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Bahrain : The complete guide for visitors and expatriates - Discovering Muharraq's hidden charms
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Discovering Muharraq's hidden charms
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Muharraq souq is most well-known for its halwa or sweet shops. Halwa is a sticky sweetmeat, a little like Turkish delight, which is still made in the traditional way in enormous copper pots, by the halwachi or sweet maker, much as it has been made for the last couple of centuries. The recipe uses butter or oil, sugar and water which is boiled for long periods, and then flavoured with rose water, cardamom, saffron and decorated with almonds, pistachio or other nuts.

One famous shop is that of Hussein Mohamed Showaiter Sweets, but there are many other equally good sweet makers to choose from. Taste the halwa before you buy; fresh warm halwa is sticky and very sweet, but well complemented with a cup of unsweetened qahwa.

The Mohamed Bin Fares House on the corner of lane 1337 and 1335 off Shaikh Hamad Avenue is close to the souq. This recently restored tiny house once belonged to the famous Bahraini oud player and songwriter, Mohamed Bin Fares and is now a museum in honour of the late musician, which houses a collection of his old records, musical instruments and documents. Bin Fares was famous for his contribution to Al Sout, a form of urban Bahraini folk music.

As you leave the souq head back onto ring road for the dhow yards in Arad Bay which sadly today are only a shadow of what they once were. In the early part of the last century there were once thirty dhow yards in the whole of Bahrain with 150 master dhow builders and the coastal areas of Muharraq were a hive of activity.

Statistics gathered from the East India Company in 1838 and quoted by Ward, record that there were 30,000 pearl divers on 4,200 boats in the Gulf coastal waters of which 3500 boats were from Bahrain at that time. Whole villages and communities were almost completely dependent on the pearl trade.

The word dhow is a generic term for many different types of boat including the Boom, Baqarah, Sambook and others. The traditional method of dhow construction was handed down over the generations and is still used today by the few remaining dhow builders, though the boats are now powered by Japanese diesel engines. There were often no detailed drawings or measurements taken and construction relied on the skill of the dhow builder who used a few simple instruments.

Teak was used for the dhow’s hull, a very strong, expensive but long-lasting wood. The minute spaces between the wooden planks were sealed with raw cotton and fish oils and the hull was coated with a mixture of gypsum, fish oils and animal fats.