My top 15 things to see and do here in Bahrain

With the new moon having been sighted, Thursday, 15. October marks the first day of Muharram of 1437 AH (after hijra) in the Islamic calendar.

What better occasion to post my personal list of the top 15 things to see and do here in Bahrain in time for the long weekend:

  1. One of my favourite places is The Qal’at al-Bahrain (also known as the BBahrain fortahrain Fort). It is one of these magical places from where you can travel back in time to 2300 BC by exploring the ruins of the fort of five successive pre-Islamic cities, gaze at the amazing artefacts in the museum and then enjoy some yummy Bahraini treats and a cup of gahwa (Arabic coffee) or chai (tea) in the coffee at Darseen Café overlooking the sea. Exploring the Fort is free, entrance to the museum is BD1.000.
  2. Or how about going for a stroll around Muharraq and explore the 3.5 km long Pearling Trail which was used by pearl divers during much of Bahrain’s history (dating back to 2000 BC) until the early 1930s, when the pearl market in Bahrain crashed as a result of the introduction of cultured pearls from Japan. The trail consists of old merchant buildings as well as the Sheikh Isa House,  oyster beds located in the nearby sea, a segment of the coast where you can still see the traditional Bahraini vessels called Dhows being made. It is Bahrain’s second World Heritage Site after the Bahrain Fort. Whilst you are there, make sure you also stop by Muharraq Souq and stop for a typical Bahraini meal at Cafe Saffron.
  3. Talking about shopping, Manama Souq behind the Bab Al Bahrain is up next. Explore the little windy narrow lanes filled with spices, clothes, toys and home wear. Also look out for traditional crafts as well as antiques. I heard that there is hardly anything you can’t buy there. Of course there is also Gold City where you can find a wide array of jewellery from costume rings to diamond tiaras and of course original Bahraini pearls. Don’t forget to bargain!
  4. Whilst you are in that area, make sure you also visit the Bahrain National Museum. The museum showcases the collection of Bahrain’s ancient archaeological artefacts covering 6000 years of Bahrain’s history ranging from burial mounds and seals dating back to the ancient civilisation of the Dilmun to displays depicting the culture and lifestyle of Bahrain’s recent pre-industrial past. In the cooler months you can also take a boat across to the Bu Maher Fort.
  5. Further down the road is the modern landmark of the Grand Mosque or Al Fateh Mosque named after the 18th century conquerer and founder of the ruling Al Khalifa family, Sheikh Ahmed Al Fateh. It is the perfect place to find out more about Islam. Visitors are welcomed any day expect for Friday when up to 7000 worshippers descend on it. Please make sure you dress modestly. Women will also be given an abaya and a headscarf before entering. Shoes must be taken off at the entrance.
  6. And when you are getting hungry head across the road to Adliya with its many eateries, hotels, art cafes and carpet shops. If you fancy something authentic to eat, then head down to Shwarma Alley and chose from either a lamb or chicken wrap for 500fils.
  7. For a change of scenery, head south and visit the Tree of Life. This natural wonder is a 400 imagesyear-old tree that stands alone in the desert. It is believed it was also a site for cults practising ancient rites some 3000 years ago. Make sure you bring a picnic or even a tent during camping season (from November through to March) but make sure you camp within the designated areas. You will not believe how busy it can get in the winter months.
  8. Another highlight is also visiting the Bahrain International Circuit or otherwise known as the ‘Cradle of Motorsport in the Gulf’. Next year will be the 12. time the Formula 1 circus will stop in here. Check their website (http://www.bahraingp.com)  for other events including regular tours of the track or watch out for one of the charity events when you can take to the track on your own two wheels.
  9. If you are hungry again, why not head to one of the many malls such as Seef Mall or Al A’Ali Mall or City Centre with its many eateries. Obviously there are also plenty of shops to have a look at and spend some money.
  10. Or drive all the way east and have lunch or dinner in Amwaj. There are also some beaches to dip your toes in the sea and a few nice walks. At the entrance of the man made island  you can visit a bird sanctuary called Azizia Bird Kingdom (www.amwaj.bh/azizia-bird-kingdom).
  11. Talking about animals, Al Areen Wildlife Park and Reserve (www. alareen.org) is the place to go and watch Oryx and other local animals such as Arabian leopards and wolves, hyenas, lynx, tigers and not to forget camels.
  12. And whilst you are in the car, head to the King Fahad Causeway which is a 25 km long bridge connecting Bahrain with Saudi Arabia. Without a visa you can only go as far as a little island called Umm Al Nassan but there is cafe there as well as a little tower to enjoy the view.
  13. Coming back towards Bahrain, bear right and visit Al Jasra Handicraft Centre. It brings together and showcases the traditional crafts such as textile weaving,  basket weaving or pottery as well as ship making industry. Close by is the birth place of Isa bin Salman Al Khalifa, who was the 1st emir of Bahrain from 1961 until his death in 1999 when his son Hamad bin Isa bin Salman Al Khalifa ascended to the throne declaring Bahrain a kingdom and making him the 1st king of Bahrain in 2002.
  14. After all that sightseeing head to one of the public beaches to cool off. There are not many of them and they are not well looked after but Budayia Beach in the north-west, Karbabad beach next to the Fort or Jazaer Beach down south near Zallaq are great places to play in the sand.
  15. Last but not least you need to hit at least one of the two waterparks here in Bahrain. Wahoo! Waterpark (https://www.theplaymania.com/wahooo)  Is conveniently located in City Centre mall so you can try the water slides, stock up on the essentials and grab a bite before heading to the cinema. Lost Paradise of Dilmun (or LPOD as it is better known) is in the South close the BIC track and Al Areen. It is outdoors so maybe not ideal in the hottest of months but great fun for the whole family!

 

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Happy Eid Al-Adha!

IMG_4310It seems that the so called second Eid or Eid Al-Adha has come around very quickly after the long summer break. However who doesn’t enjoy a few days off?

The official moon-sighting body in Saudi rang in the twelfth and final month  in the Islamic calendar (Dhu al-Hijjah or Month of the Hajj or pilgrimage to Mecca) when the  crescent was sighted on 14. September. This also determined that Eid Al-Adha will start on Thursday, September 24th. So earlier this week Bahrain confirmed that ministries, government departments and public institutions will be closed from Arafat Day tomorrow (Wednesday, 23rd September) until Monday, 28th. This means that the kids will be off school but not necessarily all parents will be given the same time off if they are working in the private sector. And for those whose husbands work in Saudi it might mean that they have the whole week off.

So what are Muslims all around the world celebrating?

First things first, tomorrow is not the Eid. It is however the Islamic Holy Day called ‘Arafat Day’. This day marks the second day of the Hajj pilgrimage and the day when Muslim pilgrims will make their way to Mount Arafat where Prophet Muhammad gave one of his last famous semons in the final year of his life. Some Muslims will be fasting on that day.

The day after, one of the most important celebrations in Islam the three-day Eid al-Adha celebrations commences. ‘Eid’ in Arabic means celebration and ‘Eid al-Adha’ is the ‘Festival or Celebration of Sacrifice’.

It commemorates the willingness of Ibrahim (also known as Abraham) to follow Allah’s (God’s) command to sacrifice his son Ishmael (also known as Isaac). Some of you might also have come across this story in the Old Testament and so will know that instead of his son, Abraham sacrificed a ram. This is where the custom has come from for Muslims to sacrifice an animal, usually a goat or a sheep. The meat is then divided into three parts: one part for the family, one for friends and relatives, and the final part for the poor and needy. Eid Al Adha is an important time for charity, and those who can afford it make an effort to ensure they help those less fortunate.

Muslims celebrate this special time by putting on their best (new) clothing, offer Eid prayers and visit family and friends.

Screen Shot 2015-09-22 at 14.16.04And in case you are wondering why so many stalls have popped up alongside the roads selling little baskets made out of palm leaves with grass sticking out. It is a very old tradition here in Bahrain called ‘Heya Beya’ and was a means to entertain children of parents who were doing the Hajj. Children planted the seeds when their parents set off on their Hajj and took care of them until they were fully grown. The evening before Eid Al-Adha, children then went to the seashore singing ‘Heya Beya’ to send their little baskets towards Mecca as a sign of sacrifice and good wishes for their parents to return home safely.

Tales of expat summers…

Summer holidays are over, suitcases are unpacked, the kids are back at school. Over are the days spending the days outside in the rain somewhere else in the world or playing Nerf war inside with your 7-year old when it is too hot outside. With the expats back on the island the supermarket shelves are getting restacked and the traffic is back. Hot and humid Bahrain is once again humming and buzzing after taking a little respite!

So what’s different? First of all, you see some new faces around and you realise that you miss some who have moved on. This is expat life for you! As is the question: “How was your summer?”

IMG_4038Lots of people (mostly without their husbands in tow) take the long summer holiday as an opportunity to visit family and recharge friendships at home. This means that most don’t see the holidays as a time to relax but to cramp a whole year into a few weeks traveling and rushing around reconnecting with everyone to last for another year. There is also the expat peril of husbands not having enough holiday to cover six or seven weeks away and so most mums find themselves running the show during the summer and coming back looking forward to some rest. Fact is that many expats don’t necessarily see the summer as holidays. That is unless they take the opportunity to cave out some time for a holiday within the holidays and taking the opportunity to travel to places less accessible from their home country. This, however, means foregoing the main chance to travel ‘back home’ and for those that don’t even manage a few days away,  staying in their adopted country all summer, facing extreme temperatures whilst many of their friends being away.

So for the ones of us who have been away, let’s us enjoy the memories of another expat summer and let’s tell the tales whilst enjoying our time back ‘home’!

Eid Mubarak!

The new moon has been sighted and the end of the holy month of Ramadan has arrived. It also rings in the festival of Eid al-Fitr or the ‘FestivaIMG_3725l of Breaking the Fast’ and the start of the 10. month called ‘Shawwal’. 

After the Eid prayer, Muslims usually scatter to visit various family and friends to celebrate and give gifts (especially to children) for the three days of Eid. This year, the first day of Eid is 17. July and as this falls on the weekend, the official government holiday has been extended to also include Monday (20. July).

With the fasting month having come to an end, Muslims have concluded one of Islam’s five primary obligations, or ‘5 Pillars Of Faith’, each Muslim is obliged to. They consist of:

  1. Muslim life – ‘Shahadah’ or declaration that there is no god except God, and Muhammad is God’s Messenger;
  2. prayer – “Salat’ or ritual prayer five times a day;
  3. concern for the needy  – ‘Zakat’ or giving 2.5% of one’s savings to the poor and needy;
  4. self purification – ‘Sawm’ or fasting and self-control during the holy month of Ramadan;
  5. the pilgrimage – ‘Hajj’ to Mecca at least once in a lifetime if possible.

My top 5 Arab literature finds …

I love books! Classics, fiction, non-fiction, reference books, business, biographies… the lot! Moving to Bahrain made me look for books with a local theme. So, here are my top 5 novels:

  1. IMG_3833‘Meeting Point’ by Lucy Caldwell is a story following an Irish expat couple moving to Bahrain and life taking an unexpected turn.
  2. ‘Cities of Salt’ by Abdulrahman Munif narrates the story of the discovery of oil in the Arabian Peninsula and the radical impact of that discovery on the people.
  3. ‘Arabian Sands’ by Wilfried Thesiger is a classic read of an explorers view of the ‘Empty Quarter’ of Arabia in the middle of last century.
  4. ‘Girls of Riyadh’ by Rajaa Alsanea is an easy read set out in the form of e-mails, recounting the personal lives of four young Saudi girls dealing with the relationship between men and women in the Kingdom.
  5. ‘Finding Nouf’ by Zoe Ferraris follows the search for a missing woman in the middle of the desert providing a fascinating glimpse into the workings and assumptions of Saudi society.

What have you been reading lately?

Gergaoon: marking the 15. night of Ramadan

We are coming up to a full moon and the half way point of the Holy Month with the most popular event for children of Ramadan in Bahrain and the Arabian Gulf Countries called ‘Gergaoon’.

Screen Shot 2015-06-30 at 08.58.35So what is it? Think ‘Trick or Treat’ Khaliji style! Children in colourful traditional costumes go from house to house with their bags and drums singing and chanting prayers and receiving sweets such as traditional arabic sweets (‘halwa’ or ‘baklava’), nuts, sun dried figs or dates in return. This night is all about celebrating heritage and another family gathering in the spirit of Ramadan.

The word ‘Gergaoon’ resembles the sound of ‘rattle’ or ‘click’ associated with the kids striking their drums asking for treats and stands for delicious sweets!

The thing with the ‘approximate’ dates in the Islamic calendar…

Have you ever wondered why there is an asterisk (*) next to Islamic holidays such as ‘Eid al Adha’ or ‘Prophet’s Birthday’ when you look at a calendar accompanied by a little footnote saying: ‘Dates for Islamic Holidays are approximate’?

How can a date be ‘approximate’ meaning it is close to the actual date, but not completely accurate or exact? Christmas is on 25. December and we know when Easter will be in 2025. We just look it up! Have you also been curious about this?

It basically means that the celebration/day off can move by a day and that public holidays are only confirmed a few days beforehand which can make planning difficult. I remember a few years ago, we received a message from school on Friday evening that ‘Ashoora’ is not on Sunday/Monday but public holidays have been announced for Monday/Tuesday instead. So much for a long weekend which many had taken advantage off…

So, how come? Throughout history, different people invented different types of calendars to help them to know when to plant crops, move from one place to another, plan meetings and observe religious holidays. The Gregorian calendar is the most wide-spread one and uses the sun for time keeping. Islamic holidays, however, are based on the Islamic or Hijri Qamari calendar which uses the moon to organise time. As an aside, the Islamic calendar starts in AD 622 with the flight of the Prophet Mohammed (PBUH) to Medina which makes 2015 the year 1436 in the Hijri Calendar. This calendar is mainly used for religious purposes, but in Saudi Arabia it is the official calendar.

So, the ‘approximate’ date has something to do with the moon? First of all, a new moon occurs every 29.5 days which timed by 12 months means the lunar year is shorter than the solar year (the time it takes the sun to return to the same position in its journey around the earth) by 11 days. As a result, each year, religious holidays are about eleven days earlier than in the previous year.

So, next question is why can’t we just use astronomical projections to calculate when, i.e., Ramadan will start this year? This has to do with the fact that Muslims need to sight the new moon either by naked eye of by telescope as stated in the Q’uran: “Do not fast till you see the new moon, and do not break fast till you see it; but if the weather is cloudy complete it (thirty days).”

As a result, Ramadan dates can also vary by one day in different countries due to the cycle of the moon. The moon travels the same path all year round and when the moon is seen in the east, it is then seen traveling towards the west. All the countries around the world see the moon within a 24-hour period once spotted by one country in the east.

So, there we go. Islamic holidays can only then be confirmed when the new moon is sighted by eye or by telescope through the clouds before an Islamic holiday will be confirmed.

Your Ramadan Guide for Bahrain

Not long now until the arrival of the ninth month of the Islamic lunar calendar and the arrival the month that the Qu’ran was first revealed to the Prophet Mohammed (PBUH) marking the most important month for Muslims. In Islam Ramadan is the time to practice self-restraint; to strengthen ties with family and friends and essentially to cleanse the body and soul and Screen Shot 2015-06-08 at 22.08.40re-focus one’s self on the worship of God. The Arabic word for “fasting” (‘sawm’) literally means “to refrain”. During Ramadan Muslims will wake up just before sunrise to eat a pre-fast meal (known as ‘suhoor’) and then not drink, eat, chew gum, smoke and exchange until sunset when it is traditional to break the fast with a meal called ‘iftar’ some 14 hours later. Muslims will also refrain from sexual contact during daylight hours. Excluded from fasting are the physically or mentally unwell, or people travelling, or being pregnant, or menstruating as are children under twelve. Muslims should try to make up the fast at a later date, or make a donation to the poor instead if they miss it. The month of Ramadan is coming to an end with celebration of Eid-Al-Fitr.

So what is going to be different for expats during the Holy Month?

  • First of all restaurants and cafes will be closed during the day (except for those in 4- and 5- star hotels where you can eat discreetly tucked away). So no more grabbing a cappuccino on the go for one month…
  • Governmental institutions and most businesses will run shorter opening times (8am – 2pm). This might also mean a shorter workday for expats!
  • Also, some shops are closed during the day and open at night until the early hours of the morning or close for an extended lunch break (8am – noon and then 4 – 8pm). You are advised to better check before you set off. Shops in malls generally open at the normal time but stay open until deep into the night.
  • Grocery stores are open as usual. You will also still be able to buy your spare ribs and breakfast bacon during Ramadan!
  • The couple of shops on the island where you can buy alcohol though will be closed for the month. So stock up now!
  • Licensed restaurants will not sell alcohol during this month and there will be no background music or any other entertainment.
  • Last but not least (and maybe an obvious one) don’t schedule a kids birthday party during this month.

What else is there to know?

  • Remember that it is prohibited to eat, drink or smoke in public here in Bahrain. This also includes your car as it is seen as a public space. So be conscious and thoughtful before you open that bottle of water or chew gum. Find a private space where you can be discreet instead. Hotels serve food and drink during the day tucked away from general sight.
  • The Holy Month is a time of prayer and humility so be conscious of what you wear. Ensure that knees and shoulders are covered and avoid tight fit clothes. Pashminas are great for covering up during Ramadan. It is advisable for men are to wear long sleeves and long trousers in public spaces.
  • It is polite to greet Muslims with “Ramadan Kareem” (it is the ‘generous’ month as  deeds are multiplied by 10 during Ramadan) or “Ramadan Mubarak’, and at the end of Ramadan, for the three day Eid celebrations, “Eid Mubarak”.
  • Refrain from showing demonstrative acts of affection in public (i.e. hugs or kisses). This applies year round but especially during Ramadan.
  • Respect the peace by not playing loud music in your home or car.
  • Be charitable and be generous to those less fortunate by donating food, clothes or money to individuals and charitable organisations. This is an important element of the Holy Month and Muslims are expected to give Zakat which is approximately 2.5% of their annual savings to the less fortunate. There are many ways to get involved by, e.g., filling a fridge for Feed The Need or donating unwanted clothes and toys to a charity. You can also acknowledge your Muslim maid or gardener with a token gift.
  • Avoid critical remarks about fasting or any other religious practice. Remember that it is difficult to function on no food and water. Fasting can play havoc with a person’s eating and sleeping habits, so be sympathetic to people around you. If you feel yourself getting irate or angry just take a deep breath and smile! 
  • Avoid driving at sundown when the roads fill with people heading to break their fast at Iftar celebrations. They haven’t eaten, or had a drink since the early hours of the morning. If you don’t need to be on the road at that time, you would be wise to wait half an hour.

I for myself, will make sure to enjoy the slower pace here and will make sure to hit some hotel-based Iftar tents, soak up some local life, and spend time relaxing with family and friends. 

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.

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’!