challenge. More so that some letters look different at the beginning, the middle or at the end of a word. Additionally there 25 consonants in the Arabic alphabet and only three long vowels. Short vowels are only indicated by little ticks and dots underneath or on top of a consonant if you are lucky to help beginners!

Secondly, English is widely spoken here. The person behind the counter doesn’t necessarily speak Arabic either because they come from a different country. Arabs are also conscious about losing face. They don’t want you to lose face in front of them when you are trying to cobble a sentence together and they also don’t want to be seen loosing face by not understanding what you are saying. Or, how my Arabic teacher put it: they are expecting you to speak English and are confused and afraid to not understand or to correct you.

Spoken Arabic in the GulfThis brings me to my third point: the spoken Arabic here the Gulf Dialect (or Khaliji as it is known) is different from the Standard Arabic. Interestingly when you see Arabic writing it is Standard Arabic as there is no written Khaliji. And we are not talking slight differences, we are talking about two seemingly unrelated languages at first glance. For example, ‘I want’ is ‘orid’ in Standard and ‘abi’ in Gulf Arabic. When you go deeper though, you realise that only the 100 most used words are different! Thankfully though ‘kaifa haluki’, the “how are you, male person?” is taught in school here and is widely understood together with the Khaliji of ‘shack-baric’ or the Saudi version of ‘kaif-halic’.

My last point is that it is really difficult to find an Arabic teacher here! Yes, there are a few language institutes teaching Standard Arabic but it took me a little while to find a fabulous Bahraini Arabic teacher called Shehab Ali who created a course and method for foreigners to learn Gulf Arabic in 48 hours. For further info have a look at his website: http://www.arabicbahrain.com.

So, am I leaving you eager to take up learning Arabic? I really hope so because there is nothing more exciting than to start picking up some words and then sentences from around you! There will be more on this to come in one of my next blog post about frequently heard words and sentences in Bahrain.

Bahrain – a country of firsts…

I bet most new expats will come to know that Bahrain was the first country in the Middle East to have found oil, but there are also a few more ‘firsts’:

  • Bahrain was the first country in the Middle East where oil was discovered back in 1932;
  • Bahrain was also the first Gulf country to establish a national airline (Gulf Aviation) to serve the region. This makes Gulf Air the oldest carrier in the Middle East;
  • It was also the destination of British Airway’s first commercial flight of Concorde on 21 January 1976;
  • It was also the country to first publish a weekly newspaper in the Gulf region;
  • Furthermore, Bahrain changed from quasi-independent (Bahrain was a British Protectorate until 1971) to a truly independent state in the Gulf;
  • It was also the first GCC country to introduce laws to regulate the financial services sector;
  • And of course, the first country to host the Formula 1 Grand Prix in the Middle East back in 2004.

Am I missing anything?

Top 5 tips to enjoy living in Bahrain

I frequently get asked for some tips in the Cultural Induction Workshops I am running with relocation agency Expat Angels, so here are my top 5 tips:

1. Set up a Skype subscription and download WhatsApp on your phone. This helps you stay in touch with family and friends at home and also allows you to join local WhatsApp groups to find out what is happening here.

2. Join an expat club such as the Rugby Club, British Club, Sailing Club or Dilmun Club or take up a membership at either The Ritz or The Sofitel to allow yourself to soak up the sun at the beach or pool. This will allow you to make meet people easily. With so many expats here, friendships in Bahrain happen quickly and tend to be very strong.

3. Join Aramex Shop and Ship to avoid the frustration of not being able to shop for anything you want. It is $40 US dollars for a lifetime membership and you can shop in over 10 countries and get the goods sent to your home in Bahrain at a small cost.

4. A tip for the ladies in particular is to always have a pashmina or a cardigan handy. These are great and handy cover-ups for all sorts of circumstances. They are great to cover shoulders when wearing strappy tops and dresses when you are popping into the shops and the AC in malls and cinemas can get a bit arctic sometimes so you will be glad of the benefit.

5. Always and always and always have some water with you! Water can be expensive in certain places and you will want to drink a lot here in particular in the very hot summer months!

Bahrain, Dilmun and the biblical Garden of Eden

One of the things that had me excited when I first moved here was not to find the best place to buy meat or to buy cereal, but that the little island I am now calling home is in some places referenced as the biblical Garden of Eden.

The Garden of Eden is a location described in the Book of Genesis as being the place where the first man, Adam, and his wife, Eve, lived after they were created by God. It`s a paradise where all creatures lived in harmony and life was eternity.

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There have been a number of claims as to the actual geographic location of the Garden of Eden, though many of these have little or no connection to the text of Genesis. Over a 12 year period from 1953, British Archeologist Geoffrey Bibby conducted extensive archaeological investigations along the southwest coast of the Arabian Gulf which he first published in his book “Looking for Dilmun” in 1969. He was one of the first explorers of Bahrain and the first modern archaeologist to dig here discovering the remains of a Sumerian civilisation.

Thousands of years ago, in ancient Mesopotamia, Bahrain used to be known as ‘Dilmun’. Dilmun was the “land of immortality” and a meeting place for the gods.

“The land of Dilmun is holy, the land of Dilmun is pure” is how Dilmun was described in one of the world’s oldest poems written down some 4,000 years ago in the ancient Sumerian city of Nippur near the Euphrates:

The poem tells about the doings of the gods at the dawn of time in a sacred island paradise called Dilmun, a place closely resembling the Garden of Eden, where death and sickness did not exist and sweet waters flowed.

So, how is this for a dinner conversation?

“In all beginnings dwells a magic force… we must prepare for parting and leave-taking…”

is how Herman Hesse so poignantly put it in his poem ‘Stages‘. This magic force is exactly what I am looking to harness in my blog – the new beginnings of moving to this little island. This is a blog about living and loving life as an expat here in Bahrain!

My aim is to make this blog a source for ideas of things to do and try out here on this little island as well as to provide some background on Bahrain’s rich culture, society, language and religion together with a guide to local customs and etiquette to make settling in easier.

Keep checking back in or even better sign up to receive a message when a new post has been published!