Zahra’s Arabian eyes shine like pearls below her head scarf. Our Dior-perfect, British-school educated guide is introducing us to her country’s most treasured heritage: pearl diving, that made Dilmun (Bahrain’s ancient name in 3rd millennium BC) such a vibrant centre of trade.
Ironically, our coach is just then passing Bahrain’s World Trade Centre. Visible from almost anywhere around Manama, these unusual twin towers connected by gigantic wind turbines are the most distinctive in Bahrain’s skyline. But Zahra’s ancient narrative gets preference, and our attention. I draw a definite conclusion: Bahrain is no wannabe Dubai. Bahrain is way too happy and self-assured being Bahrain—the large-hearted little kingdom with more soul—and a more enchanting history than perhaps any of its swankier neighbours.
As our coach zooms around the capital of this island kingdom, the pride of being Bahraini is a constant refrain. Manama, we learn, means ‘the resting place’ – as traders from Mesopotamia called it. But today’s neon-lit attractions will leave you wondering if this city ever sleeps. Yet for all those overwhelmed by the relentless glitz of the Emirates, Bahrain’s less crowded malls, spice souks and beaches, and richer historical heritage, is making this the preferred holiday spot, where you can have rare experiences.
One can go pearl diving , after a quick primer from experts, and legally take home whatever treasure you find! Manama’s sweet water cajoles oysters into producing bigger, more lustrous pearls — a profitable lure in the ancient past; irresistible even today. But right now we ladies prefer some pearls of wisdom…as we dress up in long black ‘abayas’ and understand the tenets of Islam under the spectacular dome of this all-faiths-embracing Al Fatah Grand Mosque.
The Bahrain Museum reveals the history of Bahrain’s ancient civilisation. There is an excavated coffin with an eerie skeleton in a womb-like position and the story of mankind’s quest for immortality narrated in Bahrain’s favourite legend of Gilgamesh. Seeking the rare flower to keep him young forever, Gilgamesh dives deep into Dilmun’s waters to find it. But a snake steals Gilgamesh’s magical flower, thus cheating mankind of the secret to eternal youth.
Perhaps the elusive secret is available at the plush City Centre Mall! Young Bahraini women excitedly try out expensive age-defying lotions. No surreptitious ‘lipstick under my burkha’ culture here: Bahrain’s women have long ago shed the cloak of conservatism and enjoy a liberal outlook. Many Saudi Arabian women head across the 25 km causeway from their conservative country for liberating weekends here.
By 2021 it will be 50 years since Bahrain got its independence from British rule. Today European expats live it up in waterfront homes in exclusive man-made islands, with tax-free salaries in an economy more robust than most Arabian gulf countries. Oil production and financial services are the key professions. Indians, as expected, are the largest expats—and two of them are singing soulful Bollywood hits at the popular Lanterns restaurant. We get here after an exhilarating walk through the very hip Adilya neighbourhood of Block 338 where whimsical graffiti adorns street walls and collages decorate charming cafés.
Even our walk through the blindingly white streets of the Old City yields a surprise of modern art painted on ancient walls. A more dazzling treat awaits us at Bahrain Fort’s sound and light show. Like a refresher course on all we’ve heard, history and legend blend into a spectacular experience.
Another interesting pit-stop replete with legends is the Bahrain Formula 1 Circuit which draws the world’s best, ever since Michael Schumacher raced to his Grand Prix victory in 2004. Preparation is on for an upcoming event, when the Ferraris and Red Bulls will scorch these tracks. We get our own adrenalin shot in a 4×4 Landrover ride on an insanely steep roller-coaster track strewn with rubble. Our expert driver Mehmood laughs when we ask him,” did you train for this treacherous experience on India’s city roads!”
I forgo the over-the-top Gold Souk to reflect instead on the shine and glitter of Bahrain’s nightlife from my balcony. Who’d believe this entire kingdom of 33 islands is just a bit less in area than Bengaluru! “Your hotel is built on reclaimed land,” I recall Zahra saying when I first met her. It seems like all of Bahrain is reclaiming something too: its former reputation as a buzzing destination – with a lot more than pearls to lure travellers here.