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Bahrain : The complete guide for visitors and expatriates - The way it used to be
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The way it used to be

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By Lynn Collins » When I arrived in Bahrain from Scotland with my parents and my younger brother in August 1951 I immediately felt very much at home – a feeling that is still with me some 50 years later.

 

I am sure it is more to do with the warmth of the Bahraini people than the fact that the sun shines more in Bahrain than in Scotland. Whenever I return, which I do as often as possible, I just love wandering round the Manama souk and each time I relive my childhood, particularly when I talk with merchants who remember me from "way back then" and who welcome me warmly.

 

At seven years old, I had never been out of the UK before and the adventure started with the journey on the Royal Scot train from Glasgow to London. We stayed overnight in a hotel in London before going by coach to Heathrow airport for the next part of the adventure, flying on an aeroplane. We travelled in a BOAC Argonaut which had to land to refuel three times, stopping in Rome, Beirut and Kuwait before arriving at Muharraq 23 hours after leaving London.

Recently I had a chat with Desmond Johnstone, another former expatriate, who brought his new bride Maureen to Bahrain in 1948. Theirs was a long and complicated journey from their home in Ireland travelling by boat, boat-train, train, small aircraft then finally by motor launch to arrive at the landing stage in Manama where the Delmon International Hotel is today and of course nowadays is quite a long way from the sea.

 

Desmond's initial journey to Bahrain was even more complex. He left Ireland in December 1945 and travelled by boat from Larne to Stranraer. He then took a train to Liverpool from where he sailed to Alexandria via Malta. He then travelled by train from Alexandria to Cairo. In Cairo, after a break of a couple of days he boarded an Imperial Airways flying boat which flew to Bahrain with one stop at Basra on the way. This journey took some two weeks and was a real adventure. The six and a half hour Gulf Air flight from London to Bahrain nowadays is really just a short jaunt by comparison.

It was dark when we arrived at the airport and I remember feeling like a movie star walking down the steps which had been pushed out to the plane. It was just a few metres across the tarmac runway to the Bahrain Airport arrivals hall which was a small square cement building with a flat roof. The air conditioning consisted of two very ancient electric fans which were not very effective on that hot August night. It is very difficult for those who did not see the original airport to imagine how it was, particularly compared with the magnificent building which is now Bahrain International Airport.

Something which made a strong impression on me and which I remember very clearly was seeing the burial mounds on either side of the road as we drove to our new home in Awali. It was dark and the mounds looked very imposing and surreal and also a little bit scary.

 

 

 

Nowadays I encourage people visiting Bahrain to make a point of going to the Museum where actual burial mounds can be seen as well as rooms full of wonderful examples of life in Bahrain over the years. In my opinion, the rooms featuring the history, archaeology, pearl fishing, flora and fauna, and the lifestyle all sum up Bahrain beautifully. I always say to people who do not know the country that if they are there for just a day or two, a visit to the museum is a must since it encapsulates and captures the flavour of the best of Bahrain.

Awali was a small town, populated mostly by expats from around the world whose skills were employed in the setting up and running of the refinery. All the manual skilled trades were represented in Awali, as were doctors, dentists, nurses, secretaries, accountants and schoolteachers. From as early as the late Forties, all the homes and offices within Awali were fully air conditioned and it was a magical place to spend formative years. I have heard in recent times that Awali was the very first totally air conditioned town in the world.

Sport was important at Awali School and swimming, cricket, football, hockey, tennis, badminton and squash were available to all Awali residents. Films were shown in the outdoor cinema, which of course meant after dark, and I remember taking blankets and hot water bottles in order to keep warm at the cinema on cold winter nights.

To go shopping in Manama my friends and I would take the bus from Awali. The bus stop in Manama was on the edge of the sea opposite Bab Al Bahrain. This was where the fleet of fishing dhows were anchored. This area is now part of the land reclaimed from the sea and where we used to see dhows bobbing up and down now there is the post office and car park.

At even as young as eight years old, we were perfectly safe to wander around the souk, spending our pocket money in the small hole-in-the-wall shops. We shopped and bartered for sweets, toys, nuts, hair clips, ribbons and the like. Many of the stores I remember from then, such as Jashanmals, Novelty Stores, Moon Stores, Lucky Stores, Bastaki, Koshabi and Ashrafs, are still very much part of the Bahrain scene.

One of my earliest memories is going with my mother fairly soon after we arrived in Bahrain to choose a carpet from Jashanmals and I also remember saving my pocket money to buy my first camera, a much coveted Brownie 125 from Ashrafs.

In the back of the Ashrafs store on Bab Al Bahrain road there was a small, air conditioned drinks area along the lines of an American soda fountain which had some booths and a counter with high stools where we would have a cold drink before it was time to take the bus back to Awali. My drink of choice then was cherryade and on the very rare occasions I have a drink of cherryade nowadays, I am, in my mind, transported back to Ashrafs in Manama circa 1950s.


 

On the same road, close to Ashrafs, there was a narrow doorway behind which were steep, rickety steps going up to a flat roof where there were displayed magnificent carved wooden chests, tables, chairs etc and wonderfully woven carpets and brass ornaments. This was commonly known as Kashmir Joe's and I presume this was because most of the goods on sale came from Kashmir. Even today no home of a Bahrain expat anywhere in the world is complete without a camphor wood chest purchased from Kashmir Joe. I inherited my mother's and it now has pride of place in my home. When visiting Bahrain friends in the UK and elsewhere, I can be sure to see, as well as the camphor wood chest, at least one Bahrain friendship coffee pot.

As a Girl Guide in Awali we had days out exploring and visiting different parts of Bahrain. My recollections are rather hazy but we visited places such as the experimental farm at Budaiya and had picnics at Jebel Al Dukhan where we played hide and seek in the caves there. Another popular place we visited was the Portugese Fort - now beautifully restored and known as Bahrain Fort. We also went to the Riffa Fort which can be seen on the hill a short distance from Awali. This too has been restored and both forts together with the Arad Fort in Muharraq are well worth visiting when in Bahrain.

Another treat for us Girl Guides was to take a picnic and travel by coach to the Adhari Pool to swim. It was great fun swimming in this natural pool. The local boys, as boys do, would show off by diving from the top of the buildings either side of the pool but we girls were not quite brave enough to try it.

On the way to Adhari Pool we travelled on the road leading from Awali to Manama, which was wide enough for just one car in each direction.  Because there seemed to be more little white donkeys and camels on the roads than cars there was no need for dual carriageways or roundabouts. In fact, once the number of cars increased, I can remember the excitement when the first roundabouts were built in Riffa. When the roundabouts were first placed there we could never have imagined the colourful beauty of the wonderful trees and flowers which now abound in that area .

Also on the Awali-Manama Road was what was known as the "wiggly bridge" This was a wooden bridge over a freshwater stream which was used as an open air laundry called the dhobi. It was a fascinating sight to see the washing being pounded with stones and laid out to dry. I do not think I have ever seen such white, white washing as I saw in those days when passing the dhobi on the way to Manama.

 

Not far from the wiggly bridge on the same road was the Khamis Mosque which was still a busy, functioning mosque in the Fifties and very much a centre of the area. The open market alongside the mosque always seemed to be buzzing with people. It gives me great pleasure nowadays to see how sensitively this ancient mosque has been restored to its former beauty to become a much prized monument.



The choice of clothes for men and women in the Fifties was very limited so it was the norm to have clothes tailored. In Awali a tailor named Lal would visit customers in their homes to take their orders. He made things such as ladies day dresses, evening gowns and clothes for children. All Lal needed was a photograph of the required garment from which he produced an extremely accurate copy. This is an art still practised by the tailors in the souk today. Lal was a rather large gentleman who ran, never walked, between customers.

There was also a very well known tailor named Gulam Mohammed whose business I believe is still operating in Manama. He had, and I am sure still has, an excellent reputation as a gentlemen's tailor. Most expats going on leave had suits and trousers made by Gulam Mohammed and they were as fine as any made in London's Saville Row.

Another man who ran round Awali was the egg man. He would run from door to door with a large tin can full of eggs and when housewives answered his ring on the doorbell they would go to the door with a bucket of cold water to test the freshness of the eggs. If the eggs sank to the bottom of the bucket they were fresh, if they floated on the top they were not.

Eggs were one of the few items of fresh food available in those days so the egg man was always very welcome. Fresh vegetables were practically non-existent so we ate mainly tinned and what meat that was available was imported frozen from the US. My mother and her friends were very inventive in the kitchen and their culinary talents were amazing. They shared recipes, and out of necessity, made home-baked bread, cakes and ice-cream. They also learned the art of cooking Arabic dishes, which in those days were totally unknown in the West. These foods had previously never been known to most of the expat housewives but they were all eager to learn from their Bahrain friends and each other. This knowledge they took back to their home countries where, I am sure, some of the recipes are still being used.

Prawns were an occasionally available delicacy and as a treat we were sometimes taken down to Sitra to see the prawns all laid out to dry on the pier. We bought them direct from the Prawn fishermen for a rupee per ruttle (just over a kilo) and I can taste them even now.



When I was around 12, my family was invited to visit the home of a date farmer and it was one of the most fascinating days I can remember. After sitting with the farmer's family having cold drinks, we were taken out to the garden where we watched the farmer climb a very tall palm tree. He placed a leather harness around his back then attached it to a leather strap which went around the trunk of the tree. He balanced a basket between himself and the tree. Shinning up the tree barefoot, he cut down a huge bunch of dates which he placed in the basket before shinning down the tree again. He did that several more times and never seemed to tire. I have never since tasted dates quite as sweet as the dates I tasted on that day.

In the Fifties, some Bahraini people still lived in Barasti villages where houses were made from date palms. Although date palm trees were fairly substantial, occasionally when a kerosene lamp fell or was blown over, it meant the whole village was burnt down. Since the oil boom, it has been many years since the people of Bahrain have had to live in such fear.

Thanks to the revenue from the oil and the subsequent development programmes launched by the government, Bahrain has changed dramatically to the modern, vibrant country it is today. The greatest pleasure for me, though, is that for all the changes that have taken place, Bahrain retains the old-world charm that I will always remember it for.