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Bahrain’s postal system is among the oldest in the Arab world. The first post office was opened in 1884. The first stamps, issued in 1933, were British with ‘Bahrain’ overprinted on them.
 
Home arrow Features arrow The way it used to be
The way it used to be PDF Print E-mail
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 more than 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.



{mospagebreak title=Page 2: Shopping in Manama}
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.

{mospagebreak title=Page 3: Homes of the past}
Everyone was an architect: Houses weren't planned much beforehand; instead they were expanded when necessary (again, a striking difference with modern houses, which lack the more organic nature of their randomly built predecessors).

Because of the use of local materials everyone knew what to do and how to do it; nowadays you need the skills of highly educated professionals who use hi-tech building materials.

Importance of the family: The family is very important to the Arab people. Usually the whole family - parents, children, their spouses, their children, etc - lived in the same house sharing all the rooms, with the bedrooms as their only private, personal spaces. And if not in the same house, the children would still live in the house next door.

A typical Arabic household was really a small, self-sufficient community, well suited to manage in the harsh environment.

The streets: A typical feature of the old towns was the narrow winding alleys, in comparison to the modern, six-lane highways running through the cities in the Gulf. Those towns were made for pedestrians with no parking problems and traffic jams - just drive through the old souk in Muharraq and try to find a parking place and you'll get the idea.

However, the main reason for the buildings to be built so close to each other was that then they provided much more shadow to the streets in between, thus easing the oppressive heat. So you can see, the cities of yesterday were built in total harmony with the surrounding environment and the requirements of Islamic culture.

Survival of the fittest: Thanks to the demands of modern times there are regrettably few of those old, beautiful houses left, and even the ones surviving are often neglected and thus falling apart.

There is always a fear that a new high-rise building or shopping mall will take the place of the old-timers. Money talks, just as it does anywhere else in the world.

Fortunately, however, there is an increasing interest in preserving the past, the cultural heritage in which the old buildings have a major role.

High-rising Manama: In Bahrain, there is not much left of the old Manama. If you take a boat trip, you'll notice the very Manhattan-like silhouette of the Diplomatic Area in Manama, giving a very modern western image for the town.

Much of this new area is, however, built on reclaimed land. When the Bab Al Bahrain ("gate of Bahrain") was built in 1945, it was almost on the waterfront in the harbour; now you can hardly see the water from it!

If you walk along the narrow streets of the souk, you might occasionally run into a old building in ruins, depicting the sad story of total negligence by the owners.

Probably the best way to learn about how things were in the past is the Heritage Centre near Bab Al Bahrain. There you can see how the people used to live, what their homes looked like etc, in a more or less museum-like environment.

If you are more interested in Bahraini culture, pearl diving, the burial mounds and the like, you should visit the National Museum - the building of which is a fine example of mixing modern architecture with traditional Arabic and Islamic architectural elements.

Speaking of Islam, visitors should not miss the fabulous Beit Al Quran (literally "the home of the Holy Quran"). Here you can see a wide selection of the Holy Qurans, old historical copies in different languages and sizes, some as small as a matchbox!

At the same time the visitor can only admire how well the architect has been able to capture the spirit of the holy book into this building.

Old houses of Muharraq: If you want to see more surviving old buildings, you must go to Muharraq, which is the old capital of Bahrain. Wandering through the narrow alleys gives you a good idea of how it must have been to live in the cities here before.

A good place to start your exploration is the fabulous Shaikh Isa bin Ali's House, the home of the great great grandfather of the present Ruler, HM King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa. It is one of the best surviving examples of traditional Bahraini architecture.

After recent restoration work, it offers a truly unique opportunity to study the past. Here you can also witness yourself how effective a wind tower really is in cooling the intolerably hot air, especially during the summer!

Near Shaikh Isa's house is the Beit Al Siyadi, or Siyadi House which used to belong to a famous pearl merchant in the 19th century. With all the detailed ornamentation on the facade and in the finely carved doors, it is an excellent example of the best architecture from that period.

 
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